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Indi Young on Time to Listen

“Let’s turn our back on the solution for a little bit and instead face the human”

Indi Young is a researcher who coaches, writes, and teaches about inclusive product strategy. She was one of the founders of the pioneering UX agency Adaptive Path. Indi wrote two influential books: Mental Models and Practical Empathy. Now she has a new book, called Time to Listen, which is the focus of our conversation today.

Show notes

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Transcript

Jorge: Indi, welcome to the show.

Indi: Thank you so much, Jorge.

Jorge: I have known about your work for a long time and I’ve been influenced by your book, Mental Models. I have not yet read Practical Empathy; I must say upfront. But, yeah, I’m a fan, though I haven’t read it. So, I’m very excited to have you here. But some folks who are listening in might not know of your work, so would you mind please introducing yourself?

About Indi

Indi: Sure. I just have to tell you that Practical Empathy was the iteration of Mental Models. About three months after I published Mental Models, I realized I shouldn’t have used the word “task” because it is overloaded with meaning. And what I’m working on right now is a systemic structure for us to use to build more inclusive products. And by inclusive, I mean build more products that create support for different thinking styles instead of trying to create one product that sort of goes for an “average user” under the large part of the curve in the marketing documentation. I think that the average user is a complete myth. I think most people would agree with me.

And what I do is I help you discover who people really are and build knowledge that actually will help the organization make not only structural changes, but also changes to their strategy, open up new opportunities, and generally make the entire organization more sustainable because we’re not just chasing the competition anymore. We’re not trying to maintain a status quo for a “mythical average user.”

So, many times I’m using applications from some of these really large companies, and it’s a basic foundational word processor or something, and they haven’t changed it, and they put it on the cloud, and it’s like a horrible version. It works differently than… The interactions are different, so you have to reteach yourself different interactions between using it on the cloud versus using it on your computer. And I’m like, “well, why, why is that a problem? Why is this happening? Got to fix that.”

But we’ve got to fix it for bigger situations as well because we’ve done a lot of harm. We haven’t intended to do harm, no one intended to do harm, except the people who are really only trying to make money. (Mark Zuckerberg, ahem.) We need to understand how we knew that harm. We need to understand how not to make it anymore. And I have a way for us to explore what our assumptions are. I have a way for us to understand other people as other people, with their own thinking, move their own perspective, and be able to look at that without curating it into our own way of thinking.

Jorge: In the way of this introduction, I was revisiting your work, both books. And I already admitted that I have not read Practical Empathy, but I’ve browsed through it just to get a sense of what that’s about. And I sense a pattern in both of those, which is the notion that we can design experiences through the lens of what might be thought of as business decisions. Maybe we’ve developed an innovative new service or what have you, and we analyze the competition and we, we take this kind of very… let’s call it “analytical” take on what we’re trying to do. And that’s one approach.

And then there’s another approach that has to do with understanding the needs and expectations of the human beings who are going to be using these things, almost like understanding their interior world. And in the case of Mental Models, it’s almost like trying to unpack how people understand the subject domain that they’re interacting with, which your product is going to be a part of. And those two things don’t seem to be necessarily mutually exclusive, but they often are. And I think that, at least in those two books, it feels like the pattern is trying to better grok how people think of whatever the subject domain is. Is that a fair read on that?

Framing

Indi: This is a fair read. Plus, it is also very much based on framing it without a very specific, well-thought-out frame. And that frame is derived from knowledge that the organization needs. We’re still going to come up with anecdotal data. We’re dealing with qualitative data here; most organizations, the leadership product owners, they don’t trust qualitative mostly because they’ve run across a really a boatload of bad qualitative data that’s full of people’s biases without knowing it. It’s also not based on patterns.

To have valid qualitative data, you have to have patterns come out of the other end of it, where it’s not empirical, where it’s just subjective, that’s where you’re just getting one-off stories. And this is what leadership and product owners are like, “Well, I’m not going to change the whole product based on one person’s story.” I’m like, “You shouldn’t; that’s a bad decision. You’re right. We only want to change product or change strategy based on big patterns that we see.” So, you’ve said the word patterns a whole bunch. I’m all about patterns, and what I’ve tried to do is teach people how to listen for that interior or cognition and find patterns there, but make sure that you’re not finding patterns at other layers.

