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Daniel Stillman on Conversation Design

Daniel Stillman is a conversation designer and coach. He’s the host of The Conversation Factory podcast and author of Good Talk: How to Design Conversations That Matter.

This is a special episode of The Informed Life: it’s the first recorded in person, while Daniel and I attended and taught at UX Lisbon in May of 2022. Fittingly, it’s an experiment: a freeform, less produced conversation about how we converse. In some cases, this results in less context than you may expect. In particular, you’ll hear references to the names of other speakers at the conference. I’ve included links to their profiles in the show notes.

Show notes

Show notes include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Transcript

Jorge: Daniel, welcome to the show.

Daniel: Thanks, Jorge! It changes the vibe when we’re suddenly on.

Jorge: It does! And not only are we on, but this is very special for me because this is the first time I’ve ever done one of these seated across from the person I’m interviewing. We are meeting in person.

Daniel: And this is information.

Jorge: It is information! So welcome.

Daniel: Thanks, Jorge. It’s a real honor to be here. I mean, your talk today was awesome. And you take this topic very seriously. You’re a serious thinker. And so I really respect the opportunity to have a conversation with you.

Jorge: Well, I appreciate that. But we are not here to talk so much about me.

Daniel: Fair.

Jorge: So I have a question for you.

Daniel: Okay.

Jorge: What’s lighting you up these days?

What’s lighting up Daniel

Daniel: Oh yeah. What is lighting me up these days? Honestly, the beach! I discovered last year, with the pandemic, that my wife was able to work remotely, and I convinced her to rent a beach house on the Jersey Shore for a month. We still worked, but we were at the beach, and we could ride our bikes and go for a walk on the beach in the morning, bike along the beach in the evening, and just have a really nice… I kind of want to live on the beach all the time because it’s pretty grim in the wintertime, but it’s… I know that in July we’re doing it again, and that’s something I’m really looking forward to. So honestly, like life stuff… life design lights me up. Actually, being able to make those choices and to have someone in my life to do those things with really lights me up.

Jorge: Well, that’s fantastic…

Daniel: And professionally I’ll say this conference is really great food. Like Scott’s talk about how to win friends and influence people from a UX perspective. Matt’s talk about incompleteness by design. My work is around conversations and designing conversations, and it’s really interesting to see the way it’s looped in the way that it’s manifested in other people’s work, right? So Scott looking at an interface as a conversation and saying, “well, let’s be friendlier.” And so, let’s study friendliness. And Matt talking about incompleteness and cadence, really. Like more rapid turn-taking with shorter turns in the conversation. That’s collaboration. I was like, “oh my God, the one-page, one-hour pledge!” Like, that lit me up! Honestly, I was like, that is designing the conversation around work. And I think they get it. It’s not…. when I wrote my book, I was like, “I don’t know what this is. I don’t think anybody’s going to get it.” And so it’s interesting to see people start to get it. So that is also lighting me up these days on a professional basis.

Jorge: For context, Daniel and I are both attending UX Lisbon. It’s my first in-person conference since the pandemic started. And I don’t know if it’s…

Daniel: Ditto! Ditto. And it’s also the first time… I wrote my book in like 2018-2019. I did similar to you. Like, my podcast was a prototype for what I can learn and understand about what it means to design a conversation. And I started writing it in 2018, 2019. It was published in 2020, [at] some point during the pandemic. Because literally the book was published in Europe, and in April, shipping costs went so high, they decided to put it on a boat. And I don’t know if you remember any of the supply-chain issues that snarled the ports in America. And I said to my publisher, I’m like, “so where’s my book? Like, is it available or is it not?” Like, “when are we publishing?” And they were like, “we don’t know!” And so, this is my first time doing it in person. And it’s my first time doing it with my book. And it’s really interesting because the book is an interface for a conversation! Having it in front of people and then saying, “Hey, turn to page 223 and just like, look at that diagram.” It’s really fun. It’s very different.

Jorge: Well, this feels a little meta, but it’s mostly what I wanted to focus our conversation on is the subject of your book, which is about conversations.

Daniel: It’s very meta.

Jorge: That’s why it is meta, right?

Daniel: Yeah. Conversating about conversations.

Jorge: So the book is called Good talk, right?

Daniel: Yes — which was developed as a result of a conversation. I didn’t know, I… You know, what is the title going to be? I was having a conversation with a woman in a social club that I used to belong to. And, she’s actually pretty… I’m blanking on her name, but she’s fairly famous. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book called Nickeled and Dimed. Like, nonfiction journalism in the public interest. And this woman said, “you know, I don’t get paid for this, but I’m really good at naming things. Your book is called Good Talk.” And I was like, “okay!” So that’s a good title! Like, “thank you!”

About conversation

Jorge: So, what is a conversation?

Daniel: Yeah! I mean, what isn’t information, right?

Jorge: Right.

Daniel: We’re chefs, and we see the world as food. So I’ve started to see any iterative communication as a conversation. And I don’t even say that a conversation with a shared goal. Like people would say, “oh, a conversation implies a shared goal and shared interest.” And I’m like, “well, me shoving you out of my way on my way to get on the subway is a conversation between my elbow and your chest.” Because I’m sending information, right? Me yelling at you is a pretty shitty one-way conversation. Designing for maximizing conversation means there are multiple parties, and both parties – or all parties – deserve to be heard.

The thing that surprised me in the research for my book was that we contain multitudes. And we have conversations with ourselves. It’s actually really hard to study sub-lingual speech. It’s very fast. We can talk to ourselves; some people say 400 to 4,000 words per minute. So we’re talking to ourselves a lot and, I don’t know about you, but I’ve got multiple inner stakeholders. Sometimes people call it inner-family systems. Some of my inner stakeholders are really, really lousy to me. And one of the things that people say with dealing with inner speech is, “well, how would you talk to yourself in a friendly way,” right? But I say you sometimes need to really listen to the negative stakeholder. Not just push them away. Like, call them in instead of pushing them away.

Similarly, I started with conversation design as a term that a group of consultants in Australia used to describe their facilitative practice. And I was a little confounded by that idea. I had come out of industrial design school and realized that there was this other thing that was on the ascendancy while industrial design had had its heyday in the 1950s. Nobody told me that in design school! And there was this thing called UX Design. Everything that we’re designing that’s physical has a screen. Hooray! Oh, we should learn about that! And then it was like, “oh, actually, we’re designing services, products, experiences.” So I’d been buffeted around by these emerging trends that helped me think in new ways.

And so, when I met this group in 2015, and they used the term “conversation design,” I actually was like, “what does that mean, to design a conversation?” What are we designing when we design a conversation? And I think I was very much taking it from an industrial design physicist — which is my first degree — perspective of like, “what are we designing when we say we design it?” We are designing information, right? And we’re architecting information. Like, what are the mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive things that we could say we are shifting?

And I actually did four interviews. I did four test interviews in January of 2016. Like right after I’d done this work with this group because it lit me up. I interviewed Abby, Abby Covert, Dave Gray, and my friend Philip McKenzie, who is a cultural strategist. And my friend Leland Maschmeyer who used to be head of The Collins Group and for a time was the chief creative officer at Chobani. So, Dave Gray doesn’t need an introduction, but he co-wrote Gamestorming for people who don’t know. And I just said to them, like, “what does conversation design mean to you?” Like that was the question. Like, I think this is interesting. I wanted to have a thing. I wanted to have a thing that was mine. And I was like, “is this a thing?” And Abby was one of the people who said, “well, yeah! But be careful of manipulation, right?

So, what is a conversation? Like, if you and I are talking and I’m using all these Dale Carnegie techniques to make you like me – and that’s what Scott was saying – it’s like, well, is it really an authentic conversation if I’m trying to smile and remember your name and be sincere? Like, I’m using techniques on you. Is it still a conversation? Like sure! I’m just trying a little harder, right? Anyway! That’s a very, very long answer to your simple question of what is the conversation. But I see a spectrum of like, one to one, me to me, many to many, one to many, many to one… those are all conversations.

Jorge: An insight I got from your book was that… I guess I had come into it assuming that conversation is something that happens between two or more individuals.

Daniel: Yeah.

Jorge: But there is such a thing as an internal dialogue that’s happening.

Daniel: Yes! And I think nine times out of nine when I’m coaching someone, it’s the inner conversation. Like, in negotiation theory — and I highly recommend, I went to the Harvard… I love that I can put Harvard on my LinkedIn profile — I went to the Harvard Negotiation Institute. Leland recommended it to me in my podcast interview with him. He was like, “it’s easily the most bang for your buck. It’s like you will definitely make that money back in whatever negotiation you do in the future. And it’s called Aspiration Value And Getting To Yes, in Negotiation Theory at Harvard. Your aspiration value is, what do you aspire to? Your aspiration value is a negotiation you’ve had with yourself.

Some of the gap between men and women in remuneration can be attributed to: for some reason, men are more willing to ask than women. And so just the willingness to ask. If you run the game simulation over and over again, if more men are asking more often within their careers than women are, the gap just gets larger and larger and larger, which is kind of shocking. So I interviewed… oh my God, I’m blanking on her name. That’s terrible! She has a company called Ladies Get Paid, which is about just teaching women negotiation. She’s like, “let’s just make it really accessible and low cost so that every woman knows it’s okay to ask, regardless of whatever cultural training we have.”

And that’s a conversation that we’re having with ourselves! Asking is bossy or bitchy or brash. And that’s a conversation. And I think there are fears of conversation because the conversation I’m having with myself is part of this larger cultural conversation of like, what do we do around here? And these are maybe in inner voices that we have, but yesterday in my workshop, there was a woman from Norway who was like, “I don’t know if we can really… you know, we’re not so straightforward! Like I can’t ask these high-intensity questions you’re asking me to do.” I’m like, “really? What will happen if you do?” And she’s like, “I don’t know!”

Jorge: Cultural differences.

Daniel: Yeah. Do they exist? We believe they exist, and that’s a bigger conversation. Like, well, “what do I believe I’m allowed to do?”

Jorge: But I get the sense that just the awareness, right? Because we… And again, I’m going to expose a lot of the assumptions that I brought into the experience of reading your book…

Daniel: I love it.

Jorge: … that conversations are something that we have — and we’ve been having since we were little children. So we’re not as thoughtful about how we interact with each other through language, right? We kind of do it. We just kind of go into it.

Daniel: Yeah!

Jorge: And this is the big insight that I got from your book, which is that we can design for conversation, right? In the sense that…

Daniel: Yeah.

Jorge: … like you can’t really design an experience, but you can design to enable certain experiences to happen, right?

Daniel: Yes.

Jorge: And I got the sense from your book that there is kind of an architecture to enable good conversations.

Daniel: Yes.

Jorge: And you talk about an operating system for conversations. And I was hoping that you would tell us a bit about that?

The conversation operating system

Daniel: Happily! So, the conversation operating system came out of two things. One, Aaron Dignan wrote a book called, Brave New Work. And I met Aaron when he was at another company several years earlier. Actually, at my first and only time at South by Southwest. You know, in the interest of extolling the virtues of my amazing biography, my first business was a 3D-printed men’s accessories line that… I think you might know my friend Carl Collins and Peter Nakey.

Jorge: I do know Carl.

Daniel: Yeah! So we started this 3D-printed men’s accessories company. And at the time 2012, 2013, 3D printing was like on the ascendancy. We kind of went a little viral because of Swissmiss, who we were talking about earlier. She posted these bicycle cufflinks we made. And I wound up speaking on a panel about 3D printing. Super random. But anyway, so Aaron’s work I followed for years. And they had this OS. It was about like, what’s your company’s operating system?

And I think that started my thinking of like, “well, yeah! Like, it is nice to be able to show someone the one pager, the canvas.” And you know, I’ve been teaching facilitation and group dynamic stuff for years. And I think doing it through a pretty mechanical lens, successfully — like, helping people to write stuff down before they get in groups; pair up before you get into groups. Like, really basic things. They’re mechanical moves. But when I started doing my research on conversation design, I realized that turn-taking is part of conversation theory. So when I started looking at all the conversation theory material, I was like, “there’s a lot here, and it’s not digestible or clear!” Like, what does it mean?

And so, in my facilitation workshops, I was trying to show people like… just a grid. I was like, “okay, well, Aaron’s got a grid of nine things like time, space, you know, pace. What are the things that I think I can actually shift?” I was just trying to get people to see them the way I saw them and trying to make it as simple and clear to myself so that I could make it as simple and clear to others.

I have pictures from workshops I did in 2018 where my version of the OS was probably like six things or four things that I thought were the easiest to grasp. Like, the clearest. And so, slowly, more things were added. And I interviewed Daniel Mezick, who talks about using open space technology meetings to try and get organizations to be more agile. And he was the one who put “invitation” into my operating system. For a while, it was in the center of my OS canvas because I was like, the invitation is what drives a whole conversation. “Hey, can we talk? Or, “get outta my way.” Right? Is it an inviting invitation? And then, over time, I knew that space as the interface for the conversation was very important.

And just from a, like, a physics perspective? I put that in the center of the OS because I was like, really, the space, the place, the interface for the conversation is where all of the other elements come into play. And so obviously, without people, there is no conversation, right? It can be one person. It can be many people. We just got to know who.

Jorge: It’s like the list of participants.

Daniel: The list of participants — and I think sometimes when I teach about it, it’s also who isn’t included. Who are the ghosts in the room, right? When we say the user, we’re trying to bring the user into the room, even if they’re not in the room, right? Are we doing co-creation? Are we doing participatory design, or are we doing a telephone tag design, right? And so, I mean, I suppose I could have made a… like, Aaron did go from nine elements to 12 elements when he finally wrote his book. I just think it’s an ugly rectangle, you know? I was like, “I’m going to keep it at nine!”

Jorge: Yeah, and there comes a point where it becomes too many to keep in mind, right?

Daniel: Yes. Nine’s still a lot! When I was shopping my book around to friends and getting them to give feedback, they’re like, “nine things. It’s a lot of things. It’s too much information!” Right? It’s five plus or minus two, right?

The nine elements of conversation design

Jorge: Well, and for folks who might not have seen it, it is a three-by-three matrix, right?

Daniel: Yeah.

Jorge: And each one contains one of these elements.

Daniel: Yeah, each of them is like to me a brainstorming prompt for: am I thinking about the total design of this conversation? The people involved, what are the power dynamics? What’s the invitation that initiates it? Turn-taking and cadence. My publisher fought against turn-taking and cadence being two things. And I just decided not to convince him and said, “I’m not changing it.” Turn-taking is “you speak-I speak.” And how we rule… what rules the turn-taking in group mechanics — group mechanics turn-taking is easily the most powerful shift you can make. Cadence to me is like, nobody has a conversation thermometer, but we all know if a conversation is getting hot or cold. And I think there’s also the sense of like the musicality of a conversation. So, it’s like the patterns between conversations. Like, you call your mother every Friday. We have a weekly standup. We’re going to do a full-day workshop every other Wednesday for three months. That’s a tempo.

Jorge: I also got the sense that cadence has to do with how frequently we do this, right?

Daniel: Yes.

Jorge: And I get the sense that it’s… not all of them are relevant to all conversations, right? Like, for example, this conversation… I’m going to go meta here. But this conversation that we’re having is not part of a regular series, right? It’s…

Daniel: But it is for you.

It is. But you and I have talked a few times over the last few days — but not in this setting. And I’m just thinking of… as you’re listing them, I’m thinking about how, this being the first of these conversations that I do in person, and I’m doing it away from my studio, away from where I regularly do this, right? So, there’s the place thing. We’ve had to look for a quiet place in the bustle of the conference, right? And this notion of the turn-taking is something that’s very interesting because when you’re doing this over Zoom… we’ve learned over the last two years — we’ve been conditioned to learn — to pay attention to facial expressions if the person has the camera on, but also to audio cues in a way that is less rich than what we’re doing now. Like, I’m looking at your whole body language here. Yes.

Jorge: It’s a very apt subject to be talking about in having an in-person conversation like this in a setting that is not your, or my, usual environs, right?

Daniel: Yeah, totally.

Jorge: So, I think that over the last couple of days that we arranged this, we’ve kind of collaboratively designed this conversation, right?

The story of a conversation

Daniel: Yeah. Had some pre-conversations. And that goes to… yeah! That’s the cadence. I think the third element of the conversation operating system that my publisher wanted to collapse into one was narrative. So the… I was trying to digest again conversation theory, threading; I felt very poorly defined in the research that I had read. But we know what the thread of the conversation is. And there’s some wonderful poems about like… I’m forgetting the name of the poet. But he’s like, there’s a thread that you hold onto. As long as you hold it, you don’t get lost. And we all know that we’ve talked about the red thread of a presentation or the golden thread of a presentation. Losing the thread, picking up the thread.

I remember a couple of years ago, visiting an old friend who I hadn’t seen since Junior High School. And somehow, we reconnected. I was in Philadelphia. And you just pick up exactly where… The thread is a rope. You know? You’re just right back there versus a very tenuous thread that breaks very easily. And so I think… I’m a little messy. I could probably use more information architecture in the book and also a better understanding of conversations. Some of the chapters were very hard for me to write, Jorge.

I don’t know what it’s like for you, but writing about power. I was like, I know very little about what it means to, you know… as a white man. Like what does it truly mean to be powerless? I also, as a Jewish man, I don’t… sometimes I don’t feel like I know what it means to be truly powerful. When I was writing about narrative and threading… Like, I just love narrative. I think narrative is what holds everything together. It’s easily… the binding force of the universe is what’s happening. The story of a conversation is what we both remember. That’s the thread. But the thread is also like, is what is happening in the conversation coherent?

In the book, I talk about my friend Darcy, who’s an extremely discursive conversationalist. And you know that there’s some people who are like this. So, this is what I mean when I say a conversation operating system. We have preferences. We have habits. We have levels of comfort. I love going on the wild ride with Darcy. And there’s some people who… it gives them palpitations. And I just like the idea of being an all-rounder, having more flexibility. And also, the question: is the way that I am designing my conversations getting me what I want out of life? Is it working for me? If so, great. Don’t read any books about it, right? If it isn’t, then the question is, “what do I think I am capable of shifting to make them better?” And I think that’s the problem if you’re going to be a reflective practitioner. And I loved that Abby left a very nice blurb for my book. She said, “if you think that you just know, as we all know, how to be great conversationalists, then you are under a very false assumption, and you should read Daniel’s book.” I was very grateful for that.

If you want to be a reflective practitioner of information architecture, you read your books; you read Abby’s books. You read Saul Wurman. If you want to be a reflective practitioner of UX, you should go to UX conferences. And if you actually believe that communication is iterative and not just like, “I’m a good communicator, but I know how to adapt and listen and absorb what you’re saying and then recommunicate with you and then accomplish something with you.” if you think that that’s actually a core skill in life, then you should study it! If you’re serious about getting what you want out of life and not everyone is, which is totally cool. I would love to just, you know, crack open a beer at the end of the day and not think about half the things that I think about.

Jorge: Well, that’s a Dunning-Kruger thing, where people think that they’re… how does it go? It’s… if you don’t have enough competence to know that you don’t have the competence, right?

Daniel: And negotiation is a perfect example of like, people just have… there’s default haggling… we’ve watched our dad do it, or our mom, and that’s how we learned how to talk. And it’s actually inefficient. It doesn’t lead to good outcomes. And so there are better ways to do it. Certainly, most meetings suck. At least if you look at the data.

Jorge: And when you were talking about Abby’s blurb for your book and all that, I was thinking back to the beginning of our conversation when we were talking about this idea that conversation is something that we’ve been doing since a very early age, and therefore we are not reflective about it. We just kind of barge into it, and not all conversations are the same. Some conversations can have a very serious repercussion in your life, right?

Daniel: Yes! Will you marry me? You’re fired. Right? Like these are…

Jorge: They represent inflection points of some sort in your life. Others are more mundane. My sense from reading your book is that we could all do better to at least develop the awareness that there are factors that are conducive to better outcomes for conversations than others.

Factors for better conversational outcomes

Daniel: Yes. So, there’s something that comes up to mind: if you watch movies or like any kind of TV drama, the music tells you if it’s an important moment. The music tightens, and you tighten up; you’re like, “this is an important moment! Something’s going to happen.” And that is not present in life. It’s up to us to decide whether or not a moment is important and if we’re going to take advantage of that moment or let it, as they say, slip through our fingers. Something I often do in my workshops — and I do in person and online — is, when I send a group of people out into a breakout room, I just say, when they come back, just drop in the chat, three words that describe what that conversation was like. They’re like, “just words?” Like, yeah! I just want to know what it was like. I don’t want to know what you talked about. I want to know what it was like and like…

Jorge: The experience of having the conversation. So, not the content, but meta, again.

Daniel: Exactly. Like stepping back. How did you feel? How do you feel now? How would you describe your experience with the conversation? Maybe that’s a better prompt. Thank you! And they say, “oh, it was fun. It was engaging.” Or, “oh, it was hard. It was confusing. I felt we ran out of time.” Like, ” I’m feeling like my brain is bursting!” And I’m like, that’s four words. And then everyone laughs, you know? Humor is part of my conversation operating system, right? It’s the Woody Allen effect, right? Self-deprecating humor. I learned it from my dad. He would do this thing where he would yell at my brother and I, if we’d done something wrong but make a joke about himself or something else and make us laugh while we were being berated and punished. It was really confusing.

That was his conversation operating system. So, to be able to describe the quality of the conversation, I learned this from a coach of mine. He describes leadership as the ability to describe with specificity a quality in another. This is an important skill because as a leader, to be able to say, “Jorge, you did a great job. Thanks. I really, really loved those three slides. You really set it up, and then you landed it. And I saw the room. They got it.” And you feel that differently.

Jorge: Specific feedback.

Daniel: The specificity. And to be able to say so in the workshops I ran over the last couple of days on powerful questions, I shared four words that aren’t in my book because maybe over the last two years, as I have thought about what it means to ask more powerful questions in my coaching practice, I learned the word “spaciousness” from my friend Ellen. She… the idea of not open versus closed, but spacious. How spacious is my question?

Jorge: Spacious, as in it gives me leeway to answer.

Daniel: Yeah. You know, in design thinking, we used to talk about like a good… how might we? And like, is it in the weeds? Is it in space?

Jorge: How is a spacious question different from an open-ended question?

Daniel: I think open-ended… well, so it might not be! But I think the word is evocative, right? And so this is what I mean: everyone gets to choose their heuristic for what they decide they want to judge a good conversation on. So, if they say, “that was a very efficient, effective, taut meeting. High-fives all around, everyone! Good job. That was a 15-minute standup. Pow! We did it!” Versus like, “that was a very, very deep, slowed-down, grounded and impactful gathering everyone. I’m really glad we carved out time in our schedule for that.”

Spaciousness, to me, is a polemical word. You say like, oh, that is a very spacious question. That’s a big question! I don’t know if I can answer that question. It’s really spinning me for a loop. What’s lighting you up these days? It’s a pretty spacious question, right? How do you fill your days? What did you do on Monday morning at 9:00 AM, right? If you really want to know what my life is like, right? That’s a closed-ended question. And so I think there’s this tyranny of like open versus closed versus like the spectrum of spaciousness. Very, very spacious to a pinhole through which we look at the world, but it’s a lens.

So I’m into spaciousness. I got that where I’m like, “oh, spacious is great!” And I want people to break open versus closed. Because they think open is good and closed is bad. It’s not! Closed questions can be great! Do you like eggs? Are you allergic to eggs, Jorge? Like I’m making you breakfast, and I want to know! Are you allergic to eggs?

Jorge: For the record, no.

Daniel: Yeah, this is important. I don’t want to kill you.

Jorge: Well, but to your point, it seems like the type of questions you ask are completely dependent on the context and objectives of the conversation, right? Like, I wouldn’t expect that the question about the eggs is relevant if you’re making breakfast. You don’t want to engage in a heartfelt, coming together of two minds or whatever over my egg allergies.

Daniel: Maybe if we’re doing menu planning, I’d be like, “Jorge, what kind of breakfast did your mom cook for you as a child?”

Jorge: Right.

Daniel: I want to know what kind of breakfast are going to be most evocative of…

Jorge: To evoke some kind of childhood memory.

Daniel: Yeah. Because I’m having you over to my house for Sunday brunch, and I want you to weep, I want you to have a Proustian madeleine moment and be like, “I haven’t…” Like at the end of Ratatouille, when he eats the ratatouille, he’s like, “Oh Mother of Ratatouille! I’ve not had this since I was a child.” That’s what I mean. It’s like raising the stakes. So, I also talked about intensity in the workshop. Like, I don’t know. I could have had intensity as an element of the conversation operating system. I didn’t. It wasn’t on my radar for some reason. Is it a fundamental? I think what I was trying to find was like the hunkiest, chunkiest, like Katie’s talk. The red buttons of like… my understanding of conversations has maybe become more nuanced and you know, another one of the workshop was orientation. Am I asking about myself, do I push the conversation towards…? We all know people who push the conversation back towards them all the time. Or am I asking about the future or the past or the present? That’s another way to orient the conversation. It’s very powerful to ask questions about how did this happen? How? How did this happen? Okay, well then, how are we going to fix it? Those are very conventional ways of thinking about things.

Pre-mortems are very different. Speaking from the future to say, “we did a great job. How did we do it?” The magic wand question, which I got from Andy Polaine, “okay, you want it? Magic wand! It’s yours! Now, what do we do? What would you want next?” Like, let’s take that leap. Let’s take two leaps into the future. Those are manipulating our orientation and what we’re looking at with time. So, I think in conversation, it’s our… you know, we’re co-designing it, but like, maybe I want to talk about what’s present. And this happens in couples all the time, right? There’s a moment in time where something is broken, and somebody wants to say, “well, I won’t do it again.” Or, “you always do this.” Right? And we’re speaking at cross purposes. Like, somebody’s looking toward the past, somebody’s looking towards the future, and somebody’s just saying, “can we just clean up the milk?” Driving our attention. We are all paying attention to different components of conversations because we all have our own goals.

Jorge: So, with regard to goals, I wanted to ask you about that because I think that in the realm of conversations, it’s one of these things where there might be… Well, I’ll talk about myself. I often find myself in situations where we are having a conversation that has some kind of explicit purpose, right?

It might be a kickoff. This week, I was part of a meeting that was a kickoff meeting for a new project. And we’re meeting because we are undertaking a new project and there’s a list of people who have been invited to be part of this. We’ve chosen the place, the medium through which it’s happening. All of the components of the OS. And we have this explicit goal to get the ball rolling on this project, right? That is the explicit objective of this conversation.

In conversations, I find that there’s often implicit objectives, right? So in a case like this one, part of the implicit objective would be something like… we’ve never worked together, at least some of the people in the call. And, if this is to be successful, we have to start gelling as a team, somehow. And there’s all this interpersonal human dynamic stuff that is happening.

I’m wondering to what degree or if there are components of the operating system that operate more at that level or that we can more explicitly point in the direction of this unspoken stuff, right? Like, “someone has to pick up the milk” is a very pragmatic conversation that needs to happen. If it’s happening in the context of a marriage, that’s a much broader conversation that spans a lifetime.

Daniel: Yes, if we’re lucky.

Jorge: And you don’t want to have the “pick up the milk conversation” in a way that would set that relationship back in some ways, you know?

The human dynamic of conversation

Daniel: Yes! It’s interesting. So it’s making me realize, and I’m… I always get frustrated when I interview somebody for my podcast and we cover like they’re like, “so there’s six elements of what it means to be blank!” And we cover like the first three, and then somehow we never get to the last three. So, I’ll just say we’re touching on the last two elements of the conversation operating system. If I can visualize my own OS properly, we talked about people and power, right? Invitation. The interface. Turn-taking and cadence. Narrative/threading. And now we’re talking about error and repair and goals.

So, error and repair I put is one thing, because it’s like… I see them as like a loop. And goals. Like, what are we here to do? Are we goal-oriented? Can we… as Natalie said, “are we okay with wondering and wandering?” Can we be low goal-oriented? So, I think there’s probably a two-by-two for each one of these elements. It’s like high-goal orientation versus low-goal orientation. My goals, your goals, or our goals, if we were to orient that way.

And with error and repair… if we’re talking about a team and teaming, getting a sense of like, if you and I talk at the same time, it’s the easiest error to see in a conversation, right? We talk at the same time; we literally collide. And then one of us — both of us — will try to be polite. “No! Oh no, no, you go!” And one of us will yield a turn, and the conversation will continue. That’s an easy repair for an easy error. It’s very obvious. Most errors in conversations are assumptions. Like, “why didn’t you fill out that form?” “I thought you were going to pick up the milk,” right? And that’s because goals and what constitutes an error is not made explicit.

