Saturday, March 20, 2010

Crystal Mapping: Clear Thinking

A few months ago I came across Crystal Mapping a new visual mapping cloud app. developed in the UK. I was intrigued by their approach which uses radiating circles rather than nodes and lines to represent association and relationships so I had and a chat with the brain behind the product; Mark Wogan.

Mark started his career with Ford Motor Co in Sales & Marketing. He then moved on to co found the TUP Group, a successful MIS company. In 2003 Crystal Mapping Ltd was founded, and crystal mapping was released as a new way of visually presenting and communicating information.

Mark wrote a very informative book titled “Crystal Mapping: The Bigger Picture”, which was published during 2007.

As CEO of Crystal Mapping and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts; Mark spends his time committed to finding new ways of combining words, pictures and numbers to present information and knowledge.

Improving understanding and changing the way organizations think and communicate is his mission. Mark and his colleagues also offer a business management consulting service through The Visual Perspective at

While talking with Mark it became clear the circular Crystal Map approach had real merit. This product adds to our expanding world of visual mapping tools in a very unique format. So here’s a brief synopsis of the idea with a few questions answered by Mark.

Brief description of Crystal Mapping:

The best way to describe it is to show it so here is a screen shot of a basic map:

The first thing you’ll notice is the point I make about it using circles to organize discrete bits of information into a unified whole rather than the traditional ‘root and branch’ style of mind mapping approaches.

The thing that strikes me right away is the sense of unity you get from such a clean view of the information. It really does start to give the viewer a feeling of gestalt and that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts! Of course you’re not limited to three levels of details as to delve deeper into the map, click on any segment and it takes you to another level of iterated detail. A visual audit device on the left side of the screen leaves a ‘breadcrumb’ trail to always make it clear where you are in the map.

From a utility point of view, as you’d expect you can attach/embed hard disk files, URL links, images and copious notes to the segments to enable the viewer to access more detail about any particular segment but – as Mark say’s, you never lose sight of the bigger picture so whatever content you look at its always in context, helping viewers to form a real understanding of whatever is being presented in the map.

Q & A:
Mark, tell us how you came up with the idea of Crystal Mapping and why.

Well it was really a case of necessity being the mother of invention. In a previous business I needed a way of presenting company objectives to everyone in a way that was inclusive across functions and geography and that represented the unity of the business. It was that word ‘unity’ which got me drawing circles as they just seemed like the logical way for me to represent that we are all part of the same team, and everything else stemmed from there. However I didn’t start the business which eventually became Crystal Mapping till a few years later.

Why didn’t you use a more traditional mind mapping approach to organise your thoughts and represent your ideas for the business.

To be honest the ‘node and line’ approach didn’t really seem to me to convey the ‘unified – one team’ relationship I was trying to represent. Mind maps are great in some contexts but you do get the feeling that right now they are pretty much used in a blunt manner for everything – a bit like a guy with a hammer seeing everything as a nail! I think you’ve made the point yourself Wallace that not everything as a visual mapping solution has to be a mind map – it’s time we had more variety to meet the different demands of the visual mapping world.

So what’s the benefit of crystal mapping over mind mapping and why would business use a crystal map rather than a mind map.

In my mind the bigger question is getting business users to appreciate the generic benefits of visual mapping in the first place. As you’ve mentioned before we are still a long way off mainstream acceptance! So assuming we have a receptive audience who are turned onto visual information management, we have to provide them with the right solutions to their needs. My view is that there are certainly many ways to ‘skin a cat’ (such a quaint phrase) but it definitely doesn’t always have to start with mind mapping. For example if you want to communicate your company / team objectives; using a crystal map gives you a much more one company – one team feel as everything is joined to the core of the business so employees see themselves as part of the bigger picture.

In education my research and feedback from schools is that crystal maps offer a great alternative to mind maps as they are much more ordered and structured and thereby allow students to recall the content more easily.

Crystal Mapping is a cloud app – do you think mainstream business users are going to embrace cloud technology?