In the book, I’ve got this analogy. That candy that you call a jawbreaker or a Gobstopper, right? It’s huge. It goes in your mouth; you suck on it. And then the top layer comes off. It’s like a different color underneath or a different flavor. And there are four layers in this candy for me, and the outer layer… the whole candy represents how a person brings themselves to the world and how a person exists. Without any framing at all, you’re going to have a huge mountain of candy. You have to frame it, so you get just one jawbreaker and talk about that. And then I can tell you about the layers.

But for framing, look at what somebody is trying to address. We don’t look at it by noun; we look at it by verb. What are you trying to address? It could be a thing that I can address in a few minutes, like signing somebody up for their HR benefits. Or it could be a thing that takes decades, like taking your career into a new direction transitioning your career into teaching. It can take decades to raise children. That’s a purpose. So I call this thing a purpose. You’re addressing a purpose. I don’t care how long it takes you to do the purpose. It has to be framed by a person’s purpose.

And part of the reason I do that is that when we try to generate knowledge when we try to create knowledge without a frame, we often use some part of our solution as the frame. So I call that the lens of the solution we might use. Like, if we’re trying to help HR people onboard new employees or deal with existing employees, there might be a lot of pieces to the solutions we’ve put out there, and we will delineate how we look for new information by the pieces of the solution. That’s just natural. And what I try to do instead is let go of the solution entirely. Let’s actually turn our back on the solution for a little bit and instead face the human and try to figure out what the human is trying to address and ask the question about that.

Layers of the jawbreaker

Indi: So right now, that’s actually one of the hardest things for me to do with clients. I’ve got a client who… I don’t know how much I can say, but they are HR, and they’re worried about understanding their employees through all of this messy change that we’ve been through. They’re one of the employers that are trying to get people back into the office, and they decided they needed to understand people better. So we needed to frame that. Because when you frame something, what we’re trying to do is get to the inner part of the jawbreaker. So we’re framing it down to one jawbreaker. We talk about the layers first, and then I’ll hop back to the framing and the example; jawbreaker is one person bringing themselves to this purpose.

So, if I’m an HR person onboarding people, that’s my purpose. And I may do a lot of description. I may talk about how it’s done, how to use the system, why the system developed the way it did. I may talk about where I’m using the system and with whom I’m using the system. That’s all explanation and scene-setting. And that is not what went through their mind. That is them working with us in an interview to explain their situation very much aware of us.

Okay. The next layer down is the layer of exterior appearances. And Dave Gray did a great cartoon in his book, Liminal Thinking about people’s bubbles. Kind of like you will walk around in the world with this idea of like, “Here are my opinions about things. Here’s my understanding of how things work.” So that would come out as the descriptive layer and explanations. But the next layer down that exterior layer includes preferences; it includes the things that marketing looks for, like, “What’s your motivation there? What is your personality like?” That kind of thing. And that’s what we use to bring to the world, but it’s based on a deep foundation of lived experience. So, it’s like shorthand for that lived experience. And that’s how we signal to other people, when we’re in a conversation with them, a little bit of what our deep foundations are. And so, we ended up signaling to each other back and forth in the shorthand, and we don’t really understand what’s going on underneath that.

So the next layer down in this jawbreaker candy is a kind of… it’s getting close to interior cognition, but it’s mushier. It’s the generalizations. It’s like, “Well, you know, every time I onboard an employee, I’m always worried about making sure that I don’t get their information.” So, that’s a generalization, but generalization is readily usable because it’s an emotional reaction that you can pinpoint. But oftentimes, we’re so used to thinking at our exterior appearance level that when we are asked to talk about interior cognition, we end up talking about generalizations. Often researchers will just go with that, and that’s not good enough to do. That’s not telling you what went through somebody’s mind at a particular point in time.

If we can pinpoint it to a particular point in time, that’s how you get to the center of the jawbreaker. That’s the crystal at the center. That’s the really flavorful part where we have inner thinking, emotional reactions, and guiding principles, and inner thinking includes all of these things. Like, you know what actually went through my mind, the voice in my head, the argument I had with myself, the hesitancy I had the, I kind of want to postpone that. Thinking that I did the procrastination, the reasons why I wanted to do it, changing my mind about it, all of that. Okay. That’s not our exterior appearance. That’s our interior cognition, inner thinking, emotional reactions, and guiding principles.

So, now we can go back to the idea of that frame. In this example of this company, it’s trying to get people maybe to go back to the office, but they need to understand people’s thinking about it. If they don’t frame it well, they’re not going to get any good patterns out of it, and it will be useless, and it will be a waste of money. So you need to frame it. You need to ask somebody, “Well, what went through your mind on a certain day or during a certain week when you were facing a certain thing? When you were addressing a certain thing, what is that certain thing?” This organization wanted to use the word “change” for their certain thing, but change means so much. It’s so broad, but it’s almost too broad to use as a frame. So I think this is the conversation I’m having with them. We’re going to go toward like adverse change or even stressful change.

