Rob Ashton on the Science of Writing

Rob Ashton is a writer who focuses on the science of how the things we read and write influence what we think and do. Rob founded the global learning company Emphasis, and over the last six years, he’s focused on researching the science of reading and writing, ranging from cognitive and social neuroscience to behavioral and neuroeconomics. In this conversation, we discuss how science can make us more effective readers and writers.

Show notes

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Jorge: Rob, welcome to the show.

Rob: Hi Jorge! It’s great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Jorge: Well, it’s great to have you on the show. Some folks tuning in might not know who you are. Would you please tell us about yourself?

About Rob

Rob: Sure. I tell people I’m a science writer, which is true. But I’m a science writer who’s pretty focused on one thing, and that’s the science of written communication. It’s something that’s become something of an obsession over the last six years.

I started off as a molecular biology researcher way back in the middle ages, focusing then on helping to develop the first test for HIV. So, very different from what I do now. And moved from there into publishing. Always had an interest in the written word, and set up a consulting firm specializing in written communication. And did that for 24 years, and that firm’s still going. I still have an interest in it, but I’m a full-time writer now. And so, it seemed natural to focus on the science of written communication. So, that’s what I do.

I try to delve into the huge body of knowledge that’s out there on how we read, how we write, how our brain reacts to what we read and write, and to share that with the wider world. Because there really isn’t that much of that going on. Most of the advice that you see on the web or on social media is based on, it seems to me, little more than hearsay or wishful thinking — or, much worse, pseudoscience.

There’s an awful lot of pseudoscience. You will have seen them: “Avoid these eight words if you don’t want to undermine your credibility,” that kind of thing. “These are the words that make you sound stupid.” Most of that is nonsense, and there’s a lot worse than that, so really, I spend all of my time now trying to sort the fact from the fiction and to look at peer-reviewed research and then share that with the wider world in a way that hopefully is accessible and interesting.

Jorge: Well, that’s very exciting to me as somebody who is currently writing a book. And it also sounds very meta: you’re a science writer who writes about the science of how we read and write.

Rob: Yeah. I make a rod for my own back as well because — and this has been the case since I moved into this area 24 years ago — as soon as you say you are focusing on written communication and how to do it well, it means every email you write, every report, every proposal, especially every article, every blog post, you just raised the standard to a really, really high level and raised the bar, I should say, and set yourself a very high standard, you know? Something to live up to. That can kind of induce terminal writer’s block.

I have to say; it is really meta. It took me a long time to get over that, if I’m honest, and to just say, “You know what? If I write something and people find fault with it, that’s great! I will take the feedback, and I won’t let it destroy me and stop me writing anything else.” You know? It is very meta, yeah, absolutely.

Do people still read?

Jorge: I remember hearing many years ago, a presentation — maybe it was some kind of question-and-answer session with Steve Jobs, who made this quip about people not reading books anymore. And I’ve seen research that suggests that a high percentage of adults — at least here in the United States — do not read more than one book, or not even one book a year. And yet, so much of our communication happens in written form. And I’m wondering, why do we need to understand the science behind writing? Is reading and writing a big way of communicating these days, or are people doing more of what we’re doing now, communicating over things like Zoom?

Rob: It’s a crucial distinction that you’ve made there because, yes, a lot of people don’t read what we might think of as doing so in a traditional way. A lot of people don’t read books, although we read in different ways. Now, of course, we have access not just to hard copies but to ebooks. But for sure, I think it’s really important not to get focused on what we traditionally think of as reading because that is a subset. That’s definitely something that we do, and I’d say certainly fewer than what we used to. But while that’s been happening, reading and writing have become really the default mode of communication.

If you look at the number of text messages that are sent now and look at the growth of that over the last few years, you look at messaging apps, you look at Instagram messaging — which platform you prefer seems to be governed by your age demographic. So, certainly, people of my son’s age, my daughter’s age, would use Instagram. But they would use it primarily for — in their case — for messaging. But that’s writing! And then, if you look at email, email isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In 2021, we sent and received 319 billion emails every day, and that’s been rising. And it’s still rising at 15 to 20 billion per day, per year.

So, what’s happened is we are using writing to communicate, but we’re not thinking of it as writing. It’s like the hidden medium, you know? It’s something that’s there, hidden in plain sight. We don’t think of it as reading when we’re looking at a text message. We even say, “I’m looking at a text message.” We don’t say, “I’m writing an email.” So, “I’m sending you an email. I’ll send you a message,” you know? We forget that what we are doing is reading and writing.

And Zoom is obviously and literally more visible. And if you look at the rise of Zoom — the stratospheric rise of Zoom in 2020 — because before that, it was very much a niche tool that a handful of coaches maybe used, you know? Nobody had heard of it outside of a very small group. And then suddenly, we adopted it into our common lexicon, and everybody had heard of it. And so, it was pure focus bias.

Because when you look at the stats, what actually happened was… if you looked at the workplace in 2020, we spent less time overall in Zoom meetings than we used to spend in face-to-face meetings before then, when we were just in the office. We had more meetings for sure, but they were shorter. And what was happening in between the meetings? It’s not really that people were calling each other. They were messaging each other; they were emailing each other.

So, this has become the default mode of communication for most of us in the West and certainly among knowledge workers. But outside of that, outside of the professional sphere, if my phone rings, I assume something is wrong. And we stay using written media much longer than we should. You know, our screens draw us in. We forget that we are writing. We forget that we can stop. And crucially, we forget that we can actually speak to the person — usually — on the other end of the conversation. And we may even find ourselves in text-based arguments that last hours when we could solve the problem — usually — if we just took that device from being in front of us and just raised it to our ear and used it for speaking instead of writing.

So, this is something that matters. And we can dig into that because of the way that the way we read and the way we understand what we’re reading. But it matters also because we are putting ourselves at a huge disadvantage when we stick to that. And when we take it for granted, when it’s not talking. You know, you even find that if you want to contact, say, a customer service desk, you can’t do that. You can’t speak to somebody. You have this live chat function, usually or often.

But even that name is a misnomer. It’s not chat; it’s not chatting. We think we are chatting. We are not. We are reading and writing. And it’s a very long, drawn-out process often. And we are continually and perpetually at risk of misunderstanding each other when we insist on relying on the written word. And we need to understand what’s going on more in the brain when we are reading and writing because we are doing an awful lot these days and far, far, far more than we have ever done before.

So it’s not that writing has died out. It’s the opposite: we’ve become reliant on it. We just don’t realize; we think we’re speaking when we’re not.

