Mind mapping is meant to organise and manage your thoughts and ideas and help you discover new ideas through creative thinking and other such methods. Traditional mind mapping applications are very much focussed on organisation and management, e.g. MindManager. PersonalBrain is different. It’s more dynamic and better suited to concentrate on one “idea set” at a time. And it supports various output media, including Flash.
Originally, TheBrain developed PersonalBrain on Windows only. With version 4 a Mac OS X version was developed that looked very much like a Windows program. Version 5 and certainly version 5.5 still resemble a Windows program in many of their interface elements, but version 5.5 now does support iCal, Address Book and Apple Mail. The support enables drag and drop throughout the application. It also means you can search for information in these three programs and integrate that information into your PersonalBrain brain (which I’m going to call ‘brain’ from now on).
A brain is a mind map, but contrary to other mind mapping applications, a PersonalBrain mind map will always show you the idea or ‘territory’ you’re working on at any particular moment. For example, if you have a brain on the semantic web and XML is one of the subsections, XML will become the central idea when you start adding children to it. As soon as you’re ready working on XML ideas –and you want to add children to one of these– the central idea will become that child and the working window will be clean and uncluttered.
Showing parent ideas only requires you to click the central idea in the working window –the “Plex”– and you will be taken upward through parents as you click along. It all sounds very obscure, but in practice it’s a much more gratifying experience than the cluttered and chaotic screen you soon end up with when using other mind mapping applications.
You can have that cluttered view too, if you want it, though, but with PersonalBrain you’ll have to explicitly turn it on.
From the above it may be clear, PersonalBrain is not your average mind mapping application. It’s not just the interface that makes this program stand out. Mind mapping is supposed to support a thinking process called ‘associative thinking’. The crux of associations is that by leaping from thought to thought you can build webs of ideas and come to see connections you didn’t consciously know existed before.
In traditional mind mapping programs the associative processes are presumed to be your responsibility, i.e. you’re required to think your way through associations while looking at the growing mind map. That may be more difficult than you first imagine, especially if you’re not terribly creative.
PersonalBrain’s approach is different. The Plex is always your current central thought, but all of your other ideas run along the bottom of the window and can be scrolled and selected at any time, so you can jump to other thoughts as required. PersonalBrain therefore supports a cleanly organised thinking process –as when you’re preparing a scientific paper– as well as a chaotic creative process which you’ll want to use for getting fresh ideas and looks on an existing problem.
When your mind map becomes too chaotic, you can temporarily show or hide them based on a report. PersonalBrain 5.5 Pro has the ability to run custom reports, which are ideal to show/hide thoughts based on specific criteria. These are created by yourself –by checking options and then saving the custom report as a new report type that you can launch whenever you want. The report feature is one of the most powerful of PersonalBrain, but it’s also one of the least well implemented ones in terms of interface usability in my opinion. On Mac OS X –and I guess this is one area where one sees Windows influences shining through– it sits in a very tight, almost cramped area at the bottom of the window.
Even a very simple report must be scrolled or you are forced to drag the report tab to the right or left where it will automatically dock in a vertical position. Except for the design of the tabs (they don’t resemble OS X tabs at all) I didn’t like the white on black typography because it makes reading difficult and I would like to see the whole tabbed area made into an OS X Inspector, so I can minimise the Inspector and have a huge Plex window.
In expanded view, which is most like the normal view of other mind mapping programs, you can easily collapse and expand thoughts –there are nice and user-friendly visual clues to do this. I am less thrilled with the colour selection functionality. Instead of using Mac OS X’s built-in colour picker, The Brain’s developers have deemed it necessary to create an ugly Windows-alike colour picker.
Except for the fact that this disrupts the user experience on the Mac platform, it also denies access to any colour palettes that you may have in Apple’s colour picker and which you would like to use, or any sort of third party colour picker plug-in such as the excellent Painter Picker. The calendar has been improved to support repeating events and better alarms, but there is no integration with iCal, so what’s the use?
PersonalBrain Pro also has its own screen capture utility and spell checker. All of these enhancements in version 5.5 are nice when you’re working with Windows, but on Mac OS X, we’re used to see integrations with the existing (and pretty powerful –more so than PersonalBrain’s implementations) OS utilities, and I would have liked to gradually see such integrations in new versions as they appear.
Instead, TheBrain focusses on Windows as their primary platform and new functionality on OS X is added more or less as an afterthought.
That doesn’t take away from PersonalBrain’s unique feature set in the mind mapping domain, though. And it also doesn’t take away from its capabilities in terms of output. Its Web capabilities, for example, make MindMapper’s a laugh…
My recommendation therefore is that PersonalBrain certainly deserves a thorough look if you’re interested in its mind mapping capabilities and its support for output to various channels. If you want a decent OS X user experience, PersonalBrain 5.5 Pro –and even the upcoming version 6.0 from what I’ve read on their site about it– has little to offer but some frustration even.
To the engineers of TheBrain I would recommend to pamper Mac users more, throw overboard all the ugly and below par performing utilities ‘on the side’ and simply integrate with OS X’s superior ones, and implement an Inspector that follows Mac OS X human interface guidelines.
The Mac community will continue to grow fast enough in order to justify the additional development costs and Mac users will be more inclined embracing a mind mapping application regardless of how powerful it is, when it has a Mac OS X alike user experience. Or to put it differently: a superior application deserves a superior interface!