And so, this is what team charters are all about. Or making a user manual, which is a great thing for any leader to do with their teams. To say like, “here’s how I like to work.” One hour, one page, right? Don’t call me on weekends. I prefer texts over emails. I love Google calendar and Excel. Don’t give me a Word document. Keep it at a PowerPoint. And if you send me a PowerPoint, I will flip over the table. Versus my wife and I, we like to keep the conversation at this level. Some people have… they see an error, and they don’t want to repair it. Or they see an error, and they say, “Hey, that’s not working for me” or, “it sounds like you did this.” Like, “I felt that when you did that. Is that what you meant?” “Oh, no, I’m sorry!” “Oh, great. Cool.”

So, repair. And I think teams have to have that conversation about what constitutes an error because otherwise, we’re using a jump. I jumped to conclusions-mat as the, you know, the “Office Space” reference. One of my favorite “Office Space” references. But goals are like, “what was your real question?” — it’s like, what do we want? What’s explicit versus what’s implicit. These are… man! This is the negotiation dilemma, right? If I tell you everything I want, will you use it against me? Will I get everything I want? And that is about building trust, which is a thing, right?

Jorge: Right. And it’s different in the context of a marriage where ostensibly your goals are aligned, right?

Daniel: Yes.

Jorge: As opposed to, I don’t know, you’re trying to buy a house or something where that’s a more explicit negotiation, where the two parties are maybe in tension; the goals are kind of in tension, right?

Daniel: Yes.

Jorge: So, I think that that’s a pretty good overview…

Daniel: We covered everything!

Jorge: Most of the points. I’m wondering if we might leave folks with one suggestion on how they might be more mindful about conversations. I’m not going to ask how they can have better conversations, but how can you become more aware of the conversations you’re having and the impact they’re having.

Conversational awareness

Daniel: I am a deep, deep lover of visual thinking, right? And I think you talked about this. We use tools; we shape our tools, and our tools shape us. And drawing is the best way, I think, to visualize — concretize — what it is we expect to happen. And the arc of a conversation is something that we talk about, but I don’t think we ever draw. And this is an experience map, right? It’s just literally just like using the tools of experience design. Well, we design services, and we have service maps. We design user experiences, and we have a user experience arc. Let’s design the arc of a conversation! I mean, like, I probably have one here! Like, this is what I draw when I make a workshop, right? I, I draw the big arc and then the little arcs, and I try to nest them all together and get a sense of, like, where do I want things to be at the end? The beginning is the invitation; the end is hopefully a shared goal. What connects them is the thread. The story of what’s going to happen.

Jorge: Well, the listeners can’t see it, but It’s a sketch. It’s a hand-drawn sketch that…. and I obviously haven’t read it because it’s the first time I’ve seen it, but I’m seeing curves that hint at there being some kind of arc between certain milestones. And then there’s a long series of very short ones. And then there’s a few that span across three of them at a time. And then there’s one big arc that spans across six of them. What that sketch communicates to me is awareness of nested cadences of different beats, maybe?

Daniel: Yeah!

Jorge: As a way to talk about it…

Daniel: And so, the simplest way I draw it in some of my talks… oh man! My brain. There’s a Jewish philosopher who said, “all real living is meeting.” And so the I-N-G of meeting… like a real meeting, is invitation, narrative, and goals. What is the invitation that is going to bring someone to the table deeply? Like, to deeply participate. I think the way Scott brought it in from Dale Carnegie is genuinely arousing them in eager want. I love that phrase. Invitation is about arousing in someone else an eager want. Like what is going to get someone to come to the table with their whole self? That’s the dream, right? As opposed to emotional blackmail or economic force, right? Which are all extrinsic motivators versus intrinsic motivators. The narrative is like, ” I’d like you to come to this meeting so that we can blank in order to blank.” And the goal is like, hopefully like Viktor Frankel Frankel says, “a man with a why will endure any how.” Right? If we really have a shared why… as many “why’s” as we have to. Five to nine, depending on what school of philosophy you come from. Liberating structures as nine why’s because five why’s is not enough! Why do we really want what we want? Like, what is our real shared goal? This is what I sketch out to say, like, “what’s the plan? What’s my plan?”

Jorge: So, I’ll tell you what I’m taking away from this is: whenever I am either invited to or inviting people into a conversation, I’ll be more aware of the invitation. How the invitation happens, the narrative that underlies it, and the goal which might be unstated, right? Like, maybe making it explicit is part of…

Daniel: Yeah. There could also be the overt versus the covert goals, right? And there’s also the heuristics. Like Bern, who’s one of the other speakers here, she went through my workshop and is a great workshopper. She was like, “you had us up! You used all the walls! We were talking to each other a lot!” And my assumption is people get more joy, energy, and value through conversation and connection then they do for me kicking through a bunch of slides, right? That’s my conversation operating system. And so, I design for maximum conversational density. I don’t think everyone spoke to everyone in that room, but I had individual thinking, a breakout of about four or five. They did two paired exercises and then a third paired exercise. And that’s on in the first half! So, they would’ve talked to 4, 5, 6 other people in the room. And in the afternoon, we did another three-person breakout and two paired instances. So, they didn’t talk to everybody in the room, but I want them to meet people and to learn through dialogue. Because that’s what I like!

I’m designing for what I think people want and like and enjoy. And that’s being an intentional designer of, “what would you think they would say it was like?” Was it deep? Was it cool? Was it fun? Was it fast? Was it impressive? Was it stultifying?” Nobody says that! Nobody says like, “you know what I want? I want people to be bored out of their minds, so I’m going to ram a hundred slides down their throat and have no exercises.” I’m like, how’s that a workshop? Right? So I design for a conversation. But I think Matt’s thing is like, my invitation is purposefully incomplete. My goal is to get as much information from you as possible. And the story is: your feedback will help me move forward, right? He’s not using these words, but in mine? That’s how I would look at being super intentional about the invitation. Your story and their story and what you both really want out of the thing.

Jorge: Well, I hate to wind down this conversation because I’m enjoying it so much!

Daniel: Me too! Time goes fast.

Jorge: Yes. But, alas, we have to…

Daniel: Nobody wants to listen to a two-hour conversation.

Jorge: Well, it depends, right? It depends! Maybe they don’t want to listen to us talk for two hours!

Daniel: No, no! I’m not that famous. If you were Joe Rogan and I was, you know, some other terrible person, they would totally listen to it. But not your audience. Your listeners want something different than his listeners, I think.

Jorge: Where can folks follow up to learn more about your conversations?

Closing

Daniel: Well, you know, the name of the website was a tongue-in-cheek joke that has stuck with me for years. It’s called The Conversation Factory. They can also find me at danielstillman.com. Those are the two things. I do a facilitation masterclass, and I host a community of practice for people who want to become better facilitative leaders. And they can learn about that at theconversationfactory.com. And they can also get free chapters of the book, Good Talk! Available wherever fine books are sold.

Jorge: Is there a diagram of the OS, the matrix?

Daniel: Yeah, there’s a whole series of diagrams. I don’t expect everyone to buy both the audiobook and the Kindle. And so, there’s a lot of drawings in the book. Some of them more helpful than others. All of them, I think cute because I drew them! So, you can download all the diagrams from the book, including the Conversation Operating System. But you have all nine elements in your head now.

Jorge: Great. Well, I’m going to include links to your site, but I’m especially going to include a link to the diagram because we’ve been talking about it, and people might be wondering. Thank you so much for joining me on the show.

Daniel: Thank you for having me. I think this is really important stuff.

Jorge: Absolutely.

Daniel: And what I say in my workshops is, good design is invisible, right?

Jorge: Yep.

Daniel: In some ways! And this is especially invisible because we think it’s so reflexive and there’s so many habitual choices that we’re working with. So, the work that people do to improve the world through being more intentional about their conversations is very important work. And so, all of you listening in podcast-land, I honor you for the work you do to improve the world by improving the way we talk. Because it’s really important.

Jorge: Absolutely. Well, check out Daniel’s work. Thank you, Daniel!

Daniel: Thank you, Jorge. It’s a real pleasure.

Categories
Episodes

Mike Rohde on Sketchnote Thinking

Mike Rohde is a designer, teacher, and illustrator — but you’re more likely familiar with his work in sketchnoting. Mike is the author of The Sketchnote Handbook, which popularized the practice, and the founder of the Sketchnote Army, a showcase of sketchnoters and their work. He’s been described as “one of the leaders of the visual thinking revolution.” In this conversation, we discuss how Mike’s approach to visual note-taking has influenced his work.

Show notes

Show notes include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Transcript

Jorge: Mike, welcome to the show.

Mike: Hey, it’s so good to be here Jorge. It’s really fun to talk with you today.

Jorge: Well, I’m very excited to talk with you. I am a fan of The Sketchnote Handbook and of your work in general, so it’s a real privilege for me to have you on the show. I think that many of the folks listening in will have likely heard of sketchnotes, so rather than ask you to introduce yourself, I was hoping that you tell us about your work. Because people might be familiar with you as the person who put s_ketchnotes_ on the scene, but I’m wondering about your work — like, what do you do day-to-day?

About Mike

Mike: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think what you might find interesting at the end is that sketchnoting is a pretty natural outgrowth of what I do day-to-day.

So, I’m a designer, a user experience designer, and I love working in software. I’m working for a software company, and currently, we have two tools that are incredibly powerful. They do search and remediation, or protection of data, but as powerful as they are, they’re also very confusing to use. They need lots of love for their interface and their interaction and their information architecture and even down to wording consistency and those kinds of things. And so, I’m in the process of redesigning those two applications and it’s really, really fun. I enjoy it!

My history goes back all the way to print design pre-internet, where I came through technical school learning how to be… at the time they called us “commercial artists,” but basically a graphic designer. I learned everything really old school. All of the work that we did was all on boards. I used X-Acto knives and T-squares and triangles and Rapidograph pens and things were shot with cameras and printed on plates. Like all these super old-school stuff. I was even fortunate in my high school days to have a little stint in printing, and so, I got to use all the lead-type printing stuff and Ludlows and California job cases and silkscreen. And I just had so much fun playing with all this technology.

The thing that’s interesting about my career is I’ve always had a split personality in a way. So, one part of me is really fascinated with design and aesthetics and those kinds of things, and the other part of me is really fascinated with technology and how things work and why they work and the functionality, so that form and function sort of become melded. And that expressed itself in interesting ways, even in my print design days because I came from the printing side.

Even though I was a creative person and a designer, initially, I was in printing and with students in my design class that I was doing as… I guess, cross training, where they sent printing students to design class, to at least be aware of design. My colleagues are all saying, “what are you doing in printing? You should be a designer!” So I switched my major and moved over, but I always had sort of one foot on the technical side and one on the design, or visual side. I could go on press checks and talk with Pressman and you know, my production file is really tight because I knew what was possible and what was dangerous. So, I would avoid those things that I knew could be problematic.

And then, that turned itself into technology, which is web technology. Got really fascinated by this stuff and started building websites for the fun of it, using terrible tools like PageMill, if anyone’s old enough to remember these terrible, terrible tools that introduced all kinds of useless code. Your code is like five times as large as it needed to be. Started there and then learn how to code by hand and when the industry really took off and it became impossible to like be a casual web developer. You had to devote yourself to it full-time because it was changing so fast, then I made the switch to hiring really good front-end developers who could take my vision, and then I focused on the customers. Understanding what they needed and turning that into identities.

I’m really big into identity. I had many years where I did logo design for small SAS startups, and then their websites. So, I was a little bit like their secret weapon… miniature agency who could do all the… you know, a variety of things, and could talk with them and understand them technically. That’s continued to be part of my life even today, working in software, which is… I think probably one of my first loves after printing.

Jorge: The word that comes to mind in hearing you talk about it is “craft.” It sounds like there’s a… there’s an appreciation there for the craft of making these things. But there’s a generation of folks who might be among the last who studied these things before everything became digitized and you had this hands-on appreciation for what it took to make these things that surround us, right?

Mike: Yeah.

Craft in transitional spaces

Mike: Yeah. So, I mean, that’s very true. I still remember. I would say that’s kind of an advantage. I look at it as being really fortunate that I tend to end up in these transitional spaces — transition between straight print design and then desktop publishing. I lived through that revolution. Then I lived through the web revolution and then I became fascinated by user experience design and the idea that “hey! We can design things based on what people actually will give us feedback on!” Rather than, “I like blue. I like Gotham. I like…” You know, “I like gradients. Let’s just use those!” without any regard to whether it’s usable or understandable, or it causes other problems for the people who now have to live with your creation for 10, 20, 30, 50 years, right? Because you just happened to like that.

Some degree of that is necessary as a designer; you need to bring your best practices and your taste to it. But learning about that was another transition and getting into software design again, yet another transition to see that. And I think there is a real advantage to being that. I think there is a really great book by Dave Gray called Liminial Thinking. Rosenfeld media I think produced that book. And it talks a lot about how do you deal with these transitional spaces and what’s the right way to think so that you can navigate your way through. Because there’s not going to be a map, right? It’s transitional. There is nothing there. You have to kind of figure it out and make it up as you go along and be open to flexibility and adjustment and those kinds of things.

So, having all that old school, like drawing on boards… and I think it comes through in sketchnoting, as I mentioned, because I learned old school like that was the way that I did work. When I went through design school, I was using markers to do ad layouts. I didn’t have a computer to do any of that. I didn’t have typefaces. I had to study typefaces and books and try to recreate them. The advantage is now, on demand, I can pull a piece of paper out and do some sketches and get pretty close to what I want to achieve.

And a lot of that was just simply repetitive practice and doing. And I think there’s an opportunity for even young designers coming up, maybe through sketchnoting or looking back at this old stuff to realize, “Hey! There’s some real value in those crafty or craft-focused techniques that gets you away from the computer.” we’re almost at the swinging point where now the computer is sort of dominating so much. You sort of seek these analog experiences just to get away for a while for a respite, so that you can rest from looking at a screen for a while, right? I think there’s real opportunities in that space as well. I really feel fortunate for the time that I came up and all the experiences I’ve been able to have in my career.

Jorge: One of the things that come across in_ The Sketchnote Handbook_ is that it’s almost like the origin story for how you came to this approach to taking notes. My interpretation of it was that you somehow got frustrated with the constraints of handwritten yet text-based linear note-taking, right? And if I could pick like one word to describe the emotional tone of your book is joyful — there’s this joy that comes across on every page in these very compelling drawings that speak to being made by hand. So, this notion of craft comes across. It’s very different than a book that has been laid out in a hard-line tool like Illustrator or something like that.

I’m wondering the degree to which you actually use sketchnotes in your day-to-day work. Or rather, let me ask it more broadly: how do you use notes in your day-to-day work?

Sketchnoting as a team sport

Mike: That’s a great question. I think part of something else you need to know about me is I tend to be an experimenter. I’m always trying things out and if there’s something new, I’ll explore it. I’ll pick up something new on a whim and maybe I end up not using it, but I think sometimes the hit ratio is good enough that I just keep doing it. So, I have a variety of ways that I capture. And something that I’ve said in the past is that for me, sketchnotes sort of leak out whether I like it or not.

So, as an example, I did a three-year, contracting stint with a financial services company here in Milwaukee. And I worked with developers who were working in an agile methodology. And part of what we did was trying to figure out how do we take this old software tool, take the good things from it, and then re-imagine it with all the new technology and capabilities we now have that didn’t exist when it was made. And so the solution that we found was, you know what, white boarding works really well for team wireframing.

And so, what we would do is queue up what’s the feature that we want to add, and then we would have a discussion and maybe we’d show the old app and how it did it. Talk about what was good about it, what could be improved, and then we just… as we’re having this discussion, I would be at the whiteboard with a couple of whiteboard markers and simply listening to people — the developers, or the product owners — talking about what they’re thinking.

And I would start drawing what I was hearing on the board as software, like pages and flyouts and buttons and structure. And maybe I do that in black and then as we had further discussions about what’s good and what might not work, I would start annotating in these colors. So, you could sort of separate the drawing from the notes.

And I would listen and turn and say, “Hey, did I capture what you were intending here? And the best part of my day was when a developer would say, “no, you don’t exactly have that right.” So I would offer the marker and they would come up and they would draw their idea or add their notes, right? And it became sort of a team sport.

So that’s an example of where the concept really was sketchnoting. We’re compressing and simplifying information and ideas in a compact way. Ultimately, the idea behind those whiteboards was number one, we’re having a group discussion to try and solve this problem. There’s a ton of smart people in this room that are smarter than me in a lot of things. I’m not going to be able to solve all these problems by myself; it would be foolish to think I could. And there’s an idea that once ideas start happening, other ideas start following. And so, there was this opportunity to really get the best idea.

And then finally, once it’s drawn on the board everybody feels heard, right? What they said was heard. And then ultimately we take a photo — we would take a photo of this board. It would go into a shared folder. If I got to it first, I would make my mock-up with Photoshop or Sketch or whatever tool we used at the time.

But if I didn’t, then a developer could just pick up the sketch because they were in the meeting and they would just start building based on what they saw and then call me over and say, “Hey Mike, I built this thing. What do you think? Does this work? Are there any issues?” And we would work through it. Because there were like 40 or 50 developers and me as that one designer. I was a huge bottleneck!

So, this is in some ways also a way to try and alleviate the bottleneck that we potentially could run into. And it seemed to work pretty well on all those levels. And it really… it seemed to engage the developers in a way that I haven’t seen before. Where it was less of me doing something and throwing it over the wall and saying, “now make it!” It was all of us working together. Probably the best compliment that someone could say was, “I really love that feature in the app. Who designed it?” And I would say, “We all did!”

You know, I had a part … in some ways, we couldn’t even like, you couldn’t even separate the pieces. Like, who said this or that, or like, who contributed to what? We all did it as a collaborative group of people coming up with an idea. And sometimes the best features were the ones where, “okay, this is a round seven, the dropdown to choose something.” And we would really fight through every possible angle on this feature. And sometimes those are the best features. So that would be an example of a public way that notes would be captured.

Mike’s bullet journal

Mike: Privately, I follow the Bullet Journal methodology to some degree. I don’t do everything that Ryder Carroll prescribes, but I also know Ryder and I know that he doesn’t feel like you need to take everything that he offers. You take the parts that work. And so for me, I lay out my book in this way: the left page has got a bar on the left, I call it “The Daily Plan” bar and I plan my day. And then I have the day of the week and the date, and then down the left are all the tasks that I hope to accomplish that day. I try to do about three per section.

I have one for work, one for my little side business where I do illustration and such. Teaching. And then one for personal, which would be, “got to go to the bank,” “have to go buy new toilet paper,” or whatever. Those are all on the left. And what I’ve learned over experimenting with this concept over, I don’t know, 5, 6, 7 years, is that if I didn’t allow for another place to do notes and thinking and writing I would just go backwards to other pages where there were holes in the notebook and I would draw little notes in there. So what I realized is, why don’t I just build in space to draw? I can be luxurious with my notebooks. They’re mine! Who says that I can have a blank right page? Maybe I never fill it.

What I found was that it sort of encouraged me to write notes or to do drawings, or I might be watching a TV show like Ted Lasso, and I was really inspired by something. I had a little chunk of space left, so I doodle a little drawing of the TV show so that I could remember maybe lessons learned in that TV show. All in this blank… I call it the log page. It’s just open for whatever I want. I’ve even found cases where let’s say I’ve had a busy week and these log pages are filled up for a couple of weeks and maybe I run out of space or I need some space. I usually flip backward in my book and find an empty page and just grab it and then use that as a drawing space.

So even if I passed it by two, three weeks ago or a month ago, typically I’ll flip back to it, find it, and then do a little drawing there. And then I’m pretty good about updating my index in the Bullet Journal for months and key information.

Probably the challenge with any kind of this hand-drawn stuff is digital management. How do I manage this stuff digitally? Because it does take another level of capture. You need to at least take a photo with your camera — and it’s gotten a lot better. I mean, our phones are great for this. But honestly, I have not chosen a place where the stuff would land. I haven’t developed a workflow for taking photos and organizing the notes that I take. And I feel like that’s something that I could iterate on and make better than it is now because I don’t really have a canonical “that’s the place where all my stuff is” thing for hand-drawn analog notes. It’s not like I couldn’t do it, it just hasn’t been a priority. But that’s something I’ve been thinking about.

The last place I take notes is I use a tool called Ulysses on the Mac. I like it because it’s Markdown, which forces me… it’s sort of a constraint that forces me to be simpler. I like that it’s cross-platform so it’s on my desktop Mac, it’s on my phone, and it’s on my iPad. So wherever I am, I can jump around and all the same, information is available. I’ve considered attaching images to that. I guess that’s… it is possible to do that. But typically that’s where I do my typed notes.

I will say there’s an interesting by-product of being a sketchnoter for so many years that it actually has changed the way I take my typed notes. The way I think about my typed notes is a lot more like sketchnotes and I just happened to be typing instead of drawing. So, I’m listening and I’m forming ideas about, “what is the topic that we’re talking about and how would I explain this discussion and compress it in a simple way?” Maybe it’s bullet points or a simple paragraph.

All these processes that I would use for sketchnoting are now like filters built into… even when I type the notes, they’re still being filtered by the sketchnote thinking, which is this idea of like, what’s the big idea? How do I compress it? How do I simplify it if possible and make it work in a way that when I look at it again, all those memories come back and it’s sort of like adding water to a dehydrated something, right? It suddenly comes back to life, like a mushroom. You put hot water on a mushroom and it gets big again, right? It comes back to life.

So, that’s sort of the aim and even in my typed notes… so, oddly enough, the sketchnoting stuff has sort of weaseled its way into every part of what I do, whether it’s drawing on whiteboards or my Bullet Journal or even my typed notes seem to have been impacted by this approach to note-taking.

It doesn’t have to be beautiful

Jorge: There’s so much there that I want to pull on and unpack because you’ve shared a lot and a lot of it sounds really enticing and intriguing. But this last piece about typing, that’s really fascinating. And what it made me think of was something that you do emphasize in the book, which I wanted to ask you about, which is the difference between structure and art; this notion that many people who think about drawing, I think that they focus a lot on making beautiful drawings and making drawings that are somehow… like people will be judging your artistic ability somehow.

Whereas I get the sense from the book and also from what you’re saying here, that really the underlying cognitive effort is in somehow structuring the thing that you are taking down and… doing it visually as one way of doing it, right? But you want to be able to somehow on the fly — and this is quite a skill! — you want to on the fly, be able to capture the big idea so that you can then start making sense of the thing, right? And that can work on text, it can work on the whiteboard, it can work on a notebook. So, I’m wondering about this structure versus art scale and the degree to which that may be what’s influencing the way that you’re taking text notes.

Mike: That’s a really interesting observation. You know, I think I present it in the book because I realized the audience reading it will feel like, “I’m not a great artist, so I can’t do the sketch noting. I won’t even begin.” That was the question or the challenge that I was addressing in the book. And so, my approach was, “Hey, you can draw more simply than you think with these shapes. And it’s all about the ideas and like the structure of getting the concepts down and if then on top of it, you could make it look beautiful, well, that’s…” You know, I think I described it as the whipped cream and the cherry on top, or maybe gravy and mashed potatoes or whatever it was. I was like, it’s like a nice thing to have, but it’s not a requirement. Which then everyone who’s really hung up on being a great artist now can let go of that. And, “oh, I can just do really simple imageries with these shapes and that’s enough,” right? That was a huge goal for the book.

But I think you’re right, that there is something about the importance of structure and I think it all comes back to what we started with, which is this combination that I’ve always had of technical and art sort of blended together. That’s always been a theme throughout my life, and I think it’s… I can’t think of who the person whose quote this is that “the form follows function,” right? It has to at least work first, and then you can think about making it beautiful. But there’s nothing wrong with it being both, right? They’re not mutually exclusive where it can only function or it can only be beautiful. Why couldn’t it be both things? That’s the ideal. I think that’s sort of what I aim for is: first let’s make sure we capture the core structural things so that we’re getting the message, and then on top of it if I can somehow manage to make it look interesting, that’s like an extra win.

An interesting thing you talk about is “the big idea,” sometimes in our note-taking, maybe the big idea doesn’t come until after the notes are taken. Like, there’s this assumption that you should know what the big idea is when you start. Well, maybe you don’t! Or, even a wilder idea: maybe the person speaking — if assuming it’s a speaker or someone writing a book — maybe they think the big idea is one thing, but in reality, in your context, from your perspective, it’s totally different. Like, you would take their information and sort of look at it from another angle. You could tell somebody something who’s from one country and they look at it much differently than someone from another country simply because of their background and history and language and what things mean. Like something innocuous in one culture could be offensive in another, right? You have to be careful with that sometimes.

And so, there is an opportunity to take the idea and reframe it in the way you think and that might not come until the end. After you’ve taken in all the ideas and looked at them and held them in your mind and say, “well, actually, you know what? The big idea is this thing!” And then, you could sit down and summarize it. I think of my grade school teachers all saying, “I want you to rewrite this in your own words, Mike!” Or, “you need to summarize these ideas.” And I think a summary and the ability to explain it in a compact way, shows that you’ve absorbed and understood it. And then, you’re open to, like, maybe you have it wrong. So, when you re-present it, you would say, “here’s what I hear. What do you think?” And then they’d say, “well, you’re missing this part!” Or, “there’s a little nuance here that maybe you didn’t understand.” You know, “in this case you can do this, but in that case, you can’t,” right?

So, that opens you up to modifications and improvements, but at least you’ve got the foundation. It’s so important to get the foundation right. You can’t go to the next level when the foundation isn’t set. So there’s lots of metaphors I just laid on you there, Jorge. Sorry!

Seeing what you (and others) mean

Jorge: Well, yeah. But the broader point, I think, is that the process of putting pen to paper or stylus to tablet, or what have you, is in some ways a process of discovery where you might not be entirely sure of what it is that you’re trying to capture, but the process of doing it will reveal something about it. And my sense is that it might be more true… this notion of revealing the big idea and perhaps even the structure on the fly might be different for a generative scenario, like the whiteboard you talked about earlier, where you’re with your colleagues designing something that doesn’t exist yet. You’re trying to make it come to life. That’s slightly different than trying to capture a lecture, which has been pre-structured by a speaker, right? So, in that case, what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to grok the structure that the speaker has conceived of. But I think this generative piece also has the structuring on-the-fly thing, but you’re trying to discover the structure as opposed to capturing it, right?

Mike: Yeah. Or maybe you see that part of the structure makes sense and the other part, which we assume makes sense, doesn’t make sense and needs to be reconfigured, right? There’s some logical failure in how it’s fitted. I think that’s the one thing that I really like about visualization. The thing we discovered in those whiteboard sessions: it’s a lot easier to get in sync with being on the same page than if we just simply talked about an idea, and you talked about an idea… I think the term is… It’s probably going to come to me later, but it’s this idea that we both think we agree, but we really are not exactly in alignment. And by drawing, you get a little bit closer. It’s still not perfect, but you get a little bit closer to revealing what your thinking is and someone else can then modify it and it gives another layer to that whole discussion.

Jorge: Well, I can see what you mean, right? Which is like… you’re talking about cultural differences; words might mean a different thing to different people, even within the same organization. Like we might have a different understanding of a term, but if you can put it down — especially if you’re making software — if you can sketch out a screen, all of the sudden I see what you mean in a way that is not as open to misinterpretation as the words might be.

Not everything is a nail

Mike: Yeah, it adds another dimension, I guess, maybe is a way to think of it. And probably the other thing that strikes me as we talk about all this is maybe the… I’m a big believer in finding the right tool that fits the job. It can be dangerous if you’ve… so that the danger I see around like Zettelkasten and note-taking and all this stuff is, you could just assume that that’s the hammer that’s going to solve all your problems. And then everything starts looking like a nail. And you could maybe inadvertently get trapped in a certain kind of way of thinking or structuring where you’re actually missing a lot of opportunities because you’re sort of fitting it to this approach.

Not that there’s anything wrong with those approaches; I think they’re great. And this idea that… I think there were some studies that were done not too long ago where they tested typists versus longhand note takers. And so they had like a TED Talk and they had two groups. One writes longhand, the other one had laptops. And they said, “we want you to take notes of the talk.” And so they did this talk, I think Miller and Oppenheimer — if someone wants to look it up — are the two researchers.