Writing for short- vs. long-form media

Jorge: I’m wondering if there’s a difference between communicating through — I don’t know if to call them like short-form writing media, such as Slack or email, versus something like writing a book, where it’s a much longer process [that] is not happening close to real-time. It’ll likely be many, many months between the time that you start writing the book and the time that it comes to market. So are they different, writing for short-form versus long-form?

Rob: In many respects, yes. The effects that the words you write — you know, how those words are processed by your audience — may differ slightly. For a start, if somebody is reading a book, they’ve usually chosen to read the book. We don’t really choose to read our email, you know? It’s not a conscious choice often to read our emails and text messages; it’s often something we do as a distraction or a misguided attempt to get some kind of relief from boredom, for instance. And that, in itself, can lead to problems.

When it’s a book, you are usually making a conscious effort to do it. Although how the words are processed at its core is the same. And a book, of course, is easy to put down. In fact, a book is probably easier to put down than your phone with text messages. In fact, I’d say certainly easier to put down than your phone. But the difference, I think, when you’re writing a book is that you have time to revise it. You have time to reflect on what you’ve written and to change it.

Whereas when we’re using, say, instant messaging, and often usually with email, we don’t tend to reflect before sending it. We think we are in a real-time conversation, and we live on a screen. The screen becomes a virtual world and really an extension of our minds, and we forget that there is somebody at the other end who is living in their world, not ours. With any kind of text-based, asynchronous — quasi-synchronous communication — it’s asynchronous in that you’re not speaking directly; you’re not able to correct something you say. “Oh, actually, no, I didn’t really mean it that way,” you know?

Especially if you’re face to face, you can see if somebody has misunderstood what you’re saying or is perhaps going to react to something in a way that you don’t want them to react, and you can correct it. You can course-correct; you can change it. You can change it mid-sentence. When you send an email, when you send a text message, you don’t have that opportunity. And also, it’s far more difficult to control the impulse just to reply.

If you’re reading a book or you are writing a book, it’s one-way, right? By the time the reader reads it, you are long done with it. Whereas with an email or with a text message or a Slack message, you write it, you send it. Gone! You know? And then, you have to deal with the consequences and what you wrote is there on their screen. You can’t clarify… well, you can try and clarify it, but when you see the typing indicator that they’re replying, you don’t know what they’re going to say. And that in itself can cause some anxiety. You sit there waiting for a reply.

And that, to me, in a long exchange, is nuts! We sit there waiting for this response. And we can have these long exchanges and, you know, “no, actually, no. I didn’t mean that. What about this aspect?” Just get on the phone and speak to each other. You know, you could resolve it a lot more quickly and be far less liable to be misunderstood.

Jorge: You’ve brought up the word “misunderstanding” a couple of times. And it seems to me that that is the factor that one would want to reduce in communication, right? So, you want the idea that you’re trying to get across to be the idea that is perceived by your interlocutor. And to your point, it seems like they are indeed different long-form versus the short-form, quasi-synchronous ways of writing. Can you give us an example of insights derived from scientific research that would help us reduce misunderstandings — perhaps on the writing side, which is where I think you have the greatest degree of agency?

Our brains fill in the blanks

Rob: Absolutely. I think the biggest thing to realize — the most useful thing to realize — is that we don’t read. We don’t see what’s there. We see what we think is there. We see what we expect to be there. So if you look at the anatomy that we’re using — so looking at the structure of the eye — and then if you then look at how the brain processes the information you’re taking in, it’s 90% expectation.

We tend to think of the eyes these days as maybe a couple of digital cameras that are taking in all of the information around us and relaying it to the brain. And then the brain in itself performs a minor miracle anyway. And it’s something that we take for granted that the brain is seeing dots and squiggles… or the eye are seeing dots and squiggles on a screen or on a page, and the brain is converting that into a voice in our head. And that in itself is a miracle of adaptation. A miracle of adaptation, not of evolution. And that’s a critical distinction. There are even neuroscientists who don’t appreciate that. We have not been reading and writing for long enough to have evolved structures that are dedicated to this task.

The earliest known examples of writing are from Mesopotamia — modern-day Iraq — around 5,000 years ago. And writing didn’t really take off until long after that. So writing evolved in several places around the world. That’s the earliest known example, but even if everybody had been reading and writing for 5,000 years — which they haven’t — that sounds like a long time. But in evolutionary terms, it’s just a heartbeat. It’s not enough time for the brain to evolve major change. To evolve, in fact, the structures that we use for reading and writing.

So, I’m thinking of the visual cortex and the auditory parts of the brain, and the visual word-form area; these are all adaptations. What happens is we co-opt those structures, and we create a network between those and other parts of the brain — an extensive network — and create the ability to read. And that’s why it takes a long time to learn to read. It’s not true of understanding speech and reproducing speech. In fact, we do that naturally without any deliberate effort. We pick up our native language just by hearing other people speak.

And in fact, we even pick up the rules of grammar or most of the rules of grammar. You can hear this with kids when they make grammar mistakes when they might misconjugate an irregular verb. We may not think of it that way, but if you take the word tie and you say, “Okay, well, if I want to make the past tense to that, I can say ‘tied.'” And then you take the verb “to see,” and they say, “oh yeah! You hear a little kid say, ‘oh yeah, I see-d it!'” So, they’ve picked up that rule of grammar. And it’s more logical if you ‘think-d’ about it.

That’s kids picking up the natural rules of grammar without being told. And yet with reading and writing, that’s not the case. You know, we have to build this network, and it remains a very expensive skill and process in terms of cognitive energy. It’s always something that we use a lot of energy, and we don’t realize it. So under the hood, there’s this process going on that we take for granted, and we think, “you know what? I learned to read when I was four or five, and I don’t need to think about it now.” But it’s always going to be expensive. It’s always something that sometimes leaves you at the limits of your brain’s capacity, which is one reason — potentially — why we might be more inclined to lose our tempers when we’re reading an email or, particularly, in social media, which has been called the “amygdala of the internet.” It was Tali Sharot, the psychologist. And I think that’s true!

But when it comes to anatomy and how we process that, the eye is not a digital camera. The eye has a very, very small field of fine visual acuity. So there’s an area of the retina called the fovea you may be familiar with. And that’s absolutely packed with cone cells, which detect and process color and, particularly, fine detail. That is only big enough to focus on between four and 15 letters at a time. So, the next time you’re looking at an email or looking at a page in a book or on screen, just stop for a second in the middle of it and see how much is in sharp focus. And you’ll realize it really is only a few letters. And so what’s happening is… everything else is, you know, a few letters on either side of that is a blur. Beyond that, you’re not even seeing it.

And this has been shown in experiments. Go back to 1975: George McConkie and Keith Rayner performed a seminal experiment where they used software to create kind of a moving window. They used an eye tracker and made sure that wherever the eye was looking, the few letters there — where it were — they were there. But everywhere else was just filled with nonsense, with gibberish. And the people — the volunteers in the experiment — did not notice. They did not notice that everything else was gibberish. They thought it was normal. And that’s because we make it all up.

