Are Halland has worked in digital product development, strategy, design, and communication for over a quarter of a century. During that time, he created the core model, a tool for designing websites and products that align business goals and user needs. He has now written a book about the core model, which is due to be published later this year. In this conversation, he explains what the core model is and how it can help us create more effective digital products.
- Are Halland - Twitter
- Are Halland - LinkedIn
- The Core Model
- Gerry McGovern
- Pareto principle - Wikipedia
- Conceptual Models: Begin by Designing What to Design by Jeff Johnson and Austin Henderson
- Designing Connected Content: Plan and Model Digital Products for Today and Tomorrow by Carrie Hane and Mike Atherton
- Telenor Group
- Esperanto - Wikipedia
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This episode's transcript was produced by an AI. If you notice any errors, please get in touch.
Jorge: Are, welcome to the show.
Are: Thank you.
Jorge: I believe that we’ve met in the past at one of the IA Summit/IA Conferences.
Are: Yeah, back in the 2000s?
Jorge: Yeah, I feel like it has been a long time. How do you go about introducing yourself?
Are: I’m a Norwegian, first and foremost. I come from the Norwegian west coast with a beautiful fjords and all of that. So, I’m very lucky to come from that beautiful place. But professionally, I’ve been in business for a quarter of the century, I found out the other day. So, I’ve been working with digital since 2005, 2006. Actually it lit off some kind of a light bulb for me when I read about the internet sometime in 1993, and I decided this is what I want to do: I want to take part in forming this medium.
And I thought this is about information: I have to study information to get it to digital information. So, I took a Masters in Media and Communications. I did that while working as a web journalist and a consultant, but I actually did a thesis in hypertext rhetorics. So, I studied navigation systems and how you can apply rhetoric structures to that and how do you use digital media, not to persuade, but to steer the user in the direction you want. So, that was one kind of angle to it.
Another one is I’ve been working as a consultant since 1998. So I did all the “.com” with the bubble and the crash and everything; I did quite huge, complex projects quite early on.
The Core Model
Are: So this is the story of the core model. Because in 2006, I’d been working as a consultant for around 10 years and I did this master thesis, and then I was working on a side project while watching the kids at this children’s playground. And I had a napkin and I decided just sketch out on some side project for parents in cities. How do we find activities for kids? I was an information architect, so I’m thinking about faceted navigation and anthologies and structures and the front page and navigation systems. And I was really, really complicating it. Then I just sat down with a napkin, and said, “Okay! Let me just sketch out a page of this website.” And then it suddenly all fell into place for me because this is all it’s about! It’s this page, it’s this core. It’s this piece of information — the answer — that the user is looking for.
And as an information architect, I’ve been working with abstractions. Structures, navigation systems, hierarchies, and actually none of that matters if the user can’t find the answer. So, the answer is the core. But if you flip the perspective, if you start out with the answer… or, not just the answer. It’s a hypothesis of what answer the user is after, and you can use that as a starting point. So, you fit the perspective. Don’t start with structures and abstract strategies and all of that. But just, “Okay! This is an answer we know the user will want. Let’s try to figure out the context around that answer. What are the user tasks? What are the KPIs?”
And so, that’s the use of tasks and the goals, and then look at the customer journey before this contact point and afterward. That’s the inward paths and the forward paths. That’s what kind of came to me, and so, that’s the basics of the core model. It’s just this simple canvas centered around some core. It doesn’t have to be a webpage; it could be actually just about anything physical, digital, whatever. But typically, with digital products and services, this is about some kind of piece of content or functionality that answers a user task. It fulfills my intention as a user at the same time that we reach a business objective. It’s in the intersection between user experience and strategy.
That was kind of an epiphany or whatever. And since 2006, I’ve been working with this model trying to understand the implications of it. And the implications are actually huge because this is just a very simple… you can say it’s kind of the atomic parts of the user experience. So, yeah! It’s the smallest parts and the universal parts that everyone can understand.
