Mind Maps: “Nonlinear Systems benefit from Nonlinear Documentation”

Editor’s Note: This CTOvision.com post was written by , a highly regarded security professional and inventor in the UK with a focus on design and implementation of multilevel and cross-domain IT security (“MLS”)-bg.

I was first introduced to mind mapping a few years ago, when some colleagues I was having email discussions with about security in Grid environments (and very early Cloud environments, although they weren’t called Clouds at the time) started sending me diagrams by email rather than narrative text, involving little constellations of thought bubbles arranged in linked hierarchies.

Back then, I didn’t really get it, and carried on replying in narrative form. However, in the last year or so, I’ve started to see the value in this form of recording ideas, especially once I hit on the idea in the title of this posting. In practice, I’m now finding that when an idea arrives fully-formed, there are so many implications for associated systems and ideas that trying to record the idea (especially if it’s the small hours of the morning) in narrative form just doesn’t work, especially if I want to make notes quickly; there are some classes of idea where trying to impose a linear narrative form on their description is either artificial or actively detracts from the clarity of the explanation, by making it more difficult to see where some things are parallelisable, or where multiple dependencies exist between elements, what they are. This, in my view, makes a well-constructed mind map far more information-dense than a piece of narrative – not only are the elements of an idea included, but also how they fit together, and it all goes on one sheet or screen.

I’ve recorded and developed most of my Cloud thinking in mind map form (and will be posting some threat model thinking, shortly); I originally started with FreeMind, which works nicely on desktop systems, but my favourite app these days is iThoughts HD for iPad – not only is my iPad more convenient to keep to hand for when an idea shows up, but I find the direct touch-based interface really lends itself to mind map editing in ways that a trackpad and pointer don’t match.

The definitive written work on mind mapping is “The Mind Map Book” by Tony Buzan (BBC / Pearson, 2010), the guy who came up with mind mapping in the first place; this showed me that, while the fundamental “vocabulary” of mind maps in terms of a central idea with branches off it tracking lines of thinking is common to all mind maps, other apparent “mind map vocabulary” items such as branch colour, shape and clockwise position relative to the central idea or a preceding node on a branch, are more like Twitter hashtags in that there is no common dictionary of them and their meaning can differ between authors. Still, it appears they are typically done this way to appeal to the latent synaesthesia in the adult mind; while we might not remember an idea “cold”, we might get to it based on remembering its colour or relative location, for example.

While the book suggests a number of uses for mind maps – and the iMindMap tool from ThinkBuzan, Tony’s own company, bristles with features for making mind maps the core of presentations, project plans and other necessary things – there are some areas where I think they could be employed further, especially in documentation. While it can be argued that the mind map came first, a mind map can also be viewed as an exploded Hypercard stack.

The “MyFry” app version of the second volume of Stephen Fry‘s autobiography is driven by a user interface which is effectively a version of a mind map, by topic. Extending this, I can see conventional mind maps being usefully employed instead of Contents pages, with each branch element carrying a page number as well as its idea. This could work not only for detailed software documentation (where a map could show dependencies between functions, for example), but also for any highly-nonlinear system such as – and we’re back to the start of my journey, here – a Cloud…

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