In the brain itself, the amounts of information going from the visual processing of the pressing areas of the brain, to the center of the brain, to the thalamus, you kind of crudely think of that as like a nerve junction box. You know, everything goes in through the thalamus in the middle. So the amount of information going from the visual cortex — not from the eyes — from the visual cortex to the thalamus, compared with the amount of information coming from the eyes to the thalamus, is a difference of ten to one. There is ten times as much information coming from the brain as is coming from the eyes when we look at things. And that’s because the structure of the eye is not capable of taking in all of the information that’s there.

So, when we’re reading, we are, for a start, focusing on very, very fine points. You know, very small chunks of text, and we’re kind of hopping along each sentence, is what the eye does. These jumps are called saccades. We’ve got this illusion of fluency and this kind of fluid movement. That’s not true. And we are looking at what’s there, but what the brain is doing is crosschecking. It’s called predictive coding and it’s crosschecking. It’s not seeing what’s there; it’s seeing if what’s there is different from what it expected to see.

And that’s why we often don’t spot our own mistakes. It’s why we miss our biggest typos. That, and the fact that you can write something in 30-point type, and it’s too big for you to see the word, for it to fit into that very, very narrow window I described. And we see what’s there. You know, our emotions color what we’re reading. You’re writing an instruction; you think it’s a really clear instruction. And then people don’t follow it, and you think, “Why did they not follow it? I made it really clear. I made it really simple!” Because they had a different voice in their head, and they were seeing what they expected to see, not what was really there.

Jorge: What you’re saying reminds me of a quote that I love from Anaïs Nin, who said — and I might mangle this — but the gist of it is: “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” And I’m also reminded of this thing I learned a few years ago about the eye’s blind spot: this idea that at the very center of your field of view, in the back of the retina where the optical nerve comes into the eyeball, there’s an area where there are no cones — no receptors, right? I don’t know the science…

Rob: That’s absolutely right.

Jorge: Basically, our brain is filling in the blanks, right? This sounds to me like it’s a super important insight, this idea that what is there is only a part of what we understand when we see and when we read, and the rest is being filled in by our brain or by our nervous system, our bodies, more generally. I can imagine how that would affect how I approach reading. But I wonder how it might affect how I approach writing. Like, is there something that I can do as a writer to account for the fact that my readers are going to be kind of making up part of the story?

How to write for what readers see

Rob: Absolutely. I mean, it’s not easy, but to be effective in what you write, you have to try. And you have to try to really put yourself in your reader’s shoes. And the reason I say that it’s not easy is because when you are writing, it’s quite an egocentric process, you know? You are focused on your needs. You want to get a certain amount written in a certain time. You want to cross something off of your to-do list. And it’s all about you. And for the reader, it’s all about them. Not about you. They don’t care about you! They might, literally, if they thought about it, but at that moment they have their own problems. They have their own priorities.

And so, the way around that is you have to do something very deliberate. If possible, move away from your screen and go old-school. Get a pencil or pen and a piece of paper and write down, “Who is it?” Who is it you want to read this? What are they interested in? Not just what they need. And that’s a crucial distinction because what we need and what we want or what we pay attention to are often very, very different things. Otherwise, there would be no obesity problem. You know, nobody would smoke. Those are wants, not needs.

And so, think: what is it they desire? What is it that they are interested in right now? You know, with respect to whatever you are writing about. And try to write it from that point of view. Try to start from that point and then think, “Well, what do they know about this?” It’s very, very easy to overestimate that, you know? If you think of the Dunning-Kruger effect — this illusory superiority that we tend to have if we don’t know very much about a topic — you know, that causes us to overestimate that we know much more than we really do.

Well, there’s a flip side to that, which is illusory inferiority where if we know a lot, we underestimate — we vastly underestimate — how much we know because by then, we know how much there is to know. And in doing that… we underestimate how much we know, but we overestimate how much everybody else knows. And so, you are writing to them, or you’re writing for them, and you will write it from the perspective — to a degree — of somebody who has as much knowledge as you do. Because you’ll think, “You know what? I know a bit about this.” You know a lot about it. A lot more than most people do. So you have to really think: how much do they know?

And that is particularly a problem because of another psychological phenomenon, which is the mere exposure effect — familiarity bias is another term for it — where we get to like the things that we see all the time. And that can include the information that we see. So, if we’re researching a particular topic, then, you know, we can find that a lot more interesting than somebody who isn’t doing that would find it. Not just because we’ve delved into that topic and we know more about it, and we know enough to find it interesting, but because we see it every day and it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everybody else finds that interesting.

I remember describing this to my daughter a few years ago and saying, “I’ve got this really…” you know? “I want to tell people about this particular aspect!” You know, I said what it was, and I said, “It’s really amazing. I’ve discovered this. And it’s really cool.” And she looked at me, and she said, “Yeah, Dad, I’m not sure everybody will find it that interesting. I think that’s just because you’ve really gone into that, and you know, it’s not going to be something that’s going to light up other people, you know? Maybe you should find something else.” And she was absolutely right!

We do this all the time when we have special interests when we spend all of our time surrounded by a particular style, for instance. If we happen to be reading academic texts all the time, then we absorb that style, and we get to like it, and we think that’s normal and that other people will be able to understand things that we’ve written if we use that style. So you have to think, “Where is that other person coming from? What do they normally read? What are they interested in? What do they want?” And write those things down. And then perhaps go away and just think about it and just mull that over. Walk around for a bit. Go take a break and just think, “Okay, so what is it that I’m writing that will resonate with them?”

You know, you have to separate the information and the research that you are discovering from the writing process. Otherwise, what you can often end up doing is regurgitating an awful lot of it. And you’re not communicating, really; you’re just research-dumping, and that doesn’t really help people. It’s an illusion. So you have to be very, very careful.

Jorge: What you’re suggesting here is doing the sort of research that designers engage in. It’s like, understand who is going to be interacting with the system that you’re designing and try to see the domain from their perspective. And it feels like you’re advocating for a similar approach here for writing.

Recipient design

Rob: Absolutely. It’s recipient design. You know, there are two aspects to design on the web, aren’t there? There’s what it looks like, and there’s the content; there’s the written content. And they go hand in hand. It’s very easy to focus on the structure and the design and to overlook the words you’re using, but they both have to be chosen and constructed from the user’s point of view. They’re equally important, in my opinion.