The simple terms in the core model are you have a user, a target group. And the user has a user task. And the business has a business objective of some kind. So, that’s kind of the top floor. And then you have a main floor, which is then some kind of an inward path… the kind of the previous part of the customer journey. And then it has a forward path. And that’s kind of the rhetoric part. How can we steer the user in the right direction through… you can apply behavior, design and kind of all other elements.
But that’s just the structure around it with target group, user tasks, business goals, inward parts, and forward parts. And when you have defined those, then you can come back to the answer. So, this is really a diversion! You fill out the rest of the canvas, and then you come back to the answer. So, now I have a solution space where you can have full freedom within this little structure to find out, what kind of an answer is this? What format? What channel? And it can turn out to be something different than you thought at the beginning.
Jorge: I like how you described it as a canvas because it helps paint in the listener’s mind a picture of what to expect when you’re talking about this. I’m going to read it back to you to get a sense of whether I understood it correctly, both through what you were saying now and in the book. One of the challenges with doing design work — with doing user experience design work — is that you are operating at either very high levels of abstraction, where you’re dealing with these very broad ideas about the business goals that you want to achieve, or the objectives that a user hopes to accomplish while interacting with a system. And on the other hand, you have these very tangible manifestations or explorations of what the user experience is going to be like through things like user interfaces. So, you have screens basically…
Are: Figma sketches.
Jorge: Yes, the sort of thing that you experience in Figma. And the way that I parsed the idea of the core model is that you’ve provided a framework that allows you to locate all of those various things so that you can map the high level abstract ideas — both business objective and user goals — to these user interface elements. Is that a fair read?
Are: Yeah, absolutely. It’s around bringing the strategy down to earth, making things concrete and really putting it into… to be concrete, be as specific as you can on the business goals and this concept of user tasks, which is actually from Gerry McGovern. If you know the “top task” perspective, which is that if you look at the web statistics or the customer service log or search log or whatever, you will see that a few top tasks are… It’s like Pareto’s Principle. It’s 80/20, but it’s actually at 95/5 if you look at most websites.
So, a few, few tasks are the huge majority of visits to our websites, for instance. We have to identify these top tasks and that’s an important kind of prioritization mechanism here as well. If you know the top tasks, then it’ll be easier to identify which course you work with. But it’s all about bringing things down to earth, being concrete, and using this model for collaboration by just being concrete. Because when you talk about structures and high level business goals or user needs or all these things, it gets so… And customer journeys as well! You have customer journeys 10 meters long, and where do you start? It’s abstract mappings. It’s too huge to be able to discuss it. It’s bringing it down to something concrete and tangible that everyone can understand, discuss, and be concrete. And if we can be concrete in corporate, then it’s much easier to discuss. To actually bring the discussion forward and get things done because now we have something concrete! An object that we can discuss, and then it’s much easier to take the right step afterwards.
Jorge: You mentioned Gerry McGovern. And Gerry McGovern wrote the foreword of the book. And he says in the foreword that one of the things that is radical about this approach, particularly in how it solves poor performance in digital systems, is that it puts people first. When I read that, what I thought is, “Well, doesn’t user experience design, user-centered design, aim to put the needs of the user first?” And where my mind went with that was to things like Johnson and Henderson’s conceptual modeling framework where they also do research to find out user tasks and then work backward from that, right? And also approaches like content modeling.
In the book you reference Carrie Hane and Mike Atherton’s book, and the sense that I got was that that part of it — the mapping user tasks to conceptual objects, for lack of a better phrase — that the user will encounter in the system… that’s something that I had seen before. But what felt different to me about the core model was the introduction of business objectives as well so that you’re not just making manifest the results of research into what users want of the system, but you’re somehow trying to strike a balance with what the business wants out of this thing. And I’m wondering if you can speak a bit more to how that balance plays out using the core model.
Balancing user needs and business needs
Are: Yes. And I think that’s one of the important points of the core model. It’s a balance between user needs and business goals. Everyone has a Venn diagram, but mine is just what the user needs and the business objectives. Where do they overlap? Where they overlap, that’s where you find your cores. In order for you to prioritize something, it has to solve a user task. It has to reach business objectives. You have to have both. You can’t just solve user tasks and be super user friendly. In order to actually get the resources and the priorities and actually make things happen, you have to tie it to business objectives.
