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:

  • An engaging, easy-to-use interface for your customers or end users. It’s fairly self-explanatory and makes routine UT tasks fun.
  • 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”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/the-encyclopedic.



About the Book

“Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages”:http://www.amazon.com/Glut-Mastering-Information-Through-Ages/dp/0309102383/boxesandarrows-20
Alex Wright
2007; Joseph Henry Press
ISBN-10: 0309102383

The Encyclopedic Revolution

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This excerpt adapted from Chapter 9, “The Encyclopedic Revolution.”

Despite the proliferation of books in the years after Gutenberg, three hundred years later books still remained prohibitively expensive for most Europeans. By the mid-eighteenth century, a typical educated household might own at most a single book (often a popular devotional text like the Book of Hours). Only scholars, clergymen and wealthy merchants could afford to own more than a few volumes. There was no such thing as a public library. Still, writers were producing new books in ever-growing numbers, and readers found it increasingly challenging – and often financially implausible – to stay abreast of new scholarship.

At the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, a handful of philosophers, inspired by Francis Bacon’s quest for a unifying framework of human knowledge[1], started to envision a new kind of book that would synthesize the world’s (or at least Europe’s) intellectual output into a single, accessible work: the encyclopedia. Although encyclopedias had been around in one form or another since antiquity (originating independently in both ancient Greece and China), it was only in the eighteenth century that the general-purpose encyclopedia began to assume its modern form. In 1728, Ephraim Chambers published his Cyclopedia, a compendium of information about the arts and sciences that gained an enthusiastic following among the English literati. The book eventually caught the eye of a Parisian bookseller named André Le Breton, who decided to underwrite a French translation.


Enter Denis Diderot. A prominent but financially struggling writer and philosopher, Diderot occasionally supplemented his income by translating English works into French. When Breton approached him about the Cyclopedia, he readily accepted the commission. Soon after embarking on the translation, however, he found himself entranced by the project. He soon persuaded Breton to support him in creating more than a simple translation. He wanted to turn the work into something bigger. Much bigger. He wanted to create a “universal” encyclopedia.

Adopting Bacon’s classification as his intellectual foundation, Diderot began the monumental undertaking that would eventually become the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers (“Encyclopedia or Dictionary of the Sciences, the Arts, and the Professions”), published in a succession of volumes from 1751 to 1772. A massive collection of 72,000 articles written by 160 eminent contributors (including notables like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Buffon), Diderot turned the encyclopedia into a compendium of knowledge vaster than anything that had ever been published before.

Diderot did more than just survey the universe of printed books. He took the unprecedented step of expanding the work to include “folk” knowledge gathered from (mostly illiterate) tradespeople. The encyclopedia devoted an enormous portion of its pages to operational knowledge about everyday topics like cloth dying, metalwork, and glassware, with entries accompanied by detailed illustrations explaining the intricacies of the trades. Traditionally, this kind of knowledge had passed through word of mouth from master to apprentice among the well-established trade guilds. Since most of the practitioners remained illiterate, almost none of what they knew had ever been written down – and even if it had, it would have held little interest for the powdered-wig habitués of Parisian literary salons. Diderot’s encyclopedia elevated this kind of craft knowledge, giving it equal billing with the traditional domains of literate scholarship.

Figurative System of Human Knowledge

While publishing this kind of “how-to” information may strike most of us today as an unremarkable act, in eighteenth-century France the decision marked a blunt political statement. By granting craft knowledge a status equivalent to the aristocratic concerns of statecraft, scholarship, and religion – Diderot effectively challenged the legitimacy of the aristocracy. It was an epistemological coup d’ étate.