Jorge: And it sounds like it’s true, whether you are designing a piece of software that someone will interact with or whether you are writing an email, right? You’re going to write an email differently — something that you know your boss’s boss is going to read — versus the text message that you are going to send to your friends as you coordinate a night out in the town. Those are different readers; they have different purposes. And it sounds to me like the takeaway here is: know who your audience is, know who is going to be reading this and under what conditions, and then write accordingly.

Rob: Absolutely. And I think that the reason we don’t do that is that we take the writing bit for granted. Hopefully, we know we have to design the software from the user’s point of view, but when it comes to the writing, we forget that bit. And sometimes, it’s just an afterthought, but they are equally important. What do they have in common? Well, they’re both going to be read or used by human beings and interpreted by a human brain. And there are things that, when we’re reading anything, we are using, essentially, the same process, and it’s quite an energy-hungry process.

And it’s something that’s very open to misinterpretation, and we are seeing what we expect to see. So, that’s true whether you are writing for your boss’s boss or whether you are writing for your friend in a text message. But we’d still have to think about how they’re going to react to it and how they’re going to react to it as a piece of writing, not as speaking, and to really focus on the fact that you are not speaking, you are writing, and they are processing those words — those dots and squiggles — and converting them into that voice in their head.

And the best way to do that is to really, really think about the person at the other end. And that takes an enormous effort. You know, it’s a feat of mindfulness because when we are drawn into that, we’re tempted to respond, especially if we’re in an emotional state, which we often are when we’re reading these things.

That emotion, coincidentally, may have nothing to do with what you’re reading. I once, to my shame, responded to somebody after hitting my head on a beam in my garden office here. And I mean, even as I describe that, a shiver goes down my neck because it was, you know, I really, really… You know, I didn’t do any permanent damage, but I saw stars.

And then, I sat down, and I got an email from a conference organizer, and I completely misinterpreted it. I saw what I expected to see. I saw it as an imposition. I had very little emotional control and I fired off a response. And then half an hour later, after I’d calmed down, I read it, and I thought, “Oh my goodness. They didn’t mean that. That was a perfectly reasonable response.” And I shouldn’t have done that, you know?

I had to apologize, and they were fine. They were very gracious about it, but I did it because I was already upset. It’s another bias! It’s called the affect heuristic. You know, something has made you feel a certain way. Then you can look at something unrelated and think, “That confirms it!” You know? If you’re upset and then you read something, you’ll think that what you’re reading has made you upset.

So, yeah, it’s a bit of a minefield, but you have to be very, very mindful of what you are reading and of being in that state. It takes practice. The best way to do that is to just try to come up with hacks and rules of thumb that you follow when you’re responding, you know? A good one being: don’t email somebody when you’re under the influence of emotion, not just alcohol, you know? If you’re angry, don’t email somebody. And have that as a mantra.

Jorge: Wait till the next day, right? There are all sorts of techniques.

Rob: Yes. Shut your laptop.

Jorge: This feels to me like a great summary of the points you’ve been making here. And it also sounds to me like you have so much more to share from the science that informs how we read and write. I’m sure that folks listening in are going to want to follow up with you to find out more. Where can they see your work and get in touch with you?


Rob: The easiest way is just to go to my personal website, which is A S H T O N. I’ve created a free course based on the research. I’m working towards a book, but as I discover new things, I add to the course. And they can sign up for it there. It’s called Silent Influence. They can go straight to, or they can just follow the link from the main site. All roads lead to Rome. And likewise, they can find out a bit more about me there and get in touch if they would like to — and I’d love to hear from them!

Jorge: Fantastic, Rob. It has been such a pleasure talking with you today.

Rob: Thanks, Jorge. It’s been a great pleasure for me too. Thanks so much for inviting me.

Jorge: Thank you for being here.


Steve Portigal on Research Skills

Steve Portigal is a consultant who helps organizations build more mature user research practices. He’s the author of Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights and Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories. He’s also the host of the Dollar to Donuts podcast about research leadership. In this conversation, we discuss the skills required for conducting successful interviews with users.

Show notes

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


Jorge: Steve, welcome to the show.

Steve: All right! Thank you.

Jorge: You and I have been friends for a long time, and I’ve long wanted to have a conversation with you on the show. Some folks who are listening in might not be as familiar with you as I am. How do you go about introducing yourself to people you haven’t met before?

About Steve

Steve: Well, I might say, “Hi, I’m Steve.” I mean, in the context of professional networking, as opposed to just the real world, you know, I might tell someone that I’m a consultant. I mean, anybody that works for themselves or anybody that has a non “normal” occupation, probably like many people who are listening, has to figure out… right? How do you explain to somebody what you do? And I guess I’m always trying to gauge how much they’re interested and not… we talk about elevator pitches? I could give the elevator pitch right now if I was any good at it.

But I’m trying to stick to the spirit of your question, or at least maybe not the spirit of your question, the words of your question. I might tell somebody I’m a consultant. I might tell somebody I work in UX because people have heard of UX, and they kind of think it’s something. If we get a little bit further, I might say I’m a user researcher. And then, assuming somebody asks what that is or doesn’t change the topic or something, I might tell them that I help companies learn things about their customers to help them make decisions about their products.

And, outside of our collective fields, that’s usually when the subject gets changed, or they might ask for a specific example. My elevator pitch is more about where’s my focus as a user researcher, and that is around the… to be buzzword-y, the maturity of user research practices.

Jorge: And what is your background? Where are you coming from to research?

Steve: I mean, at this point that we’re having this conversation, it’s really about 25 years of experience. You know, the further away you get from your academic background… well, I guess from me, the less specific relevance it has. So, yeah, I studied human-computer interaction and have a graduate degree in computer science. And that was before the web, so we didn’t have the phrase “UX.” We didn’t have very much design — however you want to kind of construct that — in the world of software. So, I came from a previous era of professions and practices and, you know, through a number of… I don’t know, coincidences? Opportunities? Left turns? Persistence? Found myself just… sort of discovering that user research was a thing and that, at least, I had an attraction to it.

Of course, I didn’t know that I would’ve had a talent for it at the outset, but I thought this was really, really interesting and pulled together a lot of strands of things that I had been playing with in terms of what could my “value-add” be. But, I think as a practitioner, I am self-taught. I didn’t come out of social science. I didn’t come out of design school. You know, there was sort of the practitioners, self-taught path, I guess, is the one that I followed. Yeah.

And we’re going back, a long period of time, and I think the opportunity in that era was to reflect as well as… because we don’t really know what we’re doing and there’s not really… we don’t know what sources? You know, myself and my peers, my colleagues, we don’t know where we would learn this from. We had very little… there was an internet, but there was no social media; there were no communities of practice. There were, I think, a lot of opportunities to reflect and even document and say, “well, here’s what we think.” Here’s how we think this should be to onboard new employees to the agency that I was working on and say like, “here’s how we work,” to explain to clients, and so on.

