Interaction 09 Follow-up

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From February 5-8, 2009, IxDA hosted their second annual conference, Interaction 09, in Vancouver, BC. Last year’s inaugural conference in Savannah had a powerful and lasting impact on the community, filled with encouraging messages and the realization that for many of us that we had “found our tribe.” The challenge for 2009 was to see if that energy could be recaptured a year later — in a new place and during undeniably pressing times.

The Setting

The Four Seasons in Vancouver felt much less intimate than the refuge and privacy we shared in Savannah, and the impact of Simon Fraser University was invisible compared to that of Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Still, one important aspect remained quite evident — this community of interaction designers truly adores one another.

Finding people with whom you share similar passions, challenges, and perspectives both comforts and uplifts the community. Even with the different feel this year, Interaction fulfilled a critical mission. Disenfranchised, overwrought interaction designers looking for a way forward found renewal that can last us the whole year. We encountered inspiration around every corner, ringing with the clear message that our time has come and our mandate as designers continues to grow.

Instead of practical advice on which interface elements to employ in particular situations or new techniques for prototyping, the overall emphasis at Interaction 09 was much more about the role that interaction designers need to play in their organizations and throughout the world. Even IxDA’s manifesto noted the aim to “improve the human condition” — a far loftier goal than simply making useful and engaging digital interfaces.

Day 1, February 6

After a day and a half of workshops, the Interaction 09 conference started on Friday afternoon with a lineup of impressive keynote speeches from John Thackara and Fiona Raby, along with a heated panel discussion moderated by Jared Spool.

Thackara, in his talk titled “Experiencing Sustainability” (description | video) demanded that interaction designers do our part to combat climate change, resource depletion, and economic crisis by shifting our focus and skills towards designing promising new solutions for repair and growth. As interaction designers, we have the ability to devise innovative systems to combat common, everyday problems, and Thackara urged us to consider our impact far beyond the computer screen.

Though A/V system problems mired her talk, Raby shared several projects from her design students at the Royal College of Art that challenge many constraints we artificially place on how people interact with technology, and more importantly how people interact with and relate to one another when facilitated (and controlled) by technology.

Spool kicked off his panel by noting that as of today, 10,000 new interaction designers are needed to support the growing challenges of even just the most major companies; he asked his panelists, both educators and managers of design teams, how they plan to meet the demand. Matthew Holloway of SAP, Josh Seiden of Liquidnet and outgoing president of IxDA, and Andrei Herasimchuk of Involution Studios discussed the perfect balance of skills, education, and experience that they seek from designers they bring into their teams. Liz Danzico, chair of the new MFA Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and Jon Kolko, who founded the interaction design minor at SCAD, discussed how to best prepare interaction designers to recognize and address everyday business obstacles, becoming all the more valuable to their organizations.

The panel was getting at some critical obstacles in growing the interaction design practice before it disappointingly devolved into a “define the damn thing” debate about the distinction between interaction design and user experience. Groans from the audience and fierce statements from the panelists revealed just how divisive and counterproductive this argument can be. Still, it was great to see the community alive with fervor, as many hallway and hotel room conversations on the topic followed.

Day 2, February 7

While everyone was still nursing their wounds, Saturday started off on a much more uplifting note. We had talked about the state of the world, laid out our differences, and recognized just how much we’re all desperately needed; now it was time to talk about how to get this stuff done.

In his keynote titled “Irrational Behavior” (description | video), Robert Fabricant showed us some concrete ways that his team at frog design is addressing pervasive public health issues in South Africa with Project Masiluleke. He shared inspiring examples of great interaction design and reminded us that “technology is not our medium; behavior is our medium.” Fabricant differentiated among the outputs, outcomes, and impacts of our designs, noting that just because people are buying a product doesn’t necessarily mean that their behavior is changing. Our goal, clearly, should be the latter.

Dan Saffer revved us up at the end of the day with an impassioned keynote (description | video). He called for an end to the “religious wars” and obsession with defining our practice and instead urged us to be flexible and determine what is best for each project. “There are no best practices,” he said. “Best practices should be a place to begin, not where it ends,” reminding us that our responsibility is to invent new systems. He echoed other speakers in focusing our attention on health care, education, government, energy, and other domains where our ability to recognize and solve ongoing problems is sorely needed. “Where are the interaction design rockstars?” Saffer asked, citing our need to be as visible as the Frank Gehrys and Philippe Starcks of the world.

Ultimately the message was that being poised to tackle these issues simply isn’t enough if we aren’t capable of selling ourselves. As revitalizing as it is for our community to come together and learn from one another, it’s more important that we get out of the echo chamber and make ourselves known to those outside of the practice who can put us in a position to create change.

Day 3, February 8

By day three, we were ready to step out of the shadows and no one better to show us the way than Marc Rettig, a very humble and discreet member of our community who exposed us to the ways in which he and his company are choosing to make a stand.

He reiterated many of the previous day’s themes in his keynote, “How to Change Complicated Stuff (e.g., the World),” declaring that the relationships we create through products are far more important than the products themselves. If our goal as interaction designers is to create positive change, then we can no longer just be satisfied with shipping the product or launching the site. “You must establish the change,” Rettig said, “and put in place the necessary conditions for it to be come the new Normal.” Ultimately, our success isn’t measured with metrics but instead by the personal stories that illustrate how lives have been improved by our design solutions.