I know there is a fair amount of debate about whether business is ready and willing to embrace ‘the cloud’ due to data security issues of their information being ‘off site’ but I believe this is more apparent than real. Just as we as individuals initially reacted very cautiously to internet banking but now think it a necessity, so will business start to adopt and benefit from the utility and cost advantages of cloud technology. Personally I would be far more worried if I were running a desktop/server only software business.

Why do you believe users will purchase and subscribe to Crystal Mapping?

Because its good value for money as cloud apps are, it’s easy to use and it ‘does what it says on the tin’ i.e. it helps you clarify your thoughts and ideas and makes them clear to others – crystal clear if you like! More than that little pitch response – CM is great for collaboration (a real benefit of cloud apps.) and the fact that we have a desktop version which synchronizes with the web app. Being server based means; if our business users want to ‘play safe’ – they can, and we don’t need to store their ‘sensitive’ files outside of their own internal server comfort zone.

On top of this we have some features that make CM unique. For example we have built in an auto-generation feature which creates a map from one word for education and business research. So if you wanted to build a map of RFID in the retail industry let’s say – you type in ‘RFID Retail’ and the app builds the first level of the map. You can then edit as you like and continue asking the system to auto generate your map content – not just the segments but the Notes content as well.

We also have a search feature that helps users build maps by automatically creating search strings in Google, Bing, Flickr, You Tube and Wikipedia. This not only helps you find the content to help build you map but lets others continue the search for more detailed or specific information as they might require.

Another important capability of CM is the data load of any given map stored in the cloud. We currently allocate 1GB of data storage for subscribing cloud user; this will indeed increase when we have a more defined user base. We have everything in place to increase the data load capability significantly according to demand, and we shall offer specific data storage levels priced for corporate users.

What is your approach to The Voice of the Customer?

At Crystal Mapping, we firmly believe the user base defines the future direction of this product. With this in mind, we proactively measure the needs and wants of our users. We also believe communication is a key factor in the continuous improvement process.

What’s your pricing strategy?

Pricing is per account and at the time of this interview is offered at £29.99 (around $45/€33 at current exchange rates). We offer site/group and volume discounts and education discounts.

Visit for more details

Wallace Tait


Greg Liberto said...

great article Wallace, you are truly the source for cutting edge visual information management

Blusky said...

Nice application Mark ... thanks for bringing it to our notice Wallace.

However, the issue of real interest to me at moment is the viability of the Cloud in general. Six months ago, I was not impressed and had concerns over the security of the data entrusted to the cloud. Now I think my resistance, and I admit this with some shame as I consider myself something of a “futurist”, was mainly due to the challenges caused by the dramatic change in thinking needed to embrace the Cloud concept. I have reversed my opinion to the extent that our primary product (Mindsystems Amode V2) will certainly be moving in that direction over the next twelve months.

In reality, there are two major forms of data security in this context:

1.Ensuring access to data residing in the Cloud is restricted to those authorised
2.The quality and integrity of data backup couple the disaster recovery capability of the system.
While access is easily managed, backup is not so easy. The fact is that many organisation and even more so individuals approach disaster recovery in a somewhat cavalier manner. Considerations such as:

•Frequency of backup
•The ability to do “bare metal” recovery including recovery to different hardware
•Location of backed-up material
•Time to recovery.
For many individuals and small businesses in particular the answers to those questions is not optimistic. However a Cloud environment hosted by a professional group will overcome these issues.

An increasingly important aspect of this debate is three-fold and focuses on the ability to operate securely away from the home base. Recently, for example, a senior Australian Naval Officer left a classified CD in the Qantas flight lounge. This would not have been possible if the Officer concerned had been using a Cloud environment. Therefore, the mobile advantages are:

1.Data security (in storage and on laptop)
2.Access to all data instantly almost regardless of location
3.Access to the updated information in the home base immediately it has been created.
As I said earlier, I have changed my mind … how about you?