And that’s kind of the link here because if you solve the user task, then you are in a much better position to reach your business objectives. And that’s the link because having a strategy that doesn’t solve user tasks, that isn’t customer-centric, that’s a bad strategy. And making a user experience that doesn’t relate to the business strategy, that’s also a doomed approach. So, you have to combine this. And the beauty here is that this model makes these connections clear so everyone understands that these things are connected, have to be connected. And in order to reach your business objectives, you have to solve the user task first.
Jorge: I heard you say earlier that when you had the insight that led to the definition of the core model idea, the way that I heard that story was that it was one of these moments where you had an idea for a project and all of a sudden, you got overwhelmed with all the complexity, and you narrowed it down to its essence, right? That’s why it’s called the core model. And you spoke of understanding the user tasks and the business objectives, and then setting aside space in the middle to explore the mappings between those two so that you can find that overlap that you were describing.
And one thing that came to me in reading the book was that the examples that you mentioned — and I think that you also talked about this in the story at the beginning of the podcast here — is page-oriented in that the exploration that’s happening is happening at the level of like, maybe there’s a page in the system that most clearly expresses this core functionality or the essential thing that people are going to get from the system.
In a lot of projects, there are going to be multiple objectives, both from the business side and from the user side. And I’m wondering about how the core model can scale to more complex systems. I realize that in some cases it’s going to be relatively easy. You do research, it’s like a one shot tool that you know does one thing. But there are some systems that are pretty complex. How does the core model scale?
Scaling the core model
Are: It’s, Traditionally, how people use it as they’re talking about core pages. “We have to identify the core pages on our website and fix those.” And that’s super important if you have a website. But nowadays, products are much more complicated, like you said. It’s processes and you have apps. You have complicated onboarding in an app or in a buying checkout experience or what have you. But you can still apply the core model to a process or creating an app or whatever. So, the core model is not tied to a medium. It’s tied to the idea that you have to provide some kind of an answer through some kind of channel because this model is actually channel agnostic. You don’t decide on the channel until you have defined the answer first. And then you look at, “okay, what kind of channel is this for?”
I used an example in the book, which is from a project three years ago for Telenor, which is the largest telco in Norway. We were tasked to create this web page to explain the invoice. Because people didn’t understand the invoice. You can picture this webpage with some kind of arrows and this means that, and this means that. But then we tried to apply the core model and look at what are the user tasks, what are the business objectives, how will people search for this, what do we want to achieve, and we saw that the webpage is just stupid. It’s not the way to fix it.
We can’t fix the user tasks, we can’t reach the business goals. People will never find it. We don’t reach our objectives. But the user tasks and the business goals still are that people need to understand the invoice in order for us to reduce the number of calls to explain the invoice. The core, of course, is the invoice itself. We have to fix the invoice. And then, the project turned into a project to fix the invoice, to make the invoice understandable. So, the core was actually the invoice.
And I think that’s a beautiful example because it shows this cross-channel, channel agnostic, omnichannel, whatever you want to call it; that this core doesn’t have to be what you thought it was. It can turn out to be something completely different. And that maps well with how you think about content modeling, right? So, if you use the core model to find out… okay for an answer: what are the kind of different elements that we need to install these user tasks? And then afterward you can select the channel, right? Being headless, not tied to the presentation layer. So, the answer you define, you can show it in many channels, many different interfaces.
The core model is about finding that optimal information unit for solving the user task and reaching new business objectives. And the channel, the format, that’s beside the point. That has to be defined when you know what you will make.
Jorge: The way that I’m interpreting this — and I’m trying to locate the core model as a tool within like my toolbox as a designer and a consultant, right? — so, the way that I’m reading it is that it is a tool that can be used to synthesize the learnings from research. So, research both around what users need and also what the business context is; what the business wants done. And it seems like it’s a tool for both synthesizing those insights that come from research and also exploring possible directions so that, in some ways, it helps redefine the brief.