Then in her closing keynote, Kim Goodwin noted that the sustainability and cultivation of our practice can be ensured by one very important activity: Mentorship. Goodwin noted that if everyone in the audience mentored just one or two people, our community would grow exponentially and we would all become better at our craft. Both the mentor and the mentee have much to learn from one another, and that passing of the torch symbolizes, and ensures, the longevity of our profession.

Indelible Marks

A single theme emerged throughout the three days of the conference: The time has come to expand the definition of what interaction design comprises. In an ever-changing, interconnected, and in many ways injured world, we need to apply our skill sets, techniques, methodologies, and critical problem-solving capabilities to much larger-scale systems far beyond the reaches of technology.

As Doug Lemoine of Cooper nicely stated in a blog post recap, “Like other disciplines, interaction design is wrestling with the ways in which we, as a profession and as individuals, can do more than simply design more disposable crap. How can we design stuff that lasts, stuff that helps, stuff that addresses real problems?”

Phillip Hunter was particularly intrigued by the greater number of touchpoints across which we can design. Reflecting on the conference two months later, he wrote, “It was really exciting to hear and see emerging design tools and interaction mediums. NUI & gestural interfaces, mobile, MS Surface, Axure, Catalyst (someday soon we hope), etc., along with continuing extensions of browser-type experiences with Silverlight and Flex.”

Our community is growing, and with new people come new approaches, perspectives, and methodologies. As Matthew Nish-Lapidus wrote on the nForm blog, “Our practice is still in relative infancy, but there is amazing momentum and a great sense of importance driving us forward.” The challenge now is to unify the practice and turn our attention to the profound problems that truly need our help.

Several other sessions deserve note for garnering much discussion. Leisa Reichelt’s “Design by Community — The redesign” examined how to use the community to grow the design, while Christina Wodtke’s “Designing the Viral App” examined how to use the design to grow the community.

Also of note were those talks providing insight into the full-body interactions required for touch screen interfaces — Nathan Moody’s “Designing Natural Interfaces” and Bjorn Hartman’s “Enlightened Trial and Error – Gaining Design Insight Through New Prototyping Tools.”

Looking Forward

One of the most interesting things about the IxDA conferences are the sheer number of sessions presented over the course of just a few days. While “Lightning Round” slots allow for a wider variety of topics, 25 minutes is much too short to get anything of value out of a session. By the time everyone arrived, got settled in their seats and pulled out their notebooks or laptops, almost half the session had passed. There were several sessions that left me wanting more, feeling as though I would have gotten greater depth out of reading a blog post or article on the topic. I hope in the future that the organizers schedule more in-depth 45-minute-to-one-hour sessions and reduce the number of these shorter sessions.

In the end, the best thing about Interaction 09 was the opportunity to spend three days with so many brilliant, passionate practitioners, educators, and thought-leaders from all around the world. It is an honor to be among them, and no matter where we are or how we gather, these events and the community’s support energize me to do more, try harder, think smarter, and reach farther. Here’s to next year back in Savannah!

Note: Videos have been indicated here where available. More videos will be posted by the IxDA on Vimeo. Feel free to check there for updates. -Ed.

Calling in the Big Guns

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B&A readers get 10% off when purchasing from (use code WFDBA)
Discount for Boxes and Arrows readers: Get a 10% discount by purchasing the book directly from Rosenfeld Media. Just use the code WFDBA.

The scene is all too familiar. You’re presenting wireframes of the registration process for a new web application when the discussion veers down a dark alley. The sky has turned the color of black ink, and you can smell sulfur in the air as one team member after another debates the alignment of form labels.

Before you can toss up a quick Hail Mary, marketing says that the opt-in for marketing solicitations has to be defaulted to yes, and you can feel your soul sucked out of your body through your nose as a simple one hour meeting turns into a 3 hour discussion over the pro’s and cons of inline validation while your stomach grumbles because you just missed lunch.

I have heard this war story many times from many interaction designers and information architects, with little variation except in the details. What we need is air cover in this battle to design better forms. Now, it’s here.

“Forms Suck!”

And so Luke Wroblewski begins his new book on web form design with a canon shot, providing just the air cover and ammunition interaction designers need; and every review, including this one, begins with a first impression.

Mine was: Boffo.

(bof·fo (bf) slang, adj.: Extremely successful; great.)

Wroblewski opens “Web Form Design” with a strategic exploration of why users interact with forms. News flash: It’s not because they enjoy it. Interaction designers need to confront the truth that a user’s goal is to get to some successful outcome on the other side of a form – as quickly and painlessly as possible. We want our iPhone, tax return, or account with Facebook. We don’t want to fill out forms.

bq. Forms suck. If you don’t believe me, try to find people who like filling them in. You may turn up an accountant who gets a rush when wrapping up a client’s tax return or perhaps a desk clerk who loves to tidy up office payroll. But for most of us, forms are just an annoyance. What we want to do is to vote, apply for a job, buy a book online, join a group, or get a rebate back from a recent purchase. Forms just stand in our way.