So, that’s why when we frame something down to the one little jawbreaker, we can actually ask somebody what did go through your mind during those weeks, or a day, that you were addressing this, and tell us. Tell us about it. You may have to set the scene; you may have to explain a little bit about the system. Yeah. You may tell us some of your preferences and opinions about it. Sure. But we’re going to ask where those came from. We’re going to ask; we get down into that crystalline level, when we get there, that is us being able to develop cognitive empathy with that person.

Jorge: It sounds like the goal is to establish a framework for truly understanding the motivators, the things driving people to think and feel in the way they do. Is that fair?

Indi: Nah, I wouldn’t say it that way. That’s a little bit closer to the marketing way of doing things.

Jorge: Okay. Well, it’s an important clarification.

Indi: Yeah. What we’re trying to get at is like, “What actually did go through your mind?” Because if we can get to that point, then we can understand the way you think. Then when we develop trust in a listening session, make space that’s safe for a person to tell you their inner thinking. They can then unfold that for us, they can even do some self-discovery with us on board and start to talk about, “Well, yeah, you know, I always thought it was this, and this is, you know, back when I first started my, you know, blah, blah, blah, first job and that this incident happened and that made me think this, and that is what set this guiding principle. And I’ve been using that guiding principle ever since I didn’t realize it, but yes, I have been. And now I can tell you.” Or other people know what their guiding principles are, and they will say things like that.

I did research about near-miss accidents. “What went through your mind during a recent or very memorable near-miss accident?” Very juicy stories. And one person nearly got run over in a crosswalk. Er, actually, more than one person nearly got run over in a crosswalk. You hear scary things. And that person was certain that the guy who almost ran her over, who was a construction worker on a house just up the street, so she actually decided or assumed that he was texting and didn’t see her in the crosswalk, and went off on this long little side path about how she’s teaching her daughters to drive and how absolutely no texting you can’t touch the phone, you can’t even listen to it when you’re in the car.

And so, this is a guiding principle of hers, which then as she’s standing there at the bottom of the hill going, you know, her heart’s like beating like crazy and she’s like, “Do I go and confront him or not?” And there were lots of things that went through her mind about that. First of all, I could confront him, and it could turn into an altercation, and I could get hurt. Second of all, I should confront him because maybe he doesn’t know. And he needs to be taught like my daughters about not texting. I should go confront him because he’s going to be in the neighborhood, working on that house for months. I don’t want them to hit somebody else. Right. And so it went on like that. And all of these are actually tangled up. They come out in this sort of story very tangled up, but you can then parse them out into the separate concepts after you go back through the transcript.

Awareness and focus

Jorge: Well, I’m hearing you describe this and what comes to my mind is that it must take a particular skillset to get that deep into people’s thought processes.

Indi: It is not… it does take awareness. I would say more awareness than skill. I can teach the skill. People can learn the skill in four weeks. People can learn the skill reading the book. It is not a difficult skill to teach, but it does require practice to get there. And when you can get there… everybody tells me it’s like nothing they’ve ever done before. It is freeing, and it is relaxing. It is not the same as an interview where you’re like, “God, do I have enough time to get to all the questions I have to get to?” Where you have to make up those questions, guessing what the person’s actually been thinking about ahead of time, which you can’t do. You don’t know their interior cognition.

So we come at it with just one question, the germinal question, which is “What went through your mind during a memorable or recent near-miss accident?” That’s the only question we ask. The rest of it is all rapport-building. The rest of it is all making sure the person doesn’t feel judged, making sure that the person feels supported or heard, and helping that person notice when there’s actually more to something that they said that we’d like to hear about. We give the person leadership. We follow; we are not leading this—a listening session. The idea is to let the person lead it, and that person we call the speaker — we no longer refer to them as a participant — they kind of transform into a speaker, into another human. I’m just a human; I don’t have a company that I’m working for. I’m not trying to build. I’m just trying to understand what went through this person’s mind at that point in time.

So we’re focused. We’re very focused down on that frame, trying to get into that crystalline inner thinking, inner cognition, emotional reactions, and guiding principles. What happens is that a person who’s a speaker starts to feel that this person is really a hearing them. And we don’t get heard very often in life, and it’s a pretty amazing experience. And so that person feels a little bit more confident, talks a little bit more deeply, still feels heard. Talks a little bit more deeply and then ends up taking over the entire thing and ends up leading us through their cognition to the places that are important.

