Cognitive Maps, Thoughts Maps, and Idea Maps

Cognitive mapping, thoughts mapping, and idea mapping are 3 tough visual-mapping methods for organizing, speaking, and conserving wisdom. They lend a hand us lay out advanced concepts, processes, and acknowledge patterns and relationships. 

Cognitive maps, thoughts maps, and idea maps feel and look equivalent; this similarity reasons confusion. They’re 3 alternative ways of visualizing a mental model — whether or not it belongs to the dressmaker, the researcher, or the person. Every has its strengths and advantages. This text is a comparability of those 3 in style varieties of diagramming and their makes use of in UX.

Cognitive Maps

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Cognitive maps are the umbrella time period for all visible representations of intellectual fashions. All mapping ways described on this article are cases of cognitive maps. 

Definition: A cognitive map is any visible illustration of an individual’s (or a bunch’s) intellectual mannequin for a given procedure or idea.

Cognitive maps haven’t any visible laws that they wish to obey: there is not any restriction on how the ideas and the relationships between them are visually represented.

Historical past

The theory of cognitive map originates from the paintings of the psychologist Edward Tolman, who is known for his research of ways rats discovered to navigate mazes. In psychology, it has a powerful spatial connotation — cognitive maps typically seek advice from the illustration of an area (e.g., a maze) within the mind. Cognitive maps have since been utilized in a spread of fields; Colin Eden, an operations researcher, used the time period in a broader sense to seek advice from an intellectual mannequin illustration of any form of procedure or idea (whether or not spatial or now not). 

Cognitive mapping is free-form and will come with a large number of visualization strategies, together with bulleted lists, flowcharts, idea diagramming, or affinity mapping. Even though the above instance is virtual (and thus high-fidelity), cognitive maps are ceaselessly low-fidelity and created with paper, pen, and sticky notes.  


  • Various in nature and goal. Cognitive mapping is utilized in a wide vary of disciplines for a lot of functions. Cognitive maps are probably the most basic form of mental-model visualization. 
  • No restrictions on construction or variety. Cognitive maps don’t have to stick to a particular structure. Thus, they’re ceaselessly summary and haven’t any constant hierarchy. They’re versatile and will accommodate a large set of ideas or scenarios that wish to be represented. 

Makes use of in UX

  • Externalize wisdom. Visualizations (of any sort) assist in cognitive processing; they are able to lend a hand us refine our considering, breakdown concepts, and seize ideas. For instance, a visualization turns into a useful software for describing the place a brand new function is available or when a brand new crew member is onboarded to a brand new advanced machine. 
  • Determine topics throughout other ideas. Presenting ideas in a visible structure can floor new patterns and connections. In our DesignOps analysis, we requested individuals to create a cognitive map of the organizational buildings of their corporations. After mapping, they have been in a position to spot similarities (like crew make-up, ache issues, or bottlenecks) throughout siloed groups. 
  • Psychological-model elicitation. Cognitive mapping can lend a hand UX researchers perceive customers’ intellectual fashions of a machine or of a procedure. This figuring out will also be a very powerful when researching advanced techniques or even if embarking within the design of a brand new product. Psychological-model elicitation is typically performed thru person interviews through which the player builds a visible illustration of her intellectual mannequin of the analysis matter. The ensuing cognitive map represents a tangible illustration of the player’s ideas and will function a dialog steered for the facilitator. A number of such maps will also be clustered in line with their traits; those categorizations can information the design procedure. 

The following two sections describe two more-constrained varieties of cognitive maps: thoughts maps and idea maps.

Thoughts Maps 

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Thoughts maps or commonly known as Mind Map  are probably the most simplistic, and thus easy form of cognitive maps. They’ve a transparent hierarchy and structure, and they’re quite fast to create and eat. 

Definition: A thoughts map is a tree that represents a central matter and its subtopics. 

Historical past

The core traits of thoughts maps are rooted within the construction of semantic networks, a Nineteen Fifties’ method for representing wisdom. In 1974, British writer Tony Buzan popularized the time period ‘thoughts mapping.’ 

Thoughts maps have a central guardian matter, with nodes that department outwards in opposition to the peripheral. 


  • Transparent group and construction. Thoughts maps are limited to tree buildings. They’ve transparent, directed flows outward from the tree root to its leaves. 
  • One central matter. In thoughts maps, all nodes (apart from the tree root) have just one guardian node. Every node will have kids akin to that idea’s subtopics. Each and every idea in a thoughts map will also be traced immediately again to the basis matter.
  • No definition of relationships. There is not any difference between various kinds of relationships amongst nodes — the entire edges within the tree are represented in the similar method and are unlabeled. 