And so, they ran the test and what they found were the people that had keyboards ended up typing verbatim notes because they were almost fast enough to type as fast as they could hear. And so, they sort of fell into this idea that “well, I could probably type most of it.” And they started typing everything. But it was verbatim; they weren’t really thinking about what was being said or thinking about the ideas, maybe as much as the other group.

The other group almost immediately said, “there is no way long hand I can keep up with this amount of information!” So they started to do analysis and started capturing information. And it wasn’t even sketchnoting, it was just writing on lined paper. And so, they tested them, and I believe the immediate tests that they took right after the talk, they both were about in the same range. But a week later, or some period of time later, they came back and were tested and they found that the people who had to analyze and write longhand remembered far more than the typists.

And then, they realized, “well, wait a minute! We should warn the typists that ‘you’re probably going to take verbatim notes, so don’t do that!'” And they ran the test again. And it didn’t matter because as a typist, maybe you just fall into this trap of like always trying to type almost as fast as someone speaking, and then you sort of don’t go into this analysis mode. That’s what I was getting at with this sketchnote thinking, is that even though I’m typing, I’m sort of doing the longhand writing — I just happened to be using my fingers to type. And I think maybe for me I never learned how to properly type, so I have made up my own typing finger positioning. And I look at the keyboard… I do all the things you shouldn’t do. Maybe because of that, it actually led me to this different way of note-taking. I don’t know for sure, but…

Jorge: Maybe there’s a little bit of friction involved like you were saying; it’s slower so you’re less inclined to try to capture things verbatim.

We’re actually coming up on the end of our time together, unfortunately. And I wanted to ask you… on your website, you say that your word of the year is “restore.” And I wanted to ask you about that. What do you mean by “restore”?

“Restore”

Mike: Yeah, that’s a great question. As everyone knows, we’re two years and some months through the pandemic. For me, we did pretty well through the pandemic. We… I didn’t get COVID until I think two weeks ago. So, we did 26 months of COVID-free and then it just got us. But the thing that I found was the uncertainty in the previous job that I was in… I was with a giant company before the company I’m with. And they decided to do… rather than layoffs, they would do furloughs. And we would do five weeks of part-time, three days a week.

And so, there was some baked-in uncertainty like, “oh, what does that mean? Does that mean when I come back, I won’t have a job?” Or… I wasn’t too worried about that because I also do things on the side completely unrelated to design, which is… I like illustrating books, I love teaching sketchnoting and teams how to sketchnote. And so, I leaned heavily into those, like every opportunity to present I did. I wanted to get really good at presenting and teaching through Zoom. So I thought, “well, every time someone asks, I’m going to accept and learn.”

And so, I just started to do lots of illustration, lots of teaching, and I just cranked it up. And I was really busy for two weeks, in addition to my day job. So I… we came back from the furlough, everything was fine, but now all of a sudden I had accepted all these invitations and started doing a ton of extra work more than I normally would. And the pandemic kind of made it possible because there was nowhere to go and it kept my mind off of what was happening, and… but then I got to the end of it and I felt… at the end of 2021, I was just like, “I’m tired!” Like, “I don’t know that I want to do all that work. I’m going to actually make some goals around how many things am I going to do in 2022?”

So, I set upper limits on how many teaching engagements, and how many illustration engagements, simply so that I wouldn’t like totally burn myself out. I think I felt like I… I wasn’t burned out, but I was just tired and needed a rest. And I felt like I need to dial back. So for me, restoring was coming back to something closer to that pre-pandemic mindset where I didn’t feel compelled to accept everything and do all these projects. And so that’s kind of what it means to me.

Jorge: Well, now I am doubly grateful that you accepted the invitation to be on this show, knowing that you’re not accepting as many things. So, thank you for sharing that, Mike. Where can folks follow up with you?

Closing

Mike: I would say the best place to go would be rohdesign.com that’s my website. You can see my books there. Got a bunch of book samples you can download for free. My blog is there, which I’ve been running since 2003. I don’t post to it as regularly as I used to, but I do occasionally put things there. You can sign up for my email newsletter there. And then probably the place I’m most active on social is Instagram since it tends to be visual, I tend to post things there. So that’s probably a good place to interact with me and see work or reach out and say, hello. I’m, you know, I’m @rohdesign and all those places, Instagram, Twitter… I’m doing a little more LinkedIn. So, you can find me in those places. And I’m happy to discuss things with you.

Jorge: And rohdesign is R O H design, right?

Mike: Yes, exactly.

Jorge: Right. Well, awesome! I’ll include all of those in the show notes. I was thrilled by the opportunity of talking with you. Thank you so much for sharing.

Mike: Well, you’re so welcome. This was really a lot of fun. It was a fun discussion, and I’m excited to hear how your audience reacts to it and what they think.

Jorge: Before we go, I have a brief commercial announcement. Information architecture is more important than ever. And yet, many people in organizations don’t know much about IA. So I’ve launched a new online workshop to teach the fundamentals of information architecture. You can check it out at ia.wtf. That’s ia.wtf. Thanks!

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Episodes

Kat King on Notes for Learning

Kat King is an information architect who’s “interested in information and how we figure things out.” She replied to one of my Twitter threads about note-taking, and I was intrigued by her approach. I recently saw Kat give a thoughtful presentation at the IA Conference and wanted to find out how she uses notes to learn and teach. So, this conversation focuses on note-taking as a means of learning.

Show notes

Show notes include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Transcript

Jorge: Kat, welcome to the show.

Kat: Hi! Thanks.

Jorge: I’m glad to have you here, Kat. For folks who are listening in who might not know you, would you mind please telling us about yourself?

About Kat

Kat: Sure! So, I’m Kat King. I work right now as a business intelligence analyst at the University of Michigan library. And I guess I’m interested in information and how we figure things out. And that has accidentally landed me in this job. I went to grad school at U of M getting a degree in information science and then got a job at the library because it was close by. Sort of knew people there… yeah! So, that’s who I am and what I do.

Jorge: I have not heard before of business intelligence in the context of libraries. What does that entail?

Kat: Yeah. So, I don’t think my job exists at other libraries. And the job title was central HR-applied more than the most accurate description of what I do. But I work in operations at the library and I work with operations data. So that’s data about traffic in the library, on the circulation of our physical collections, traffic at the information services desks, things like that. Helping manage that program of collection and how we share that back out to help supervisors make decisions. And I also do things with… like when processes change, mapping out processes to help conversations about what the new process should be. Libraries have a lot of committees. So, I sit on committees, representing operations’ interests and things. And so, in that way, have done some work on things like library search. But I don’t work directly with it. I don’t work with it at all right now but in the past.

Jorge: Would it be fair to describe the role as part of the library’s feedback mechanisms?

Kat: Yeah, I think so. And I think that the purpose really is having a way for processes to be more intentional, to have a layer that’s sort of looking at them and thinking them through.

Kat’s process for writing presentations

Jorge: I’ve heard you give many presentations at the IA Conference, which is a yearly conference that we both frequent, and I’ve always been impressed by the depth of the material that you share. And I was hoping that you would tell us a bit about how you read and make sense of what you read and cohere it into things like the material that you share back to the information architecture community. How do you go about it?

Kat: I wouldn’t say my process is very intentional. Like… so backward, I can look at it and say, “oh, this is what I do,” right? So I took an information architecture class in grad school with Dan Klyn and had a moment of like, “oh, this is interesting. This is what I want to be doing!” But not where I was aiming. And I went to my first IA Conference the next year and gave a talk. And I’ve been giving talks since.

I think one way I’ve described it as sort of like having a crisis in public and trying to sort it out about like, “okay, well I finished school, and now what?” And how do I do it and how do I do it well? And it doesn’t seem like anyone has any good answers that hold up if you push on them. And you know, I don’t have good answers either, but so that was sort of the… the impetus to look into things and do research and figure it out. And then talks actually for me… it’s a hard deadline because I’m not good at organizing and doing things without some sort of… “it’s gotta be done!” external force.

And so signing up to do a talk, you know, when I write the proposal, I think like “what’s stewing around and like what is right there, but I can’t get to it?” That’s what the talk’s going to be. And then if it gets in, then I’ve got it! Well, now you have to do it. So you have to pull together all the things that you thought you had and sort of work it out.

And then, to actually write the talk, it’s a lot of drafting and sort of like trying to make whatever the argument is and then looking at it and thinking well, does that actually make sense? And if it doesn’t make sense, what’s missing, and like, where do I go to find that missing piece? Because somebody has researched whatever part, right? To help answer whatever question it is that I may not have.

Jorge: You used the phrase, “when I finished school,” and that triggered in me a recognition of the idea that there are folks who go to school — perhaps they get an undergraduate degree than a graduate degree, maybe even beyond that — but let’s say like they get an undergraduate degree and then they go into the workforce. And for many of them, they might think that they’re done with learning — like, they’re done with school. Like, somehow I’ve completed my education.

Kat: Yeah.

Jorge: And there are folks who I think are engaged in a project of self-driven perpetual education somehow. And what I’m hearing here — which is what sparks this recognition perhaps of you as a fellow traveler on that path — is that things like conferences give you the opportunity to… it’s an external motivator, right? To further pursue the sort of research that you’re discussing. Is that fair?

Concretizing thoughts

Kat: Yeah, I think so. And I think to concretize it or that’s… I don’t know that that’s a word! Get it out of just the abstract sort of like stuff I’ve encountered and things I’ve been thinking and like… I always worry that my talks are very dense and hard to follow. But if you’re going to ask someone to sit and listen to you for 20 minutes or 40 minutes and leave having understood what you said, then you have to structure it in a different way than if you’re just playing with the ideas in your own head. And then I find it’s ultimately useful to myself to have structured it that way as well. I can just keep wandering with ideas if it’s just me, right? But if I know I’m trying to communicate it to someone else, it needs to get into some sort of order.

Jorge: Yeah. I think that that reflects the idea that one of the best ways to learn a subject is to try to teach it, right?

Kat: Yeah.

Jorge: It forces some kind of internal order that you would not be engaged in if you were just reading for pleasure or just doing it on your own.

Kat: Yes.

Developing a system to remember

Jorge: Are there any methods or practices that you have found useful in this project of self-education? They don’t have to be formal systems; we all have different approaches to doing this stuff. I’m just curious about how you do it.

Kat: Yeah. So, I spent a long time in school because it… you know, I spent an extra two years in high school and then in community college a long time, and then I got a bachelor’s. And at each step, I sort of didn’t know where I was going and got through with good-enough methods, right? So, I never learned to take notes in high school or study because I just sort of… I learned what I learned, it took in what I took in, I did how I did. That’s how it was, you know? And I got a lot of anxiety around doing schoolwork when I went to college because I decided I was going to do this and this is what I should do. And, you know, a lot of insecurity and problems.

So, the methods I have developed are really reactionary to solve problems I was having with doing my work. The first way I took notes in classes was just to pay attention because I get distracted very easily; I have trouble focusing on what’s being said. And so, instead of trying to take notes in ways that I’ve been told are good ways to take notes to study from them, I accepted I wasn’t going to study from the notes. But it would be easier to do better if I paid attention, whether I took notes or not. And taking notes helps me pay attention.

In the same way, when reading… I read on paper. I print out PDFs to read them and I prefer to have my own copies of books. When I take out books from the library, I use post-it notes. But I find that I need to engage with a text while I read it and underline and write in the margins. Again, it’s when paying attention as much as to then go back and read those notes later. And I don’t think I’ve gotten a good practice. This is what I’m trying to develop now for then having notes I could look up later, being able to look it up, other than being like, “oh, it was on the bottom side of a left-hand page, somewhere in the middle,” and then spending a lot of time trying to find it. Which is what I ended up doing then, if I have to sort of pull it all together for a presentation is going back and trying to find it and make sure it’s real.

One thing I do when I take notes like at a lecture or a talk or a workshop or something is I have a second section. And this is, I think one of the things in the tweet that spawned this conversation perhaps, is having a section for my own thoughts. And that was because I’d get confused sometimes later. “Was that something they said or was that an idea I had?” And if it’s just an idea, I had that doesn’t mean that, you know… that’s going to need follow-up before you start asserting it places, right? “Oh, this is just like so-and-so’s work!” I mean, is it? Or you know… that connection is important, but being able to tell the difference later when I go look it up and can’t remember.

So, when I take notes on paper I’ll… ideally it’s a second color, but I can’t rely on myself to always have a second color pen. So it’s the right-hand side of the page is where I’m taking my own thoughts. And I do that in books as well. I find sometimes I’ll do the thing where the author will say something and I’ll circle it and I’ll write a whole thing in the margin and it’d be like, “well, what about blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” and then the very next paragraph they address exactly the situation. It’s not a useful note later, but at the time… well that tells me I was correctly understanding their point. That I had an objection that they also recognized and addressed.

Jorge: Listeners can’t see this, obviously, but I’m, grinning in recognition because I’ve had that experience. And I always get a little rush because it makes me feel like I’m in conversation with the author somehow.

Kat: Yeah. I think that’s a good way to put it — and I do better in conversation. Always in all the ways, then I feel like I do not.

Jorge: I want to call out a couple of distinctions that came up when you were describing how you do it. One is the distinction between taking notes during lectures versus taking notes when reading. And I do think that those are very different. In the one… when I’m doing it — and I’m actually taking notes as we’re talking now — that’s kind of a variant on that. Where I’m trying to set down ideas that are being said and that I want to be able to refer back to later, versus the more reflective type of note taking than one does when annotating a book in the way that you’ve been describing. So that was one distinction.

The other distinction that you brought up that I found very interesting was this distinction between… I’ll use the word highlighting, although you have not mentioned highlighting. But maybe calling attention to points that the author is making versus your interpretations of what you’re reading. And I find this approach of using different colored pens to be really interesting. I had not thought of doing that myself. It also sounds like for you, the position in the book, the position of the sticky notes on the page makes a difference, which I have heard other folks describe as well. But I was wondering if you could say a little bit more about that. You said that they sometimes go on one side of the book versus the other.

Kat: Oh, this is more, if I’m taking notes on a piece of paper.

Jorge: Oh.

Kat: That I put my own thoughts on the right side of a piece of paper and what I’m learning from a text or a lecture or something on the left side, to keep… if I do look at it later, to keep straight what was me and what was not me.

Jorge: Got it. Yeah. And that sounds kind of like a variant of something like Cornell notes, where you divide the page into areas that you dedicate one for setting down the ideas that you’re reading about or listening about, and the other for your interpretations, right?

A system that works with how you work

Kat: And it might… I think someone taught me Cornell notes at some point. It didn’t stick when they did. And I think this is… my notes are pretty messy, honestly. I have trouble with… I think it’s kind of funny to be talking about my notes because I don’t… and maybe this came out earlier.

I don’t think of myself as someone who has good note-taking practices. In part because a lot of my childhood was a lot of people trying to solve problems I was having by saying things like, “well, have you tried writing it down? What if you kept a planner?” And those things just don’t work with the way I work.

I think the idea of like, how you manipulate information for yourself or process. Like, what do you do with the abstractness of information? And that feels like what I’m doing. It’s storing pieces of it in places so I can use it better because my brain will let something go versus… and I think it, it sets people up to be less good at it. You know, if you’re taught through school that there are these ways… and then, you know, for a long time I just didn’t do it and I did fine at school. So, what do you know? But then at some point that doesn’t work anymore and you don’t have any self-knowledge of what you need out of your notes, right? If it was just something you were doing because other people said this is something to have to be doing.

Jorge: Yeah, and I think it’s a particular type of muscle that you have to work. And if you don’t work at it early, you will have to start later, you know?

Kat: I think something I’ve come to in other areas of my life too, is recognition that at some point in my past, I… like I said a moment ago about like rejecting the notes? Sort of like, “the things you’re saying don’t work for me, so I’m not like that.” And so, “there’s no value there for me or I’m not…” And it becomes almost like a defensive, right? Like the way I interact with this as always… there’s friction and the friction feels like it’s making me be the bad person and I don’t accept that. So, I don’t need this. And to get over that in like both the note-taking and other areas too, right? And think that I just needed something different, right? It’s not that taking notes is bad. I don’t know that I ever would have said, “taking notes is bad,” right? But the idea that I would take neat notes or you know… that doesn’t have to be that to still be a useful process.

Jorge: What I’m hearing there is that the notes become symbolic of a particular type of relationship where it’s like you’re telling me that I’m somehow inadequate and that because this is the prescribed remedy then maybe they… they acquire this emotional charge somehow.

Kat: Yeah. And I think that they’re still linked to that idealized… Like the Cornell notes that I would fold my… I do remember being taught Cornell notes. Fold the paper in half, right? So there are the two columns. And then that if I’m not getting those things right, somehow they’re less good as notes. Whereas just getting information on the page that you need on the page to help yourself. That’s the point! Not the structure or the ways of doing it.

And so, the idea of having a notebook… I see you have like a nice Moleskine. I take notes on printer paper because I can always find it. Wherever I am, there’s a piece of paper and I can’t be precious about which piece of paper because I can’t rely on myself to have it if it’s something special and if I don’t have it, then it breaks the ability to do it. And the same with having like a really structured format of notes is then if you’re thinking about, “well, what part should I be putting where?” Then I can spend a lot of time up in my head thinking about it, and now I’m not paying attention anymore, right? I’m thinking about the structure of the notes as their own thing.

And so this has sort of emerged reactionarily, like I said, you know? Having notes and then later being like, “I can’t tell if they said that or I said that!” And then being like, okay, we need to separate. Sometimes if I don’t have another colored pen, just write “me” over it or under it. And yeah. The same with my handwriting is really bad, so I don’t try and make it good. I just try, you know… as I write, I sort of look back and if it’s completely illegible, I’ll rewrite the one word that matters, right? So, some words or the one that you actually are going to need a jog your memory, and I’ll cross it out and write the word neater. Because I just know that I’m not going to ever have neat handwriting. So, I can’t have a system that relies on my notes being legible all of them all the time because then I’m doing the work to fix that instead of just getting on with what I’m trying to do.

Jorge: But are they legible to you?

Kat: Mostly. So I try and process the notes. And this is again why I think I took that workshop with you and Karl, and we’ll see how I transform it. Because I don’t have a good way to permanently take out all the kinds of information. So, functional-like, to do information for my job, I put in calendar events, you know? Right after a meeting, I’ll look at my notes and be like, “okay, what did I have to do?” But that is more — like we’re talking about — the learning or the figuring it all out. I have trouble making it more permanent than the piece of paper it’s on or the margins of whatever books it’s in.

Jorge: I have to circle back to the Moleskine comment because I’m even more precious it than that. And more obnoxious. I actually don’t use Moleskines because I don’t like the paper; it’s too thin. So, this is another brand. I don’t know how to pronounce it. It’s LEUCHTTURM1917.

Kat: Oh, I’ve seen them. Yeah, those are nice; I have a couple.

Jorge: I, probably didn’t pronounce that right. But, yeah. But, which is to say, different people take notes in different ways, right? And this one happens to work for me and I have a whole shelf full of notebooks that look just like this one going back many, many years. But, some people work better with sticky notes or with loose sheets of paper, just like you’re showing. The question that I always have, actually in either case is, what next? So, you take notes, right? Let’s say that you’re in a lecture or reading a book and you’re putting down ideas. Do you ever revisit those pieces of paper? What do you do with those notes?

Where the notes go

Kat: Yeah. I guess it depends on why I took them. I think I lose a lot more notes just to the chaos of the like, I never find them again. And like I was saying earlier, that accepting taking the notes has its own value for paying attention and sort of structuring the things as they’re being said, which is not… you know, it’s not ideal to lose them, but it’s still… it’s okay. The information got in my head better by taking them. But I will collect them in folders, like file folders? Notes sort of on a similar subject or the papers themselves, right? I print out PDFs of papers to try and keep them together and then I’ll have some session or something where I’ll… which is not… I mean, “session” makes it sound like I put time on my calendar.

They’ll just be some moment at which I’ll think about it all and I’ll pull them out and I’ll sort of write to myself on paper or draw some diagrams or try and like get the ideas that are in there to be things that I understand versus just sort of facts I know. Where, “oh, someone said such and such.” But then again, that can be… then what do I do with that? I don’t know! That just lives somewhere to for a while. So, those papers will float around for a while, especially if I’m thinking about one topic a lot. They’ll just sort of be around me, these papers with my scrawled diagrams. And then eventually I throw them away. If I say, okay, that’s, you know, they’re working papers, not, products.

Jorge: Yeah, what you’re saying sounds recognizable to me in that, in doing research for the book, I’ve come to better understand the distinction, which I think many of us grok intuitively just because of how we work, but which I now think of as a thing. And it’s a distinction between taking notes for recalling stuff — notes as a kind of memory augmentation device versus note-taking as a substrate for thinking, right? This whole extended mind thing.

Last year I had a couple of conversations in the podcast when with Annie Murphy Paul, who wrote a book called The Extended Mind and the other with Karl Fast and both of those conversations focused on this idea of embodied cognition. The fact that the mind operates somehow in interaction with the world, right? And what I’m hearing you say is that… well, the first thing you said which I thought was very important is, “it depends.” Which is the information architects’ phrase.

Kat: Yeah.

Jorge: Do you revisit notes? Well, it depends. And it depends on what you’re doing it for, right? Which is totally understandable! If what you’re doing is going out to the grocery store or something, you know, those are going to be fleeting by definition.

Kat: Yeah.

Jorge: But there’s also a value in the act of putting pen to paper itself, right? In some important way that thinking is happening between the meat computer that we have between the ears and the paper, right? There’s some kind of feedback loop happening there that is generating ideas that wouldn’t come about otherwise.

Kat: Yeah. I think my note-taking changed when I stopped trying to take notes because that’s what good people do, right? The right thing to do in this situation is to be taking notes. And there are all these methods that people have for taking notes. And everyone says taking notes would solve the problem. And instead, you know, just thinking of this like, “well, it’s a tool.” Like, what do I need right now from my ability to put information on the piece of paper and how do I use that? And I think this idea of notes extending the mind… there’s… I’m not going to remember the law or the rule, whoever’s, you know, the org chart, the information products of an organization mimic the order.

I think my notes mirror the way my brain works, right? The main sections that I have in my notes are based on the parts of my brain. So, I allow myself to doodle or just write random things that come into my head because that lets my brain let them go, and then I can stay focused on what I’m doing. And so having a section where it’s okay to just write whatever is fine. And then, thinking in that way about what I need from a note right now.

I’ve started taking notes in the past year or two when I’m task switching. So switching between tasks often I can get lost and distracted. And so, you know, if I’m working on something and then I say, “oh, you know what, I need to go look up in the library backend this bar code to see what’s actually going on in the record.” You know, I might write what am I doing when I now open my browser, which has the whole internet and everything on it. And then go to this place because of the number of places I could get distracted in the middle and forget what I’m doing. But that’s like the most fleeting of notes, right? Because as soon as I make three clicks, I don’t need it anymore. But just in case I got lost on the way. What was I trying to do? Yeah.

You know, since you reached out to me, I’ve been trying to think about what are all those different places where notes have emerged as the answer to some problem I was having, right?

Jorge: This, to me, is aligned with what you were saying earlier about our attitudes to education, and again, I felt a lot of resonance… or at least the recognition in myself because I, too, feel like I wasn’t a particularly engaged student when I was undergoing formal education. But I learned to love learning. And I’m always looking for ways of doing it better and have embraced a work discipline that if I had had it when I was in school, I would have had much better grades. But it’s just like now I’m engaged with the subject, you know?

It’s like you were saying, we all find our own ways. We all have different means of doing this. And I just thought that it was a nice circle back to the earlier part of the conversation. So, it feels like a good place to wrap up our conversation today. Where can folks follow up with you?

Closing

Kat: I’m on Twitter. I go by @katalogofchaos. Catalog with a “K,” like my name. That’s probably the best place. Yeah.

Jorge: Fantastic. Well thank you so much, Kat, for talking with me today!

Kat: Thank you, Jorge. It was fun. And helpful to myself to have a reason to think, you know, in a meta way about my own practices.

Jorge: Much like giving presentations.

Kat: Yes. Very much like that.

Categories
Episodes

Sam Ladner on Managing Research Knowledge

Sam Ladner is a sociologist, UX researcher, and student of productivity and the nature of work. She’s been a researcher at Amazon and Microsoft, and is currently Senior Principal Researcher at Workday. Sam is the author of two books on research, Practical Ethnography and Mixed Methods. In this conversation, we discuss sociology and ethnography in the context of organizations and how to manage the knowledge generated by research.

Show notes

Show notes include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Transcript

Jorge: Sam, welcome to the show.

Sam: Thank you Jorge! I’m happy to be here.

Jorge: Well, I’m happy to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please introducing yourself?

About Sam

Sam: Sure. I am a sociologist by training. I currently work as a senior principal researcher at Workday which is an enterprise software company. I’ve had a few roles in big tech and a few roles in design agencies. And prior to that, I was of course in grad school and a journalist, actually. I started out as a journalist… a tech journalist, years ago.

So I decided that tech journalism was very short and I didn’t get a lot of analysis that I wanted to get out of my work, so I decided to go to grad school. And I became a sociologist of work and technology. And that’s what led me into this role. I study how people work and how they use their technology while they are at work.

Jorge: That’s fascinating. I’m wondering about the connection between journalism and sociology. Like, were there things that you could bring forth from journalism to sociology?

Sam: Yes, but less than I had thought, actually. As a journalist, I kind of saw sociology and journalism as very similar. As I studied more, I realized quite quickly, actually, that there were a lot of things that I had to do as a journalist that were problematic. The way that you do interviewing, the way you’re always hunting for an angle or a quote. The way that you kind of corner your participants or your interviewees or subjects in your daily deadline grind.

You don’t do that as a sociologist. You spend a little bit more time with people and you interrogate yourself and your position in relation to them. And you spend more time analyzing and thinking and not looking for the angle. You don’t do that in sociology. You… well, you shouldn’t do that in sociology. You probably can’t get away with it for very long.

So, interviewing is a skill, so I did bring that forward. Many years of interviewing before I became a sociologist was good. But I had to kind of relearn a few of the things that I used to do.

Jorge: It sounds like both have to do with somehow unpacking what’s going on with people with the different intents somehow. That’s what I’m hearing.

Sam: Yes. You know, it’s interesting, you know, the book, The Corner, by the producers of “The Wire”? “The Wire” — the show — is based on The Corner, which is… you could call it creative non-fiction? I’m not going to call it an ethnography because it isn’t exactly. But I read The Corner many years ago and the amount of depths that they went in as journalists was huge. And the amount of structural analysis that they did was also uncharacteristically deep for journalism. And then I re-read it after I had done my own training and I realized that there was a lot in there that was different. They weren’t connecting it to existing ideas. I mean, there’s… you know, a couple of centuries worth of thought on what brings somebody to work on the corner, that these journalists either didn’t know about or didn’t care to mention. So, as sociologists, you’re also trying to figure out how does this instance — these people, their motives, and their desires and their thinking — relate to what we already know about groups of people. Journalism doesn’t do that. They don’t try to add to the knowledge base per se.

Jorge: So, spotting patterns over time?

Sam: Over time, but contributing to theory as well. You know, abstract explanations, as opposed to concrete instances. This person works on the corner for these reasons. Okay. How does that relate to other people having worked on different places that are either not the corner itself or maybe not even a corner, maybe there are other places that people go to work? How does that relate? So, those kinds of questions aren’t really something journalists answer.

Jorge: Speaking of contributing to the knowledge of the field and of books, you yourself have written two books, Mixed Methods and Practical Ethnography, right?

Sam: Correct.

Jorge: Can you speak a bit about those books, what they’re about, what their goal is?

Mixed Methods and Practical Ethnography

Sam: Sure. Yeah. My first book was really an answer to… there wasn’t a book that could help other people do what I was trying to do. I was looking for a book to help me do what I wanted to do and there wasn’t one. So, I decided as was a way of thinking or learning or figuring it out, I might as well write it. And so that’s what I did. So, it’s a guide to doing ethnography in the private sector. If you work at an institution like a University, it’s a very different context and the demands are different. The expectations are different. When you take that method and you apply it in the private sector, there’s a lot of things that are introduced that are not talked about in academia and academic ethnography.