Wroblewski has researched everything from the basics of good form design, to labels and most-direct route, delivering his explanations, patterns and recommendations with a casual urgency that avoids preaching. This book is a useful guide for both the novice interaction designer and the battle tested UX guru, offering salient, field tested examples of the good, bad, and often times ugly forms that have proliferated the web like so many mushrooms after a good rain.

Wroblewski has also invited many seasoned professionals to contribute sidebars, including Caroline Jarrett’s no-nonsense perspective on designing great forms by advising us to “start thinking about people and relationships,” instead of just diving into labeling our forms and choosing where to put the Submit button. I especially appreciated her strategic guidelines for picking what questions should go into a form in the first place, which she aptly titles “Keep, Cut, Postpone, or Explain.”

Wroblewski is aware of how challenging most readers will find good form design. It comes as a relief, for instance, when he writes that we should think less about forms as a means of filling a database, and more as a means of creating a meaningful conversation between the user and the company.

He generally succeeds at adopting the warm tone of a confidant who can win you over with self-deprecating, you-too-can-make-dynamic-forms-every-day enthusiasm. The more subtle points of user-centered design or goal-driven design are not discussed explicitly; only the trained ear will detect them.

What’s In the Book?

“Web Form Design” is part of a wave of User Experience books from Rosenfeld Media – books focused on bringing practical, actionable and well-researched methods to actual practitioners in the field. This literature is going to have a powerful effect on our community of practice, maybe as powerful as the effect the Polar Bear book had on our grandparents’ era. This volume is broken out into three sections:

Section one: “Form Structure” begins with an overview of why form design matters and describes the principles behind good form design, followed by Form Organization, Path to Completion, and Labels (hint: your form design should start from goals). Working quickly through strategy to tactics, Wroblewski gives numerous examples – within the context of usability studies – so that you are not left wondering whether these patterns are recommended based just on his opinion.

Section two: “Form Elements,” is a useful, clearly written exploration of each of the components of form design: labels, fields, actions and messages (help, errors, success). Wroblewski attacks each one of these by defining particular problem spaces, and then shows good and bad solutions to the problems while highlighting how these solutions faired in controlled usability tests, including eye-tracking. He then finishes each chapter off with a succinct list of ‘Best Practices’ that I suggest are good enough to staple to the inside of your eyelids.

Section three” “Form Interaction,” includes chapters on everything from Inline Validation to Selection-dependent Inputs (a barn burner). Here we move from the world of designing labels, alignment, and content to designing the actual complex interactions between the system — that wants to be fed like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors –- and the world-weary user that just wants to get to the other side of the rainbow. As Wroblewski explains in his opening of chapter 9 “Inline Validation:”

Despite our best efforts to format questions clearly and provide meaningful affordances for our inputs, some of our questions will always have more than one possible answer…

Inline validation can provide several types of feedback: confirmation that an appropriate answer was given, suggestions for valid answers, and real-time updates designed to help people stay within necessary limits. These bits of feedback usually happen when people begin, continue, or stop entering answers within input fields.

To establish communication between the user and the form, provide clear, easy-to-read feedback so that the user doesn’t get the “select a username or die” travesty that we see in registration forms all over the web. You know the ones: you type in your name, choose a username, enter your email address, and your password (twice), hit the submit button…and…bad things happen. The username is already taken. Worse, the form is cleared and you have to enter all that information all over again. Wroblewski provides advice for validation (without set-in-stone rules), and a bulleted list of best practices.

The final, and perhaps most interesting chapter in the book, covers the topic of Gradual Engagement. This is particularly timely given the kudzu-like proliferation of Web 2.0 applications and services as well as social networking sites and micro-blogging sites. Instead of starting your engagement with a new company that all your friends are raving about with yet another registration form – as Wroblewski writes:

bq. “We can do better. In fact, I believe we can get people engaged with digital services in a way that tells them how they work and why they should care enough to use them.1 I also believe we can do this without explicitly making them fill out a sign-up form as a first step.”

He continues by highlighting the benefits of moving a user through the application or service – actually engaging with it, and seeing it’s benefits, while registration is either postponed, or handled behind the scenes. He explores web applications like JumpCut, where the user steps through the process of creating, uploading and editing their video — and only when they actually want to publish and share it, does the user encounter a form — at which point they have already learned the service, it’s benefits, and it’s value. This is certainly a more engaging experience than being confronted with a form and a captcha before ever realizing the value of the web application. He ends this compelling chapter by providing some advise and best practices :

bq. When you’re exploring if gradual engagement might be right for your Web service, it’s important to consider how a series of interactions can explain how potential customers can use your service and why they should care. Gradual engagement isn’t well served by simply distributing each of your sign-up form input fields onto separate Web pages.

Wroblewski showed three excellent examples of web applications that seem to very successfully utilize this new strategy for engaging new users while avoiding or at least postponing the ubiquitous registration process. This is certainly welcome news. The key is to rethink how new users become engaged with your company. Does the conversation start with a form? Gradually introducing new customers to your service and it’s benefits – letting them actually use it and learn it first seems like a better way to start the conversation.

