Mind mapping your research: Organising your ideas with iThoughtsHD and Curio

Mind mapping is a popular tool for brainstorming and organising ideas. The main advantage, for me, is that it provides a more visual and non linear way of working than if you were to just use a regular page in a word processor. In this post, I’ll talk about how I use mind mapping, and which apps I find most useful for my purposes.

I use mind mapping for a range of purposes to support my academic work:

  • Brainstorming ideas for new writing projects. Mind mapping provides an intuitive way of organising and chunking different ideas that come out of a free flowing brainstorming session, as well as creating connections between them.
  • Creating outlines. I like to use mind maps when I create new outlines for writing projects. My work flow is generally that I start with brain storming, then produce a more targeted outline using mind mapping based on the previous brainstorming session, and then I change to more dedicated outlining apps like OmniOutliner.
  • Analysing data. I work with qualitative data, and my first step during data analysis is usually to repeatedly read transcripts to gain familiarity with the data, while making notes based on a predominantly inductive analysis. Mind mapping is a great way of laying out that first structuring of the data material.
  • Reviewing literature. I find that mind mapping is a good tool when I want to explore how particular concepts or key questions have been addressed within research literature. For example, I may produce a mind map on the concept of ‘mediation’ or ‘professionalism’, and lay out different definitions, how the concept has been addressed by various authors, how it has developed over time, how it has been used empirically, and how I can integrate it into my own writing.
  • Taking meeting notes. Mind mapping is my main method of recording meeting notes, and with the right app it’s very easy to export content directly to meeting attendees via email.
  • Taking notes during lectures or presentations.


Mind mapping on the iPad 

On my iPad, I use iThoughtsHD for mind mapping (they also have an iPhone version). iThoughtsHD comes with a variety of features and a clean, intuitive interface (a lot of mind mapping apps are really rather ugly, this one isn’t). You can edit the colours, design and orientation of the mind map, add images, add start and due dates and durations to tasks, add icons, and add links. Here is a screen shot for illustration.

General shot

This app also has an additional notes field, for adding additional information to a topic without making it crowded with text:

Adding notes

Another good thing about iThoughtsHD it that it comes with a range of export options. There’s a whole lot of different formats available, and you can also upload to or sync with DropBox, or send your map directly to XMind. XMinds works on both Windows, Mac and Linux, so it’s not a bad alternative if you work in a Windows environment but use a mac privately.

You can also easily email your mind maps. This is a great way to share meeting minutes. There is also a range of options here for how you can present your mind map, but I prefer to have iThoughtsHD automatically generate an outline which shows up in the email, and then attach the map itself as either a PDF or an image file.

Emailing content

The only thing I find rather annoying about mind mapping on the iPad is that the ‘regular’ keyboard shortcuts for mind mapping apps don’t work with an external keyboard. Therefore, you can’t add a sibling or a child by pressing the tab key or the cmd and enter key, and you can’t navigate around your map using the arrow keys. iThoughtsHD does, however, offer two short cuts for external keyboards: press enter three times for a sibling topic, and the space bar three times for a child topic.

Mind mapping on the mac 

Now, for picking up your work on the mac, I usually upload my iThoughtsHD mind maps to DropBox in opml format – but you can also upload in MMAP format, see the note from George at Curio below. From there, I import the mind map either to OmniOutliner or to Curio (Curio does a whole lot more than just mind mapping, which I will write about more fully in a future post). OmniOutliner is a dedicated outliner app, so here your mind map will be converted to an outline. While colours, images, icons and deadlines don’t transfer, all topic text, notes fields and links will be imported, which is usually sufficient for me when I’m working on writing projects.

Screen Shot 2012 11 22 at 10 14 20

In Curio, you can choose whether you want to import the opml file as a mind map or an outline. Text, notes, and due dates will transfer.


Now, converting via opml doesn’t provide full compatibility. For me, it’s not much of a problem as my mind maps are primarily text based. However, if you have other dedicated mind mapping apps on your mac, iThoughtsHD can export in file formats for Freemind, Mindmanger, Novamind, XMind, iMIndmap, Mindview and MindGenius.

I am sticking to Curio at the moment, because I like the overall support it provides to project management and writing development, and I don’t want to add another mind mapping app into the mix. Therefore, if I start off my mind maps on the mac, it starts in Curio. Some of the features in Curio include:

  • a variety of options for customising the style and looks of your mind maps
  • the ability to convert your mind maps to outlines, or vice versa
  • import of different file types into your mind map, such as PDFs, images, power point presentations, or plain text files
  • a range of export options (unfortunately, though, the email option only works with the native mail app, and not with Thunderbird, Sparrow or Postbox)

However, if you are a mind mapping power user, you might want to opt for a dedicated mind mapping app. Curio is more like a project manager with the possibility to work with a range of different documents within the same app, with mind maps as one of several other options. For more information, see my post on Curio.

This entry was posted in brainstorming, data analysis, iPad, literature review, mind mapping, note taking, outlining, productivity, project / task management and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Mind mapping your research: Organising your ideas with iThoughtsHD and Curio

  1. Dellu says:

    I think I have to use mind-mapping too. I was skeptical of the whole idea, thinking that I would get nothing beyond the regular outline. I have one suggestion about classroom lecture and meeting notes. Have you checked the voice recording feature of Circus Ponies Notebook. I found it exceptionally wonderful because voice recording and note taking are brilliantly integrated. If you are taking notes during the meeting, while voice recording at the same time, the voice will automatically jump to the texts you insert into the CPN. That is> the voice recording is like annotation to your notes, or the typed notes are annotations to your voice recording….seamlessly integrated, just like the water and wine. brilliant!

  2. georgezengobi says:

    Great site you have here! I’m George, developer of Curio, and I just wanted to add that you can also export your mind maps from iThoughts as MMAP (Mindjet MindManager’s format) and then drop that file into Curio. Curio can convert the MMAP file into a native mind map and, compared to OPML, MMAP supports many more fields of information. Curio’s import process converts the following MMAP properties: title, note, flags (at least the ones that map to Curio flags), checkmarks, percent complete, priority, start date, due date, and duration.

    • macademise says:

      Thanks for this, George! I updated my post to reflect your comment – that’s a feature that a lot of people will want/ appreciate.

  3. CAW says:

    Just to say that iThoughts has a version for the Mac too, called iThoughtsX. So compatibility with desktop is there.

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