So, it’s a big mix of things that kind of started me off, and then just, yeah, years of experience and being now a part of a community and learning from other people and teaching other people and learning from them and learning from doing that. Yeah, that brings me up to today.

Jorge: I think that you and I might be part of a similar cohort that came into this at the origins of the field. All of this that you’re saying about having to find your own way resonates with me in that there wasn’t really a school of UX when I got into this, so we’ve had to find our way. Now you touched on… I think you said that at some point, you discovered that you had a talent for this particular part of it, for research. What do you think is a talent for research? Like, what makes a good researcher?

What makes a good researcher

Steve: I’ll answer for sort of a little bit about how that went for me, which maybe is an oblique answer, but I was basically an apprentice. And maybe there was even some reluctance to let me be an apprentice. I think I was looking for a home inside a small team. And so, being an apprentice meant: well, what task will we let Steve do? I could review videos from interviews, or I could sit in synthesis meetings.

When I say synthesis, from that era, it was really like a lot of talking. Not any kind of formal analysis or anything, but discussion and trying to find connections. I might review some videos and say, “Hey, here’s what I saw.” So, I was kind of a backstage researcher, like making sense of data was where I started. And then I was allowed to hold the camera. Like, there’d be two people out in the field. One would be running the interview; I’d be allowed to hold the camera. Then I could ask one question. And then I could co-lead. So, there was just this slow kind of onboarding over many, many projects to take on, like the range of tasks that we think a researcher should be able to do.

So, what makes a good researcher? There are so many facets to it, and it’s great if anyone can do all of them, but wherever you are in your path, you know we have this idea now that we have this profession of research operations. I know some people in operations that have gone on to be a “researcher.” I don’t know that that’s the objective or the skillset, but research does really well when things are well organized. Everyone knows where they need to be. They have the documents; they have directions; there’s technical infrastructure in place. Non-disclosures are signed that need to be signed. All the pieces to make research go really, really well.

If you don’t do that, you cannot have a good interview because now you’re on the back foot saying, “oh, did you not get this?” “Did you not sign this?” “Oh, I thought we were meeting tomorrow!” “Oh, you’re on Zoom! We needed to be on Teams. Are you on the computer, or are you on your mobile device?” All those sorts of logistics things are essential. That’s not my core strength, so I didn’t start there. I had to learn a good enough kind of logistics infrastructure because you see the pain if you don’t do it. But that’s an essential skill.

And so, either to be organized and have the details and all the players aligned or collaborate with someone that can do that? At a gross level, I described making sense of data and gathering data like doing research are big parts of it. Communicating, activating… we use this awful phrase, socializing. You know, trying to figure out how to have influence, how to have impact. How to create those learning-ready moments? How to facilitate that is another really important skill. Yeah, let me stop there. That’s plenty! There are many, many more, but let’s… that’s a good start, I think.

Jorge: research is an area that has many different practices, and I get the sense — and maybe this is from your books — but I get the sense that the area that you’re focused on has to do with qualitative research. I.e., sitting down with users and interviewing them. Is that right?

Steve: I mean, I think as a researcher, yeah. Like, the kind of practice I want to have in doing research, because of course our practices include lots of related activities. But the practice that I can bring the most to, and that I personally get the most out of, and then I think my clients get the most out of, is, yes, sitting down with somebody and asking them questions; learning from them, trying to connect their view of the world with some problem or challenge or curiosity that I’ve started with with my clients.

Jorge: Does that entail a particular way of being? Like, I can’t imagine doing that if you’re not like a people person, right?

Being intentional with your energy

Steve: I don’t know if I’m a people person. There are ways of being that are our defaults. And there are ways of being that we can… you know, put on, like a suit or a dress or something. I mean, and I think an analogy is: doing conference presentations or leading workshops. Being on a podcast! Those are all… I mean, people assume that I would be an extrovert, for example. Which I think is sort of the broad brush that we characterize those behaviors with.

But introverts are… I feel like most researchers are introverts, and one thing that introverts are good at is playing a role, and that might make people uncomfortable because it sounds like I’m talking about being inauthentic. But it’s a choice. It’s like, I’m going to be a people person. I’m going to be engaged. I’m going to be curious. I’m going to give energy to this interaction. And knowing what the role is, if you know, being a workshop leader at an event or being on a podcast. These are all kinds of intentional ways of being as opposed to the one that you leap out of bed with in the morning.

So, being able to summon up different kinds of energies, different kinds of mindsets as you go from situation to situation. And I actually think that makes for a better researcher because no two situations that you find yourself in are the same. The energy and the mood that the person you’re talking to is going to be different, so being able to adjust your energy and mood and approach and tactics and tone and all those things in order to respond to that situation is… I mean, I can’t say it’s easier for introverts than extroverts because I’ve never been an extrovert, but if we are putting on clothing and kind of adjusting it based on situations like playing a role, I think that potentially can be more dynamic and more responsive to the context.

Jorge: Yeah. And I think that my question about being a people person… I can see how that might be interpreted as asking whether you’re extroverted or not. But I think that what you mentioned about being attuned to people’s energy and mood might be a better way of thinking about it. I think that if you are… and this is my assumption, but I would expect that if you are unable to get in tune with another person’s vibe, it would be very difficult to do effective interview research work. Is that fair?

Steve: It’s going to be different, right? I think there are people that have just enormous amounts of charm, like a superpower of charm and energy. And I think they can make things happen in their interpersonal interactions in interviews that I can’t. And I love seeing that because there are just so many different ways to go about this. It’s not, “I can’t do that.” It’s easy for me to say, “that’s not the right way to do it. You have to let go of yourself and surrender your personality and objectives,” and so on, and be responsive and be attuned. But there are different approaches.

So, I think the bulk of what I see is what you’re describing. People who have that skill and that ability to kind of put their needs from an interaction, their needs to kind of put themselves out in a certain way… they can lower the need to do that. I think that’s a pretty effective technique that most people can lean on, but there are always these interesting exceptions with people that can bring that to it. And I guess in no way am I encouraging anyone to think that they are that person and put that on because there’s the recipe for failure when you think that you are more charming or more kind of impactful as a person than you actually are.

Jorge: When you talked about charisma in that way and having a researcher who is somehow charming and energizing in that way, the question that came to mind is: is that even desirable? Because the person that is being interviewed would somehow get them out of their normal state of being and into some kind of elated state that somehow skews the interview.