I wish this chapter had more to it, as it covers an exciting exploration of web application design innovation. Wroblewski wrote a very compelling article in UXmatters back in 2006 titled, “The Complexity of Simplicity,” which was a predecessor to this chapter of the book. After an extensive search online, this was about the only source I could find other than some blog posts referencing that article. One article on ReadWriteWeb, “Good UI Design: Make It Easy, Show Me You Care” did include two more examples – FuseCal, a calendar syncing online application, and Twiddla, an online whiteboarding service.

Another spot that could have used improvement were in the last chapter. Perhaps this was either my reading of it or the way it was presented. What’s Next, certainly made me feel that he would be exploring his vision of the future of form design, and forms in general — which he certainly does in the section on the disappearing form, and proceeds into a very brief discussion of game-like elicitation methods (GEMS). These are welcome additions, I wish that he had gone a bit deeper into this chapter, especially about GEMS. It’s a fascinating discussion point, and we will see more examples in the coming year.

I also wanted more resources and references to studies that a form designer, information architect or interaction designer could use to bolster their design decisions. Many good designers out there know how to design good forms. The hard part is the politics and the negotiation process with stakeholders — and numbers always help.

I am reminded of a conversation I had over lunch about a month ago here in D.C. The UX professional was giving a short presentation on form design to an in-house crowd and was trying to subtly indicate the value that often times less is more in form design. He wanted to show to stakeholders that the concept that adding one, two, or four more form fields in a registration process has a cost, even if the design and development cost is minimal. I suggested that a simple info graphic that showed how, as the number of form fields increased, user signups decreased. His immediate reaction was that some stakeholders would immediately want to see metrics to back up the assertion.

I am unaware of any numbers about fall-off rates, but from my professional experience tells me less is better than confronting a first-time potential user with a long form to complete. Perhaps it would be sufficient to include a “Further Reading” section divided up into sections like Academic Research, Field Studies, and Conference Papers. The book may not the best place to put something like this — I wonder if the online companion to this book has such a thing. Either way, it would be a valuable addition.


What is likely to win the most converts, though, is the joy Wroblewski takes in designing. This impression becomes clear as you page through the book. He isn’t just an ardent evangelizer, following the rituals of going to conferences selling snake oil. He’s been there in the trenches, just like you; he’s done this a hundred, maybe a thousand times. He’s tested these ideas and provides a framework for you to use from day one. Half the battle in good form design is defending your decisions to stakeholders. This is your air cover, so call it in!

You can get Web Form Design from Rosenfeld Media or Just keep in mind that, for the same price, Rosenfeld Media tosses in a nicely formatted digital version which you can use to quote from when you have to sell a good form design to a team that wants to bicker over form labels.

Don’t forget the discount for Boxes and Arrows readers: Get a 10% discount by purchasing the book directly from Rosenfeld Media. Just use the code WFDBA.

Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks
By Luke Wroblewski; foreword by JaredSpool.
RosenfeldMedia: May,2008.
Buy from: Rosenfeld | Amazon

MindCanvas Review

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MindCanvas describes itself as a remote research tool that uses Game-like Elicitation Methods (GEMs) to gather insights about customer’s thoughts and feelings. It was developed by Uzanto Consulting, a web product strategy firm. When I first learned about MindCanvas, I understood it to be an online card sorting tool. Happily, it’s much more than that.

As a veteran IA consultant, I have used MindCanvas a handful of times during the course of different projects. I have also conducted card sorting exercises without the tool. I am thrilled to have a useful—and user-friendly—tool at my disposal. One of my main reasons for selecting MindCanvas was the reputation of one of its creators, Rashmi Sinha. She is well known and respected, and I felt assured that any tool designed by a fellow IA for IAs couldn’t be all that bad. I was right.

MindCanvas provides open and closed card sorting capabilities, as well as a host of other UT tools: Divide-the-Dollar, Clicky, Sticky, Concept Test, and FreeList. Clicky and Sticky allow users to react to a wireframe or prototype by answering questions about images and content, or applying stickies (Post-it–like notes) with attributes to a visual image. FreeList and Divide-the-Dollar allow you to elicit product ideas and prioritize them by having participants list and rank the features they find most useful. All of these methods offer easy-to-use interfaces to help your research participants along.

Deciding which MindCanvas method to use is one of the more complicated parts of the tool. It’s card sorting methods are good for validating a site’s navigation or information hierarchy. You can also explore user needs and values and gather feedback on brand and positioning by using some of its more specialized UT methods. MindCanvas’ website and supporting help wiki provide information on selecting the appropriate testing method for your website or product.

Using MindCanvas

The basic process for using MindCanvas is as follows:

  1. After payment, sign an agreement to obtain a login and password.
  2. Decide which method (i.e. Sticky, FreeList, etc.) addresses your research needs.
  3. Create potential research questions and tasks based on the MindCanvas method you have selected.
    (I’ve used OpenSortand TreeSort).
  4. Upload questions to MindCanvas’ Workbench.
  5. Test the research study and make changes until you are satisfied with it.
  6. Send out the test site URL to your participants.
  7. Monitor the study (i.e. see how many people have completed all the tasks).
  8. When the study is concluded, send a report request to the MindCanvas team.
  9. Receive the reports in visual form and download raw data from the MindCanvas site.
  10. Embed reports into PowerPoint or Word document and review results with client.