So, for example, you don’t have clients in academic ethnography, but you certainly do in the private sector. So how do you grapple with that? How do you deal with that? That was really what that book was about, is how to adapt the method in such a way that it stays true to its original intent to elucidate cultural patterns, and to take the emic position that is the position of your participants, but still be able to do it within the context of a private sector organization.

My second book was actually coming from the same place. I was teaching a class with the Ethnographic Practice and Industry Conference, EPIC. Actually I’m going to be teaching it again, coming up the end of this month. I haven’t taught it in a while so… the class was trying to use ethnographic research design, but adapt it in order for you to be able to be a little bit more mixed methods. And again, there wasn’t a book that would allow you to do that. So, I thought, “you know, I think I should write this.” And again, it was me thinking, me working it out in my own mind, what’s important, what’s relevant. What do people need to know? What do I need to know? How do I think about this?

And I know that there’s something to it when I start asking myself questions and I just sit down and start writing and then I think, “okay. It’s worth understanding this more deeply and probably it will help other people.” So, that’s where the second book also came from was basically the same thing. In that case, it’s about mixing methods. And there’s a lot of people who work in the applied sectors, whether it be for-profit or government or not-for-profit who do mixed methods research all the time, but maybe don’t… you know, they probably encountered some challenges, doing it. Not sure why those challenges exist or where they came from or how to grapple with them? So, it’s like the missing textbook that helps them understand these are the essential qualitative differences between these two approaches. And this is how you can deal with those things: these are the kinds of problems you’re going to encounter, and here’s some techniques to deal with them.

Jorge: This is probably going to be a very newbie question, but folks in the audience might be wondering about the difference between ethnography and sociology.

Sam: Oh!

Jorge: How do those relate?

About ethnography

Sam: Well, ethnography is a method; sociology is a discipline — for starters. Anthropologists like to claim ethnography as their own, which is not altogether wrong. But there is a vibrant history of ethnography in sociology as well.

Anthropology is pretty much known for its like “exotic” locales for which it’s really grappling with in today’s world. When sociologists were doing ethnography, it was much more typical to see it in less “exotic” locations. Urban sociology, for example, understands… like The Corner is a good example of what might have been an ethnography hadn’t been done by a sociologist and added a little bit more theory to it.

The University of Chicago has a long history of doing sociological ethnography. There’s even an ethnographic work in some of our people that we think of as theoreticians, such as Pierre Bourdieu for example, looking at how taste and distinction plays itself out in practice. So, for example, he looked at how people eat. The difference between having a piece of cake cut and put on a piece of fine china with a silver fork versus sitting in its paper packaging on the counter and put onto a paper plate. These are thick descriptions that you would hear from Clifford Geertz’s classic work on this. This is a thick description, but it was a sociologist that did that kind of work. So, ethnography is a method. It doesn’t get owned by any particular discipline, but you don’t see it much out of sociology or anthropology.

Productivity and the nature of work

Jorge: In your website, you describe yourself as a student of productivity and the nature of work. And I’m very intrigued by that phrase. How do you mean? Like, in what way are you a student of productivity?

Sam: I am endlessly fascinated with how people get things done, why they want to get anything done. Why would you think productivity is important? I spent a year between my master’s and my PhD working at a think tank where I exclusively researched measuring productivity and innovation, which is this whole other realm. Like, how do economists talk about productivity? We use those words a lot. We talk about productivity a lot and it turns out economists have a very crude measure typically of what counts is productivity. It’s revenue per worker. So if you happen to be rich and well paid instantaneously, you’re more productive. That’s how magic works. I find that fascinating, that we take that kind of writ large, kind of wholesale.

I also really want to know how people like… you know, when you sit down to do something, whatever it is — maybe you’re cooking a meal, maybe you’re about to do your laundry, or maybe you’re about to write a paper or do a design or something — you set your tools all up, you know? What are your tools? What is your mise en place, as it were? Why? Where did that come from? You know, I find it enjoyable to do that work myself and I’m endlessly fascinated how other people do it and I just can’t get tired. I’m not tired of it. So, I’m I’ll be a student of it forever, probably.

Jorge: So I’m very curious to hear about your own mise en place when you’re doing…

Sam: My own?

Jorge: Yeah. When you’re doing this type of work, I mean… we’ve talked about at least two types of work. One is the research work, both in ethnography and other methods. And you’ve also talked about writing books. And my expectation is that there are different approaches to doing both of those, right? And I’m just wondering how you tackle them. Or perhaps another way to think about it is, how has studying how other people can be more productive influenced your own productivity?

The transom from data to insights

Sam: I think I’ve learned that I approach things quite differently, I think, than most people do when I do sit down to start something. I was literally just doing this today. I was kind of nudging another researcher to start thinking already about the outcome that they’re looking for. So, the way that I think of it it as a researcher, you bring in data and it goes through some sort of a barrier or a transom of some kind, and it comes out the other side, in insights. And I think about that barrier as like one of those big bubble frames that you use as a kid, you know? Where you’ve got like hundreds of little bubbles that come out of this big crane, you stick it in the water and you stick it up to the wind and the bubbles come out the other side, right? That frame? People don’t think about the frame as being so important. But I’m constantly thinking about that.

So, I’m thinking, “okay. So if I start by asking people questions in this way, with these tools, with these recording devices, with these questions … does it look like coming out the other side? Does it turn into a film? Is it evocative that way? Does it turn into structured data that I could maybe quantify or at least sort and filter? Does it turn into just a rich picture? Like, what does it turn into? And so I think a lot about that transom, that filter, that bubble maker. So, when I’m doing my mise un place for a new project, I think, “okay, where am I going with this?”

Case in point, I’m giving a presentation internally. We have an internal… kind of a conference, I guess you could call it. And I thought about doing a talk on this months ago when I started having… we redid our front yard and, we put rocks mostly in it. Got rid of the grass, you know, we have a few plants, but they’re low water, desert-oriented plants. And it’s like a rock garden now, with a few plants in it, except for we have this huge tree. And it started raining leaves down on these rocks. I was like… I had a suspicion that this was going to happen. Like I thought, “okay!”

You know, you don’t know until you do it, right? “Oh God, you know? I’ve got to get up there and sweep up all those leaves.” And I was doing it so regularly and with such wringing of hands and it made me think of so much of how work functions. Like it feels useless and it feels like tiny bits. I’m literally picking up leaves with my hands to some degree, you know? And then sweeping and moving. And I thought, “oh, you know that this is really… this is an interesting testament to work!”

And so, I started taking pictures and then I started keeping track of how many Trader Joe’s bags I filled up, worth of leaves. So I have the numbers of Trader Joe’s bags over time. Turns out I probably… that’s not going to be a great chart. But I thought maybe it might be a good chart, so I took it. And I thought, “oh, taking pictures is a good thing. I might be able to tell stories through taking pictures.” So, I took pictures and I put little captions on my pictures and then I took some video and then, you know, I thought, “oh! A video might be good. Okay. I’ll take some video!” And then I made little notes on the video.

So I was thinking, “there’s a transom here. I’m passing things through this transom. What’s coming out the other side? What bubbles? What’s the shape and form of these bubbles that I want?” I didn’t know, right? So I took a bunch of different shaped bubbles and I used those. That’s basically how I think about my work. And I don’t know if a lot of people think that way because they’re not thinking necessarily about generating knowledge, which is all I ever think about.

Jorge: What I’m hearing by this analogy of the transom is that we somehow have to start with the end in mind. Is that a good way of putting it?

Sam: Yeah. And “somehow” is a really good word choice, because you don’t necessarily know what the outcome is going to be, right? So you become… if you’re too proactive with your mise en place with designing your transom, you become very narrow in what kinds of outcomes you can power. And if you’re too open-ended, it becomes voluminous and unworkable. You have to figure out what is the right altitude, and it’s almost impossible to know when you start. Almost always impossible to know. So you don’t have to like tolerate some ambiguity for longer than you like.

Starting with a goal in mind

Jorge: If you’re working towards writing a book, you’re going to be doing certain types of research, capturing certain types of notes, grouping them in certain ways that might be different if what you’re doing is researching a new feature for a product or something like that, right? Like, the goal of writing a book calls for certain types of ideas expressed in certain ways that are different from the sort of insights that you’re going to want if you’re redesigning a product, for example.

Sam: Yeah, it’s true. However, what’s interesting… well, maybe this is kind of a product of how long I’ve been in the same space, but I find that the general categorization that you mentioned, those categories actually don’t change radically regardless of what I’m working on. It could be because I am very much focused in the area of work and technology. Like, I haven’t really written outside those lines.

I’m trying to think of a good example. If somebody asks me to do research on something completely new — I don’t know, hardware, ear pieces, okay? I’ve never done any work on earpieces. And if it’s a consumer product, I have no categorization really ready to go there. But it’s rare these days that I really have to reinvent my categorizations, generally. These codes, or tags that I use not all of them are going to be relevant to every single project, but I kind of already know generally what categories might be… you know what I should start looking for. Whether it be the testing of this feature, or discovery for this new idea, this new product or writing a new book. They’re all going to be very similar. There’s going to be overlap between them.

Jorge: You’ve spoke earlier of the… I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but you spoke of the creation of knowledge or the building of knowledge, and it sounds like you’ve developed a… I’m going to call it taxonomy of categories that could be maybe a map or some kind of organizational schema for this knowledge. I’m just going to call it “the knowledge.”

Sam: The Knowlege. Yes!

Jorge: Is that taxonomy manifested in any kind of system? Like, do you have an app where you track these things or is it just internalized?

Tagging across platforms

Sam: Oh, no, it is very real in multiple places. Once upon a time, everything was very analog. But now, even my book reading is mostly digital, partly because of this power that it offers. I read on Kindle. I read on Overdrive. I read on Libby. And when I code in tag, those tags will be similar to the codes and the tags that I have in Notion, the tags that I have in Mendeley, which is an academic citation management system. It even corresponds roughly to my own personal information architecture and my own files, so the folders may have similar names. Actually, they pretty much do have similar names.

I read on Pocket. I push those to Readwise. I push my Kindle highlights to Readwise. Those have tags that are the same, more or less. I mean I, you know, innovate obviously, and some of these tags are very, like, not relevant to “work” at all. Like I have a whole section on, you know, health and fitness. I’m always reading about new workouts and things like that. And so I can find something like, “oh, I know I read an article about high intensity resistance training.” I can find that very quickly.

Jorge: Do you have a centralized way of doing that? Or do you have to remember like, “I remember that I saw that article on Fitness in Pocket versus Notion,” or whatever. Do you have a way of finding things that isn’t…

Sam: Yeah, so articles and non-academic, web-based reading I’ll push to Pocket, which in turn pushes to Readwise. Books will be in Kindle and they’ll push to Readwise. The highlights will anyway. Mendeley is academic. So if anything’s academic, it’s going to be in Mendeley. If it’s a peer reviewed paper, for example, I know it’s going to be in Mendeley. And I can’t push it too to Readwise, unfortunately. And then Readwise gets pushed into Notion. So if I don’t remember where it was or what format it took? I might probably start in Notion in my Readwise database and Notion and I’ll find it. And let’s say, I find it’s an article. I’ll be like, “oh, that’s in Pocket.” I know where that is. I’ll go find it.

Pruning your taxonomies

Jorge: How about refactoring some of these tags? I mean, what you’re describing sounds very familiar to me in that I do something similar, and use in fact many of the same tools that you’re calling out there, including, Kindle, Overdrive, Libby and Readwise. And one of the challenges that I find is that my taxonomy of tags is continuously evolving and I feel like every once in a while I have to go back and prune it a little bit because it can get out of control.

Sam: Yes.

Jorge: Have you found good ways of doing that given that it’s distributed among all these different systems?

Sam: Yeah, that is… “prune” is a very good word for that because it is pruning, right? When you prune a tree, it’s not going to stay pruned. Like you have to go back, right? You have to prune it again. So, I try to treat it not as a big, one- off session where I sit down and I prune all my tags. I try to keep it as an iterative process on a regular basis.

I’m trying to think of a good example and I can’t off the top of my head, so I’ll just make one up. But let’s imagine that my older saved files, right? Let’s say something I read in grad school in 2004 or something like that. I found I’m like, “okay. There’s this article that I read. It’s a peer reviewed article. It’s in Mendeley.” I look at the tags that I added in there, and they seem archaic to me. I might add simply a new tag that is a little bit more of my contemporary taxonomy, just when I see it. I won’t go through… I mean, I’ve literally got 4,000-5,000 citations in Mendeley. I’m not going to go through all of those individually. But when I see it, I will update it. And because it’s not a field, I won’t be displacing the existing tag if I add a new one. I don’t feel compelled to go back and delete old ones, necessarily. I’ll just augment and add an additional tag. I’ll do it on a regular basis. Just a little bit of pruning, you know, every couple months.

Jorge: I mean, It sounds like the objective is not necessarily to have a system of perfect tags, but to have one that is practical and usable, right?

Sam: Correct. Anybody who’s tried to make the perfect system will discover quite quickly that they’ll outrun it. So I don’t really remember when I kind of gave up on that, but I did. I was like, “nope! There’s no need to worry about it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be… as you say, practical, usable.” You know, something that is actionable and it produces good enough results. Doesn’t have to be perfect. I think it was probably about a decade ago that I gave up on perfection on that one. I’m glad I did because I just kept going with my imperfection and it turns out over time it yeilds great results.

Jorge: Yeah. One of my favorite words is Herbert Simon’s neologism, “satisficing.”

Sam: Satisficing, yes!

Jorge: It’s like, yeah, it satisfices, right? It does what it needs and I’m not going to spend more time on it than necessary to keep it doing what it needs.

Sam: In the literature, satisficers are far more happy than maximizers, which is a fascinating finding. So that’s your answer right there. Which should you be? Well, if you want to be happy, be a satisficer.

Jorge: That seems like a great place to start winding down the conversation. I’m wondering, what — if anything — folks listening in my learn or might apply, particularly from sociology, that would help them in their own productivity… but in a way that satisfices, right? Like, without going overboard.

Thick description

Sam: You know, I think thick description was a really… I mean, that’s actually from anthropology, I’ll be fair, that’s not from sociology, but close enough. Thick description and understanding what that means will help you in your own personal note-taking and information architecture. And what does that mean? It means: I’m sure everybody here has looked at old notes that they’ve taken and, you know… complete confounding wonder, “What did I mean by this? It’s a single bullet point and it doesn’t mean anything to me!” Anthropologists knew that this was one of the reasons why most research is not very good; it’s because it didn’t have enough thick description.

Thick description doesn’t mean writing deeply every single time about every single thing. It’s about choosing the things that in the future will have sufficient ambiguity to be meaningless unless you give the context around it. The classic example that Clifford Geertz gave was “the wink.” If you see somebody wink, it’s not the same as a blink. If somebody blinks, that’s an inadvertent movement of the eye. And if you don’t have thick description, a wink will, in your notes, will just appear exactly the same as a blink. A wink has cultural context, significance, message, a web of significance as Geertz says.

So, knowing when and where to dive deep into thick description is very useful, even if it’s just a few sentences. I actually have to force myself to do this. Still to this day, I’m like, “oh, you’re not going to understand what this means in two minutes. Just add another sentence. Just one sentence.” Or, “oh, and the reason I the write, this is because…” you know? If you say things like, “John objected to this thing in the meeting,” what? Why? Who’s John? I don’t… what’s he objecting about? And I don’t even know who John is. “John P.,” you know, “when he joined the meeting objected to speed at which we had already made a decision,” period. Way more useful.

Jorge: Yeah. If I might I reflect that back to you, what I’m hearing is that, whenever we’re making a note — whether it’s a note to self or a note meant to be used by other people — it doesn’t suffice to capture things let’s say verbatim. You must also add enough context for that to make sense.

Sam: Exactly. And sometimes verbatim is even worse. Because you actually can get away with less, if you do the context instead of the verbatim. Because the spirit of what happened or the thing that you want to remember isn’t a long verbatim transcript. It’s just simply a sentence or maybe a short paragraph that gives the context. So we tend to think of verbatim as more complete, and an actual fact is often less complete.

Jorge: Yeah, it might be factual, but that doesn’t mean it’s truthful, somehow.

Sam: Exactly so, yes.

Closing

Jorge: Well, this is very, very helpful. Thank you so much, Sam. Where can folks find you?

Sam: You can find me on LinkedIn. That’s probably the best place to make a connection because I will accept it, I’m sure. You can also find me on Twitter, @sladner is a good place to find me. If you want to look up some of the work that I’ve done, you can just Google me; I come up in various places, including my own website.

Jorge: Fantastic. Well, I’m going to include links to all of those in the show notes.

Sam: Sounds good.

Jorge: Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Sam,

Sam: It is my pleasure. And I am excited for your book. I really… when’s it coming out by the way.

Jorge: It’s scheduled for 2023.

Sam: Oh gosh. That’s such a long way away.

Jorge: Well, we’re just getting started now, so…

Sam: Well, that’s good. I’m excited. I will be paying attention to your pre-order; when that drops, I will buy it.

Jorge: Thank you so much. Well, thank you for being here again.

Sam: My pleasure.

Categories
Episodes

Austin Govella on the IA of Note-taking

Austin Govella is a user experience design lead at Avanade, a global professional services company. He’s the author of Collaborative Product Design and co-author of the second edition of Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web. In this conversation, we focus on Austin’s note-taking system and its relation to his work in UX design and information architecture.

Show notes

Show notes include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Transcript

Jorge: Austin, welcome to the show.

Austin: Yeah, I’m excited to be here. Looking forward to the conversation.

Jorge: We were just talking before we started recording, saying that we’ve known each other for a long time. But many folks listening in will not be familiar with you. How do you introduce yourself to folks who you’ve never met?

About Austin

Austin: Well, you know, it’s just about tax season right now. And every year I take great pride in putting information architect as my career on my tax form. But I work at a global consultancy called Avanade, and I lead kind of cross-functional teams and we design products and services and strategy for you know, big enterprises that kind of focus on Microsoft stuff. So, usually I just go with the easy user experience lead, as kind of how I introduce myself.

Jorge: When I hear “Microsoft stuff,” does that mean that it’s mostly for internal systems, for the internal systems of companies? Stuff like SharePoint?

Austin: That’s a common perception for sure, right? And that was definitely my perception when I started. At this point especially though, Microsoft is really just become just a big platform. So they have, servers and middleware and databases and front end frameworks. So you could be… from the design perspective, we are just on a platform. But, as with any design, the closer you are to the actual physical stuff that you’re molding, the better you are. The more things you can do, the more things you can see to do with it, that other people don’t necessarily see. So that really does make it more open. And then a lot of it is just digital marketing stuff that sits on top of something like Adobe Experience or just gorgeous websites or apps.

Jorge: Yeah, I’m fascinated by this phrase, “being closer to the stuff that you’re working with.” I think that’s how you phrased it. Does that mean like being closer to the implementation technologies?

Where the building hits the street

Austin: Yeah, I guess that’s being the proxy of the developers or technical architects you work with. But now, especially I’m really interested in the new emerging stuff that is coming out for workplace experiences, that’s where I’ve been focusing on the years. Being able to talk to an engineer or the Microsoft product team about how things are architected and the journey that that sets up for the platform or that particular product is… it’s amazing.

You can imagine, if you were like thousands of years ago and you’re talking to the first Roman engineer who’s designing a road, and you’re talking to him about, what do they see roads are going to be able to do and how difficult is it to make them? And how do you decide how wide they are? What type of grade do they go up and down? Being able to understand those questions means that you could then go and plot out highway systems, map them out for all of Europe, long before they’re able to build them. And so that kind of closeness with the Microsoft technology gives us the ability on the design side to do that.

Things that I could do that for example, when I work on like a Salesforce projects, I don’t have nearly as much familiarity with Salesforce. So I bump into a lot more… edges, right? You know, you bump your elbows a lot more. And that’s the same thing for any framework. I think any designer who works on any product or system somewhere, there is a platform they’re in and you get really just acclimated to which way the water flows, right? Where you can jump in and out and places where things are just immovable. It’s just a hard constraint.

Jorge: I love this analogy with the Roman roads. It really brings it to life. But the way that I’m understanding it is that the familiarity with the technology has to do with understanding its capabilities and constraints, which you do at the moment of trying to implement something with the technology. And in so doing, you can then understand how those capabilities and constraints might be brought to bear on other problems. So, understand it universally. Is that a fair take on that?

Austin: Yeah! No, I think that’s a fair take. And the only thing that I would add to that is, I’ve been reading a lot of architecture stuff lately and your background is in architecture, so I am… and I looked at Phillip Johnson, so I was reading something that Phillip Johnson said. But he talked about how his focus was not the materials per se, other than what the materials looked like. His focus was on how the building hits the street. Like that point at the ground where people are walking by and they walk in.

And that really blew my mind! That his focus was where essentially, where the building hits the road, right? And less so about the building. And he said as long as it’s feasible, he didn’t care. Like that he wasn’t concerned about any of that stuff. And it made me think back to back when I really did more kind of pure information architecture work, where I really was more concerned with where kind of the IA hit the user and less concerned about technology, like what the constraints were. I was really focused on that point. But since I’m doing broader design work over the years, I’ve become more and more concerned about the materials. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing per se, but it was just… I don’t know, it’s just interesting difference in approach that just struck me.

Jorge: Yeah, I share that concern. I’ve long said that information architects — and designers in general — need to understand the materials that we’re working with and the technologies that allow us to mold those materials, use them in different ways. But the reason why we are talking today is that we have a shared interest in note-taking systems. And I have gotten the sense just from the stuff that you write about on Twitter that you have, or are in the process of building for yourself — I think we’re all kind of in the ongoing process of building for ourselves — some kind of note-taking system. And I’m very curious, about what role notes play in all of this. You know, the work that you’ve been describing; what do notes do for you?

Reducing friction

Austin: They perform a couple of important functions. So, I think my focus recently on really understanding a system that works, that can remove some friction points is because my home life is… my home life is crazy. My wife has a chronic condition. I have a four-year-old right now. He’s no longer a toddler, so he’s less maintenance, but he was really premature. So, anytime he has a weird cough, we’re off to go see another specialist, you know, just in case. And then I have my day job. And my day job as a consultant being a more senior resource, I have probably more than one project that I’m working on. I have a couple of sales things I’m working on. I have capabilities, things that are coming like early opportunities maybe. We are discussing things and internal trainings that I do. So, there is a ton of stuff for me to forget, essentially.

So, at home, you have this thing where I have… I don’t have time for friction at home. If I want to sit down and I’m working on stuff for a website or working on a book, I just need to get to work. Jump right in. I’ve got 15 minutes, 30 minutes, maybe I have an hour, hour and a half. I don’t have time for friction. And at work, it’s the same thing. If I need to figure out when the last time was I met somebody or what we talked about or what the decision was or what the next action for some initiative is, the faster I can do that, the better able I am to do my job.

So, my interest is really been honed to a really fine point recently because it’s become critical in order to free me to function the way that I want to function. And maybe better than I functioned in the past, perhaps. And I’m getting older. I bet my memory isn’t as good. So, time constraints, my memory is kind of fading. So I’ve noticed a need… or I guess I’m hoping, I’m aspiring to assist in that will help me fill these gaps that I’ve been coming across.

Jorge: I would imagine that this challenge of switching contexts has only gotten worse during the pandemic when we’ve, for the most part, been working from home. Folks who do consulting work like we do, right?

Austin: Oh, no, absolutely. And to tie it back to notes, that’s actually the part… the biggest place of friction I’ve found with my notes in that we take different types of notes. Or, we note different types of things. Tasks. You note things in your calendar that are timed events. But I’ve always taken notes and scribbled in notebooks about design stuff. I’m a writer and I like to write longer form things. So, I’m always doing that. But for work, I’ve come across… I’ve always taken kind of like these daily fleeting notes, right? There’s a note about the project, notes about the meeting and notes about what I did that day. Because I have to record the time that I’m doing.

But I’ve noticed there is a massive switching costs going from being in the, “I’m taking these fleeting, reference type notes,” to switching over to wrestling with and swimming through the atomic-like thinking type notes, where you’re exploring new concepts or learning new things or making new connections.

Whenever I do my weekly reviews — and I don’t quite do them weekly — but I’m going through essentially my inbox and I use Obsidian and all my new notes get stored in that inbox folder. And when I’m going through there, I have to take two passes. The first pass is to go through and identify the fleeting reference type notes: notes for people I met or notes for meetings or notes were projects or things like that. I do a pass to file those away properly.

And then I have to do a second pass to go through and find the concept stuff because the decision logic I use to understand, to keep, or file, or delete one of those fleeting reference type notes is a totally different way of thinking than thinking about those idea information notes. Like it’s just totally separate brains. So found that to be… like that switching cost, just a different set of thinking there, is a huge, huge friction point.

Jorge: It sounds like the first of those steps has to do with some kind of triage, right? It sounds like it’s determining whether it is a fleeting note or a note that deserves greater attention or further processing. Is that right?

Austin: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right.

Jorge: And And then the second step, it sounds to me like it has to do with, perhaps making connections with other things — maybe categorizing it, maybe deciding where it goes into the system.

Connecting notes

Austin: I think that’s fair, and it’s probably the different levels. Like, if it’s a person and it’s a note that I’m going to keep then I know exactly where it goes. It’s just a reference that goes to my people folder, no big deal. But if it’s a note that requires more thought, then I have a default place for that, right. Just the default standard notes place.

But then there are places where I don’t like moving stuff there until it’s a little more formed, right? I don’t believe notes are ever final, other than references. But you know, if you’re kind of your thinking-type, atomic, or zettelkasten-type notes, I think those are always evolving, right? And they should be.

If it was one of those types of notes though I do want to have it be just a little bit more formed, I want to make sure that the title is making some type of claim so the title sums up to note, so at a glance, I know what it is. And then, it should connect to one of the other concepts somewhere that I have. They don’t always, but I mean, I’ve been doing this for a year now in Obsidian, so it’s very, very rare now that it doesn’t connect to something that I’ve been interested in before. So, figuring out how that works.

And a lot of times the connection is a missing link, right? So it’s a note that doesn’t — or concept — that I haven’t captured before, so I have to make… you know, in Obsidian you just make a reference to a note that doesn’t exist and it stays and it just continues not to exist. But it says, “hey, you know, you’ve got a link to this idea.” So, I do that. But that takes some thinking, right? That’s not just like, “oh, Hey! I talked to Jorge today. So I have a note about Jorge. I’m gonna put that my people folder, right?” That’s super easy. Requires no thought. And it shouldn’t require any thought. But those thinking ones are harder. Like that’s… there’s a lot of wrestling there.

Jorge: Sounds like those steps might require a different mindset. Like the triage step, I can imagine, can be done almost… not automatically, but like it’s a sort of thing that where I would put on… maybe one way to distinguish it is like, what kind of music do you put on in the background? Like for the first step, I can put distracting music on and I can still do it, if it’s just triage. But for the second step, I would need ambient music or something really calm. Like I need to be in a different mind space, right? So, I’m wondering if it’s something that if you do both steps at the same time or if you make time to do one and then time to do the other. You said you have a weekly review. Do you do both?

Austin: Yeah. I do them in sequence, though. I do a pass to do the triage of the fleeting stuff. And then I go back through and pick out a few kind of interesting idea notes. They take longer, so I don’t get through as many of them at all. But it’s fulfilling work. It’s the type of work I think a lot of people talk about notes as stuff they want to do, right? You’re trying to think about ideas and what they mean, their implications. So, that’s good.

Jorge: So, in that second step, you talked about making connections with other notes and you referenced linking, which in Obsidian… and I’m an Obsidian user as well. In Obsidian you can create what are called wiki-style links, where you’re basically typing and inline you create this link to this other note, whether it exists or not, like you said. You can also, when using Obsidian, use tags for categorization, and I’m wondering if you are using tags at all, and if so, how?

Tags, principles, and process

Austin: I use tags in three ways. Which is funny when I try in CMSes, it’s usually two types of tags for metadata on something. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence or not. But the first one like a status thing, and it’s really just binary. It’s, ” do I need to go back and touch it?” And the tag is “touch.” This thing hashtag touch. And that I can do a quick look at those. And those are typically ones that are left in the inbox, or maybe there’s someplace else where I need to go and add a topic tag or there’s something I need to go do, but it’s something straightforward and simple. I look at the note and get a sense that it just needs a little bit of cleanup.