Steve: The interview is skewed anyway. There’s no naturalistic interview that’s like… you’re not a fly on the wall. Any of us doing whatever our level of charisma is, we’re there to interrupt the process and distort it and talk about it. Because it’s not normal to be interviewed, so yeah, who’s to say that that distortion… like I’m thinking about, a woman I worked with who… I mean, she was really great in workshop settings, which is not naturalistic anyway. But she would look people in the eye and say their names, and even in interviews, she’d ask people to draw things, and she’d say things like, “okay, Jorge, I’m going to hand you this marker here. Do you want the green one to the red one?” And like, “I’m going to hand it to you, and I’d love you to draw…” And so, just the level of kind of direction and overt facilitation, like you’re now doing her thing. But the thing that she would ask you to do is emergent from the context of the interview.

And so, if we’re going to make kind of caricatures on a continuum, you’ve got her one end, like just being very like… what I imagine sort of Dale Carnegie tells you to do. Like, just really be in that person’s face in a kind way. And you’ve got maybe someone like me. I might be leaning back and nodding and just waiting and leaving silences. And yeah, that’s what I’m good at. I’m very good at that. And I can make all kinds of things happen and come in at the right moment and really look for these things that need to be… you know, grabbed and highlighted and reflected back to dig a level deeper.

But my old colleague could also get there. So, yeah, I guess I want to hold onto that as an effective technique for someone that is really, really good at it. That’s the exception, right? I think more people would look like me if we were to take this continuum and kind of put dots where all the researchers are. They’re going to be down at the like… much more of us are down at the wait and watch and listen kind of approach.

Improv and interviewing

Jorge: How did improv help you conduct better interviews?

Steve: I mean, improv, I think, gave me some confidence that some of the things… there’s a lot of times doing research — perhaps all of it — like, in the moment of an interview, or the many moments that make up an interview, where you feel lost. Like, this isn’t going where it’s supposed to go. We’re going to run out of time. I don’t know if any of this is useful. I don’t just mean the self-doubt mind that maybe we carry around all the time, but like really responsive to what’s going on and being uncertain and not knowing what your next technique is. And if you do research enough, you just… I guess I want to say you get over that feeling. I think you just learn to sit with that feeling.

And improv… and there are many kinds of improv, but thinking about doing small sketches where you’re given a problem to solve. Here’s a constraint in how you’re going to talk, here’s how you’re going to use the space that you’re in, here’s what the topic of the scene is, and it’s all emergent. You can see pretty quickly with improv — even poorly performed improv — and I’m not talking about watching it; I’m talking about doing it. You can see the thing that you’re trying to make. It gets made. Like, it works. If you follow these constraints, things emerge that you could not have planned for that are good based on some definition of good. Sometimes they’re funny. Sometimes they’re interesting. And improv only works if you let go of trying to control what the endpoint is going to be.

And in improv, you may find yourself with someone who is incredibly charming and who is incredibly present, and naturally funny. And if you’re not that person, you can still work the system. Work these rules and these constraints with all this unknown on top of it, and make something else happen that you could not have got to if you said, “here’s the outcome I want to get to,” and then try to grind it out to get there. You couldn’t have done it.

So, improv and interviews are kind of analogous to each other. Practicing something else that kind of teaches you those principles and gives you some confidence in a process that is always going to challenge your confidence. I think that is nice… it’s a skill transfer for sure. And you just got things like not knowing what I’m going to say next. And sometimes, in improv, you start the sentence… in response to something that someone else has said, you start the sentence, and you don’t know where you’re going to go with it.

And if you can decouple or unlink that scripting part of your brain and get the mouth to move without that part of the brain happening, interesting things happen. And that’s hard to do in a professional situation. We are under a lot of pressure. We’re being recorded. We’ve paid a participant to do this. Our colleagues are going to watch it. We’ve only got x days until the report is due. It’s hard to limber up and practice how to decouple from that and just start talking without knowing where you’re going to go… and feel like that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. I mean, when I say that sentence, it sounds like a bad thing. You should know what you’re going to say before you say it, but it’s a flow state when it happens. I think in interviews, at improv. So, having some other venue where you can practice some of that hard stuff, I think is… can really be effective as a sandbox or a place to keep working it out.

Jorge: Well, what you’re speaking to is having a degree of self-confidence that allows you to both be in the moment — present in the interview — but also keeping an eye out for the outcome, and you talked about these constraints. In the case of a conversation like the one you and I are having now, there are many ways this conversation could go, right? And we both have in mind the fact that we are recording a podcast that will hopefully have some value for listeners. Like, if we start rambling and just taking this anywhere, the conversation will somehow be less valuable. And I’m wondering if that confidence to be in the moment and responsive to what you’re hearing is something that comes with experience and time or if it’s something that is innate to people. Like, you come fresh into the role of user research interviewer — the first time doing it — and you’re able to do that. Versus someone like you or I who’ve been doing this sort of thing for many years, and we now at this… I’ll speak for myself, at this stage in my career, I feel like I can sit down with someone and take things in different directions without losing the plot. But it’s taking me a long time to get there. That doesn’t come naturally to me. So, is it a matter of having it grow over time, or is it a matter that some people are born with it?

Innate and learned skills

Steve: I love that you frame it around self-confidence, and I just want to poke at some nuance there. Because that’s a loaded term, right? Self-confidence sometimes implies cockiness or arrogance or entitlement, or you know, what’s the… Dunning–Kruger, is that the effect? You know, the effect on our skills?

Jorge: Dunning–Kruger?

Steve: Yeah. I think that’s what that word sometimes affords. And, I guess the phenomenon for me is often feeling uncertain and just scared or a sense of doom or impending failure or whatever. Just all the senses of things not going well. And so, the confidence is like… it’s like comfort with discomfort, you know? Being able to sit with that and accept that and trust the process a little bit. Because I think… so that is a form of confidence, but it’s not… it’s also confidence about what you don’t know and not being certain how things are going to succeed.

To your actual question, though, is this innate? Does it come with experience? I’m sure everybody arrives at adulthood with different amounts of all these ingredients that we need, whether it’s charm or self-confidence or the ability to sit with discomfort. But what I have found, because I do a lot of teaching teams to do research… and often that involves sending them out to do something and then having them come back and talk about what happened and, you know, they’re in front of their colleagues, they’re in front of this external instructor, me, that they’ve hired. And so, I think there can be some intimidation to it.

And I have found, over the last few years, that in addition to providing tactics and kind of mindsets and sort of, “here’s what I advise and recommend for you to be successful in doing this work.” In these interactions that we have in kind of these feedback sessions, the role that I’m often playing is in giving people confidence and being able to say, “oh, the thing that you are describing is very common.” Because I think people have some experience, it feels weird, and they’re like, “well, I’ve screwed this up.” And so I’m working hard to give people confidence and say… to affirm their experience, to validate the uncertainty and struggle they felt in it. And then maybe say, “yeah, here’s a thing that you can try,” or, ” you know, there are tactics to kind of address this.”