Diderot’s editorial populism also found expression in passages like this one: “The good of the people must be the great purpose of government. By the laws of nature and of reason, the governors are invested with power to that end. And the greatest good of the people is liberty.” To the royal and papal authorities of eighteenth century France, these were not particularly welcome sentiments. Pope Clement XIII castigated Diderot and his work (in part because Diderot had chosen to classify religion as a branch of philosophy). King George III of England and Louis XV of France also condemned it. His publisher was briefly jailed. In 1759 the French government ordered Diderot to cease publication, seizing 6,000 volumes, which they deposited (appropriately enough) inside the Bastille. But it was too late.

By the time the authorities came after Diderot’s work, the encyclopedia had already found an enthusiastic audience. By 1757 it had attracted 4000 dedicated subscribers (no small feat in pre-industrial France). Despite the official ban, Diderot and his colleagues continued to write and publish the encyclopedia in secret, and the book began to circulate widely among an increasingly restive French populace.


Diderot died 10 years before the revolution of 1789, but his credentials as an Enlightenment encyclopedist would serve his family well in the bloody aftermath. When his son-in-law was imprisoned during the revolution and branded an aristocrat, Diderot’s daughter pleaded with the revolutionary committee, citing her father’s populist literary pedigree. On learning of the prisoner’s connection to the great encyclopedist, the committee immediately set him free.

What can we learn from Diderot’s legacy today? His encyclopedia provides an object lesson in the power of new forms of information technology to disrupt established institutional hierarchies. In synthesizing information that had previously been dispersed in local oral traditions and trade networks, Diderot created a radically new model for gathering and distributing information that challenged old aristocratic assumptions about the boundaries of scholarship – and in so doing, helped pave the way for a revolution.

Today, we are witnessing the reemergence of the encyclopedia as a force for radical epistemology. In recent years, Wikipedia’s swift rise to cultural prominence seems to echo Diderot’s centuries-old encyclopedic revolution. With more than three million entries in more than 100 languages, Wikipedia already ranks as by far the largest (and most popular) encyclopedia ever created. And once again, questions of authority and control are swirling. Critics argue that Wikipedia’s lack of quality controls leaves it vulnerable to bias and manipulation, while its defenders insist that openness and transparency ensure fairness and ultimately will allow the system to regulate itself. Just as in Diderot’s time, a deeper tension seems to be emerging between the forces of top-down authority (manifesting as journalists, publishers and academic scholars) and the bottom-up, quasi-anarchist ethos of the Web. And while no one has yet tried to lock Wikipedia up in the Bastille, literary worthies and assorted op-ed writers have condemned the work in sometimes vicious terms, while the prophets of techno-populism celebrate its arrival with an enthusiasm often bordering on zealotry. Once again, the encyclopedia may prove the most revolutionary “book” of all.

About the Book

“Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages”:http://www.amazon.com/Glut-Mastering-Information-Through-Ages/dp/0309102383/boxesandarrows-20
Alex Wright
2007; Joseph Henry Press
ISBN-10: 0309102383


fn1. cf. Bacon’s Novum Organum of 1620

Success Stories

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Success is a difficult thing. What exactly does it mean? Rising to the top, or getting what you want? Having respect for your achievements? Whatever it means, it’s a regular expression in The Netherlands. You know, that funny place sometimes referred to as Holland, where, as they say goodbye, they wave and say, ‘Success!’ Now, I’ve seen it happen occasionally in other places, but never with the same degree of bitter humor or comical irony. Whatever it actually means, the Dutch seem to suggest, ‘Success… it’s a new thing.’

The Dutch are, historically, very good designers, seeing design as a facet of their culture. Like architecture, design is a public necessity and a purveyor of improvement (or ironic comments on improvement). So, when something becomes improved, like the design of an interface, it is a success, but it’s still only a stepping stone to the next improvement. This idea hints at the problem with success stories. They capture the moment very well, but lead to the feeling that you have reached the end of the improvement, when quite regularly it is the opposite–you have simply just stepped a little farther towards a relatively unknown goal.

Designing Interactions by Bill Moggridge[1] does an excellent job of revealing the people and the work behind many of the most important interactive products of our time and discussing their impact on the field of interaction design. Continue reading Success Stories