The other type of tag is topic tags. But they’re very broad. So, things like… I don’t think I have “design” as a tag. It’d be too broad for the stuff that I capture. But, “behavior” is one, and I have one for psychology and some notes have psychology and behavior because those are… the behaviors are really a subset. But broad, broad swaths of stuff. And a lot of times those I use just to give stuff a shape, right? And so you can look at the graph, and you can turn tags on it and I can see… I’ve seen some times where, and this happened with psychology, actually. The psychology tag got really, really big on the graph.

And that told me that I needed to have… there was something there to go look at. And so I ended up making a… kind of a map of context, psychology, index-type note that kind of organized my psychology stuff. And so, then I had that note there. I’d have a note about psychology. I don’t typically have notes about topics like that. But those topics can also identify when something isn’t nuanced enough.

So, I had a really big “workshops and design thinking” became a really, really big note because I’m really interested in like collaboration and how design works there. And that actually… instead of signifying that I needed like a map of content, it signified that my thinking wasn’t nuanced enough. And so, I was able to go in and kind of identify… kind of pull it apart so it was cleaner, right? So I use tags — topic tags — in that way to help me get a sense of the shape of the information I’m working on.

And then the last way is I actually use… oh, I can’t remember his name. I use tags to identify the type of information. And this is a taxonomy that is… it’s well established. But whether it’s a fact, a concept, a principle, it’s a process or procedure, right? So it’s just a simple taxonomy. And the way I use those as a lot of the stuff that we read, or that I read at least is, it talks about concepts, right? So, for example, like you might, if you’re reading about food, maybe it’s that protein enhances the brain’s ability to focus.

For example, that’s just a concept. But in order for me to apply that, or make an argument, I have to turn that into a principle. I have to derive a principle from that. And so, the principle might be, “start your day with protein so you can improve your productivity and focus.” That’s a principle is something you should be doing. And you derive it from a concept though, and then if I’m really good, I can turn that into a process. So, I have a process for breakfast. You prepare food, you eat and clean up.

And then if you’re really, really good… if it’s something that I do all the time, like make personas or plan workshops or something, I create procedures, right? That I take and break down that process into steps 1, 2, 3. So, in this example, maybe that might be steps one to three for cooking an egg, to make a scrambled egg for breakfast. So… and you can come in any way, like you can pick up a process off a Medium article, “How to cook an egg.” and you can deconstruct that all the way back to the concept, or even to an underlying fact behind the concept.

I use this a lot when I explore a new area. I have all these concepts, but no principles. And I can derive principles… the principles helped me understand more about why the concepts are important. In the same way with a lot of stuff that I read about design, it’s more principles, right? So, psychology is probably more concepts, and then for design, it’s more principles, right? Because that’s just where we are.

But I can work on driving the concepts and that’s something I’ve been doing with design thinking, which has been really valuable because that’s, what’s allowed to be totally reframe my point of view on some of these topics to where that now I think design thinking isn’t about design at all. I think it’s about decision-making. And that design isn’t about interfaces in any sense, it’s just a scientific process for making decisions about fuzzy topics. That’s totally like antithetical to how I saw design thinking, design two years ago. But it comes from deriving concepts from the principles. And that’s been very valuable kind of approach for me.

Jorge: Am I understanding correctly that this process of going from a concept to a principle to a process to procedures is something that you document in your note-taking system? Or is it more kind of internal something that you’re doing, that you’ve internalized and haven’t expressed in your notes?

Austin: Oh, no, I definitely wrote that down. Yeah. And I try and write a lot of process down. I think… that’s something you see in the PKM communities, people will show the processes. In the beginning I thought that was just procrastination around, you know… you’re thinking more about the notes you could take than actually taking notes. However, given my time constraints, if I have a new set of tags that I come up with for some reason, having those written down somewhere — like, I have an index notes that is a list of my tags. — being able to come back two weeks later and just glance at that and refresh myself about where I was, is really important because, like I said, I have huge time pressures and I’m probably… my memory is probably starting to slide. I’m not that old, but I definitely feel like I forget more things than I used to .

Jorge: The reason I asked that is that I make a distinction between what I call work and meta-work. And work is, you know, the work of thinking or researching or getting things done. And then meta-work is working on the systems that allow you to do the work. And one of the risks that is inherent in all of this stuff is that we can end up spending more time — or a lot of time — doing meta-work relative to the work that’s getting done. And the phrase that people use for this is “productivity porn,” this notion that we’re fiddling around with tools rather than actually getting stuff done. And I’m wondering if that… and I say that because you also mentioned the PKM community and PKM I think means ” personal knowledge management,” yeah?

Austin: Yeah.

Jorge: And one of the things that I’ve always been a little wary of is that in working with systems like Obsidian or Roam Research, or some folks are using Notion, I sometimes go on YouTube to learn how to use these tools better and I see these folks who are spending like an inordinate amount of time creating these incredibly baroque systems, right?

Austin: Yeah.

Jorge: And then taking notes about how they’re taking notes. At which point I’m like, “well, you know, but is it really…” you know? Like I can put myself in their shoes and think, “well, would I be actually doing work here or would I be working on the tools?” And that’s a line that I’m always very careful to not stumble over. Has that been an issue for you or is it something that you feel like you have under control?

Structure as scaffolding

Austin: I feel like I have it under control, but I think it’s critically important — the meta-work is. And if we turn it back to information architecture, if you think about that information architecture is essentially kind of… it’s a cultural agreement among all the players in the system that you’re going to just follow these concepts. And you don’t have to design in information architecture for a big kind of enterprise internet, right? You don’t have to. Like, people just start putting stuff up there and giving things names and tagging stuff and searching for stuff. And it works okay, right? Not really well, but it works all right. But taking the time to do the information architecture piece, just get some agreement, right? 60 to 80% or whatever you get. So that more people know how things are supposed to happen.

But I noticed with note taking is there’s kind of two pieces, right? The first is that each of the different… when people will pick a note taking system, right? Whether they’re doing daily fleeting notes or they’re kind of doing something more atomic kind of evergreen note taking, they’re not really looking for a tool. They’re looking for a way, right? Because a lot of people are new to this. They don’t have a way already.

If you’ve been doing this for a while, then you already have kind of your way of doing things. You look for tool that they’ll let you work in that way. But a lot of people pick up a new tool like Obsidian and they don’t know where to start because Obsidian is just… it’s an IDE for thinking, right? It’s like a development environment for thinking. If you think about VS Code or back in the day we used Homesite …you open it up, and it’s just empty. But you would then go and build all kinds of sites and applications using this tool, and it’s empty.

Whereas a lot of other tools, like Roam Research and Logseq, and there’s another one called Reflect. They have a way. They start with the daily note and that’s kind of like your entry point, your spine. And so, if you can follow that way, that gives you an entry point into the tool. But that’s like a cultural kind of agreement you have. And I think that’s the exciting thing about something like Obsidian is you can make it fit your way. That’s also the downside though, right? Is that if you don’t have the way you have to find one and that that’s where the meta work comes in.

But I think the other piece is that if you don’t have the habit or you’re exploring new stuff, then you need some kind of structure and process. And it’s better if you have that documented. I don’t think it has to be All fancy, but just documented. I keep an index list that has most… it doesn’t have all my tags, but it has most of them. I documented like this… the information taxonomy that I use between from concept to principle to process… key things that I use all the time, I document so I can go back and remind myself if I need to.

But one of the things I’ve noticed with my templates, for example, that I use in my note-taking system is at the beginning, they were very much more baroque and ornate, had all these headers and sections in them, and I had a lot more plugins that I use to help automate different things. But as my habits set in, I realized I didn’t need that stuff. That stuff was really there to help me form the habit. And either it provided guidelines that kind of made sure that I kept pointed in the right direction, it was kind of in keeping with my goals and objectives. Or it created safety rails, to make sure I didn’t mess something up or forget something.

And as I’ve continued to optimize my system, my daily note template now is just the date at the top of the page. There’s nothing in the page at all. I used to have all the settings. And my template for like an automic type of evergreen thinking type of note is… I used to have all this stuff in comments about, “remember this metadata, and this metadata,” and now it just has three placeholder tags and a place for the title. Because I’ve internalized all that stuff.

And so all that stuff goes away. But if you internalize something and then you know… there’s something you’re doing, but you don’t remember why you did it this way, and so you try it a different way? And you’re like, “oh!” Something messes up, and you’re like, “oh, that’s, that’s why we did it this other way.” if that structure falls away and you forget it, it’s out of sight. So you just forget what it was or someone else comes into your system, they don’t know why you did things a certain way then you’ve lost. The information architecture is faded, right? If it’s not visible and referenceable, it’ll fade, or it’s more likely to fade maybe? Maybe that’s what we’re saying.

Jorge: I’m tempted to try to derive a principle here based on what you’ve been saying. And what I’m hearing is that — and I’m going to generalize — structure, as manifested in things like the templates, right? That’s like adding structure. Or you talked about Roam Research having this daily note construct, which is their structural nudge. Structure works well as a kind of scaffolding at the beginning before you have built the habits that make that structure unnecessary somehow. And going by habits might… would it be fair to say that it’s desirable to move on from the structure? Is that what you’re suggesting with that principle?

Meta-work for future you

Austin: Well, I’m definitely at the point now where, I thought so, right? It was optimized in that direction, but I’m not certain. And part of that is because one of the reasons that personal knowledge management so interesting to me is I work on knowledge management for enterprises all the time. Like these big enterprise systems. And, it’s always considered as part of like, how does the enterprise manage its knowledge? But if you really think about it from the human-centered perspective, the enterprise is just all these people and all these people are managing their knowledge independently and it all gets dumped into like a big morass. And you hope for some kind of common cultural conventions so you can all find stuff the same way. Or I can find your stuff the way that I would find my stuff.

If the only audience for your note-taking system is just you, even then, it’s not just you. It’s past you and future you as well. If future you won’t remember what tag you used for behavior then they’re going to use a different tag and then they’ll just make your system a little more janky, then it’s worth having the tags written down. So you can just remind future you about what it was. If that’s not as important, right? Then, you know, now your mileage varies for sure.

I think the meta work is really important and I definitely do spend some time on meta-work. Go around and trim the weeds and clip the hedges, right? I find that I delete more notes now than I make, which I think is very interesting. I delete lots of notes. I think that type of meta-work is important for maintaining the system, because it makes a system usable. And maybe that helps. I’m just kinda rambling now, but maybe that makes sure that you can retrieve stuff better? Or when you hit the system, you can actually just work without things being in your way. Kind of like mise en place in cooking, right? Your counter is just clean. I definitely don’t think it goes into like the productivity porn side though. Like, I’m not filming anything it!

Jorge: Well, I would expect that at the very least it would improve the signal-to-noise ratio, right? Because a lot of the things that we kept… and this is something that I suffer from myself. I try to capture everything and have it all flow into my system. And that means that there’s a lot of stuff there that is not as important or as interesting as some other stuff. And then when I get to that second step, which has to do with making connections, all of a sudden there’s too much information there somehow, right?

Backlinking

Austin: Yeah. That is a horrible, horrible, horrible, terrible problem to have. And I do something similar with my daily notes. I just kind of throw everything in there. And there are two things that I found that were really interesting. Like, I never understood backlinks. But, as I mentioned, my wife has this condition. So, on my daily note, I can just kind of type her name and link it. And then I put a tag for, you know, the doctor’s appointment or we picked up this medicine or… you know, she has seizures, so I’ll put like “seizure” on her notes and the backlinks I can search.

In Obsidian, you can search the backlinks to filter them. I can search for seizure and I can see a list of all the days where she’s had seizures. It required no effort on my part, other than typing the daily note that she had it. And I didn’t know I would need that later in the future. I mean I have a tag now, but in the past I would just type it as texts, right? And I could still search through the texts. But there’s a new kind of app called Subconscious. And they talked about how in the beginning, a lot of these backlink pages are really kind of just algorithmic. They’re just canned searches that let you see where something was referenced. And that is super valuable if you’re capturing everything.

I have another one that’s like a collection of user research books to read. I just tag it. I can go to that page. It’s just all these random books that I will never, ever read. I’ll probably buy more than I should. But it’s just captured. And maybe, maybe I’ll remember a book. Like, “what was that book called?” and I’ll have a good place that’s smaller to go look for it. I think that’s pretty useful.

The other piece that’s that’s useful about catching everything is the signal to noise. And this is just in Obsidian. You use DEVONthink also, so you probably are pretty up on the thinking. I used to get a lot of noise when I ran searches. And now, I just exclude all of my reference and daily note folders. So if I’m searching for something about design thinking or say I’m searching for personas — I make personas for a living — i f I search my hard drive or Obsidian for “personas,” I get so many results back it’s useless. I might as well be researching for “B” or something. But if I tell it, “do not search my daily notes folder and don’t search my references folder,” then it only searches all of my atomic evergreen notes. And that’s a very high signal.

I think a lot of tools didn’t let you do that before. And I’m pretty sure that some of the other tools give you that flexibility, but that is… that’s pretty amazing that you can target your search to specific places to help you tune your signal to noise. Because in other times, maybe I want to know when I talked about personas with a client. In which case, I would exclude everything except my daily notes and just search only those, right? To see the last time that that happened.

So, I think that is really… I don’t know figuring that out has really kind of opened up… I’m comfortable now capturing more stuff. I’m confident that it has a place where it will go. So, if I don’t need it, I can just totally slice it out. But it’s not gone, right? Or I can search it all if I want. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago. It wasn’t like that at all.

Jorge: Yeah, that’s the trick. And, I think that what you’re pointing out here and, this is probably a good way to summarize things because we are getting near the end of our conversation, unfortunately… is that as the tools to capture and organize and store our notes have gotten better and more sophisticated, we can bring to bear onto them these techniques, tools, frameworks, practices from disciplines like information architecture. Because what you’re describing there is changing the scope of search, right? That’s something that information architects have known about for a while and it’s really interesting to have this recognition that many of the same principles and tools and ways of doing things that we’ve employed for these large scale enterprise information management challenges can also be of use to us in our personal lives.

Austin: Yeah, I think that information architecture is focused on… making places inside of information spaces is really relevant, right? The different tools, they all have a different feel. It’s not just the entry point. Like, some places start with daily notes, some places are open; there is a sense of space there. And you fill that with your stuff, like when you move into a house, right? So, your living room feels different from my living room.

But it also affects the type of work you can do. If you’re using this to support work… I can’t write an Obsidian, it’s just a text editor. I go write in Pages, which is just a text editor. But there’s something about the space in Obsidian, even if I adjust the workspace that is not conducive to how I have grown up to all these years of writing, it’s just doesn’t work. So that space… the space that you’re creating, it really does have a sense of place. And that does have a huge impact on how effective that tool helps you be, right? Some people put everything in their vault. Everything, everything, everything. All in one space, all in one place. And I don’t know how those people function. I’m in awe of how they do that.

Closing

Jorge: Well, I hope that our conversation today can help them perhaps think more mindfully about where the stuff goes. Thank you for sharing with us how you’re doing it, Austin.

Austin: Yeah.

Jorge: For folks who might want to follow up with you, what’s the best place for them to go to?

Austin: The best place to chat is on Twitter @austingovella. All one word. And then, I also have a website agux.co, with a blog where I kind of ramble about stuff around UX, IA, and, some personal knowledge management a bit. But I love talking about this stuff. Or design thinking collaboration… you catch me on Twitter on any of those things, and I am more than happy to have a nice long conversation about any of those topics.

Jorge: Fantastic. I’m going to include links to all of those in the show notes. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk about this with you. It’s a subject that I’m deeply passionate about. And I think that, you are equally passionate about it just from hearing you talk about it. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Austin: Yeah, thank you. Thanks for having me. I really, really appreciate it. And you’re going to have to interview yourself one day on your previous OneNote workflow that always amazed me, that you had for like 20 years, I think, right?

Jorge: I’ve been experimenting with things for a long time. And as you were describing the evolution of your own system, I was thinking my system has evolved as well — a lot! And I consider the stewarding of a personal knowledge management system to be a lifelong project. I don’t think it’s ever going to be done.

Austin: Yeah. The meta-work!

Jorge: It’s the meta-work. Thank you, Austin.

Categories
Episodes

Veronica Erb on Annotating Books

Veronica Erb is the author of Finding Out, an email newsletter for people who do and use UX research. Previously, she led UX research at NPR and consulted with a variety of companies. In this conversation, we discuss Veronica’s reading and note-taking practices.

Since we recorded this, Veronica published a post with photos and screenshots of her notes. The link is in the show notes, in case you want to see what she’s talking about.

Show notes

Show notes include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Transcript

Jorge: Veronica, welcome to the show.

Veronica: Thank you so much.

Jorge: Well, I’m excited to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please introducing yourself?

About Veronica

Veronica: Sure! My name is Veronica Erb. I’ve been practicing user experience research for 10 years. Most recently, I was leading design research at NPR for their digital products, like the website, various apps, car apps, things like that. And lately, I’ve been writing a newsletter called Finding Out. And it’s my attempt to teach UX research the way I like to learn.

And the way I like to learn is through narrative and stories more than how-to’s, and also through principles rather than lots of succinct methods that I have to memorize. I’d rather learn through what’s behind good research rather than what specific research things look like. So I’ve been playing with the ways where I can say a lot through stories that people can kind of pick up and remember more naturally than stuff they might need to reference step-by-step guides to.

Learning through narrative

Jorge: I find that fascinating. Do you have an example you can share with us of something that you’ve learned primarily through narrative or story?

Veronica: Yes! Although it’s… it’s embarrassing because I try to avoid telling stories about my childhood because I look so young! But here we go! We’re going to do it anyway. The first time I remember this happening was at the zoo and I might’ve been eight years old. And they had these carts in front of each of the different areas of the zoo, and they were asking trivia questions. And if you answered the trivia question right as a kid, you would get a prize. And they asked us a question about plankton. And the reason I knew the answer to what plankton was was because it was in a Boxcar Children book. When the four kids — so many people have read these books — get adopted by, I think it’s their grandfather? Anyway, they go on this cruise and each have little notebooks, which is related to what we’ve been doing, where they write all their lessons in it. And while they’re on this cruise, they learned about plankton. And I knew it! And so I got the answer right at the zoo trivia thing. And it was just like, “whoa! I learned something from something that wasn’t true, but I learned something true from it!” And that just kind of always stuck with me.

Jorge: I think of this notion of learning through narrative and story — and you also mentioned principles — I’m thinking of it in contrast to maybe memorizing facts. Is that a good distinction there?

Veronica: Yeah, exactly. I remember what a revelation it was to… I went to Grinnell College which is a liberal arts school. And just how different that sort of learning was, where it was discussion-based and you would be connecting things versus the kind of learning that we did in my community in the states. From memorizing facts, just being… you know, having to answer the short answer questions and all those tests. Like, when did this happen? What year did that happen? And the only way I know what year certain things happen is if I kind of make a story out of it. Connect it to other things.

Jorge: I get the sense that you are someone who has very consciously continued your education even after college. And I was hoping you could tell us a bit more about that. Personally, I think that it’s not common for people to continue like purposefully driving their education after they graduate, so I’m always curious when I hear of someone who is actually doing it.

Veronica: I think it’s part of just like my nature and growing up. Like, I’ve actually written about… I think I’ve written about this in the newsletter, if not, I’ve thought about it. When we would go to movies as kids, my parents and my brother and I would go to the movie, and then on the way back from the movie, we would discuss what their favorite parts were and what we thought this part meant. And like all these sorts of things. And I think that just carried forward in my life.

So, after college… first, I started adding back reading novels because, you know, Boxcar Children was to where it started, but I loved reading novels up until sort of my schoolwork got to be too big for me to take that time for reading for pleasure. And then after school, after I was out of it, I was like, “reading! That was cool! I liked that! Maybe I should do that some more!” And so, then the more I started getting that muscle back, of being able to focus on reading a book and reading it all the way through, the more my interest in reading nonfiction things picked back up again.

I think attending a book club also really helps. Both in DC and now in St. Louis, I’m part of book clubs through the public library. And both book clubs… it’s kind of weird that they’re so similar to one another, but it’s people who want to read a variety of books. So we read, half the months of the year a novel, typically, and then the other half we could have mixed up with non-fiction, memoir, poetry occasionally.

And, I don’t know — I feel like I learn important things everywhere. And then I get curious about them and I look into them and I ask myself, “what was my favorite part? And what did this part mean?” Because I’ve always been asking that. But I also just want to… I want to understand why we do the things we do and why some people don’t do the things that I wish they would do. I want the world to be better.

Critical thinking

Jorge: When you say “understanding why people do the things that we do,” at what level are you talking about? I mean, it sounds like writ large, right?

Veronica: Oh, yeah. Just about in any context. When you asked that my first thought was a talk I finally got to see danah boyd present in person at a conference for… did you know that there’s such a thing as a UX librarian?

Jorge: I did not know the phrase until now.

Veronica: This made me so happy because of course like, IA came out of librarians. Of course, you know that, obviously, Jorge. But, it’s now come full circle and there are people who work in libraries, especially academic libraries is my sense, who are trying to bring UX approaches into their library.

Jorge: Ooh!

Veronica: Yeah, I should hook you up with these people. They’re so fun! But it’s just like a tiny little conference that’s stuck onto the side of a really big conference for like database librarians. So it’s like two hundred people, at least when I went a few years ago and gave a talk. And so, danah was at the other conference and we got to attend her talk. And one of the things she talked about was an anthropologist who went and spent time with people who were Trump voters and who were also doing a Bible study. And she was trying to understand how did they understand what Trump was saying? And like, why did they interpret his words the way they did. And what this anthropologist found was that they were using the same sort of literacy — the Bible literacy — that they were using on his words and his rhetoric.

And that was sort of what they were tracing it back to. But danah’s talk was about like, how do we have these folks who are human beings who are making really grave errors in how other people work. And she also told a story of these teenagers who ended up getting pulled into alt-right rhetoric and how they’re actually asking themselves the same kind of questions that we teach people to ask when we teach critical thinking. And she’s like, “we’re getting something wrong. I don’t know what it is. But this kid was smart and he was asking himself questions and he was like interrogating what he was looking into. And it brought him deeper into this kind of thinking rather than out of it.”

And so, she gave you this amazing, very compelling talk, and was like, “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s wrong. I know there’s something wrong.” But that really catches my attention because I feel like I come to my conclusions because of that critical thinking, liberal arts kind of approach that I knew outside of school before I got to Grinnell, but I really enjoyed at Grinnell. But it’s interesting to hear her perspective that like, that’s not it.

Jorge: I’m curious about whether the thing that these folks were getting wrong was… were they reading into Trump’s words based on the principles that they had from the readings of the Bible? Is that what’s implied?

Veronica: It was, yeah. It’s hard for me to articulate because it’s been a while since I’ve read it and listened to her, but it was basically like… I believe these were folks who believe that what is said in the Bible is, a sort of word-for-word truth, as opposed to what a lot of people read the Bible as to be parables, morals, like, ways of living. Whereas these folks were kind of reading them as like, “no, this is what happened, word for word, and this is exactly what I should do.” Like, they weren’t interpreting it, they were those words as strict… but it was also this sort of complex thing where it was about more of like emotions than truth. I don’t know. It’s very complicated and not my expertise. But it got me thinking about like, “oh! I’m not thinking about all these people right!” like, “there’s more here.”

Jorge: If I might read back into that, it sounds like your model of how they were parsing the texts did not correspond with how you yourself parse the texts.

Veronica: Right.

Jorge: I actually wanted to get into that because I know that you do a lot of reading, you’ve already told us about that. And I wanted to hear more about how you parse meaning from the texts. How do you go about reading a book?

Annotating books

Veronica: Yeah. Great. Okay, so I was trying to think about this in advance because it’s a very…. what I have found for my note-taking and for my understanding of information is if I get too thoughtful about it, I very quickly make a system that is more work than benefit. Because you know, I am an IA. One of my hearts is information architecture. And so, it becomes unwieldy pretty quickly. So I try instead to have these small methods and then I reach for them when I need them.

One example, I have a stack of books here next to me, is_ Bad Feminist_ by Roxane Gay. And we were reading it for book club, so I had a copy of it that the library gave me. And I was like, “okay, you know, book club, I’m really excited to read this. I’ve always wanted to read Roxane Gay.” And I was like halfway into the first essay and I was like, “oh man. I need a copy of this book. I have to write in it!” I put it down and I waited until the next day when my favorite bookstore opened and I went and got myself a copy of the book because there’s a certain kind of… especially nonfiction writing that I really need to be drawing in the book in order to really take in the information. So, that is one of the things I do.

Jorge: When you say “drawing in the book,” are you literally making doodles?

Veronica: Sometimes. Let me find… there’s one in here, which I don’t remember making, and I don’t remember this particular part, but I took the time she described where she lived. And then she said that she drove south to St. Louis or north to Chicago or east to Indianapolis from where she lived. And in the little margin, I drew a teeny tiny little diagram of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, and where she was and like little arrows. It’s not a very important detail, but there was something about the way she described it that made me take a moment and doodle that in there.

I have a better example of when that was useful and that I actually have looked back at to help me understand, which is in this fabulous… The Foundations of Social Research by Michael Crotty, where he takes lots of different epistemologies and just philosophies of understanding things and summarizes them in a transparent but still sort of dense way. And so down here… here it is! This little diagram of…

Jorge: And listeners can’t see, but Veronica is showing me on the Zoom screen a little diagram in the margin of the page. And it looks a little bit like a comic or a cartoon with speech bubbles. Do you want to describe what’s going on there?

Veronica: Yeah. So, in the text, he’s describing what objectivist, constructivist, and subjectivist etymologies are, which I was super interested in because one of the things I’m trying to figure out is how to talk about qualitative and quantitative research in a way that aligns with my experience, but isn’t just based on my experience. And it’s based on something stronger and meatier than that.

And so, in this part of the text, he’s talking about these different ways of attributing meaning to the world. And so I drew… to try and summarize it for me, I drew… objectivists say that a tree is a tree because it’s a tree. And so in the little picture I have a tiny little tree, that’s like a blob on top of a stick. And then there’s a speech bubble from the tree saying, “tree!” Whereas constructivists say that because there’s a person there, the person and the tree had this sort of little conversation. And so, I have arrows and the tree’s speech bubbles coming from the arrows because it’s the… kind of construction of meaning between a person and a tree. And then last, the subjectivists are kind of odd. It’s like… meaning only exists because there is a person. And so there’s nothing in the tree that makes it tree-like? It’s just the person. And so, my speech bubbles coming from like the person’s thoughts I think?

But what’s cool about this from a note-taking standpoint is if I didn’t have this little diagram here right now, I wouldn’t have been able to summarize that for you. But it brought it back for me. And when I come in and I picked this text back up, because it’s so dense, I don’t tend to read it for long periods of time. I can review that and be like, all right! I’m back in it! I’m going to keep going and read some more of this, like text that’s for a class that you would have a professor leading you through, but I’m just reading because I really want to explain something that makes sense to me in my, industry practice of UX research.

Jorge: I was going to ask you about that. So, you go through the trouble of reading the book, to begin with, and then read it actively. in that, drawing looked fairly elaborate in the sense that it required really thinking about what you were reading to actually summarize it like that. What do you do with this stuff? I mean, what’s the point? I’m thinking someone might say, “well, you read the thing, you draw in it, and then you put it back on the shelf, and there it stays.” What do you do with this stuff?

Reading and marking

Veronica: Well, I mean, I picked this one back up, right? So it’s helping me come back to the text. I am reading this because I eventually want to write about it in my newsletter, or on the internet at large. To try and share… I feel like I’m trying to understand a thing that a lot of researchers who appreciate and advocate for qualitative research or trying to explain. And maybe if we could just explain it well, then we could move on with our lives. But the note-taking like… actually the thing that I feel captures it best or that I encountered it was in… have you read _Word By Word _by Kory Stamper?

Jorge: No, I have not.

Veronica: It is her story of how dictionaries get made.

Jorge: Ooh, that sounds interesting.

Veronica: It’s fabulous! It is so fun. I read it on vacation, at some point. But she kind of tells you how she came to be a lexicographer and what she encountered there and all those language lessons there. But one of the things she talks about, and it is part of the process of writing dictionaries, is called “Reading and Marking.” all of the lexicographers have periodicals that they read, and when they read them, they don’t just read them. They mark them too. And basically what they do is they’re looking for interesting words in ways that they can then take that little sample of that word and put it in a file so that later when someone is writing or updating the entry for that word, they have actual references in the language that they take the word from.