But they need the confidence as much as they need the tactics. Because they might get to those tactics on their own, but if they feel like, “this is not the right way to do it, I’m screwing this up,” because it is a weird thing, because you may find yourself feeling like you’re screwing up when you actually are succeeding, because you’re dealing with the absolute uncertainty of another person who you don’t know, who you’re spending time trying to get to know a little bit… it’s entirely unpredictable and uncontrollable. And so, all the ways that we expect ourselves to be successful is to be controlling for all that uncertainty, but it’s inherently uncontrollable to some extent.

So yeah, the more you do it, the more you either make mistakes or feel uncertain about an experience that you’re having and reflect on it, whether it’s through listening to a podcast where people are talking about this or reading a book, or, working with someone who’s more experienced, who can reflect back to you. Those are all ways that we do become more confident with these sort of… surprising or unexpected aspects of what the nature of the work is.

Jorge: Hearing you talk about it makes me think that these are skills that apply not just to interviewing users for user experience research. These are key skills to human interactions, right? The ability to listen, the ability to tune in to the other person’s state. We didn’t talk about this, but being keyed into the context and the influence that that has. I’m wondering the degree to which doing this work has influenced other aspects of your life beyond your work?

What listening really means

Steve: I’m going to offer a humble brag. I met with some folks a couple of years ago. I was visiting their team and doing some work with them, and a few of us went out to lunch, and one of the guys was just a really, really nice guy said to me how much he’d gotten out of one of my books and how much he’d learned. And then he pauses. He said, “it really helped me in my relationship with my wife as well,” which was obviously a very gratifying thing to hear.

Any time anyone tells you that they got value as something that you put out in the world, it’s great. That is obviously not anything I know anything about or anything that I wrote about. It’s a side effect that he pulled from this. He made the connection. He said, “this idea of what listening really means and being there to understand the other person’s point of view and having patience for that…” Yeah! So, that was an amazing compliment to me. Again, it reflects on him that he could, you know, make those kinds of connections. I mean, it’s nice to have that.

Back to what I was saying about kind of introverts being able to put on different modes in different situations, it’s nice to have that mode to be able to go into in situations that I’m unprepared for or in situations that maybe are socially uncomfortable for me, being able to ask questions of somebody is a way to, you know… if two people meet and it just is awkward. Like, being able to ask questions and actually not… for me to take my own focus out of how this moment feels and ask more about the story. It’s a way to put somebody else at ease and a way to make my own awkwardness or discomfort or uncertainty about how to handle something.

That is not in no way am I trying to imply I’m Mr. Suave-socializer, and I’m always defaulting to that mode. I’m always asking questions. Because I also may be incredibly quiet, and I may be quiet and listening, or I may be quiet and like just retreating because I can’t… there’s too much going on, and I can’t focus. So, I think having many modes to cope with different kinds of ways that we find ourselves in situations with new people or familiar people — it’s good to have that. And certainly, years of doing interviews have strengthened a number of those modes to go into.

How to ask better questions

Jorge: What would you advise to folks who want to be able to ask better questions?

Steve: Questions or follow-on questions? I mean, we use the word “question,” and when people prepare for interviews, hopefully, they’re writing up the questions they want to ask, but we’ve probably all seen people — or done this ourselves, even — ask the list of questions that we’ve written.

But it goes back to you bringing up improv. You should definitely write up a bunch of questions to ask because that’s a pre-vis activity that really helps you at least generate some default context, so you have something to fall back on. But the best questions are the ones that emerge from the conversation. And that you could probably break that down into a couple of levels. There are very basic follow-up questions, and that could be, “how so?” Or, “hmm?” Or, “why?” Or, “was that after the first time that you tried that?” Like, they’re just very, very simple questions, but they keep that conversation going and keep that answer going. And I think some of the best interviews can be just that.

But follow-on questions can also be emergent, fully emergent. Like, “this is not a thing that I knew I wanted to ask about.” And I don’t know where your questions are coming from in this interview, but some of them are responsive to something that I have said. And I’m going to guess that some portion of this conversation is stuff that you have realized from what I’ve said, that maybe I didn’t literally bring up something, but it connected some dots in your head, and it made you reach outside what you had intended to talk about to bring something else into this. And so, if you just talk about the topics that you have already decided you want to talk about, you could just as easily do a survey.

It’s the stuff that you didn’t know that you didn’t know about that is super important. So that is very improv-y. So I think that first piece of asking just basic follow-ups is really about… like you see stand-up comics do this. You’re really milking the joke, right? It goes on and on, and on you take that bit, and you let it really… you just give it so much space to bloom.

So that’s follow-on questions, and then a thing that you start to discover that you want to create some space for in the interview is another kind of follow-on question. So a) prepare, b) ask those kinds of micro follow-ups, and c) find something new to talk about that’s emergent in the interview. I think those are my three.

Jorge: Those are great prompts. I’m going to end with a prepared question. Where can folks follow up with you?


Steve: I’m on LinkedIn. So under my name, Steve Portigal. I probably post work-ish stuff there most often. My website is It’s certainly fairly static, as I think maybe a lot of websites are, but you can find information there about my books, podcasts that I’ve been on or hosted, conference talks, those kinds of things. The work that I do a little bit more about that is there as well. So, and LinkedIn are probably where I would direct people to.

Jorge: Fantastic. Steve, it’s been a pleasure having you on the show.

Steve: It’s great to chat with you. Thanks for all the great questions and good discussion.

Jorge: Thank you for being here.


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.


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?


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 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 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.


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.


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?


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.


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, 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.


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.


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.


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.


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: I also have a website that is 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, 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.


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.


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 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.


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 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.


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.


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?


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.


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; 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 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.


Peter Bogaards on a UX Canon

Peter Bogaards is an evangelist, educator, and coach at Informaat experience design. Peter has shared design knowledge via his InfoDesign blog since 1997. In this conversation, we discuss his recently proposed canon on UX.

Show notes

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

Read the transcript

Jorge: Peter. Welcome to the show.

Peter: Well Jorge, thank you for inviting me; love being here.

Jorge: It’s a pleasure having you on the show. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please introducing yourself?

About Peter

Peter: Sure. It’s quite a long story, but I’ll give you the short version of it. I have a background from the eighties, I would say, in instructional design. So, I focused long ago on how people interact with technology and how technology could improve learning capabilities — formal and informal. Then I got into the nineties where I started working for a company called Informaat. And I’ll tell you a little bit about that later. That was the time when the PC was born and was being implemented in large organizations and internal systems were developed. And because they had to design graphical user interfaces at the time, I also became a user interface designer and an information designer. That was kind of the work I did for seven years.