We only have to ask questions when they’ve hinted at some inner cognition that we’re interested in, or they implied some sort of an emotion that we’re not certain about or that we sense. There might be some guiding principle underneath that, and we want to understand it. It’s only questions, only points that we need to look at. And it becomes this really amazingly relaxing sort of a situation. We’re just there to understand that person. We don’t have a list of questions. We don’t have a clock running. It’s over when the speaker says it’s over.

Creating a listening situation

Jorge: Would it be fair to describe the distinction here as one between something like an interview protocol, which would be something that a lot of researchers might be familiar with, versus creating a listening situation.

Indi: Yeah, we’re trying to create. In fact, the subtitle of the book is all about… So, the book title is Time to Listen, and it’s How giving people space to speak drives invention and inclusion. And that’s the whole second half of it. I mean, I’ve been talking like a fan girl about this idea of listening deeply. But what good is it? What value does it have to an organization? And the value is, first of all, that we are trying not just make another product for ourselves. We’re trying to understand other people’s ways of thinking. We actually can create thinking styles, patterns of thinking styles, based on a bunch of data, and then we can develop different strategies and different solutions toward those patterns of thinking styles.

We’re not doing it anecdotally. We’re going to throw out the things that aren’t pattern-based. But the other aspect of it is if we recognize and can measure where somebody is doing some thinking, trying to accomplish their purpose, and how our way of supporting it is really weak. It’s may be weak for all the different thinking style patterns out there, or maybe it’s only weak for one thinking style pattern. But we can start to measure where those weaknesses are. We can start to measure the gaps and if we frame our usability tests — our evaluative work — if we frame it by that same purpose — and we will probably have a bunch of different purposes to explore for our organization; each product owner might have a different purpose that they’re trying to support. But if they frame their evaluative work based on that same purpose, then that maps right back in to the knowledge that we’ve gathered, and we can start to watch over the different quarters and over the different years, how much better our support is, how much less harm we’re doing for different people.

So, part of what I do when we’re framing a study is talk very seriously about recruiting outside of the average user. Part of what I do is I ask how is it that someone who has been trying to address this purpose and been discriminated against, how does that affect their inner thinking? How does that build gutting principles for them? What are the emotional reactions that they have over and over again when they get this discrimination situation? Same question we ask for physiology. If there’s a certain physiological way of being in the world that’s different than the average user, how is this affecting them? How does their inner thinking go, how they built up guiding principles to deal with it? How do they react to their reactions, tamp down their emotions when they have to face another bus stop with no curb cut or another application that doesn’t handle… a situation where you’re in a loud environment, or you can’t hear.

Making time for listening

Jorge: Ironically, I’m looking at the clock and realizing our that our time is running short, but I’m really curious about how to open these spaces in our work environments that are so highly structured around getting things done and moving as quickly as possible. And the image that came to my mind as you were describing this was a space that I think could especially benefit from approaching human relationships in this way, which is healthcare. And knowing that so many clinicians are on a really tight schedule and have to see as many patients as possible in as quickly a time as possible, is it possible to get to the crystalline center of the jawbreaker?

Indi: Yeah. A doctor’s probably not listening deeply to their patient if they only have five minutes. That’s probably why most people feel like their doctor doesn’t have a relationship with them, doesn’t understand them. A doctor can’t do that based on that. I mean, they might be able to do it over time, longitudinally, and get to know somebody that way in little five-minute bites or ten-minute bites. So, it’s possible — but that’s not what this is for. This is for taking a bit of time to build an understanding of another person’s way of thinking. The idea is that we can study patients, we can study doctors, and we can figure out where the gaps are. But it’s not the doctors studying the patient using this technique.

Jorge: We are designing, perhaps, the systems that these people will use…

Indi: Right, right. Yeah. So I was just on a panel with Daniel Burka, who’s doing this kind of work. And his he’s a product manager, outspoken. He’s working on something for India about; I think it’s hypertension, where the doctors only have three minutes with a patient to try to get all the information that they need. And so, how are we going to deal with that? And he’s like, “We don’t have time for this long… you know, researchers, they just want to research the heck out of everything.” And I’m all like, “You know, actually, we’re not interested in understanding how the solution works in a situation. We can use this to help us better understand in our evaluative work. And I have used it about half the time for evaluative work. But it’s more used for understanding the problem space for understanding. Let’s build this understanding once and then add to it another two years later and add to it another two years later, that kind of a thing.”