Like they don’t just sit there and think, “huh? How do I define ‘as’?”, which is a real thing they have to define in the dictionary. Imagine how hard that is! They actually look at examples and they decide what “as” means based on the examples. So, when she was describing reading and marking, she had this little footnote. And I was like, “Ooh, I love a footnote!” And so, I go and I read the footnote, and it’s because she said, “reading and marking is,” and she wanted everyone to know that “is” was not a mistake: “You don’t read without marking; you can’t mark without reading.” And that to me is what note-taking is in books. For a certain kind of reading and a certain kind of understanding, I can’t read without taking notes and I can’t take notes without reading. But it’s only certain things. I can understand a novel just fine without marking it up.

Jorge: So it sounds like it’s more for perhaps non-fiction work or like this book on lexicography… things that you might be reading for some kind of edification; perhaps for work or for your newsletter or what have you. I would like to unpack this phrase, “you can’t read without marking.” What do you mean? I mean, you read the thing, right? And ideas are coming into your mind, but why does that connect so much with you, this idea that you can’t read without marking?

Veronica: I think it’s about the density of the text. Every person who reads, I think, has [had] this happen where you read something and you know that you touched every word, and it went into your brain, but you can’t recall what you just read. It’s how I know it’s time for me to go to sleep at night! But that is very much the experience for me of reading a certain kind of text that doesn’t have a certain kind of narrative. And I kind of have gotten the intuition for when that’s happening, and if it’s important enough, I will go get a copy of the book and write it down. It’s like I have to turn the text into a conversation in order for it to kind of come into my brain in a meaningful way.

Jorge: And the conversation is happening between you and the author on the book’s pages?

Veronica: It sounds a little ludicrous, but…

Jorge: No, I can totally relate to this. I mean, I have books that I read where I’ll be pissed off at what the author is saying and I’ll write a comment like, “this is wrong!” You know, or whatever. And…

Veronica: Yeah, exactly.

Jorge: Yeah, so I can relate to this notion of having a conversation with a book. I’m wondering what you do with the annotations if anything. I mean… the note that you were showing there with the drawing, what do you do with that? I mean, you said you were working towards something for your newsletter. Are you then revisiting the text afterward and somehow synthesizing what you’ve read? Or like, what’s step two?

Veronica: Yeah… oh, you’re trying to find out what my process is.

Jorge: Yeah.

Veronica’s newsletter creation process

Veronica: Well, so that’s the thing: one of the tricky things for me is distinguishing between doing this for reading and doing it for a later purpose because this can be so inherent to my reading process. I would have so much work to do if I had to like, take a picture of every page and put it in a file or something. So, I think the best way that I know now to describe what it’s for is it’s part of my memory palace. Are you familiar with that concept? I think what I’m doing is I’m creating a memory palace of lots of books. Like it’s not this fun mansion that I’ve memorized and that I put things in, but I have this kind of… I’ll remember that there was an idea in Bad Feminist that’s interesting here. And I go get my copy and I flipped through it and I can find the note. It’s like I’m one of those folks who, when I would be taking a test, I’d be like, “oh no, I don’t know what the answer to this is! But I can tell you what that page looks like, that the answer is on.” I could sketch it for you. And I think that’s what this is, is sometimes I go back there… I think I wrote a piece on the newsletter that mentions Roxane Gay, and I went back and I flipped through and I just knew. “Ah! That’s the quotation that I want to pull.” And it’s here in this, in this moment. So they’re sort of there if I need them.

And then, if I do need them and I want them, and I want to take notes, I have a… for the newsletter, I have a OneNote notebook that I both draft and take notes in. OneNote is sort of my digital note-taking place of choice for the last few years. And, mostly I take notes in the same file, I guess we’ll call it a file, that I eventually draft the newsletter in. So, I take bulleted notes, and then those just get pushed down the page, which is also what I do when I’m drafting. If I’m drafting and I’m like, “this is terrible,” I just kind of push it down the page more because I might realize that I wanted a sentence or like, “there was that thing I was getting at earlier, and now I do actually want to put it in.” And so I pull it up. And I found that having one big file that just kind of grows and it’s like a reverse chronological document of where I was going, is the best way for me. If I make drafts and delete things it just gets messy in a different way; messy in a way that it’s hard for me to navigate.

Jorge: So it sounds like it’s just a dump in a single OneNote note that keeps growing as you read more.

Veronica: And I actually initially thought I was going to move notes from like… I call it “free-writing,” [which] is the initial stage. I thought I was going to move that to like, “this is an official draft now,” to, “this is ready to go in,” and, “this is cute!” and, “this is actually on the internet now.” And that turned out to be too… This is what I mean, I can IA systems that are going to be like… they sound great, but then they’re just more work than I want. And so now what I do is I just have that one document that kind of gets longer and longer. And then at some point, I’m like, “ah! This is good enough for the newsletter.” And then, once it goes into… I use Substack for my newsletter. Once it’s there, I don’t touch the OneNote anymore. And even if I’m making sentence-level edits in Substack, they’re just in Substack. And I know not to like reference what’s in OneNote anymore.

Jorge: The note in OneNote sounds like a starting point, a kindling… a scratch pad of sorts for the thing that will eventually move on to Substack.

Veronica: Yep. I was going to say, the other fun thing about what I do there is I ended up… that sort of drafts-ready sort of thing that I talked about? I did implement it, but I use emojis on the files. If there’s something… a file that I keep coming back to, I put the little light bulb emoji so that I can find it in a huge chronological thing. And then, once something gets sent out, I use the love letter emoji. And so I know I don’t have to look at that one anymore. And then there’s some that have neither of those emojis and that’s kind of like an idea that maybe I’ll come back to and maybe I won’t.

Jorge: This is in OneNote?

Veronica: Yup.

Jorge: So, the emojis are indicating state somehow. State of the note, yeah? I want to come back to this notion of memory palace, just because I want to be clear on it myself. It sounds like you are reading and making annotations in the texts, right? So there’s this notion of marginalia. And then you’re circling back through those and perhaps synthesizing those marginal notes into these OneNote notes, which then become fodder for the actual newsletter, which gets written in Substack. That’s how I’m understanding the process.

Veronica: Yeah! Although they only go into OneNote when I’m like, “I’m going to write a thing about this.”

Jorge: Right. So, it’s not that everything gets a OneNote note, right? It’s only the ones that seem like they’re going to become a thing in the world beyond living in this memory palace. And that’s what I wanted to circle back to. It sounds like the memory palace is not the OneNote stack of notes or the Substack where you share them with the world or what have you. It sounds like the memory palace really is in your mind. Is that right?

Veronica: Yeah. Because the notion of memory palace… It’s a metaphor in your head, right? Like, you have a home or a nature trail that you know really well, and then you… in your mind, place ideas and memories into that place. But apparently, my memory palace is just literally where I’ve remembered that things are. Which is part of why I think it’s important that I keep it relatively simple. But I’ll remember a certain book and I’ll just go look in the book. Or for the books that don’t warrant the next day trip to the bookstore, I have a OneNote notebook just called “book notes,” and then each section is named for authors rather than books because it would get even more unwieldy if I had one for each book. And so, then I just store separate notes there and that tends to be more for book club books, but… yeah, it’s kind of just remembering where things are, which works well for me as a person who still remembers learning about plankton in a Boxcar Children’s book when I was eight.

Annotating ebooks

Jorge: It sounds like you’re primarily reading paper books. Is that true?

Veronica: No, I actually primarily read e-books.

Jorge: So, how does that work? Because you can’t doodle in e-books, right?

Veronica: Yes. So there’s sort of this… there’s this like level of importance that a book has to get to be worth me getting a hard copy of it and drawing in it because I do read constantly and one of the problems I have now is if there’s a paper book that I want to read, but I don’t want to read it badly enough, I end up just carrying it around my house and then not reading it when I think I’m going to, and then I kind of burn out on the book. But if I have ebooks, then it’s always with me and I don’t have to worry about letting myself down that way. And I have even gotten to where there are some times I try not to buy books because otherwise, I’d spend a lot of money buying books. But sometimes there are times for our book club books where they only have a hardback copy and I need to have it on my ebook and so I end up buying it just because I’m like, “I’m not going to finish this if I don’t have it on my phone.” And I do highlight in Kindle — I use Kindle primarily. And I don’t tend to use those highlights as much. I tend to just search if there’s something I remember. But yeah, the chosen few, I actually dug out a few for you, as you can tell that get hardback copies or paper copies.

Jorge: I do something very similar, although I do a lot of reading in Kindle in part, because… Have you used Readwise?

Veronica: No.

Jorge: That’s been really helpful to me. So Readwise… I guess the best way to describe it is it’s an online service that syncs your highlights and notes.

Veronica: Oh, yeah, I saw you tweeting about it, and I was like, “Ooh, this sounds very interesting!” And then I realized it would very quickly overwhelm me if I did that, in part because I read so many novels. My highlighting in novels is really different from my highlighting in nonfiction books; it’s more about ideas or moments that I’m interested in. And I don’t really want to memorize them, so I’m sure there’s some sort of filtering that would work, but it sounds like a really cool tool.

Jorge: Yes, but to your point, that adds friction, right? Like you’re adding work to it. And I, that, and I agree with you. I think that, the easier you can make these things, the more likely we are to use them.

Veronica: Yeah.

Jorge: And it’s better to have an imperfect, yet highly-used system than one that is super precise but that becomes onerous, somehow.

What should you read next?

Veronica: I want to tell you about my novel reading life because, once I kind of got on a roll in my personal reading life and reading novels and things like that, I came to what is the trouble of every avid reader, which is what should you read next? Like when it’s for fun, it’s not as clear. Like, “oh, I need to read these 10 books to write this paper or write this piece that I’m working on.” And the trouble I found was that I had… I use GoodReads. And so, I would have this huge… hundreds of books that I was curious about, but there wasn’t an easy way for me to remember why I was curious about that book or like what kind of book it was. And so I was re-doing a lot of work of going and looking at the description. “Was this the book I wanted to read or was it that other re-written fairytale that I wanted?” And that sort of thing.

So, I finally gave in and I made my own note-taking system for my “TBR” list as some folks call it. And so I made myself a Google Survey. It’s just for me, and it has basic information about books. There’s also a section for who told me about this book: what did they say about it? And a link to what they said. And then there’s another section that’s what do I think I like about it? What might be challenging about it? And of course, what is needed on every survey, in every context, is, “anything else?” Because you can never foresee everything someone might need to tell you about something, even if that person is yourself. So, I have this great tool, and I open it in Sheets on my phone or my computer. And then I can actually go through and see… I put the category of the book it is and I can pick them out and update the status, like, “I have this on like library holds,” or not. And it’s totally changed my reading life because now I actually… I still have that problem with picking a book, but it’s way easier than it was before. And it’s because of those extra little context notes that the tools I knew of didn’t have a space for.

Jorge: Just hearing you describe it, it sounds like, “wow, that’s a lot of work!” You know, annotating what books you want to read. But it sounds like the payoff makes it worth your while, yeah?

Veronica: Exactly. So, yeah, but it’s also… I don’t have to fill out every field there, right? Like it’s there if I need it. I’m very loosey-goosey about it. Sometimes I take time to go clean it up. But, yeah, it’s definitely worth the effort of that being able to pick a book that I actually want to read instead of being like, “oh, I guess I’ll read this book because I need something to read.”

Jorge: That’s great. That sounds like a great tip for those of us who like to read. I do something similar. I use a DEVONthink as my primary repository for these things. And DEVONthink provides a lot of metadata fields. And one of them is kind of a free form comments field. And when I capture a book that I would like to read, I’ll usually do what you’re describing, where I’ll do a little note. I say, “well, this was recommended by Veronica,” or whatever, you know? And I try to tag it with enough context so that I can later come back to it.

Veronica: Yeah! Oh, and you know, what’s really lovely about that too is then we actually get it to go back to the people who told us about a book and tell them that we read it.

Jorge: Right.

Veronica: Like, connect with them. Because reading isn’t just about yourself.

Jorge: Well, one of the things that I do for my own newsletter is I use that comments field to acknowledge where I got ideas from in the newsletter. So, I’ll share links and I’ll say, “hat tip to whoever.” And I find that to be really valuable. And, the reason I like DEVONthink for this, because… one of the challenges that are inherent in what you’re describing here is that while the Google Survey is convenient, and you have this spreadsheet where everything is kept, it’s an artifact that lives separately from things like the OneNote notebook. So, one ends up having a federation of these little databases of things.

Veronica: Well, I think that’s why I think of the memory palace is like, “I know it’s there and that’s all I need to know, is that it’s there!” It doesn’t have to connect to OneNote.

Centaur note-taking

Jorge: Yeah. You’re the API for the thing somehow.

Veronica: That’s exactly it. And, you know, I think that’s… I actually had to value that about it. I talked with a person who diagnoses people with dyslexia. And she said, “yes, indeed, Veronica, you do have dyslexia.” And she doesn’t… she does these really cool in-depth diagnoses of like kids. But one thing she talked to me about was how what’s interesting about dyslexia is that people tend to be really good at connecting big ideas. And she was telling me that she thinks that’s because we have all this technology that lets us search more, folks who think like that are valued more than you used to.

And the reason this is connecting — sorry, I’m getting messy! — but before we had links and before we had search, you had to be able to remember what books something you read was in, right? Like I’m thinking of Jane Austen and sitting in the library and I’ve remembered reading the books and that had to be part of the process. But now you can kind of skip that and use the technology to remember for you and link for you. Which I think is cool and powerful, but I also think it’s good for my brain to have a little bit of that knowledge, too. And to not completely break down when my tech breaks down or when my, you know, my phone battery dies!

So, for me, at least I like this hybrid where I’m using my brain and my notes. And you know, I do kind of manual links if I have something in OneNote that there’s a spreadsheet for, I put a link up at the top. I just type it in and then I can click on it and go to it. And in the spreadsheet, I’m careful and I have an extra sheet on the spreadsheet that says, “also in OneNote.” And so I can go back and find it, even if it’s not. Actually, OneNote has interlinking. You can do it, it’s just a little funky.

Jorge: I had a Trip O’Dell on the podcast talking about his dyslexia and he talked about many of the things that you’re bringing up here. One of the concepts I’m planning to write about in the book is to draw an analogy with centaur chess. Have you heard of this?

Veronica: It sounds familiar; tell me more.

Jorge: So, after – what was it called? — Deep Blue, the computer that beat Kasparov at chess, right? After that happened, the chess world… It’s not that it was upended, but you know…

Veronica: People were weirded out.

Jorge: People were weirded out. And they were thinking about like, “well, where do we go from here?” And one of the places where the chess world went is to what is called centaur chess, which is grandmasters paired with computers.

Veronica: Oh.

Jorge: And, it’s a different style of chess where they have… and I don’t know the technical details behind it, but my understanding is that you get this person who is a master of the game and give them access to these databases of openings and stuff. And the computer can make recommendations. And they’re playing as a partner, the person and the computer. And that’s an image that I really like for this stuff because I think that what we’re doing is we are kind of centaur note-takers, you know? We have the memory palace that you’re describing and we have tools like OneNote or the Google Sheets thing or what have you, that augment our cognitive abilities in ways that we would not be able to individually. You know, you described having dyslexia and having the computer kind of be a very explicit augmentation, but even for people who don’t have dyslexia, if done mindfully and with a little bit of structure, they can be really, really empowering technologies. So, I’m hugely excited about this stuff.

Closing

Jorge: Thank you for sharing with us. Where can folks follow up with you?

Veronica: Oh, yeah. So, my newsletter is called Finding Out, and its website is findingout.substack.com. It also has social media: Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. That’s in order of activity and it’s @howwefindout. And then you can find me on Twitter and Instagram; my handle is verbistheword, and you can find all that on my website, veronicaerb.com.

Jorge: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Veronica. It’s been a pleasure having you on the show.

Veronica: Thank you, Jorge. It was great talking with you.

Categories
Episodes

Dorian Taylor on Christopher Alexander

Dorian Taylor is a consulting designer. He’s been influenced by the work of the architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander, who died in March. In this conversation, we discuss Alexander’s influence on the design of built environments and software.

Show notes

Show notes include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Transcript

Jorge: Dorian, welcome to the show.

Dorian: Nice to be here, Jorge.

Jorge: I am excited to have you. For folks who might not know you, can you please introduce yourself?

About Dorian

Dorian: Oh, geez. I mean, what am I calling myself these days? I think I’m calling myself a consulting designer. I think that was like what I landed on. Sort of borrowing from Sherlock Holmes — the recent one with Benedict Cumberbatch or whatever. I’ve been working with the web since I was a teenager. That was in the nineties. Front end, back end, side end… all the ends at once! And now it’s kind of moving into more governance-y stuff and more “the strategy-ry” — you know how it goes.

Jorge: When you say “governance-y,” the way that I read that in conjunction with your description of consulting designer, is that you’re maybe helping organizations design the thing that designs the thing. Is that a fair take?

Dorian: What I would say like my mutant power is, I read the documentation that nobody else has time for, and I can internalize that and I can re-represent that and [come] up with formal models of processes and structures within organizations to help people be able to converse about things. This is super hand-wavy of course, but there is concrete stuff in there that people want to pay for.

Jorge: I get the sense from my own consulting work that people in organizations are coming to the recognition of the need for this type of higher-level work. Somehow that design is not just about cranking out screens; there’s something that needs to happen at a more fundamental layer.

Dorian: It’s kind of like shared mental models, right? I mean, we’ve heard of the term “conceptual integrity” — that was a Fred Brooks thing, The Mythical Man-Month. You know, it is one of those books that everybody has, but nobody reads. Conceptual integrity is the sort of state of affairs of everybody working on a project kind of understands what it is and what’s going on, and they’ve got a shared unified mental model of just what the damn thing is. And they have like shared language to talk about it. It’s about an anatomy that people are referring to.

That’s like classic, quintessential information architecture: that people use the same words to refer to the same concepts and then the relationships between the concepts. People, they kind of have an understanding of the algebra and the mechanics of processes and structures and how things relate to each other. That’s real work somebody has to do; that is real work somebody has to go and figure out.

Jorge: This notion of conceptual integrity might be a good segue for talking about the subject that brings us together today, which is the work of Christopher Alexander.

Dorian: Definitely.

Jorge: You shared a post summarizing Alexander’s work in the wake of his death. I know that you have been a student of Alexander’s work for a long time. And I described your post on Twitter as a lovely summary of his work. And I was hoping that we would talk a little bit about that. So, who was Christopher Alexander?

A Pattern Language

Dorian: Christopher Alexander was an architect. He was, up until last week. You’re an architect yourself, so you would have bumped into him at least a couple of times during your training, I’m sure. He was a sort of a heterodox figure in architecture, and deeply misunderstood and reviled by architects themselves, but then had a sort of second… Well, maybe not reviled. I mean, there were a lot of people that had a lot of I want to say mixed feelings about him, for sure and within the architecture field itself.

But he had a second sort of fan base in software going back to probably about the 1990s, even the early nineties. And I think and that was mainly for his most popular book, which is also the most popular book ever by Oxford University Press, which is called A Pattern Language. And Alexander considered himself mainly trying to teach the world effectively to try… and he was using phrases like, “creating life,” “make God appear in a field,” you know? He was saying sort of, quasi-mystical things, but he was almost serious about it. I mean, he was definitely serious about himself. And this is sort of what got the architects bristling, was he kind of believed that there are objective ways to make things that are harmonious and whole with the environment and with making people effectively feel better about themselves and carrying on with their lives. And that part definitely was weakly if at all communicated to the software industry. And it certainly…

You know, I came to Christopher Alexander through A Pattern Language, but I bought it [and] didn’t read it for 10 years. The first one that I read was his actual Ph.D. thesis, called Notes On the Synthesis of Form. And I’m glad I actually read the first one first because I think if I had started with Patterns, I probably would have misunderstood it as well.

Jorge: The impression that I get is that the software world adopted this notion of patterns. And for people who haven’t seen the book, A Pattern Language _describes — this is my poor take, and you’ll probably do a better job of describing this than I will — but it describes a way of designing spaces meant to be occupied by people, whether… I think that the subtitle is something like, _Towns

Dorian: Towns, Buildings, Construction, yeah.

Jorge: Towns, Buildings, Construction. So, there’s this implication that it’s at different scales, and it’s a way to specify a system for people to design their own environments somehow.

Dorian: Yeah. I mean, it’s A Pattern Language; it’s not the pattern language. And it’s also a pattern language. It’s a vocabulary for people who are not necessarily professional architects, professional builders, but it is like words — handles — for them to grab onto so that they can discuss these entities, these properties, these subsystems, whatever you want to call it — being able to actually talk about this thing amongst themselves. And a pattern has a formula. A pattern has a context. There’s a problem and there’s a solution to it. And you go like, “the context is this or that thing, the problem is this or that problem. And then, therefore, do this!” And every single one of the 253 patterns has that formula.

And the formula that was mainly the thing that was kind of copied. And, you know, the design patterns in software are helpful, I guess. I mean, they were kind of a parochial thing for C++ and Java and dealing with the… you know, it’s not not useful. And it helps people in that industry a great deal, and the web people sort of took it as well. And there’s tons and tons. You can go and find a zillion software patterns out on websites, I’m sure out there.

They contribute something to be sure. And they follow the formula to be sure. Do they… and Alexander asked it himself in this keynote he gave; you can find it on YouTube. It’s called Patterns in Architecture. Worth watching straight through for sure, where he kind of takes the wind out of the sails of the pattern people, because he’s like, “number one, I don’t know if you guys actually care about like making the environment good with this. I don’t know if you guys do… I think it’s a technical format that communicates useful ideas, but I don’t know if you guys are really trying to make things good.”

Jorge: The impression that I got is that patterns have been adopted in software but perhaps elsewhere as well, as a vehicle for efficiency of some sort or productivity. Whereas I think that Alexander was using them as a vehicle for what he called “wholeness,” this notion that we want the end result to have this quality… you want it to be good, with a capital “G” somehow.

Wholeness

Dorian: Yeah. And he really thought that there was a sort of objective criterion to that. I remember now what I was going to say: the other thing that he said was that he abandoned the patterns themselves. So, in that keynote in ’96, Alexander says, well, actually I don’t really… you know, the patterns, they don’t really deliver the goods. I don’t use them anymore. I use this other thing. And that was what became The Nature of Order, which is like a 2,500 page, four-volume… I consider it to be logically one book because you don’t just crack it open in a random page. Like you’d have to start at the front, go all the way to the end… it’ll take you a year to read it, kind of thing. Like, it’s a project. It’s one of those things.

It’s funny, somebody said to me the other day, you know, “Alexander’s kind of one of those people where like, if you wanted to engage with it, you have to go off and read thousands of pages of text.” It’s like Marx or something like that; it’s the same sort of deal. If you wanted to be engaged intelligently with it, you just have to sit down and… How many people in the world are going to do that? You’ve got to go in and abridge somehow. Even if you’ve got it down in order of magnitude, you’d be looking at a 600-page document, you know? How do you compress the entire life’s work of this guy down to something that an ordinary person is not going to misunderstand?

Because one of the major misunderstandings was that Alexander was this nostalgic traditionalist who just wanted to make things look like some old-timey medieval hamlet or something like that. And it’s like, no, no! There were reasons — and they were structural reasons — for why the stuff that he created looked the way that it did. You hear that. One of the major criticisms is that he’s kind of this traditionalist and it’s like, no, no, no! Like, say, for example, compression structures versus tension structures. Or non-reinforced concrete. Or the use of wood. You know, pitched roofs. The use of stone, the use of all these kinds of like local materials. I’m not going to get into the details of it but there were reasons for all of it. There were sort of structural reasons for all of it.

Jorge: I was going to say, I think that there is a profound misunderstanding because his built work does look fairly traditional…

Dorian: yeah.

Jorge: …but in many ways, he was quite radical in that I don’t think that his ultimate project was about designing those buildings per se. It was more about, like we said earlier, designing the thing that designs the thing. Like how do you create systems that will allow the creation of — in his case — built environments that are good in almost a quantifiable way. Is that a fair take?

A framework for the emergence of order

Dorian: Yeah. I mean, well, he had this… His testing criterion was this thing he called “the mirror of the self” test. The idea was you would hold up two objects and you would look at them and you’d be like, okay… you don’t ask, which one of these is better? Or which one do I like better? This is a sort of a difficult thing to communicate in a context of whatever you want to call it… a moral relativity or relativism? It’s kind of like, you look at it and you say, “well, which one of these two things is a picture of my true self?” You know, which one is more representative of me as a person? And you can do that with anything.

And what he determined was that there’s pretty strong agreement — like on the order of like 80-85% or something like that — is that it’s like the ketchup bottle and the salt shaker, which one is more… You know, these kinds of odd…. and that’s really what The Nature of Order, the big honkin’ tome is about: there are geometric, topological, color properties… there are physical properties that are present in these things that rate higher on that test. So, if you were going to compare off all these things against each other, the one that would win would turn out to have these 15 properties, and then they would be like alternating repetition, levels of scale, positive space, these kinds of characteristics. They’re in the post; I reproduced them there.

And I wrote something a while back when I was sort of thinking about like these 15 properties — there are 15 of them — from the perspective of information theory, like they kind of like cluster into three categories. And of course, I’m going to categorize the categories here. One of them is like, it generates information. The other one, it compresses. And then the other one kind of like de-noises, I think? Roughly. But carrying informational content, compression, and throttling were my three meta categories of these 15 properties. And so given that, you can imagine these kinds of meta properties in anything. In any process and you could go and you can say, “okay, well, how would we take the writing of Alexander and apply it like in a sort of a whole way?”

The four books or whatever that are in the middle that nobody ever… you know, they’ll read A Pattern Language, they might have A Timeless Way, they might have Notes On The Synthesis of Form, and they really might buy_ The Nature Of Order_, and attempt to truck through it. But then there’s three or four in the middle that were written in the 1970s that are all case studies and they’re all kind of overlooked in the fact that they are incredibly practical. And it’s like, how did Alexander actually implement his process? Well, he wrote that down too.

What you get out of that is the first thing he did was he went and he became a general contractor. He started a company to be the general contractor because he couldn’t work with general contractors because they wouldn’t let him do his thing. And he designed the process from a financial perspective. So, he designed how the budget would be laid out for these projects, from the perspective of a general contractor. And he designed the contract as well. And he also looked at the kinds of things that the planning authorities required and whatever.

And he would say like, “you know what? You need to submit your drawings to the city? Well, we’ll submit them bogus drawings. We’re not going to use those drawings as authoritative, but the city needs them, so we’ll send them some bullshit. You know, we’ll send them some silly nonsense that doesn’t matter because the as-built drawings will be the authoritative ones once we’re done.” And that was like one of the main things about Alexander’s sort of process was that it was — and I think about this in terms of, he’s using the building site itself as an analog computer, he’s using the building site like a slide rule, you know? And I get that from…

There’s another book that like totally randomly, totally by chance, I bought at the same time that I bought A Pattern Language for the first time back in 2001. It was called Cognition in the Wild, by Ed Hutchins. And that is an ethnographic study. If you’ve never read it, oh my God! It’ll blow your mind. It is an ethnographic study of the navigation team of an aircraft carrier. And it just so happens that when Hutchins is on board, it has an accident; it has a power failure. And so he is on the bridge watching the navigation team improvise their process on the spot. So there’s five or six guys, there’s a bunch of equipment and it doesn’t work, and they’re like trying to fill the gaps of the dead equipment with slide rules and protractors and stuff like that. And this ship is careening into San Diego Harbor, and then I’ve got to keep it from running aground. They’ve got to keep it from hitting stuff while they work to get the instrument power back on.

And so, anyway, one of the things that Hutchin says in that is he says, “a navigational chart is an analog computer.” And I’m like, “just like that!” The building sites of Alexander were analog computers. They were a computational environment to the extent that you use Shannon’s definition: you say computation is revealing latent information using known… from known information, using known methods. So yeah! It is revealing latent information from known information using known methods.

Jorge: The sense I get is that the ultimate project is to somehow enable the conditions for order to emerge. Order in service to some kind of “wholeness,” I think is a word that Alexander used. And the notion that comes to mind is the…. and just in hearing you talk about the Hutchins example and also this notion of the building site as an analog computer, what comes to my mind is Gall’s Law, this idea that a complex system that works evolves from a simple system that works, and you can’t really design a complex system from the get-go. And something like a building is a fairly complex system. And it sounds like what Alexander was trying to do was to create the conditions for that complexity to emerge from conditions on the ground, as opposed to some kind of abstract imagined representation of what the ideal conditions might be.