I usually take several days to review the reports before showing them to my consulting clients. Doing so allows me to more easily explain the results. (Here’s a pointer to anyone using MindCanvas: To view the results properly make sure PowerPoint is in “Slideshow” mode).


MindCanvas has a couple shining strengths I’d like to illuminate:

  1. An engaging, easy-to-use interface for your customers or end users. It’s fairly self-explanatory and makes routine UT tasks fun.
  2. Stellar data visualization tools once your study is completed.

User Interface

MindCanvas’ interface is what sets it apart from other UT software I’ve seen. Its creators took their inspiration from the world of digital gaming to develop an interface that’s engaging for the person using it, while gathering important data for researchers. Its card sorting methods employ a floating hand to deal cards, which are then sorted by users. Another method gives users virtual gold coins to vote for their favorite product features. These exercises are enhanced by accompanying sound effects. I’ve received numerous comments from users describing MindCanvas’ exercises as “fun”. They have also commented that while they don’t understand how these exercises will help me build a better website or software interface, they still enjoyed the tasks and were pleased at the conclusion of the test.

The other online research tools I’ve reviewed offer more awkward interfaces. Sorting exercises take multiple steps or the online tasks are not intuitive and confuse research participants. I’m not interested in making my users become experts at online card sorting or other UT methods. I simply want to extract what they know or understand about a particular website or service.

According to Jess McMullin of nForm User Experience Consulting, “MindCanvas is unmatched as a remote research tool in its ability to provide creative methods for gathering data [and] engaging participants…..”

Data Visualization

Another MindCanvas strength is its data output. Although you can obtain the raw data and analyze it yourself (assuming you have statistical software and know how to use it), the real benefit of MindCanvas is its easy-to-understand data visualizations, which showcase the results of your study. All my clients have received clear, easy-to-interpret answers to their research questions. The visualizations can be embedded into a PowerPoint slide or Word document, making them easily accessible. Your clients don’t have to rely on your interpretation of the data; they can interpret the data themselves if they choose. Every client who has viewed MindCanvas’ data visualizations has been impressed and wondered why it wasn’t used all along.


I’ve used MindCanvas a handful of times and encountered some weaknesses:

  • Study Size: If you have a large client with complex, statistically rigorous research needs, MindCanvas is not for you. It has a limit of 200 users per study. Two hundred is plenty for most of my research needs, but some of my clients want to go beyond that.

  • Data Sorting: If you have complex user segmentation needs, MindCanvas has its limitations. It allows you to perform a single data sort to identify user sub-groups. For example, it’s easy to segment all male vs. female participants or all participants who are 21- to 50-years-old. If you need to segment 16- to 20-year-old females or men who only shop online (or any two parameters of your choice), you’ll need a different tool. There are ways around these limitations: You can create two separate research studies to deal with different users, or you can build more complex research questions to solicit the answers you need in order to sort the data required. However, these solutions have limitations of their own, so there is a trade-off.

  • Pricing Structure: The current pricing structure is $499 per study, with each accompanying report $99. This is adequate for quick-and-dirty research to resolve obvious user issues, but the pricing structure doesn’t scale well. For example, if you run a single study and want multiple reports for different audience segments, each $99 report adds up quickly. It can be difficult to budget up front before the research study is even developed, leaving the door open for cost increases. If a simple card sorting tool is all that you need, check out WebSort, which costs $499 for three months of unlimited use and automatically generates a dendogram. (Please note that MindCanvas offers much more than card sorting).

  • Data Analysis Bottleneck: Some of the back-end data analysis is done by a human, who works on a schedule. All data reports are generated once a week. If you get your report order request to Uzanto by the Tuesday deadline, results will be available by Thursday. This might not work with your tight project schedule, in which case, you’re out of luck.

MindCanvas’s Workbench

MindCanvas is currently offered in self-service mode. This means that you (or your researcher) need to become familiar with the finer points of MindCanvas’ Workbench for constructing studies. The upside is that some parts are made easy, like being able to “copy” another study in order to create your own (a handy feature), or creating as many preliminary studies as you like before distributing the real thing.

Mindcanvas Workbench
Figure 1: Manage Activity

The downside is that some interface elements in the study creation console are a bit mysterious. For example, under Manage Study, it’s unclear if the data has been downloaded 164 times or if there are 164 participants who have completed the study. The difference between Manage Study and Track Activity is also hazy. Manage Study allows you to specify where to send users after they have completed the study and limit the number of participants or the length of the study, while Track Activity informs you how many people have completed the study. The Download Tracking CSV gives you access to a text file with a list of all participant’s URL information and their start and stop times.

Mindcanvas Workbench
Figure 2: Track Activity

The Workbench allows access to MindCanvas’ powerful study creation module, but you can tell most of the design effort went into the end user’s interface, not the study designer’s. Luckily, there is a wiki available which answers a lot of questions and Uzanto consultants are very friendly and helpful with the occasional question.