Like, this example you’ve mentioned of the invoice. I’ve been in that situation as a consultant, where I get called in to do one thing, and then in the process of doing research, you realize like, “Wait, this is… you know, we’re barking up the wrong tree here! This is not what is actually going to solve the problem.” So, then the project becomes about reframing the problem and maybe redefining the brief…
Jorge: …which happens early in the process. So, is that a good read on where this fits in to the toolbox?
The core model as a tool
Are: Yeah. I have an appendix with all the different methods that kind of can map to this. And I see new connections all the time because it’s so tightly mapped to the other tools in our toolbox. So, it’s a contact point from a customer journey, taking down to earth to the user. The target group is, you can use personas or empathy maps and the user tasks goes nicely. We play nicely with jobs-to-be-done. And the business objectives are really key results from OKR and maps to inbound tactics with the email post and so on and so on. So, it fits very nicely in a toolbox.
So, it’s a hammer in a toolbox, but you still need all the other tools, right? You need the saw and all the other things. But this is… it fits right in the middle of everything somehow. You can use this to see how the other things relate. It’s a synthesis of user insights and of business strategy; you’re actually working on the value proposition itself. That’s the core.
Jorge: You used the image of a hammer, but the impression that I’m getting from it is that this is more a tool that can help you figure out if the thing that you’re making is going to be a bookcase or a desk. Like, I’m using the carpentry analogy now, right? It’s like it’s not so much the hammer that you use to build the thing, but actually, it’s a step before that. It’s the step of like, what are we making here? And let’s make sure that what we’re making is actually going to solve the user goals and also solve for the business objectives, right? It’s a way of making that tangible.
Modeling for cooperation
Are: Yeah. Yeah, all metaphors break down at some point. So, the toolbox is nice for placing it in a metaphor landscape. But there’s more, of course. If you talk about defining the problem before the toolbox, but the main part of the core model, the real beauty of the core model is when you use it to cooperate. Because these simple terms, the six elements of the core model, they’re kind of intuitive. Everyone understands them. You can explain this model in two minutes and everyone understands because it’s pure logic. It’s common sense put in a system. And that’s why it’s so well suited for cooperation.
Part two of the book is about this core workshop, which is the format for cooperating, cross-silo, cross-competency, cross-hierarchy, to get alignment around the initiatives because we keep talking past each other, right? Designers speak their language with mock-ups, prototypes, whatever. Information architects are in their kind of tribe language. And business analysts of course in their own world. And then you have all the subject matter experts and… yeah! So, everyone is on different planets, different solar systems even!
But this little Esperanto can make people be concrete and cooperate and they can understand all of these connections through filling out this simple core sheet in a core workshop. And then, when you fill out the core sheet, then you have a common understanding and then… it doesn’t fix everything. Of course, it doesn’t! But it gives you a starting point, a common understanding, that makes it easier to go in the same direction. So, when you become concrete and sketched it out and seen all the relations and how they connect, then it’s much easier to use that as a design brief or as a functional specification, or as a draft for writing or as a skeleton content model or whatever you need to take the next right step to get things done.
Jorge: That seems like a good summary of where the model can be useful, and it feels like a good place to wrap the conversation. Where can folks find out more and perhaps get the book?
Are: Yeah, the book as we’re speaking now is not yet published. But you can go to thecoremodel.com where you can either — depending on when you’re listening to this — you can either pre-order it or at least sign up to be told when it comes. And in time there will be all the templates and everything you need to apply the core to your own work. Miro templates, Figma templates, print templates, all of that. So, that’ll be at thecoremodel.com. And other contact points? I don’t know; Twitter is not that popular, but I’m on LinkedIn. Find me on LinkedIn: @arehalland on LinkedIn and let’s connect on LinkedIn.
Jorge: I’ll include links to all of those things in the show notes so that folks can get there more quickly. Thank you so much, Are, for being with us.
Are: Nice being here. Thank you!