Makes use of UX 

Thoughts maps lend a hand arrange a number of knowledge hooked up to an unmarried matter and constructing it in a scientific, significant method. In UX, they’re useful when doing specific ideation paintings, equivalent to: 

  • Breaking-down parts on a particular webpage — for instance, with a purpose to decide the mini-IA of the web page
  • Making plans matter subjects inside a web site (for instance, our article subjects on
  • Mapping knowledge lined in an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) or privateness coverage

Idea Maps

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Idea maps or commonly known as Concept Maps are a extra advanced model of thoughts maps. They position an emphasis on figuring out the relationships between subjects. Moreover, a node in an idea map will have a number of folks (while a node in a thoughts map may have only one).

Definition: A idea map is a graph through which nodes constitute ideas and are similar thru categorised, directed edges that illustrate relationships between them. 

Historical past 

Idea mapping was once advanced within the Nineteen Seventies by means of American professor Joseph Novak to lend a hand academics provide an explanation for advanced subjects with a purpose to facilitate studying, conserving, and referring to those new subjects to current wisdom. 

Ideas maps are learn best down; in contrast to with thoughts maps, a node will have more than one folks and the sides are categorised to suggest relationships between nodes.


  • Every node will have multiple guardian (i.e., one node pointing to it). Whilst every thoughts map node has just one guardian, a node in an idea map will have a number of folks. Thus, nodes in an idea map are ceaselessly extra interconnected than nodes in thoughts maps, which makes idea maps neatly suited to describing advanced interconcept relationships. 
  • Graph edges are directed and categorised with the names of the relationships between the nodes they attach. Every edge illustrates a particular courting (and typically is categorised with a verb or preposition that captures it).

Makes use of in UX

Idea maps lend a hand visualize advanced ideas which are interconnected in more than a few tactics. They are able to make stronger more than one views and tactics of taking a look on the similar drawback and can be utilized to:

  • Increase a holistic image of a suite of ideas and their interconcept relationships, equivalent to:
    • Information 
    • Organizational operations
  • Attach ideas with motion. Idea mapping emphasizes relationships by means of linking one concept to every other with verbs. This function turns out to be useful when inspecting an issue (the maps ceaselessly floor undiscovered reasons and results). Via visualizing the content material as a internet, it turns into simple to apply a ‘path’ of relationships and thus establish systemic answers. 

The maps will also be created for my part or in a bunch (if the aim is to create a shared figuring out of an interior procedure, for instance.) 

Strategies When compared 

In the case of representing bodily area, there are lots of varieties of imaginable maps: topographic maps, geologic maps, pedestrian maps, side road maps, and so forth. They’re all flat representations of the outside of the earth, however spotlight other homes of this floor. Cartographers follow other pointers for designing a mountaineering map of a park, a freeway map of a state, or a political map of a continent. 

Just like the other maps of the earth, all varieties of cognitive maps are in many ways the similar. 

UX practitioners should be cartographers of UX maps — adapting structure and construction to highest swimsuit the desires and context of the map they’re growing. Use this desk as a snappy information to match thoughts maps, idea maps, and cognitive maps. 


The 3 maps above aren’t the similar as flowcharts, so an enumeration of steps will have to now not be have compatibility for a map. Then again, there are various advantages from visualizing an idea, concept, or procedure, whether or not or not it’s thru a cognitive map, thoughts map, or idea map, and each for my part or among a crew: 

  • Supplies a tangible visible summary ideas 
  • Communicates relationships or patterns between ideas 
  • Deepens our wisdom and figuring out of a particular matter or idea 
  • Is helping us combine new concepts with current techniques
  • Synthesizes a posh ecosystem right into a unmarried visualization that may be shared

Taking fuzzy, summary ideas and making them tangible toughen crew communique and creates commonplace flooring. It’s additionally make it simple for a crew member to straight away spot one thing at the map and say, “that’s now not proper.” Possibly your colleague is true, and one thing wasn’t captured as it should be. Or possibly your colleague is fallacious, and the map uncovers a false impression that will have another way result in friction later within the undertaking. Both method, the mapping workout pinpointed one thing that required additional dialogue, which is way more environmentally friendly ultimately than continuing on a undertaking with a misaligned figuring out.

Cognitive maps, thoughts maps, and idea maps in the long run toughen our cognitive figuring out. The usage of one method over every other is not going to make or destroy a undertaking. Preferably, a mixture of all 3 might be used as wanted at other issues for your procedure, relying for your wishes. 

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