The IA community can finally say that we have a tool designed for us. For so long, we’ve had to take existing tools and try to use them in ways not intended by their designers, sometime with frustrating results and having to develop clever and complicated workarounds. These issues are no longer a problem. It’s a tool for us, made by one of us. It’s about time!

Minding Your Ps And Qs

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The great Motown songwriting duo Ashford & Simpson have said that in all their years penning tunes for the likes of Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye they learned one skill above all: sensitivity.

The 200-plus pages of email etiquette in Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home can be summed up similarly. Be sensitive. Consider that every choice made while crafting an email is an exercise in decision-making, tact, and manners. And the stakes are high: with the click of a mouse the whole world can know just how poorly you’ve behaved. We all remember ex-FEMA head Michael Brown emailing his staff, as hurricane Katrina slammed New Orleans, “Can I go home now?”

If you’re like me, the thought of reading an entire book about email may sound tedious, and much of Send is indeed a bit of a yawner. (See, for example, the lengthy discussion on when to sign your message “sincerely” versus “best”). Digital design professionals will also be dismayed that there’s little mention of making email messages easier to retrieve through a search utility, nothing on the increasing use of email accounts as record-keeping systems, and zilch on the arms race between Gmail, Y! Mail, Outlook, and other mail programs.

What Send does best is provide a cautionary guide to communicating better, detailing the countless ways to screw up your messages or publicly embarrass yourself. Take, for example, the software executive who humiliates his secretary over email only to find his message forwarded, with commentary, to the entire company. (He later stepped down). Or, consider the op-ed writer emailing the New York Times editorial page with a request to publish a very “contemporaneous” piece. (What he really meant was “timely”). Much of it is obvious—turn on your spell-checker—but for those of us who often cringe with regret upon reading our own already sent messages, some of their arguments are worth examining.

For example, consider the recipient list. This is an area where many of us operate on instinct. But Send argues extreme caution. Recipients, for one, should appear in order of seniority. This may strike you, the sender, as prissy, but someone who’s worked their way into a position of responsibility may think otherwise.

Another good point: Before you pile on too many names in the “To:” line, keep in mind the rule of diminishing returns: the more people you send a request to, the less likely anyone is to respond. Send also gives a funny yet telling example of the power of Cc:

To: Saddam Hussein
From: George Bush
Please let in the weapons inspectors.

To: Saddam Hussein
From: George Bush
Cc: United Nations Secretary General, NATO, European Union, Joint Chiefs of Staff
Please let in the weapons inspectors.

Send argues that if you can’t formulate a simple, coherent subject line there’s probably something wrong with your message. Their recommendations should sound familiar to readers of Jacob Nielson, who in 1998 threw down the wonk gauntlet and categorized email subject lines as “Microcontent.” In Send, the authors describe email as “ruthlessly democratic”: there’s no more level a playing field than the inbox, where all messages are relegated to 100 or so characters in which they can plead their case to be read.

The golden rules of subject lines include not using the “hot pepper” icon (if everything is urgent then nothing is urgent) or all caps. From there, the laws of user experience begin to kick in and crafting the perfect subject line becomes a design exercise: bring your most important words to the front to improve scanning. Be specific. Consider the context.

The same rules of “content strategy” that many of us dutifully apply to web page and application design can be put to use in the email message body. Indeed, many of our messages are read in a web browser. Here again, Send’s rules of thumb dovetail nicely with what we already know about web page usability:

  • Important information should be offset on its own line and , if possible, brought to the front
  • Jargon is to be avoided; likewise to using big words when small ones will do
  • Be sensitive to the way content is distributed (e.g., it’s tough to read a PDF attachment on a BlackBerry)

Email’s power is that it’s easy to send and can be distributed widely and instantaneously. As such, its natural state tends towards informality, and we tend to work with it quickly and at times thoughtlessly. Authors David Shipley, an editor at the New York Times, and Will Schwalbe, editor in chief of Hyperion Books, argue that there’s a lot to be said for treating this mode of communication with a bit more care and sensitivity. As professionals in the realm of digital communications, we’d be wise to heed their advice.


From the introduction: "Why Do We Email So Badly"
The 8 deadly sins of email:

  1. The email that’s unbelievably vague. ("Remember to do that thing.")
  2. The email that insults you so badly you have to get up from your desk. ("HOW CAN YOU NOT HAVE DONE THAT THING!!!")
  3. The email that puts you in jail. ("Please tell them that I asked you to sell that thing when it hit $70.")
  4. The email that’s cowardly. ("Here’s the thing: you’re being let go.")
  5. The email that won’t go away. ("Re; Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: that thing.")
  6. The email that’s so sarcastic you have to get up from your desk. ("Smooth move on that thing. Really smooth.")
  7. The email that’s too casual. ("Hiya! Any word on that admissions thing?")
  8. The email that’s inappropriate. ("Want to come to my hotel room to discuss that thing?")

Excerpted from Chapter 3: How to Write (the Perfect)

Email The fact that email is a searchable, storable medium means that you have to compose your message with special care. And the fact that you are writing—constructing sentences, choosing words, making grammatical decisions, adding punctuation—with previously unimaginable swiftness makes the situation all the more vexed, as does the delusion that email, because it’s electronic, is somehow more ephemeral than, say, a letter.