Contextual architecture

Dorian: Yeah, absolutely. If you think about it, one of the things that with respect to wholeness is he’s like, “I’m trying to repair the earth.” One of the patterns in A Pattern Language is a thing called site repair. And he says, you go onto the building site and you don’t go to the nicest spot on the building site and say, “this is where I’m going to build my house.” you go to the worst spot. Because you can’t make the best spot better by tearing it down and putting a house on it. You can go to the worst spot and you make the worst spot better by bulldozing it and putting a house on it. Just that idea of always having a context, you know?

And I think like our architecture and information system design alike, it’s kind of like, “I’m going to come in with the system, this object, and I’m just going to plunk it down.” When you think about Gehry and Bilbao or something like that, and then it’s like, that building could be anywhere, right? And it’s a majestic, bold piece of architecture. It looks really cool, but what about Bilbao makes that unique? Because it looks just like the Disney Theater in Los Angeles. Or that building in MIT. You know, it says a lot about Frank Gehry’s personal style. It doesn’t say a lot about the place that it’s situated in.

And Alexander was very much about we’re going to try to make this look like it belongs here. And you know, like, the Eishin campus, the West Dean Center, the Fresno Farmer’s Market… any of those buildings, you know, they really look like they belong where they should be. And then there was a sort of sense of context there that like really only comes… and in the way that Alexander would do it, he’s got bamboo stakes with flags on them and he goes around and he just shoves them into the ground and he says that the white ones are buildings and the orange ones are paths, and this part’s a hedge.

And he goes in, and he goes with the client. This is what they did with the Eishin. They bring the client to the site as this participatory exercise and what the client said from this experience is like, “I could see the entire campus come… like, it became real to me.” How many times have you been with clients and they’re like, “where’s the stuff? I don’t see anything. You haven’t done anything.” And it’s like, “what are you talking about? We’ve been working, busting our asses for months on this! What do you mean we haven’t, you know… and you’re saying, there’s nothing?”

It’s like, well, how do we make that? How do we make that, “this is a real thing to me” experience come to a client? I still would love to know. There’s a lot of stuff around getting participation and so on and so forth. It’s been very difficult to do that kind of thing obviously, within the last couple of years due to COVID. But like that kind of thing, like we’re repairing a hole, rather than we’re building a system; we’re building an object.

It’s like, I want to talk about an information system-shaped hole in your organization, and we’re going to fix that hole. We’re not going to come in with this edifice and plunk it down and say, “here’s the new system.” Which is so much like, you know, Salesforce, or SAP, or whatever. Oracle, you know, all that stuff is these kinds of, “we’re going to get a new system!” And then we go to the next system. And then a couple of years later, we go to another system, and then you’ve got to hire me to pull the data out of one system and shove it into the other. Maybe in another lifetime!

Jorge: To bring it back to the Gehry buildings, it sounds like the distinction there is that these things like the Bilbao Guggenheim museum may have internal conceptual integrity in that it feels like it’s a whole thing in and of itself, but it’s not integral with its context.

Dorian: Yeah, exactly.

Jorge: What I’m hearing here is, aspire for conceptual integrity. But not just internal conceptual integrity, but making a thing that is conceptually whole with the context and systems that it’s a part of and that it informs.

Software replacement culture

Dorian: Yeah. And I mean, the extent to which that is a thing that like… you might want to try to read that as like, “oh, what you’re talking about is systems integration.” Because so much of what we do in software is all mediated one way or another by platforms and vendors. And it’s all about who’s your CMS and who is your CRM and who is your ERP, WTF, LOL, BBQ, whatever. It’s all about relationships. You know, Miro, Figma… Now we have this proliferation of tools. Zoom would be another one. And they’re all proprietary. None of them talk to each other in any meaningful way. And each one of them is all about getting users locked in and then kind of like giving you whatever’s on their menu.

And so, like all of this software is verbs, but it all controls the data, which is nouns. And so much of it is kind of like, “well, you know, we’re going to put all the nouns in our database or our file format or whatever, and the only way that you can verb the nouns is to use the verbs that we give you. And we, you know, we’re just going to give you this menu of operations. And if what you need is not on the menu, then too bad.” And I see so much of that. I see so much of that in any kind of enterprise. Again, it’s this big system, a huge contract.

The Oregon Experiment, one of Alexander’s mid-career books, talks about this kind of replacement culture where you go and you do a ten or a hundred million dollar contract with one of these IT vendors. And they’re in there like a tick. And then, eventually, you just get more and more frustrated by… you know, you can’t do the something or other. And then, something is finally the straw that breaks the camel’s back. And then, you jump in bed with another vendor like a decade later or five years later, you know? The horizon on it is five, ten years maybe? That’s what this sort of business-to-business software world is.

Alexander, you know… the analog to that would be like going and building a giant building, and then it’s like, why? Because the big, big deal it makes the administrators look good. And this is at the University of Eugene, Oregon. And, yeah. It makes them look good because it is this big audacious project and they go and they bulldoze something and then they plunk this thing down and like… and Alexander was talking about like, “Hey! What about a couple hundred bucks to fix that fence? What about being able to put a rose bush down?” What about that?

And it’s like the granularity, the addressability of the money is so chunky that like, you can’t do it for less than a million dollars, sorry! And if it’s going to be a million dollars, it might as well be ten million. If it’s going to be ten million, might as well be fifty million. And so, these little bits of repair can’t be done because you cannot address that money, because the money is like… if you only need a couple hundred bucks, then you can’t address that in the budget regime.

And this is why I’ve been paying more attention to the actual money aspect of it. And in the case of software, it’s kind of like… You know, I had a client long-term, a while back. Whenever they had some coin, they’d dial me up and be like, “oh, can we fix this little thing here?” And it’s like, a lot of their infrastructure was stuff that I wrote, but I wrote it piece by piece. We could imagine regimes where an organization might set aside fifty thousand, a hundred thousand, you know, whatever… maybe up to a million dollars, I don’t know. But there would be these sort of repair jobs on their internal infrastructure. But heretofore a lot of the ideas that I see around that are not… they’re IT. They’re like, “oh, it’s a technical thing.”

And it’s like, no, no, you know? This is an adaptation thing. You know, computers are almost as old as television now, and we’re still treating them like, “ooh, mysterious technology thing.” And it’s like, no, no, no! Okay, we’re manipulating information. And everybody knows what information is. When you bleach out any technical stuff about computers, everybody understands the social dynamics of telling this person this and not telling that person that, and the kinds of decorum and how you comport yourself in public and so on and so forth. Everybody kind of understands how information works innately, but then you like you try it in the computer and they just go blank and you know, like 50 IQ points go out the window and they’re like, “doh, I don’t get it?” And it’s the same thing, it’s just mediated by a machine.

So, you know, I would love to be able to communicate that. I haven’t found a way to do it because I think it’s kind of a short circuit. It’s like anytime you introduce computers it becomes an IT issue. And it’s really an issue of communication, memory, comprehension. You know, that was really my big thing, comprehension. Like, imagine a ship in a bottle you put the ship in, you’ve put it through the neck of the bottle, all folded down, and then you pull on the rigging, and then it all comes up inside like an umbrella or something like that. And that’s how you get the ship into the bottle.

And for me, I was like, “well, how do you get a complex mental model into somebody’s brain?” Because you’ve got to feed it through and then you have to kind of assemble it inside their head. And I think, for me, like, one of the ways to do that was hypermedia. The ability to oscillate between storytelling and just the facts, or oscillate between modalities of visual and auditory and kinesthetic and being able to have people, “if you’re interested in this path through the system, you can take it. If you’re interested in that path, you can take that one and, you know, you can get to the same place eventually.”

It’s like some things are just complex and you’re just going to have to deal with the fact that they’re complex. Given that, what’s the best, most efficient way to get the complex thing into your head so you can understand it and then you can make use of it? We don’t talk about that. We just talk about making things simple and easy and convenient, you know? You can take that back almost to a fundamental schism in what the societal role of a computer is, you know? You’ve got the Minsky and McCarthy over on one thing that says like, “well, we want the computer to be this intelligent thing that just serves you. It’s kind of like a slave.” And you got the J.C.R. Licklider and Englebart camp who are saying, “well, we want the computer to be a dumb tool to make smart people smarter.” I’m in that camp, you know? I’d rather have a tool than a slave myself. I don’t need Siri, I just need a sharp knife.

Closing

Jorge: Hearing you talk about replacement culture and Alexander’s work as possibly a different path… that resonates a lot, particularly given that we’re concerned about things like climate change and living more sustainably. Think about regeneration, if possible. And you’ve pointed to the fact that Alexander’s work is vast. And some of it like The Nature of Order is intimidating. What’s the best place for folks to get into it. People who are listening, if they can pick up one thing to read of Alexander’s or a way to get into his work so that they can think about integrating this into their own work — do you know of any resource?

Dorian: If they’re software people, I think that the best thing that they can probably do is watch that keynote from 1996, the one that’s called Patterns in Architecture. It’s on YouTube; there’s a couple of instances of it on YouTube. I would start there because that is like an hour of your time whereas any book is going to be… I mean, you will blast through A Pattern Language if you get it, you know? But like Alexander himself said like 25 years ago, A Pattern Language is abandonware from his perspective. So I think it’s a good historical artifact. I think it’s an interesting thing. And it will make you feel good to read it. But I think that I would start with that keynote because that really captures what Alexander is about.

It was interesting actually, I was on this memorial Zoom call last week; a bunch of people that were actually like colleagues of his. And one person said something really surprising to me. There was a paper that Alexander wrote called, A City Is Not a Tree. You can find that online as well. That’s a little mathematical for most people. But, what this person said was like, “I was really glad that he wrote that because it sort of demonstrated that he understood that this kind of hierarchical decomposition structure, which he described in his Ph.D. thesis and in Notes On The Synthesis of Form, was inadequate for describing the interlacing in these sort of interactions of the features of a city and the sort of layout of the city.

But I mean, you might go for Richard Gabriel’s Patterns of Software. You can find a PDF for that online. But if you want to engage with Alexander directly as a person in software, there is obviously the stuff that I’ve written. Maybe just go with that post of mine. It’s not the shortest piece I’ve ever written, but it’s definitely got a 1:250 ratio of verbosity when you compare it to Alexander’s work proper. But other than that, it’s tough. You’ve got to kind of want to dive in. If you’re going to get into Alexander, I think you kind of have to do it all.

Jorge: No, that’s okay. And where can folks follow up with you?

Dorian: So, I run my mouth on Twitter all day long: twitter.com/doriantaylor. I also have a website that is doriantaylor.com. And I have a SubStack — I don’t know if it’s going to be SubStack forever — I have a newsletter which is camped on it, dorian.substack.com. I got that before somebody else did, which I’m pretty proud of.

Jorge: Well, fantastic. I’m going to include links to all of those in the show notes and also to the OOPSLA keynote, which I also found enlightening. I think that that’s a good recommendation for an overview of the man’s work. Thank you so much for sharing with us.

Dorian: Well, it is, been an honor and a pleasure to get on here and talk about it, Jorge. Thanks so much.

Categories
Episodes

Laura Yarrow on Trusted Agitators

Laura Yarrow is Head of Design for HM Land Registry in the UK. She’s also a public speaker and educator. In this conversation, we talk about how designers can increase their effectiveness in organizations by becoming trusted agitators.

Show notes

Show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Transcript

Jorge: Laura, welcome to the show.

Laura: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

Jorge: Well, it’s very good to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please introducing yourself?

About Laura

Laura: Yeah, sure! So, I work in UK Central Government for HM Land Registry. I’m the Head of Design there. That encompasses things like content design, service design, interaction design, and accessible design. And it’s a government organization that supports seven trillion transactions every year, so it underpins the economy of the UK. And we have many services there that we need to support. Public services are very important to keep the economy going. So, do you want to hear about my background? Do you want to hear about where I come from?

Jorge: That’d be great. You said that you’re the Head of Design. First, what does that entail at… you said it’s HM Land Registry?

Laura: That’s right. So, if you want to register some land, we hold the register of all of the land in the UK. My role is as the Head of Design is to make sure we have a coherent experience, consistent service design across all the different services we offer, and generally looking after that design team of all the different people that we have in it. There are something like 25, 26 people at the moment, and growing as well. So, we’ve got quite a lot of people in our design team. It feels like quite a large design team, and… yeah.

My background has been in both design and web development as well. So I came from computer science as my background, did that as my degree, and was definitely set on a course down the IT road. Been a developer and spent quite a few years doing that and really enjoyed the black and whiteness of computers, you know? It’s binary, isn’t it? And then came across a UX team who wanted to test my designs and test my work. And I was like, “Wow, what is this?” You know that there’s people at the end of this stuff that I’m building. And it just captivated me from that moment. That I was really interested in who these people are, and why don’t they get it? Why are they complaining about the things I’m developing? And then it just kind of spiraled from there.

That’s when I slid into front-end development to research to the design throughout my career. And that’s kind of how I ended up as the Head of Design. It was slowly making a career change across from tech to design. And, you know, humans are just so much more interesting, aren’t they? To design for, rather than computers. We shouldn’t be designing for tech anyway. But, yeah, humans have all those different, multiple shades… rainbow shades of color that you have to design for. And I find that fascinating and still do, and it’s never left me.

Jorge: I find that fascinating that the way that you’ve articulated the trajectory where you said that you were drawn to computer science in part because of the black and white nature of that work. And yet this people stuff tends to play with the gray areas, no?

Laura: Yeah, I think that’s maybe an experience thing as well as the safety and the binary-ness of something. Something’s right or wrong. You know how to fix something once you’ve learned how to do it, and it’s repeatable. But that same thing doesn’t work with people, does it? The one thing that works on one person doesn’t work on another. And I think as you get more confident in your experience as you get older — because I’m getting pretty old now! You become more confident in addressing gray areas, and working out what works for people is where that came from.

It’s a really common trajectory people take from tech to design. And I speak to people at the time that have started off in IT as a developer perhaps, or some kind tech background, and then come into the design. So, I think it’s a common trajectory, and I certainly took that route, and I don’t think I’d go back that way. I quite like where I

Jorge: When you were talking about your team, you mentioned that the goal of the design organization is to somehow drive towards a coherent experience. And you mentioned service design. Is it fair to say that some but not all of the stuff that you are designing is digital? Does it encompass more than digital channels?

Laura: It should. Yes. I mean, it’s the big problem with digital transformation, isn’t it? That everything wants to be digital and automated, but humans will never a hundred percent do that. You know, we have to think of digital inclusion, especially for public services, because ideally, our services that we have are for everyone. Therefore, every person in the UK who needs to register land, and if they don’t have the technical literacy to do that online, if it’s digital, if they don’t have the funds to do that, if they can’t afford to have the equipment to be literate and to have that experience, that digital experience, then we’re not serving everyone. And we have to serve everyone.

That service has to be analog and digital. It has to encompass some of that to make it accessible and not just for access needs, but for all the different digital access needs that people have. So yeah, it is both. And I think all experiences are! Is it’s not just with public services. There’ll always be someone who can’t access your service if it’s just digital.

People, Place and Space

Jorge: As part of this introduction, I don’t want to be remiss in not mentioning your newsletter. It’s called People, Place And Space. And as I was mentioning to you before we started recording, it’s one that I make time to read. Would you please tell us a bit about the newsletter? What’s it about, and with what frequency does it come out and all that.

Laura: Oh, well, frequency is a bit of a touchy subject because I’m quite tardy with it all the time. I find that I’ve missed a week or something, but I’m trying to get into a cadence of writing. I like writing, and I’m passionate about design, user centered design. Like we just talked about, services aren’t just digital, and that’s why it’s got the name People, Place and Space — because we experience the world around us as analog as well in buildings and in the streets. And when you do your online shop, it comes as an analog thing. It doesn’t just land with a drone or something. It’s … it’s not being too electronically. It is encompassing everything. It’s about user-centered design. I tried to include three main articles and then a few other bits and pieces that are interesting that might be shorter reads.

But yeah, it’s every month. It’s one of those things where now I’m beholden to it. I’ve got to keep putting it out there. It’s a good resolution to have, you know? To keep me writing and to keep me doing stuff. And I think I’ve done nearly two years of it now. So I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself, even though it hasn’t been exactly every four weeks, every month.

Laura’s Twitter thread

Jorge: As one might assume, given what I just said, I’ve been following your work for a while. But what prompted me to reach out to you was a thread that you posted on Twitter, and I’m not going to read it verbatim. I’ll quote parts of it to you just as a spark for the conversation here. You wrote that a common designer complaint is that no one listens. And user experience isn’t a priority or understood. And you go on to… in the thread, you go on to diagnose and offer suggestions for what to do about that. But I wanted to start by asking what do you mean by that? You know, this common designer complaint that no one listens. Can you elaborate a bit on that?

Laura: Yeah. I’ve spent quite a while in the industry and work at startups and medium and huge organizations and public and private sector and training and things like that. And in every one of those, there’s always people that have this problem with getting that proverbial seat at the table. It’s always the question, and different people react to it in different ways. And I was just musing on it, you know, that seat at the table thing. And I like to call it, “Are you at the table or on the menu?” You know? If you’re not at the table, then it’s likely you’re on the menu. And I think that’s how a lot of user-centered design folks feel, is that they’re on the menu.

They’re there, and they’re trying to do this good work that has a huge social impact for some people, if you work in public services, especially. But you know, really anyone who works in design is affecting something somewhere and changing things for better or worse for people. But there’s this still persistent feeling that design is undervalued, it’s underfunded, it’s misunderstood, is outnumbered by the disciplines often in organizations. And because of that sort of perfect storm, designers don’t always react in the best way. I think it becomes territorial, and people advocate for the wrong things.

So, they’d advocate for the design work just standing up on its own. It should just speak for itself and then come on collaborative or even to the rocketry about different disciplines they work with. And I’m guilty of this too! So my career has seen me move from, you know, IC — individual contributor — to sort of leadership roles. I was the same. And it can feel like that because your work is precious to you, you know? You’re affecting people. You want to do the right thing. You can become overly dogmatic, maybe. And I was guilty of that too.

So, you get this perfect storm of feeling undervalued, high social impact, and then dealing with it in a quite strange way. And I think the elephant in the room that I was trying to bring out into the open was that we have some control over that situation. We can affect things if we choose to, and it’s the way we affect things that will make a difference. And it takes courage as well. So in those situations where I’ve been told, “I feel undervalued. No one’s listening to me. No one understands what I do.” I ask questions like, “Have you explained design? Have you explained the process you go through? Have you explained what you deliver? What’s the jargon? How long will it take?” You know, “what are the roles of design, and when do we get involved?” Things like that. So that these are all questions I ask, and the answer is invariably, “No, I haven’t done any of that.” And then it becomes this very strange conversation where you think, well, shouldn’t you?

You probably should! So, if others don’t know what you do or how you do it, or how long it takes, what you deliver… I mean, why should they trust you? Why should someone trust you if they don’t have a clue? If you haven’t brought them into your world, I think is what I used in the tweets and the threads that I put up there. That you need to expose your world and be transparent and clear about what you’re doing before throwing your hands up and saying, “Well, I can’t work with them. I can’t do my work. I’m not valued.” So, I think there’s definitely a meeting in the middle, and that’s where that trusted agitator came from is you can agitate in the wrong way, but actually there’s a whole load of invisible work needed to make design work before you do the design work, if that makes sense.

Designers as change agents

Jorge: You’ve pointed to the primary distinction in the thread where you talk about good and bad agitation, and also hearing you talk made me think that design by its very nature is about change. So, designers are some kind of agent of change. And what I’m hearing there is that there is some kind of tension between being in this role where you’re asked to be a catalyst maybe or help direct some kind of change, but also in some ways being powerless about the higher levels where that change is happening. So, does this have to do with the level of decision-making, perhaps, or is there something deeper than that?

Laura: I think that’s part of it. And I think you’re right about being change agents. We see ourselves as that, but to other people… and are they aware that that’s kind of what our role is, wrapped up in, right? Because design is this hugely loaded term, isn’t it? You know, design carries that baggage of being aesthetic. It’s quite a young… I mean, in the modern sense, it’s quite a young discipline: service design, things like that.

Although we probably see it as different things — it’s evolved over the years — but I think to a lot of people in multidisciplinary teams, it’s wrapped up in aesthetics and graphic design and tortured artists throwing paint at the canvas, you know? That sort of imagery. And it doesn’t come across as a strategic role, which it is. It entirely is a strategic resource to a team. And I think that’s where that trusted agitator comes in, is the pre-work to let people see what that role actually is, to communicate what your role is and what your remit is and what your benefit and value you will bring to that team is. That’s entirely what design is, to start with. It starts with all that communication.

Jorge: And it sounds like the tension here then might be coming from the fact that we have these people in these roles where they are tasked with leading change or helping be catalysts of change. And then you have the folks in the rest of the organization who they have to collaborate with in order to undertake that change, who perhaps don’t perceive the same degree of agency in the role. Like you’re here to make the logo bigger, you know? Or to make the thing more engaging or more usable or what have you. That’s the perception that colleagues have. And then it sounds like designers maybe have a different perception of the degree of… the degree to which they should be helping make strategic decisions. Is that fair?

Laura: I think that’s entirely fair. Yeah. And I think it’s just that miscommunication, isn’t it? That misrepresentation and then not correcting that in the proper way. And not being able to have the language to communicate what you actually do as well. So I think it’s just a common thing that happens, and it’s a legacy thing as well. Like I said, people just think of design or something else because they’ve had someone come and design their living room, for example. Or they see graphic designers doing logos on a sign outside on a billboard. So, it’s just misunderstood, and it’s up to us to correct that, I think, and then not get upset if we haven’t done the work to correct it, to communicate that, and build the relationship so that you become trusted. Trusted in that strategic decision-making.

Bad agitators

Jorge: I want to get to the trusted agitator and what that is, but before we do that, I wanted to ask you about the bad agitators or the people who are doing this poorly. In the thread, you have a list of instances or examples of bad agitation. And I’ve tried to summarize them here, but… I noted “complaining versus acting.” So, this notion that “things are all bad!” rather than taking action on it. Another was “expecting huge change overnight.”

Laura: Yes. So it’s not recognizing; it’s like a slow thing. Culture takes a long time to change. And that’s kind of the crux of the issue, isn’t it? Is that it’s all about culture. You’re trying to change culture first, then design.

Jorge: Yeah. And there’s an impatience there. Like, “We want to make this happen now!”

There was “being derogatory of other disciplines.” So, “those folks at engineering just don’t understand!” Or whatever, right?

Laura: Yes, them and us. Them and us situations are so common. And I think just taking the time to understand their challenges, where they’re coming from, and what they think design is. Because that’s the assumption that they just don’t understand. And not helping to meet in the middle, because you’re all surely working towards one goal, aren’t you? You’re working, and at the same place, you’re working on the same things, so surely you all want the best thing to happen. The best outcome.

Jorge: Right. I’ll continue with the list of bad agitation here. There was “being jaded and accepting the status quo.” So this is like the, “Oh, you know, I’m just not gonna deal with this.” It’s like, let’s just keep rolling.

Laura: Yeah.

Jorge: Then, “being territorial.” So, “Well, that’s not an engineering decision, that’s a design decision.” Is that what that’s about?

Laura: I think I threw out the, “Only I do the wireframes!” Or…

Jorge: Oh, right!

Laura: “Don’t bring me a design. Bring me a problem and an idea, and then I open up Figma, and I do my thing and whatnot.” That territorial-ness is quite a common thing, I think.

And I was like that too, you know? “How dare you step on my toes and do design work and think visually?” You know? I find that really quite strange that we’re visual thinkers as designers, and we don’t want to promote that in other people. I think that’s a fantastic thing to promote it in other people. It’s a great way to visualize a shared problem out loud and then come to a solution.

Jorge: When I was reading these things, I’ll just say there’s a final one here, “expecting leadership to be the ones who change the status quo.” So, it’s like, “This is above my pay grade,” or whatever. But what I was going to say here is two things. Part of why this resonated so much with me is that designers are ostensively about making things better for people. And we have all of these research techniques that we use to understand the people that we’re designing for. And I often find that when it comes to understanding the people that we work with, our colleagues from other disciplines, it’s like we cast all of that aside, and we immediately go to these knee-jerk dualities — you talked about the “us versus them,” right?

Laura: Yeah. Yeah, hugely ironic, isn’t it? That we’re supposed to be the experts in people, behavior, human beings, and then it comes to this crunch point, and there’s like a… it is like a blindfold on us, or blinkers. And I’m guilty of that, you know? I think there’s a lot of passion wrapped up in it that you’re passionate change-makers and you just see a blocker, you know? Rather than a person that could actually help you, an advocate. Or potential advocate there that you can work with. And then that amplifies the advocacy, as soon as you have someone that can speak for design and the work you’ve done because you’ve built that relationship with them to do so.

Jorge: One of the reasons why I wanted to focus on the bad agitation and kind of read off the list is that when I was reading these tweets… well, first of all, I was nodding in agreement, saying, “Yes, I’ve seen this.” And then also I was reading this in the context of Twitter, where I see a lot of the behaviors that you are calling out as bad agitator — I see them play out in Twitter itself.

Laura: Yeah.

Jorge: So I’m wondering if this is something that’s specific to design or if it’s more broadly part of the way that we have learned to interact through media like Twitter.

Laura: It’s like that territorialness, isn’t it?

Jorge: Well, all of them. Complaining versus acting. People go on Twitter to complain, and then it’s like, “what are you doing about it?” It’s like, “I’m complaining!”

Laura: It’s an outlet. Yeah. “It’s an outlet for me.” Yeah. And I think a lot of people came to that conclusion in the thread as well, which is that this could cross boundaries to any discipline. It doesn’t have to be design.

I think design does suffer from a lack of understanding what we do, and then it just manifests and festers away as this resentment that we’re not included in decision-making. We’re not getting that seat at the table on the menu. And, yeah. But I think it can be that it crosses all different walks of life and disciplines. And it’s basically a lesson in how to just build a relationship and build that credibility and trust, isn’t it? It’s everywhere, in everything you do, you know? No one is going to give you anything if they don’t trust you and they don’t understand you. So yeah, it just maybe affects design more.

Becoming a trusted agitator

Jorge: So, enough of focusing on the negative. What can we do about it? How do you become a trusted agitator?

Laura: Yeah. So yeah, just going back to credibility and trust, isn’t it? And also, something you mentioned earlier about tension is finding a healthy tension. Because I think there’s like a… I don’t want to be — what do you call it? — “toxically positive”? You know that if you just follow this 10 step program, it’ll all be okay, and it’ll go away. I think there’ll always be tensions between people who want to make vast changes and people who want to concentrate on, say, technology or finance or budgets, things like that, and delivering work and schedules.

So, yeah, finding that healthy tension, for example, between product and design. There’s that tension, that product has to deliver, you have to get something out quick at the expense of the experience and the usability of something. And then, if it were up to the design, it would never be released because it’s got to be fully researched, and it’s got to be iterative through 800 times until it’s absolutely perfect.

So, there’s that tension there that needs to be found, that balance. And again, building that relationship with people to be trusted that you’re making the right decisions, that you can let go of some of the dogmatic ways maybe so that you can actually release something and find that balance where it would work there.

But yeah, it’s all about building relationships and not being defensive about your work. Some of the conversations I have are quite defensive or have heard in the past. So there, “please! I just need time to do the design. We just need to get this done.” And that’s a defensive stance, isn’t it? If you’re talking like that and the subtext is you’re pleading that you have to be included… please include me.

A better way is to move the conversation to be more… not offensive, but you know, “This is the way we’re going to do design, and this is the process we’re going to follow.” So, it’s much more confident and having that confidence in your expertise and the value you bring. It’s almost like, “Fake it till you make it,” you know? It’s like, just be confident about what your role is and that you are needed in that project.

And then I think nothing builds relationships like being curious about other disciplines. So, this is where that territorialness can arise is that you haven’t really been curious; you’ve not asked them what their challenges are. How are you going to work together? How do they want work delivered to them? How do they want design work handed over? How do you want to check the feasibility of this design, technically? Does this match the roadmap? Does it meet the business needs? So there are things like that as well.

And I also mentioned in the threads showing the science of design. A lot of people, like we said, think of it as an aesthetic discipline, graphic design. And actually, there’s a lot of science behind it. Gestalt psychology, visual perception, looking at cognitive biases, behavioral economics… if you can start to talk about these things really confidently and educate people and bring people into that broader sense of what design is and the psychology of design, that’s going to bring that credibility way up to let people trust you more.

