Stormboard gives me hope for mindmaps

I got a demo today for a new version of a brainstorming tool named Stormboard, and it has given me renewed hope about using online tools for shared visual thinking.

I have used many so-called mind mapping tools in the past, far too many to mention. And many of them share a common problem: they provide a single flat space or canvas on which you can superimpose text, shapes, and images, which can be linked using tree-structure or other connections. But in general, you are stuck with one large canvas or board. That canvas may have a background or many layers, but I haven’t found tools that support discrete sub-boards with different backgrounds. Stormboard supports the notion of ‘stacks’ — which are actually sub-boards — and this makes all the difference to me.

Of course, when I found that wonderful abstraction I immediately collided with a design flaw that would make it hard to use for completely different reasons. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a look at Stormboard.

Here’s a screen from the quick help:

Screenshot 2014-03-11 13.40.25

All entries (‘ideas’) are modeled after post-its, like the one in the center. They have comment threads and people can vote for them. Sadly, they are all the same size and font, except for a Title mode that makes text larger. Ideas must be one of six colors (only six?), and they are created by typing in the post-it space on the left margin. Other objects are either images, videos, stacks, documents, or sketches. All of these are self-evident except for stacks, which are sub-boards or sub-storms. Note that you have to sign up for the most expensive tier of Stormboard’s pricing plan to use stacks.

In my case, I selected the Six Thinking Hats template (of de Bono) created a few ideas, and used the search to select all the green ideas:

Screenshot 2014-03-11 13.49.32

Then I dragged them into a stack, and then I ran into a major problem. I had wanted to use a map of the area around Beacon NY as a template or backdrop for this stack, but there is no way to do so:

Screenshot 2014-03-11 14.03.40

Specifically, there is a/ no way to define a template — they are all created by the company — and b/ there is no way to upload an image and use it as a backdrop. Here you can see that I can upload an image as a post-it’s content, and you can see the comment thread on it where I am complaining. So, as far as I am concerned, that is a critical design flaw.

Other features work as I would expect: each storm has it’s own activity stream showing system events — like the creation and state changes of elements — and comments that have been made. It’s too bad that there is no provision for simply making comments in the activity stream, directly.

Likewise, I also feel that it is a critical flaw to go only this far with social features. I would like to be able to follow some things and mute others. In a large project with many substorms I might want to only follow a few stacks, or a few participants. They really should step up to a generalized following model.

The Bottom Line

Stormboard is an attractive and easy-to-use brainstorming tool with key sharing features in place, and a broad selection of templates to use as the background for mind maps and organized visual thinking. As I said at the top, the stack (or sub-boarding) feature solves a barrier to use that had stopped me from using mind-mapping tools in general, and so I have hopes about organized visual thinking and brainstorming.

The key missing features are user defined templates or backgrounds, and enhanced social features, specifically following. Those would make the tool vastly more productive and attractive for me, and I bet for others. I hope that the team moves in that direction in the weeks and months following this new release.