What we’re trying to do is build an opportunity map. We’re trying to build an understanding of how much harm are we doing to people and how well are we actually helping them, and how can we like push that up and get it better over the years? And we don’t have a map for that. And that’s what this does. That’s what opportunity maps do. They can track that over time, so long as we’re all using the same frame of reference when we’re doing different kinds of studies, to be able to layer it back together, to do our mixed methods. So the frame is super, super important. But let me ask you to ask your question again.

Jorge: Ask the question about the doctor?

Indi: Yeah. What were you after there?

What is this for?

Jorge: Well, the first thing I’ll say is that it sounded to me like this is a framework that might be valuable beyond research for design, right? Just because of the notion that we interact with other human beings all the time. And my expectation would be that most of the time, we’re dealing with a hard outer shell of the jawbreaker without getting a glimpse of the crystalline middle.

Indi: Yes.

Jorge: And my expectation would be that if we get down to the crystal, we are going to be able to have deeper, more meaningful relationships with people.

Indi: Amen. Yeah. So, two things. Erica Hall and I were just on a hike where we were just like berating this idea that everybody in the product field — and especially researchers — are like, “If only I could persuade them! The leaders need to know how valuable this is!” I’m like, “Do not persuade. Persuasion will never happen.” Well, it’s really hard to do with somebody who doesn’t trust qualitative data. You can’t persuade them to trust qualitative data, but you can build a relationship with you and build trust. And you use listening deeply to do that over time.

And we’re just like sitting in our little home office or whatever. I was like, “Ah, inaudible my boss, blah, blah, blah.” You could be spending that time building relationship with your boss and learning why your boss thinks that way and where that came from and starting to understand and have cognitive empathy with your boss, and your boss starting to recognize that you’re pretty damn good at listening, and you’re pretty damn good at your job. And you know, now that that boss feels heard, your working relationship — if that boss is not a narcissist — gets better. Your collaborative effort soars.

I do workshops with teams who are like, “Oh, you know, that group over there just never works with us very well.” And I’m like, “Okay, we’ll do a workshop. Really do this in four hours, and it’s going to blow your head.” You gotta give me, though, the transcript of like an example argument that you have with this other team where they’re just not understanding you. And what I do is I say, “Hey, look, there’s this explanation. There’s a command. There’s an emotional reaction. There’s explanation. There’s opinion, opinion, opinion, preference, emotion.” Right? We’re not getting down to the crystalline center at all. We’re just… you know, there was one where they were just throwing commands back at each other, and at the end of that, everybody stood up, and they just gave me this like round of applause or like, I see what we’re doing now. I can see like we’re as much at fault as they are because we’re not communicating at a deeper level. And suppose we can actually sit down and build that relationship and be able to communicate our guiding principles and be able to communicate our inner thinking. In that case, we’ll find that we’re pretty much on the same page. We can collaborate a whole lot easier.

Closing

Jorge: I hope that everyone listening is as excited about this new book as I am just in hearing you talk about this, Indi. It sounds like it’s important work that might be of benefit to us in many areas of our lives.

Indi: Yeah.

Jorge: So where can folks follow up with you and find out more?

Indi: I am at indiyoung.com; that’s the website. And that’s the place where you can find a whole bunch of demo listening sessions. You can find a whole bunch of courses. You can find my books there, of course, and links to some of the talks that I give. If you just want to put on some headphones and go listen, this podcast will be there. I’m also on Twitter, @indiyoung. I’m also on LinkedIn, Indi Young. I kind of refuse to get on Instagram because it’s associated with Facebook/Meta, whatever. So, I’m not there. I do post a newsletter as well. You can sign up to the newsletter on my website. That doesn’t come out that frequently, but I make announcements there and let you know when the book is coming out. So, you can go ahead and sign up at indiyoung.com. And it’s I-N-D-I if anybody wonders.

Jorge: Fantastic. Well, I’m going to include links to all of these things in the show notes. Thank you so much; you’ve been very generous with your time. Again, it’s been a pleasure having you in the show.

Indi: Yeah, super happy to talk about this. This is really, truly my passion. And in the end, if I can help those who are building things, those who are coming into positions, actually use this to build. You know, pull on those levers of power and build a position for themselves where they can start to make strategic decisions that are more inclusive, that are more aware of our assumptions and harms, then we’re going to make a difference. So, I’m super on fire about helping make the foundation for that difference to happen.

Jorge: Well, great. Thank you so much, Indi.

Indi: You’re welcome. Thank you.