And then just being respectful. Being respectful of other disciplines. Because anything you say is never private, is it? If you have a moan about a developer or, you know, “them,” “they just don’t get it.” It’s never private. It will get back to them. And then that relationship is done forever. That will never work.

And I think the last thing was just looking for opportunities in the overlaps that you have. Design is worked throughout the whole process across the whole life cycle of a project, a product to service. They work with all different disciplines. It’s just looking for the opportunities where someone might be thinking in a visual sense. They might be bringing you a design, a wireframe, and then turning that on its head from being toes stepped on to an opportunity: this is an advocate for design; this is someone that thinks visually. This is someone I can say, “That’s great. As an expert, I recommend we change this, but this is a great start. And I’m glad you brought it to me.”

It’s looking for the opportunities, not the challenges, isn’t it? So, I think it was a lot of things that we can do, but that’s all invisible work. It’s all invisible design. And it takes a lot of work.

Confidence

Jorge: One of the things that I’m getting from what you’re saying here is that perhaps the way to move past the situation that you were describing at the beginning of our conversation, this notion of feeling powerless or not having a seat at the table, has to do somehow with our stance and what we perceive our stance to be as designers. And you used the word “confidence,” which I circled here in my notes.

Laura: Yeah.

Jorge: Because perhaps what is happening is that, as you mentioned earlier, design is still relatively new in a lot of organizations, and maybe we are both seen and think of ourselves as interlopers of some kind, yeah?

Laura: I think so. And I think it’s any reform work. It’s that invisible, emotional, internal stuff that’s the hardest: to understand that you are valued. You should be at that table. That you’ve been hired for a reason, I think is the other thing, is that a lot of people end up in their roles and the hiring manager, the organization, they haven’t really understood what they want. They just know vaguely someone to design shape, and UX is a buzzword. And we kind of have to have someone in that shape.

And it’s usually, in their head, the mental model is, “We need someone to knock out some wire frames, like just continuously. To play around with different layouts and things.” And actually, you come into that with a different expectation. I think that’s where it comes from is that you, you feel that deflation. You’ve got an idea of who you are, but no one else understands. But that’s not where it ends; part of your role is to educate on what design is. And I think that’s going to be around for quite a while, while this discipline is fairly young and misunderstood.

I think there are positive changes. You know, it is changing. I know, particularly in the UK government, the UCD “scene,” for want of a better word, is quite mature. We have passionate people who understand, and we have the processes to assess work and assess that services are accessible to people they do work with. That they’re based on a user need. But, yeah, it’s not everywhere. It’s a slow cultural change across the world, isn’t it?

Jorge: Perhaps having both confidence and the patience that that entails, right? I’ll speak from my own perspective; whenever I feel confident in what I’m doing, I’m more centered. And you project that. People perceive that of you.

Laura: Yeah, that’s true. Yeah. And I think it’s probably worth acknowledging that this feels like quite a privileged sort of position to feel like you’re in, that you can say just be confident, just to be a trusted agitator. Just do the communication, just do the relationship building and build that trust, and it… it’s a really privileged position, and I just wanted to acknowledge that not everyone’s in that position. But, you know, some people are just turning up for work, and that’s all they can give. And that’s absolutely fine. We’ve just been through this really horrendous two years, and everyone’s feeling probably pretty worn out and… is assessing their lives, I think. So, I think it is worth acknowledging that it isn’t for everyone, and it’s just a thing to try if that’s where your interest lies in promoting design and being a change agent. But yeah, it’s worth noting not everyone is in that position.

Jorge: Absolutely. I’m so glad you called that out. And it sounds like, at a minimum, if we can talk generally, the idea is that we — one way or another — need to build greater awareness of our internal states and maybe allow ourselves to be more comfortable with ourselves and our roles and what we’re doing. And, to your point, we’ve been through a very difficult two years, all of us. And we need to have the awareness to let ourselves experience the things that we are going through and not add onto it.

Laura: Yeah, that’s right. We are the experts. We’ve been hired to do this and have that confidence, you know? That you can do this. You can provide the work that people need. But also, you can create the change that’s needed to elevate that even further. Definitely. I saw a really good quote that I think you’ll appreciate actually, because you’re into your pace layers and things like that.

And I think it’s actually Stephen Covey who said it. The guy that did his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but actually came to me via Catherine Greys, who is our head of design in the NHS-X department over here in UK Gov. But she said, “Progress happens at the speed of trust.” And I think that’s great. You can only progress if you build that trust if you build that credibility. And otherwise, it just stagnates to stop. So, I think that’s a really good headline for all of this trusted agitator stuff is, “Progress happens at the speed of trust.”

Jorge: I love that quote. That seems like a great place to wrap up our conversation, Laura.

Laura: I knew you’d like that one.

Jorge: Well, I think that we should all internalize it. And it applies to more than just design. I’ll just say that. I think that working towards trusting each other is essential.

Laura: Definitely.

Closing

Jorge: Where can folks follow up with you?

Laura: Twitter, of course. I feel like I live there. So I’m @laura_yarrow. I’m on Twitter. I do have a website, but I don’t really use it much. But yeah, you can always find me on Twitter.

Jorge: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you to mention how folks can find your newsletter as well.

Laura: Oh, yes, it’s at Substack. So I think if you just look on Twitter, I’ve got a link to that too. I feel like I should know the URL by heart, but I don’t, I’m afraid!

Jorge: But folks can find it on Twitter, yeah?

Laura: Yes. So I’ll make sure I put a link on there for everyone.

Jorge: Well, great. Thank you so much for making the time to speak with us.

Laura: It was no problem. I can speak about this all day. It’s something that’s really close to my heart. I’m really passionate about it. So yes, thank you for having me.

Jorge: Well, thank you for sharing it with us.

Categories
Episodes

Oliver Caviglioli on Graphic Organizers

Oliver Caviglioli is a former headteacher of a special needs school. Now, he’s an information designer and author of several books about education. His latest book, Organise Ideas, which he co-authored with David Goodwin, explains the practice and science behind using graphic organizers to teach and learn.

Show notes

Show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Transcript

Jorge: Oliver, welcome to the show.

Oliver: Hello! Delighted to be here.

Jorge: Well, it’s a real treat to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please introducing yourself?

About Oliver

Oliver: Yes! I’m someone who twenty years ago left education. I was the headteacher of a school for children with special needs — extremely affected special needs. So, I spent a lot of time looking at the real fundamentals of communication and particularly visual communication. And then I became… I didn’t quite know what to call myself.

I started translating some of the very academic books and research papers for busy teachers, so they could grasp the message quickly — and I hope attractively — clarifying some abstract concepts in very direct ways. Which included not just graphics; it included looking at language. So, I was starting to become quite a student of editorial design. You know, what people have learned works well in newspaper and magazine design.

Jorge: And do you have been consulting since then? What is the work that you do after leaving education?

Oliver: Well, then became a trainer, and I wrote a couple of books about 20 years ago. I’m embarrassed by them now, but we’re always embarrassed by our earlier work. And, over the last five, six years, I had a breakthrough in 2008. I went to Vizthink, a three-day course on visual communication staged by Dave Gray of Xplane, the American Xplane company. And I was the only educator there in amongst a couple of hundred people from around the world. Many of whom from Silicon Valley were sharing with each other how they use visual communication. Even though they’re colleagues in Silicon Valley, I thought you know, a couple of PhDs each. I found that fascinating given that the people I was communicating with in schools were people of the complete opposite intellectual end of the continuum. But underneath that, we had the same distinctions, the same principles of communication. And from that three-day course, I went back to education and I saw immediately how there was such a powerful set of assumptions in education that continue to make whatever they were communicating unbelievably complicated.

Jorge: They being the teachers?

Oliver: Yeah. The way they write. The way they communicate. There’s an assumption that as they develop intellectually and learn more about their profession, the more complicated their writing became. Whereas, you and I know if you really know something, it means you’re able to communicate it more simply because you know what the key sentences are, or the key messages are. And so, I decided I was ready to start writing a book. And luckily for me, there were… I’m going to jump back! I’m going to jump back all the way before I was a teacher.

My father was an architect and I know you’re an architect. And so you may giggle when you think of this, but my father was also a topographer, book illustrator… And so everything before his eyes was about design. And so I had daily lectures — sermons — about why that’s good design, why that’s bad design. Everything from a door handle, to the color socks I had, will it match the shoes, everything. It was an incredible education. It was so overwhelming, I decided not to follow that course. But you know, it never left me.

So, I was always addicted to fashion and television design and graphics books. So, when eventually I used that information when I professionally had to communicate in visual formats to the children, I found there was a natural marriage. And then what happened was I thought I could write a book. Or rather not my book, I would illustrate someone’s book. There were two cognitive scientists in America who wanted to write a book about the six most effective strategies. And because they’d seen what I was doing on Twitter, they invited me to do it with them.

But of course, as soon as I had the chance to illustrate it, I couldn’t help myself saying well, “Show me how you’ve organized the content? How are we going to navigate through?” If you’re going through a website, there’s certain things you need to keep in mind. But it seems as if none of those principles are at work when we write a book. So I really started investigating books. I mean… let me just give you one example. You open a book and I was always frustrated. I look at the top and I want to know what chapter it is and what number it is. But often they’ll tell you the chapter, but they won’t tell you the name of the chapter. When there’s a reference, you have to go to the back, keep your fingers in the book, and at the back, it tells you all the references by chapter numbers. So you go back to where you were reading and he doesn’t give you a chapter number. It just gives you the chapter title. Then you have to go to the front of the book to marry up the chapter title with the chapter number.

It’s just enormously frustrating and I can’t believe no one seems to have addressed this. And there are many other issues, but that was just a fundamental one. So I started inventing… when I say inventing… applying what I see on the web. Applying what I see in signage, wayfaring, and applying it to a book, which was really great fun.

Jorge: And you’ve recently written another book, which is the reason why we’re talking today. It’s called Organise Ideas. And in hearing you describe your trajectory, I can see how it converges onto the subject of this book. And rather than have me mangle it, I was hoping that you would tell the listeners what the book is about.

Thinking in metaphors

Oliver: When you look at any books on study, the word organization is a low order phenomenon. So, if a student buys a book on study skills, it’s organized. It’ll tell you what to put in your bag, how to eat properly, how many hours of sleep you need… low order management skills. Now, they’re very important, but only recently have psychologists come to the realization or rather the acknowledgment that organization is at the heart of learning.

There’s one particular model that is very elegant because there are three sections. One, you select what you’re going to concentrate on, and all learning is at the basis of attention. No attention, no learning. The model is: select, organize what you selected, and then you integrate it into your long-term memory. And all of that has to do with meaning-making.

So, there’s many technical aspects to do with organizing… signage of navigation, but behind those technical tactics, so to speak, we should remember the primary aim is human beings are meaning-makers. And the primary way in which they create meaning is whatever’s new in front of them has to connect to what they already know. So, I wrote the book in that way.

And of course I had to model what I was talking about. So, the book is full of kind of navigational aims and strategies. And it starts off with… and this may tie in with architecture because just before we started recording, you were talking about the many ways that architectural training makes you very appropriate to enter so many other professions, because architecture itself involves so many things. Systems, navigation, urbanism, affordances, anthropology.

Well, similarly, there’s lots of different professions that have looked at how we organize information. Psychologists, for example… I don’t know if any of your readers have read Lakoff and Johnson; it’s a linguist and a psychologist. In 1980s, they wrote a book called Metaphors We Live By. Now, we all know about metaphors and we tend to think of them as being something to do with poetry or literature. These two people arrived at how we structure our thoughts, which I think it would be useful to your listeners because they have to bear that in mind when they’re designing things.

When we’re young, before we have language, we try and understand how the world works. For example, with liquids. We have a big jug and we have a cup. And either our parents, or later we do, we play with water. We fill up the cup with water and something so obvious takes place that we’ve forgotten it. And we’ve never had a word for it. We noticed that the more liquid there is in the cup, the higher the level.

And as young children, toddlers, we say in England, we have this experience repeated again and again and again, not just with liquid, but with sand, when we put objects into big containers… the more objects, the higher the level is that internally, we create this physics. We create what’s called folklore physics. We arrive at a principle, and it is: more is up. More is up. And as a result of that, we recreate conceptual structures.

When we talk about someone’s superior moral standing. But that’s a metaphor! There is no superior. I feel under the weather. Because you see up orients towards godliness and the heavens, and we know that down… eventually, we feel down psychologically or physically. In fact, we physically feel so down, we end up being buried under the ground because we’re dead.

We have a complete continuum from down to up. And we apply it in the most abstract of concepts. And another one, which is really fundamental to a lot of design work, especially if you’re talking about processes, is when we’re young we realize that wherever we are, we always are where we are. We start where we are. Psychologists call this “the source.”

And we want to go somewhere. And in order to get from where we are to where we want to go, there’s a path, and we… to travel along that part takes energy or effort. Psychologists call this the “source-path-goal,” but it’s called the “path model.” And so in the path model is the source of all our structures for progress. The flow chart, the Gantt chart, the whatever complicated chart… is fundamentally no different. It’s an elaboration of I’m here, I want to get there.

And that’s what processes are. They’re just two of the fundamental metaphors that we have. And by the way, they’re called metaphor, but they’re called primitive metaphors… so primary, pre-linguistic, they shape everything that we do. And they’re spatial.

Now, let’s go to neuroscience. Neuroscientists put some electrodes on mice and they wanted to know, are mice and rats… are their brains, do they go like a sat-nav: left, right, right, left, left, right. Or do they create a mental map where they have a general view of the whole scene? And what they found is that, and we have it as well, in the entorhinal cortex in our brain, it’s as if whenever we tred on seemingly projected triangles that form a hexagon, our brains light up. That’s why animals know where they’re going and can go back to where they come from and they can navigate, and they can find their stash of food. And that’s how we orient ourselves.

But the fascinating bit is… and I’m becoming increasingly convinced and there are some Nobel prize winners who’ve been down this route, who think this entorhinal cortex is grid cells that tell us where we physically are in space is how we organize our ideas. And so, the fundamental mechanism — metaphors that we have — are spatial in context. We talk about, “this thing’s too slippery to hold onto. I want to construct an idea. Let me give you a step-by-step…” They’re all spatial metaphors.

In fact, whenever we use a preposition — in, on, near, after, under — all of them, unless we’re talking about objects in the world, whenever we use them about ideas, it’s a metaphor. It’s a pretend or make-believe world, which is seemingly almost the only way we can deal with abstract ideas. And abstract ideas, like anything which isn’t physical in front of us, we have to use these metaphors as if they’re objects.

Making and sharing models

Jorge: If I might reflect it back to you, what I’m hearing there is that we create models of what we experience and these models are informed by these very base metaphors that we formed through our experience of the world. So we layer these metaphors, conceptually onto these more abstract ideas, yeah?

Oliver: Exactly so.

Jorge: And in the book, you cite lots of research from different fields that point to this notion that we learn better if we somehow articulate these models in a way that can be discussed with others. And the book makes a case for doing that visually. Is that correct?

Oliver: Yes. What I tell teachers, because teachers are word people, and they’re often frightened to learn a new way of communicating. But what I say to them is when they speak, if they listen to their words, they are constantly using visual metaphors, spatial metaphors. In essence, they’re describing diagrams. Something’s above, something’s left, something’s the next stage.

And the thing is, if you describe a diagram, it’s very hard to get that picture in your head. It’s far easier to show them the diagram. So, I ask them… I invite them to consider nearly most of the things coming at their mouth are spatial metaphors and it is far simpler to show them the spatial metaphor as a visual model.

There’s been lots of research to show that you can give students text or you get them texts and a well-formed appropriate diagram, not decoration. And those who are given both understand more deeply and retain the knowledge for longer. Because the thing about language… words are glued together with syntax. And so kind of the tease — the taunt — I offer teachers is… so, on my course, I put them through an exercise where they fail to understand my simple description of something. It’s a hierarchical structure of an organization. And then I show them the diagram and it’s so obvious.

So, having suffered from syntax, they’re ripe for me to ask them to consider the possibility that in some instances, at least if not often, the concepts they’re trying to teach are far, far simpler than the complex grammar and syntax they’re using that we’ve reached to it to express it, to explain it. And after having had the experience themselves of suffering under my… I design the suffering specifically, they’re open to that possibility. If I said it without their prior experience, I think they would think my claims were outlandish.

Jorge: My experience as a teacher myself is that we give a great deal of priority to both written and spoken language over visualizations.

Oliver: Yes.

Jorge: And what I’m hearing here is that we might be able to teach more effectively if we use both, right? If we use both language and visualization.

Alleviating cognitive load

Oliver: Yeah! And just before I go into it, I just want to say there’s another aspect with talking. In cognitive load theory, which is I think what graphic designers have always understood instinctively. And I think they were the first to start reading about it because I read about it in graphics manuals way before teachers got hold of it, is that our attention span is very short. And so one of the things that stops us understanding someone explaining something is what’s called a transient information effect. It sounds far more complicated than it is.

When you speak the words that you speak disappear. They don’t hang around. As soon as you say that they disappear. They don’t almost have any life. You know, I say to you it disappears, it disappears. And every word you disappear has to be hung on to and connected to the new words. So you would get an increasing load. The complexity of syntax and the transience of the spoken word means we’re really going uphill.

The simple diagram — and there is a danger with diagrams; is they’re complicated, they can be too complicated, and if people aren’t used to them, they get frightened by them. So, the secret to using diagrams when you’re teaching is to develop the diagram slowly and make sure, always, you’re absolutely clear that all your listeners know that when you’re speaking, they know which part of the diagram you’re talking about.

You may think it’s obvious. You need to go near whatever you’re using, a screen or whiteboard whatever, and physically touch and point to the area you’re talking about. That way, your listeners aren’t wasting precious attention or working memory in thinking, “which part is he talking about? Where does it go? What now? Where are we?” Always trying to catch up. You point to the area of the diagram, the diagram is not complicated, it builds up gradually, they’re absolutely clear where you are, what you’re referring to, so all their attention is understanding the words and the spatial relationship of that small part of a diagram. Really clear, really simple.

Then you’d say… you may ask a few questions to make sure they’ve understood. You might ask them to talk to each other and summarize what you said and what they’ve seen. Then you leave the part of the diagram up with a few key words, they would then elaborate on those key words, making them into sentences to explain to someone else.

So we’re using human beings’ natural, not just facility, but urge to communicate meaning to somebody else. And in doing that, of course, they create meaning for themselves. So it’s reinforcing. They’ve had a break from your talking. You say, “that’s great!” You might question one or a few people, always check for understanding, but, let’s move on to the next part.

You may even say, to stimulate their meaning-making, “what do you think I’m going to move and talk about next?” You get a few ideas. “Oh, that’s interesting.” Then you move on and you do the same process and you take them step by step. You don’t do your bit and hope they come along with you.

Drawing for learning

Jorge: I’m thinking about the distinction between teaching and learning and what I’m hearing is of the great value in teaching by using these graphic organizers, as you call them in the book. And I’m wondering about the use of graphic organizers by the learners themselves. In other words, having the students draw the diagrams. Is that also a thing?

Oliver: Absolutely. So, yes, there’s something called a generational effect. If you create one yourself, you are meaning-making. And, let me tell you the secret to learning and it’s something students hate when they’re confronted with this fact. And we do them a disservice by not telling them this. The more cognitive effort you exert, the more you learn. There are no free rides in education. In fact, there’s a bit of irony and tension in that the better communicator you are, the easier it is, and the less effort they have to exert in receiving it, the less likely they are to learn it and retain it. So we learn and we retain information when it’s meaningful and the meaningful state is arrived at by working, wondering, linking, connecting, hypothesizing, testing, talking, judging. So that’s really the critical bit.

So yes, students should create them. But there’s never a real easy answer. One of the… I’m going to use two words that maybe people don’t like. One of the big insights that’s happened in British education is the idea that novices don’t think like experts, and experts don’t think like novices. So, it’s very difficult and unproductive to ask a novice, and by a novice. I mean, someone could have been a Ph.D., but if they encounter a bit of information that’s not in their field and it’s unfamiliar to them, they’re a novice. So when you encounter an unfamiliar piece of information, it’s very hard to be able to map it, to create a graphic organizer.

That process is always more productively engaged in if the teacher first of all, gives you the main concepts. I sometimes think if you go to a new town you’ve never been to before, and you have a guide, the last thing you want the guy to do is to overwhelm you with details. You just want something like, “well, listen, we’re in the town square. There’s a church. Over there is the railway station. The river’s behind you, and the football grounds are over to the left.” So, all we’ve got are four reference points, then we can go and explore. We can explore the details and we can then connect the details to these four main reference points. If. you come along to the town straight away and you’re on the outskirts, then nothing makes any sense. You don’t know what a major reference is. Because you’ve got your eyes to the ground, everything is street level, nothing stands out.

So what the expert does, they’re able to go up in a helicopter and say, “there you are! There the four main points. Look at them!” Then you can go down to ground level and you can then search out the details. But you’re always navigating by those four reference points. So that’s kind of my way of answering it. There’s never a simple answer with teaching. Yes, creating your own is just what you need. But if it’s completely unfamiliar, they need some guiding navigational points.

Jorge: Yeah, I’m hearing a couple of things there. One, this last thing that you were talking about, the reference points, I’m reminded of a quote by Richard Saul Wurman, who said that you only understand things relative to things you already understand.

Oliver: Absolutely so.

Jorge: Yeah. And the other of which, I wanted to point out is that it might sound like there’s a contradiction in saying that the greater the cognitive effort you expend, the more you learn, and then we’re talking about tools that ease learning. But what I’m hearing about the graphic organizers is that the intent is to shift the cognitive burden to the truly difficult parts of the material you’re trying to learn as opposed to the learning process itself. Is that a fair read?

Leveraging the Goldilocks effect

Oliver: Yeah. If you consider the learning process often has to surmount the load of hanging onto someone’s talk, transmitting information, and getting through the complicated syntax of writing or speaking. In that sense, yes. There isn’t a contradiction, but there’s a dynamic — there’s a tension. It’s very frustrating, but many of these issues, people turn and talk about the Goldilocks effect. You know, not too much, not too easy, not too hard. So as a general rule for learning, it’s most people need to have about an 80% success rate. Because as humans, we like doing what we are good at, so make sure people succeed. They want to know what comes next. But if it was always too easy… we know that we remember things through effort.

For example, it sounds very old-fashioned, but it’s pretty much an agreement now that one of the complicated skills thinking that we have analysis, synthesis, et cetera, et cetera: they’re all born from knowing things. You cannot use critical thinking skills when you have no knowledge of the content that you’re analyzing. And so a great deal of intelligence is actually… and we find it terrible to acknowledge, is down to a memory. We can have as much access to Google, but unless, you know something you don’t know what to look for. Which goes back to Richard Saul Wurman. So there is a balance to be had between knowing things sufficient that you can be more intellectually engaged with unfamiliar material. Make it too easy, and you don’t remember anything? We remember what we struggle over.

Jorge: Yeah, Make it challenging, but don’t make it impossible, right? Like if I were to teach my students in Spanish and none of them know Spanish, I’m making it challenging for them, but they won’t understand anything, right?

Oliver: Another way of looking at it: teaching in Spanish is an extraneous load. It is a load. And it’s extraneous in as much as, it doesn’t aid the learning of the concept. So, the little attention span that humans have got, what’s called working memory, devoted entirely to the core bits of knowledge you want them to learn and don’t give them any other tasks or burdens, like speaking in Spanish, writing in complicated fashion, having a typeface so small, they can’t read it. All those peripheral challenges that create cognitive efforts, take away from the limited bandwidth we’ve got to concentrate on what you want them to learn. It helps the teacher be really clear. What do I want them to learn first? What’s central? By the way, did you notice that spatial metaphor? What is central?

The four structures underlying knowledge

Jorge: Yeah, they come up all the time, don’t they? We’ve been talking about teaching and learning, and the book is explicitly aimed at teachers, but as I was reading it, I kept thinking these are skills that have applicability well beyond the classroom. And I’m wondering what, if any, your experience has been with applying these ideas outside of explicit learning environments?

Oliver: Well at the 2008 VizThink conference, I spoke to Dave Gray, the founder of xplane.com and he’s completely devised these incredible visual instructions. And he creates a metaphor, a mini world, on top of what is to gather attention, to create analogies, feelings of understanding. But underneath it, it’s often either a radial map showing a central idea and all the orbital connections or it’s a variation of a simple flow chart. Underneath the complicated graphics … and I read a lot of infographics, I can see what they are fundamentally — and I’ve analyzed the information we have in school, and I’ve seen many other people do it in other spheres — and there’s pretty much agreement that there’s four sorts of information.

Or rather, there’s four structures underlying knowledge. Let me just go through them. The first one is “defining things.” Which is the whole and the part, or chunking. Chunk up, chunk down. The tree diagram, a mind map, anything like that where we look at the relationship between the part and the whole, which is also called nested knowledge. And it goes all the way back to Aristotle when he talked about categories and the subcategories and super and subordinate, all that stuff. The bits and the whole.

Another major structure is “comparing.” This is the learning skill that all humans have, whether they ever go to school or not. We learn by comparing. Comparing two things in front of us, or comparing one thing of what we already know. Always comparing. It’s the bedrock of learning. So we’re always comparing. Which of course was the ideal advertising structure: before and after! Before, my clothes were this dirty. After, I tried that soap, they’re just sparkling and clean. Before and after. It’s still one of the most powerful ways to explain something. A process.

Those two are to do with things, generally. And there’s another two to do with processes. One is “sequencing”: temporal connections. And then, and then, and then, and then… and it could also go towards continuum, you know? So, sequencing. And then the next one seems to be the same thing, but it’s not. It’s “causal connections.” Just because something precedes something doesn’t mean it causes it. And of course, that’s often the reason for many children to have fights on the playground because they don’t understand that just life isn’t like a billiard ball. Something’s happened way before, which could be said to be causal.

So, that’s defining, holding the part, comparing, sequencing, and cause and effect. Although I grant you if you’re not talking to an education audience, the sequencing and the cause and effect in many instances can be depicted the same way. It’s essentially the node and the arrow. And I’ve read some research to show that, this was some 20 years ago, the world is sufficiently global now that everyone’s absorbed the metaphor that the arrow means from here over to there. And it wasn’t obvious to many people. It seems as if that’s what it means, only because we make it mean that, and we were born into a culture where that was one of the things that we learned. But it’s pretty universal now, a node from here to there. Which of course goes back to my childhood psychologist called source-path-goal. A path model. Here to there. So, if you have that and you go and look at complicated… an infographic, just one of those, if you whittle it down to three, just one of those three things. Or, of course, a hybrid where some of these tools could be nested in a bigger tool.

For information designers, underneath the idea of what you want to communicate in the audience and the colors and the style, and what’s fashionable, and what’s wanted… underneath all that, there’s like a skeleton. Am I defining something? Am I comparing two things? Or am I putting things in motion? Really simple. And I find it enormously useful. Because I use it when I start analyzing new information and I’m wanting to depict it. So when I read complicated educational books and theory behind me, I’m always constructing these simple models.

Closing

Jorge: Well, I thought that the book did a great job of presenting that skeleton. And more importantly, as a designer myself, I have used diagrams that fit into one of those four categories. And I think a lot of us are familiar with the difference between something like a concept map and a fishbone diagram. But it was very useful not just to see them organized themselves so that there’s some kind of method to the madness, but also to see pointers to the underlying research that explains not just how these things work, but why they’re effective. And I thought that the book did a great job. It really brought the ideas to life for me. But, for folks who would like to follow up with you, what’s the best place to find you?

Oliver: On Twitter I’m @olicav, which the first three letters of my two names, so O-L-I-C-A-V. And my website is olicav.com. And there I’m in the middle a network of other people I work with and you’ll come across all that work. If you do, introduce yourselves and we can follow each other and I’ll come learn something of your worlds as well.

Jorge: Well, fantastic. It’s been a pleasure, Oliver. Again, the book is called Organise Ideas, and for the US audience have to point out that organise has the UK spelling, with an “s.” And we haven’t mentioned this, but it’s co-authored with David Goodwin. And like I said, I loved the book and recommend it.

Oliver: Thank you very much.

Jorge: Thank you, Oliver.

Categories
Episodes

Indi Young on Time to Listen

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

Show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

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.