As Covid continued through the start of 2021, Adi Adegbite, a UX researcher and designer, noticed an increase in the number of people complaining on Twitter about PLT, a shopping app made by a UK-based fast fashion brand. Adegbite took the complaints as an opportunity to practice her UX design skills. Her aim, she says, was to improve the overall user experience by providing a better shopping experience and to design from an empathetic point of view, thinking of the users every step of the way.
She began by reading the reviews left on the App Store, many of which had given the app just one or two stars. Users, it appears, were particularly frustrated by the app’s wishlist feature.
Adegbite then conducted a heuristic evaluation using Jakob Nelsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics. She conducted one-to-one interviews with five users, transcribed the interviews, and coded them on Post-It notes for Affinity Mapping to uncover themes. She created two user personas, and generated a series of How Might We statements before settling on the single question of “How Might We redesign the app to give users more control in order to make better buying decisions?”
Development included wireframing and usability testing before moving on to delivery. But the development process itself started with mind mapping.
Adegbite drew a cloud in the middle of a page, inserted her How Might We statement then drew lines that led to the elements of the app that most needed improvement: Home, Viewing Products, Wishlist, and Out of Stock. From each of those, more arrows led to tasks in those parts of the app that she needed to complete.
The result was a clear understanding of what the revised app needed to do.
In producing an entirely new design for the app then, Adegbite used a host of different approaches and methods. But she made sure that those methods included mind mapping.
It’s a concept that comes from popular psychology author Tony Buzan, who developed it after noticing that students who doodled on their study notes would score the highest in exams. He also found that while his own notes were much neater and more organized than theirs, he struggled to recall them. He drew on earlier concept maps but instead of linking concepts in a free form, developed a mapping method that used a radial hierarchy, a kind of tree structure that allows users to illustrate the relationship between ideas and a central concept.
The effectiveness of the approach, he argued, came down to the structure of the brain. The traditional note-taking method of writing down large chunks of text, he claimed, only used the logical, left hemisphere of the brain. Thoughts in the other, creative half of the brain then drifted away, making recall and understanding harder. Traditional note-taking also requires the reader to scan information from left to right and from the top to the bottom of the page even the though the brain prefers to see the entire page at once. Drawing a mind map requires the use of the whole brain at once while the incorporation of images also helps retention.
Those arguments only went so far. Critics have pointed out that the division of the brain into two logical and creative halves is a simplification of the way the brain works, and many of Buzan’s purported benefits rely on false assumptions about the percentage of neurons that we use at one time.
So do mind maps really work? Can they do more than help us to jot down ideas as we think of ways to improve an app? And if they do work, what is the best way to use them?
Why Mind Maps Really Work
In a recently published study, researchers from the University of Cambridge and three universities in China conducted a test. They recruited 24 Grade 11 students and divided them into six groups of four. The students then had to complete four tasks. They had to write down as many scientific uses as they could for magnetic materials; list scientific questions to answer at the bottom of the sea; consider ways to improve a watch; and imagine a world without friction.
As they worked on the tasks the students were able to use mind mapping software that let them create boxes, tag them, and draw arrows to connect them. In one map, for example, the students created a bubble marked “Improve a watch.” Two arrows led off to “function” and “appearance.” The students then added more boxes leading from “function” that suggested health monitoring, automatic time zone synchronization, and making calls. They decomposed “appearance” into “strap,” “hands,” and “face,” each of which they broke down further, suggesting that the face change color according to the environment and that the hands shoot light beams.
The researchers also recorded, then transcribed and coded the conversations the students held as they discussed their ideas. Finally, experts judged the fluency, flexibility, and originality of the ideas the students generated.
Coding the conversations divided the participants’ comments first into cognition and metacognition; social communication; and technology use. The students talked about how they would work, they argued about the process, and they discussed the mind mapping software. The researchers further divided cognition into divergent thinking (applying strategies to form new associations and break down ideas); and idea generation (producing new ideas and building on them.)
What the researchers found was that mindmapping was strongly connected with generating both new ideas and building on old ideas. By following the lines on the maps students stimulated the generation of new discussion threads while the act of constructing the mind maps helped students to remain aware of their progress and to modify their task process.
The mind maps helped the students “to externalize and support group thinking during tasks,” the researchers concluded. “Constructing mind maps to represent and enact group thinking plays an important role in the ideation process.”
So Buzan’s idea of drawing mind maps worked but perhaps not in the way that he anticipated when he first came up with the concept. The researchers didn’t find that the act of doodling or constructing notes in a non-linear fashion helped retention. Nor did they argue that the effectiveness of the mind maps was the result of brain structure.
Instead, they found that drawing a mind map first forced the participants to think about structure. Where should the map start? What question do they need to place at the center?
Constructing the map then led them to break that central question down. Where should the arrows from that central point lead? Which parts of the question did they need to answer separately in order to produce a complete solution?
Each space on the map invited an idea to fill it. Each entry showed the potential for further decomposition to generate more ideas.
The researchers also found that drawing the maps enabled the participants to monitor their progress, evaluate their thoughts, and identify items that they had ignored.
In other words, drawing a mind map showed the students how they were thinking. It allowed them to track their associations, draw new ones, and adjust their direction.
The Right Way to Map a Mind
So how can you make the most of mind mapping?
There’s no shortage of mind mapping software available, from ClickUp to Xmind each of which has advantages and disadvantages—and that’s true of software as a whole. Because using software can be faster than drawing by hand, there’s less time to think of the next step as you draw a line. And the act of drawing is more memorable than the act of clicking a box, making a software-produced mind map and its contents harder to remember. But computerized mind maps can use limitless space and it’s easier to add more information such as links, notes, and attachments.
But you don’t need software to draw a mind map. You can simply take a sheet of paper and place it in landscape format. Start in the middle with a drawing related to your central question. According to Buzan, an image will help you to retain focus and remember where you started. That drawing doesn’t have to be anything too intricate. A drawing of a watch would have helped the students in the study remember what they were trying to do. Even a cloud instead of a box can help.
As can a broad use of colors. Once you’ve finished your mind map, go over the lines in different colors so that you can better categorize the solutions you’ve created. As you break down your central question into different levels, those colors will help you to remember where each solution fits into the overall strategy.
Buzan also recommended using curved rather than straight lines to connect ideas, and using just one key word at the end of each line.
The result can be something that’s not just a map of your thought process, and a plan for future action, but a work of art that’s packed with important ideas. MindMapArt displays a host of mindmaps that are at least as visual as they are conceptual. A gallery of works that it says are by Tony Buzan himself includes a map of bee skills that puts a flower at the center and includes doodles of dueling and thinking bees. Other maps lay out the body’s major systems and the formula for positive thinking.
Most of those maps are intended for study, to help students remember facts that they need to regurgitate in exams. But as researchers have found, the act of creating the map itself helps to produce those ideas as well as remember them.
Creating a mind map is as effective for UX designers reworking apps as it is for students trying to think up better watches.