Publication by Miro about the future of distributed teamwork

Concept mapping: the key to visualizing your ideas

Ever need to brain dump your ideas, but don’t know how to make sense of the ideas once they’re on the page? If so, consider using a concept map maker.

What is a concept map?

Concept maps are a framework for visualizing the relationships between big, cross-functional ideas. Using boxes and connecting lines, concept maps connect ideas and show their relationship to each other. In a concept map, each idea in a box is called a node. The branches that connect two nodes are called cross-links. The cross-links often have words that help explain the relationships between the connection.

Hollis Kool

Content & Comms

Hollis’s background is in human-centered design and research as applied in the social, public, and health sectors. She’s curious about people dynamics and social networks, and writes about the ways these play out in the workplace for better team collaboration and communication.

Are mind maps and concept maps different?

A type of mind map, concept maps specifically connect multiple large ideas through branches rather than a free-flow brainstorm around one single idea as you see in a traditional mind map. A general mind map can be helpful to generate ideas before organizing them into a concept map. Unlike mind mapping, the structure of a concept map indicates the meaning and logic of ideas in how they are connected.

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Why make a concept map?

Concept maps, unlike mind maps, explain how ideas relate to each other and can be a great discovery and learning tool. When beginning to brainstorm, it’s common to not know where to start, and group brainstorms tend to produce a lot of disparate ideas. After you’re done brainstorming, it can also be challenging to make sense of your ideas. This is where the concept map comes in.

Concept mapping can be a great approach to use at the outset of a brainstorm to continue down connected lines of thinking. It can also be useful in connecting prior knowledge you may have with new concepts and ideas to discover new relationships. The hierarchical structure of the concept map can be a meaningful learning approach by organizing how ideas relate in a cascading way, identifying where ideas fit into larger themes, and discovering new concepts in the process.

Concept maps are used to:

1. Structure and organize ideas

Concept mapping is great for when you have a lot of ideas, but don’t know exactly how to organize and layer them. The hierarchical structure of a concept map organizes ideas from large big themes, to smaller, specific.

2. Show relationships between ideas

When focusing on a big team project, it’s easy to have branching ideas fall between the task. Instead of going from task A to task D, you use a concept map to map out tasks B and C.

3. Visualize the overall concept

Visual learning helps anyone from students to CEOs, so creating a visual element that team members can understand is critical when selling your ideas.

4. Surface creative solutions

Big concepts require creative ideas, and concept maps help team members share solutions to tasks in a creative way.

How to make your concept map in five steps

Concept mapping is a useful exercise to brainstorm, hypothesize, find solutions, and discover new knowledge and connections between key concepts. Let’s say you’re trying to better understand your product landscape to improve your product/market fit. Here’s how you would create a concept map for this topic:

1. Ask a focus question

What type of problem are you trying to solve with your concept map? For example, you might ask: What does product/market fit look like for my product? Focusing around a question will help guide your thinking around the problem or idea you’re trying to visualize.

2. Brainstorm

The next step is all about idea generation. Without thinking of structure or specificity, list out everything you are thinking of. Go back to your focus question to help generate as many ideas, thoughts, or questions as possible. Here are some tips on how to have a generative brainstorm.

Example of a brainstorm for product/market fit: minimum viable product, user experience, customer value, industry standards, pain points, competitors, market factors.

3. Identify the main idea

To start building your concept map, you need to build ideas off of your central theme. Find something general that captures all of your brainstormed ideas. Example main idea: Product/market fit solutions. 

Your main idea might change as you start to conceptually map your ideas out, but that’s ok. Concept mapping should be a flexible brainstorming exercise that surfaces new ideas and relationships.

4. Order your ideas

Now identify how your list of brainstormed ideas relate in terms of specificity and hierarchy: which are general concepts, and ideas are specific solutions? The more specific, the farther out the concept should be on the map.

Don’t worry about connecting the ideas yet. In this step, you’re simply grouping by relative closeness to the main idea or topic.

5. Build the map

Starting with the main idea, fill in the neighboring nodes with the next related ideas. You can add arrows if ideas connect, or use words that link the boxes. For example, Product/market fit solutions —– (inspired by) —> competitors — (share the same) —> product category —> collaboration software. 

Miro’s concept map maker is a free, flexible template where you can begin inputting your ideas.

Transform your group brainstorms with concept mapping

Brainstorming can seem like a simple way to generate ideas alone or in a group, but are often unstructured and ineffective. At Miro, we think a lot about the ways that groups can collaborate with more agility, clarity, and effectiveness to improve exercises like brainstorms. Concept maps are a great final step in a group brainstorm to facilitate productive, actionable idea generation.

Common challenges with group brainstorms include groupthink, disorganized ideas, unfocused ideas, and preferencing of extroverted team members. There are several brainstorming techniques you can use in your brainstorming process to avoid these challenges, concept mapping being one of them.

How to use a concept map in a brainstorm

When brainstorming in a large group, use a concept map in your final step to dig deep into ideas and find connections between the concepts and ideas generated by different people. Consider breaking into small groups to provide room for more voices to be heard. This small group format will also help generate new concepts.

When you come back together as a large group, create the final concept map by piecing together interconnected ideas and identifying redundant or related ideas. Create the hierarchical structure of the concept map at this time, too. In this way, concept maps can bring organization to your brainstorm so your ideas tell a logical, connected story.

Concept maps aren’t just for the classroom

You may only be familiar with concept maps as they are used in education — maybe you’re remembering when your middle school class used a map to outline concepts in biology. But, concept mapping can be used in all stages of product development; Designers, researchers, and engineers alike can utilize a concept map. Because concept maps function to simplify ideas and show the relationships among different aspects of a concept, these can be highly useful for product teams in various stages of the product development process:

  • Discovery phase
  • UX of a product
  • User research
  • User journeys and pain points
  • Product landscape and market research
  • Design/dev handoff
  • Design briefs

Want to learn more about brainstorming in Miro? 
Read more

Concept map examples

Depending on the process in which you are using one, concept maps can take different forms. While all concept maps connect main ideas with branches, the way that you organize a concept map can help reveal new knowledge and connections. Here are four ways that your concept map can take form:

1. Spider concept maps

A spider concept map is one where the branches on this type of concept map cascade outward in a radial pattern, with more detail the farther out you go. Think of a web spiraling out from a central focal point or idea.

2. Flow charts

Flow charts show concept in a far more linear fashion. Instead of spiraling outward, flow charts move from left to right, or from top to bottom. This form of concept map may be helpful in understanding user journeys, UX flows, or product roadmaps.

3. System maps

System maps outline all the major parts of a system and use connecting arrows to show how the parts of the system interrelate. The structure of these tend to be more web-like, but they don’t need to spiral outwards like a spider map.

4. Hierarchy maps

Hierarchy concept maps look like family trees or waterfall maps, where you read ideas from top to bottom as they cascade.

Ready to give concept maps a go?

Try it now.

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