Also, because it’s often acceptable to be lax about the rules of grammar on email, there’s the misconception that it’s always acceptable to be lax about them. That’s not the case. We aren’t gong to offer a guide to style and usage here—lots of books have done that already and done it well. What we are going to do, though, is outline the implications of taking risks with your English in emails and review the stylistic traps that are peculiar to the medium.

In Japanese, the status of the person you are addressing governs the words you use. A sentence directed toward a peer, for instance, requires different word forms from one directed to someone higher or lower than you on the social ladder. (You use one word form when speaking to your boss, another to a colleague, yet another to a child.) Learning Japanese, then, requires learning multiple ways of saying the same thing. The need to remember which kind of word form to use is one of the elements that makes it hard for native English speakers to master Japanese.

What many people don’t consider, however, is that in this respect English is arguably more complicated than Japanese—precisely because English doesn’t offer the convenience of different words to signal that you know the nature of your social relationship to the person with whom you are speaking. In lieu of specific words to show deference—or familiarity—English relies heavily on the delicate manipulation of tone.

More than anything else, vocabulary conveys tone and reveals you as boss or subordinate, buyer or seller, seeker or sage. The words you choose can be formal, casual, or somewhere in between; they can be literal or figurative; they can be precise or vague; understated, correct, or exaggerated; simple or complex; common or rare; prosaic or poetic; contracted or not.

Certainly, some words are inherently safer than others, but if you never venture beyond them you become yet another unmemorable correspondent, ceding the chance to make an impression in your email. Think of your own inbox. When wading through an ocean of email, don’t you yearn for one to jump out? After a hundred people email you that they “look forward to meeting you” so that they can share their “qualifications” or “describe the benefits of their product” or present you with a “business opportunity,” you crave something by someone who took the time to choose words with personality, rather than simply cribbing phrases from the modern business lexicon. The trick is to be vivid and specific—even, perhaps, revealing—without forgetting your original relationship with the person to whom you’re writing.

On the most elemental level, the deal is this. Before you set finger to the keyboard, ask yourself one question (and don’t write until you get the answer): What is my relationship to the person I’m writing? Then, make sure your word choice is appropriate.


About the Book
Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home
David Shipley and Will Schwalbe
2007; Knopf ISBN-10: 0307263649


  • Introduction: Why Do We Email So Badly
  • Chapter 1: When Should We Email?
  • Chapter 2: The Anatomy of an Email
  • Chapter 3: How to Write (the Perfect) Email
  • Chapter 4: The Six Essential Types of Email
  • Chapter 5: The Emotional Email
  • Chapter 6: The Email That Can Land You in Jail
  • Chapter 7: S.E.N.D.

The Hidden History of Information Management

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The fictional heavy-metal band Spinal Tap immortalized the “fine line between clever and stupid.” It’s a similar situation with information access: there’s a fine line between rich and broke. Put another way (by the late cognitive psychologist Hebert Simon): “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Today the poverty of attention seems especially pressing. Technology makes it easier and cheaper to store information of all kinds, far outpacing our ability to convert that information into meaning and knowledge. On the plus side for B&A readers, this situation seems likely to keep information architects gainfully employed for some time to come.

But on a broader cultural and historical level, what strategies has society employed to collect, manage, and store information, even with the constant threat of oversupply, and still make this information accessible and meaningful to people over time?

An answer to that question—in fact, many answers—can be found in Glut: Mastering Information Through The Ages, a sweeping new book from Alex Wright about the history of the information and information management systems across disciplines, time, and even across species (bees, ants, primates, eukaryotes.)

Wright, a librarian turned writer and information architect, is no stranger to the Boxes and Arrows community, and in fact, he draws on material from two B&A articles (on IA and sociobiology, another on Belgian bibliographer Paul Otlet) in his new book, now set in a broader narrative. Glut is an informative, ambitious, and at times frustrating work, as Wright juggles three different roles in shepherding his material: tour guide, curator, and essayist.

Wright The Tour Guide

As a tour guide, Wright is a patient, well-informed, and focused narrator, exploring the roots of information systems including writing, classification schemes, books, and libraries. In this mode, his sweeping connection-making is somewhat akin to the work of science historian and BBC documentarian James Burke (a fan of Glut) in its quest for hidden connections between seemingly disparate subjects and causes.

Wright informs us at the outset that he will avoid the lure of utopian techno-futurism and excavate the story of the information age by looking “squarely backward.” Just how far backward? Two billion years ago for the information architecture practices of multi-cell organisms, and for Homo sapiens, try the Ice Age (about 45,000 years ago.) That, Wright tells us, is when our cave-dwelling ancestors started banding together for survival in the face of tougher hunting conditions.

While today we think the biggest challenge of glut is the ensuing time and attention management crunch, Glut reminds us that information acquisition did not come easy in the early days of empire building. A central challenge for many cultures was the amassing of material for that key information storehouse—the library—and trying to protect these centralized physical and intellectual assets from violent destruction:

“From ancient Sumer to India to China to the Aztec kingdom, the same pattern manifested again and again: first came literacy, then the nation-state, the empire, and ultimately the intellectual apotheosis of the empire, the library. When empires fall, they usually take their libraries with them.”

