Follow the Flow: Using Mind-Mapping to Capture User Feedback


Usability test planning mind map. Diagram showing inputs and outputs.

Figure 1. An example of a mind-map illustrating the planning of a usability test.

Imagine you are taking notes in a usability session. Sarah, the participant, is providing great feedback, while Tom, the moderator, listens intently. As the session progresses, Sarah’s feedback addresses questions that apply to the task at hand and to questions that relate to tasks located in other parts of the script. As she follows her train of thought, Tom takes the opportunity to get more information and probes accordingly. In the observation room, you frantically struggle to follow the conversation and accurately capture Sarah’s feedback. If Sarah says something out of sequence with the script and her feedback is captured in a linear fashion, there is a chance that during analysis these data may be overlooked.

I am an interaction designer on the mobile apps team at Cars.com. Recent changes to our development process have resulted in an increase in the number of usability studies we are tasked to conduct, in shorter periods of time. This new streamlined process has necessitated investigation to find more efficient ways for the team to capture data, and analyze and report results. Following review and experimentation with several different note-taking and data analysis techniques, we have selected mind-mapping as our method of choice.

What is Mind-Mapping?

Mind-mapping is an alternative, non-linear note-taking technique that can be used to capture data in usability studies. It’s a method that is particularly useful in sessions that have a tendency to jump around within the test script. Mind-mapping has been used for decades to aid in memorization and internalization of new information, and to visually organize information in a way that reflects the natural way we think: thoughts radiate from, and are connected with, one central point.

Why Use Mind-Mapping?

Linear note-taking is an effective way to record data in usability sessions that adhere to a protocol and collect measures such as time-on-task and task success rate. In more exploratory studies, however, it can be much more difficult to accurately capture and categorize out-of-context comments and conversations in real time. My team records usability sessions so that we have the option to review recordings to be sure we have not missed anything important. In reality, though, we rarely have time for this additional exercise.

The use of mind-mapping has enabled us to capture and group larger amounts of relevant data in real time. If colors and relative locations of like branches are maintained across all participants in a given study, patterns and outliers can be easily recognized, which can aid in data analysis.

Mind-maps are also useful for flagging items on the fly. For example, if a participant fails a particular task, the task can be marked with a red flag icon (most mind-mapping software include icons or the ability to import custom images); if a participant encounters difficulty with a task, the task can be marked with a yellow flag icon. Eventually, following multiple sessions, visual patterns begin to emerge.

How to Create Mind-Maps

A mind-map begins with one central concept (see Figure 1), and allows the user to associate and add ideas freely, as opposed to traditional note-taking, which is ordered and linear. Using an image as the central concept helps to keep mind-map users engaged and focused. Related ideas and connected thoughts are represented using smaller branches that extend and build on topic association. Use of color and images helps to differentiate branches and group topics visually.

Traditionally, mind-maps are created using a blank sheet of paper, colored pens, and an open mind. There are also a variety of software options available for computers and mobile devices:

  • FreeMind: A free and easy-to-use tool that includes keyboard shortcuts to add branches on the fly, and options to insert icons and export the finished mind-map in multiple formats.
  • XMind: A program with a free version for individual use or paid alternatives for added features, such as the ability to share mind-maps with others, customizable themes, and Gantt chart views for project schedules.
  • iMindMap: A free tool with online access, which also has a paid version with many bells and whistles, such as audio notes and the ability to include links and filters.
  • iThoughtsHD: An inexpensive iPad app with beautiful shapes and intuitive interaction that resembles the traditional pen-and-paper method; typing on the iPad may be time-consuming, however, and may not be ideal for rapid note-taking.

Creating a mind-map on the computer during usability testing can be fast and intuitive. When I began using mind-maps, I drew them by hand. But it did not take me long to realize that drawing each map was inefficient. Today, I use FreeMind, which enables me to keep up with the interview conversation and take notes in real time. Keyboard shortcuts allow me to insert branches as I go, a great time-saving feature available in most computer-based mind-map programs.

How to Use Mind-Mapping for Note-Taking and Data Analysis

In preparation for usability testing, I typically create one mind-map template for each participant (see Figure 2). I begin by reviewing the usability test script to determine what tasks users will be asked to complete. I also attempt to anticipate potential topics for discussion—topics relevant to the study that may deviate in sequence from ordered tasks in the script.

Next, I create a label to represent the central concept (participant’s name) in the middle of the page, and add branches representing related tasks and topics. It is helpful to use different colors for each branch, to maintain consistent layouts for all participants across each mind-map, and to keep branch labels concise. The success of a mind-map depends on the simplicity of the phrases used to label its branches. Lengthy labels detract from a mind-map’s ability to provide the user with a “picture at a glance.” Long sentences can certainly be revised post-study, but from a time perspective, it is more efficient to get into the habit of recording concise and direct labels from the start.

At the conclusion of the study, I place all of the participant mind-maps side by side and look for visual patterns. I search for red and yellow flags, and pay particular attention to areas in which the flags are concentrated (see Figure 3). Flags can be quickly counted to obtain quantitative results.

Diagram showing major steps in the template development.

Figure 2. Mind-map template for a sample participant.

Diagram with details for each step. Icons show success or failures.

Figure 3. Completed mind-map for one participant, with yellow flags indicating difficulties and red flags representing failures.

Another way to analyze mind-map data is to create one master mind-map to represent all of the participants. A single note-taker can use software tools to merge branches from individual mind-maps into one view, or this can be done by hand.

A master mind-map can also be completed as a group exercise and consensus builder. To create a group mind-map, start with a large pad of paper and draw the basic template of the map that was used to capture notes during the usability sessions. Next, go around the room and ask each observer to share his or her notes and observations, while the session moderator adds branches to reflect feedback. These sessions are a great way to debrief and get everyone on the same page. Notes do not need to be in mind-map format to facilitate a mind-map creation session.

After experimenting with various note-taking techniques, we have found mind-mapping to be the best way to capture user feedback during exploratory usability studies. Today, this technique is enabling my team to collect and analyze data more efficiently, while accommodating our new, streamlined development process. Based on our positive experience using this method, we invite you to consider giving it a try, too. Like us, once you try it, you may never go back to linear note-taking again!

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