Among some of the other intriguing stops and observations along Wright’s tour:

  • Beads and pendants served as a very early symbolic communication for Ice Age Homo sapiens, allowing people to create bonds and achieve more complex social connections.
  • “Meta” text of a sort dates as far back as 2300 BC; archeologists have found 2000 tablets including lists of animals and locations as well as listing other tablets.
  • Google’s controversial book-scanning effort seems not far afield from the acquisition policy described by Wright for the Alexandrian library: “The Alexandrian rules built the great library not just as an act of imperial generosity but also through fiat, confiscation, and occasionally, subterfuge.

Wright The Curator

Part of Glut feels like an information management museum in book form, and Wright evinces a strong curatorial preference for the quixotic. There’s a sense that he hopes to shift our cultural focus from history’s hit makers to a number of lesser known but meritorious information management ideas from the past that deserve further airtime today.

For example, when Wright works his way up to recent computer history, he avoids focusing on the already well-told and well-documented human-computer interaction story of ARC, PARC, and Apple. Instead, he favors lesser-known milestones in the history of hypertext, with a fresh look at Ted Nelson and several groundbreaking experiments at Brown University (Wright’s undergraduate alma matter).

The Brown University story culminates in a project called Intermedia, which included many features that Wright finds lacking in today’s Web framework, including bi-directional linking (both pointers and targets “know” of the link), and real-time dynamic editing and updating. The project vanished for lack of federal funding in 1994, just before the World Wide Web stepped onto the global stage.

But central exhibit in this wing is Otlet, the 19th century Belgian bibliographer whom Wright dubs as the Internet’s forgotten forefather. Otlet is best known as the developer of the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC), a flexible and faceted library classification system in widespread use today worldwide across 23 languages.

Glut focuses on Otlet’s vision for something remarkably similar to today’s World Wide Web, and his efforts to realize it with a kind of manual database comprised of 12 million facts kept on index cards in an office he called the Mundaneum to which readers could submit queries for a small fee.

Otlet hoped that ultimately anyone would be able to access all human knowledge across forms—books, records films, radio, television—remotely from their own homes on multi-windowed screens, and even went so far as to the words “Web” and “links.”

Due to financial constraints and dwindling government support, Otlet found his Mundaneum squeezed into progressively smaller accommodations including a parking lot until he finally shuttered the project in 1934; a few years later, Nazi troops carted it away.

Wright argues that in some ways, Otlet’s ideas not only foretold but also surpassed the current Web: “Distinguishing Otlet’s vision… is the conviction—long since fallen out of favor—in the possibility of a universal subject classification working in concert with the mutable social forces of scholarship.”

Wright The Essayist

One of Wright’s central themes is the pas-de-deux between networks and hierarchies, and the need to balance Web 2.0’s bottom-up, technology-enabled crowd wisdom with a classic sense of the individual expertise, scholarship, and merit guided by human hand.

Decrying what he describes as the utopian view that “hierarchical systems are restrictive, oppressive vehicles of control, while networks are open democratic vehicles of personal liberation,” Wright pursues a throughline across time in which networks and hierarchies are seen not only as competitive but also as potentially complimentary and reinforcing—even essential to one another:

“Networked systems are not entirely modern phenomena, nor are hierarchal systems necessarily doomed. There is a deeper story at work here. The fundamental tension between networks and hierarchies has percolated for eons. Today we are simply witnessing the latest installment in a long evolutionary drama.”


Wright the essayist is an elusive fellow: he combines humanism and pragmatism, and eschews the received techno-hype that is coming back into vogue in the Web 2.0 era. Yet he does not seem prepared to grab the bullhorn from Wright the historian or Wright the curator. Among the arguments Wright puts forward, as best as I can tease out:

  • Google’s page-rank algorithm risks reducing the presentation of information to a popularity contest; previous models throughout information management show the possibility of a more balanced and durable approach between classification by human hands (top down) and social meaning (bottom up).
  • Today’s Web links are inferior to the bi-directional hypertext linking explored in projects at Brown and envisioned by Ted Nelson and others, in which one linked resource would “know” about other links to it. The current state of hypertext doesn’t realize its full promise of helping to navigate information overload in a way that might better help advance human knowledge.
  • Aspects of the Web’s infrastructure (other than nascent Web 2.0 tools) favor one-way consumption rather than two-way discourse, and there’s an ongoing risk of excessive control by corporate interests and unseen technology gatekeepers.

On the book’s very last page, Wright touches on Wikipedia as a modern-day meeting ground for the pull and tug between networks and hierarchies, and notes Wikipedia’s creation of a new hierarchal review process to bolster its credibility. Coming so late and remaining so brief, the discussion seems an afterthought rather than what could have been a convergence of the book’s themes.

Information architects—and anyone curious about the roots of information management—will find much of interest in Glut’s thought-provoking tale. Given the stimulating and contrarian nature of Glut’s ideas, one only wishes Wright would occasionally return from the corridors of the time tunnel and bring his well-informed perspective back to our present age.


To get deeper into the book, “read the excerpt”:



About the Book

“Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages”:
Alex Wright
2007; Joseph Henry Press
ISBN-10: 0309102383