Then the web got started and I got very much intrigued with it, but I thought… And by the way, I’m Dutch! I’m from the Netherlands, so across the pond. And, at the time, I thought the web was really something special. So, I left the company, and became a part of what I would call the “internet bubble,” working for US companies like Razorfish, who was then also having offices in Amsterdam. And I got a lot of inspiration in those years. I also was a victim, if I may say, of the burst. So, from one day to the other, I had to go freelancing.

Now at the end of the nineties, being involved with everything concerning web, I also started a curated portal called or InfoDesign, on which I published — on a very regular basis, almost daily — all kinds of things that I found on the web that I thought was interesting or remarkable and shared it across the community. And that sort of saved my professional life a bit because people knew what I was doing. So, through the web, I got my first assignments and I was very pleased of course with it.

So, for five, six years, I was freelancing for large companies like Nokia and Nissan and IBM. And then in 2006, I got a phone call from the founder of Informaat again, and he said, “well, would you like to come back and become an evangelist for user experience design in Holland?” And of course, I was very pleased. So, I came back to Informaat in the experience design company. And so, I embarked on the journey to become an evangelist for a user experience design.

And after five, six years — we’re now talking about 2011 — a lot of things happened around social media. So, they asked me to become what was then called “content marketer.” That meant that I had to start using the obvious social media platforms. And then, after five years, which is sort of the final part of my background, I got involved in higher education. That meant that I was asked to contribute to a new master program for digital design. And I started to teach students on the professional and academic level.

A canon of UX

Jorge: I am one of the people who benefited from the things you were sharing on InfoDesign. So thank you for that. And interestingly enough, that is what brings us together today as well, in that you recently published a post on the canon… or a canon of user experience. Without spilling it all out, I’ll just say that the post resonated with me. And I was hoping that you would share with the listeners about this idea of a canon of user experience. What do you mean by “a canon”?

Peter: Well, a canon is a sort of list of important works familiar in the humanities, I would say. And it sort of provides an overview of what are considered the important works of field from a historical perspective. Now, of course, somebody has called it a personal passion project. So, it’s my view on our history. But it’s an attempt to collect and to curate a set of works from a long time ago, which are considered to be foundational for our field. So, in that respect, it’s my list, which of course shows how I see our fundament, historically speaking.

Jorge: I’m going to quote from the post. It says, “without being familiar with the ‘classics,'” — and classics is in quotes — “there is always the danger of repeating mistakes from the past. And also proper knowledge of the ideas, theories, and works of previous movers and shakers is always interesting, valuable, and useful.” I’m wondering first, if you could give us some examples of works that you believe are foundational, and then tell us why they might be interesting, valuable, and useful to someone who is practicing in the field now.

Peter: Well, let’s take a work by Licklider. It’s from 1960, it’s called, Man-computer symbiosis, and it’s one of the first documents outlining what the relation can be between — or should be — between a person and a computer. Now as you might know, Licklider was a very important figure in the whole ARPA community, which led to the internet and et cetera. So, he was really from the early ages.

Now in that document, he outlines a symbiotic relationship between the two agents: the person and the computer. And currently, there is a lot of debate going on what the relationship is with artificial intelligence systems. Do we become too dependent on it? Are they taking things over? But Licklider gives us a point of view in which both entities benefit from each other. And that means that we can currently reframe how we can look at the interaction and the relationship between a human being and a system driven by artificial intelligence.

So this is an example of a text from the past — from the long past — which can provide us new inspiration of looking at current… let’s say, issues we are dealing with.

Jorge: So, I’m putting myself in the position of a young designer who is working on such a problem, and they are dealing with having to learn the technologies, having to study the domain from a conceptual perspective, maybe understand user needs… there’s all this work to be done. And just putting myself in their shoes, I’m thinking, “well, why would I bother with a sixty-plus year old text on this when the technologies at that time were so different from the things that I’m having to deal with now.” What would you say to those folks?

Peter: Well, I would say the technologies might have changed in all the decades past us, and are going to change in the future. But the threat is of course that you’re always dealing with, let’s say, human issues related to technology. So, the manifestation might be different, but the concepts underlying let’s say this old text and the ideas that this old text might give you might be future-proof, I would say. You can still learn all kinds of abstract concepts and ideas from the past and apply it in the current technological environment. And you can get great inspiration out of those kinds of text and ideas, and you can sort of look through all the current, let’s say, tools and techniques that you’re probably have to learn. So it’s mostly for inspirational purposes, but it can also provide you a point of reference at a more abstract level to see what can be useful for you.

Why is a canon needed?

Jorge: I’m wondering what led you to create a list of a potential canon for UX? Why do you think such a thing is needed?

Peter: Well, as I said in my introduction, in the last, let’s say, five, seven years, I’ve been involved with all kinds of projects in higher education. Be it professional training, be it academical programs, bachelor level, master level, and not only teaching but also assessing portfolios, being part of our accreditation committee. And what struck me was that all over the board, of course, not only students, but especially also teachers, have a lack of enough historical knowledge of our field. And that’s to a certain extent understandable because most of our education in this respect is applied to practice: learning tools, learning techniques and methods, et cetera. But I experienced a lack of historical knowledge on stuff, if I might say so. So, I thought, why don’t I create a tool — this list can be used as a tool — for educational purposes that can be used by all kinds of design schools or design institutions around the world. So, I hope to achieve that and that across the board, the historical knowledge of the educational system of our field increases.

Jorge: We are lucky in that many of the resources — I think all the resources you list here — have links. Because this is a web-based artifact, you are a couple of clicks away from obtaining your own copy, right? So there’s little excuse for folks not to check these out.

Peter: Yeah, that was an explicit requirement for myself; I wanted to lower the barrier towards the work, as much as possible. So, I did some research of how to obtain the originals of those seminal works.

Four periods in UX history

Jorge: The list of canonical works — and you clearly state in the post that this is a list and you welcome contributions to it — the list is divided into four periods. And the four periods are… you call them “The Roots,” which is from 1945 to ’65, “The First Signs,” which is from 1965 to 1980, “The Formation,” from 1980 to 2000, and “The Candidates,” from 2000 to the present. And I’m wondering why those four and why those dates. Are there any particular reasons why you chose to divide it in this way?

Peter: Well, let’s start with the first periods. It’s very common to look at our history from World War II on. And the seminal work of Vannever Bush is always used as the sort of starting point. We can even have a debate on that, even! But that’s another issue. So, that means that even though there were no personal computer at that time, people really started already to think about what the, let’s say, impact of technology — computer technology — could be. The second phase is sort of the phase that people having been inspired by these previous work, start to think about all kinds of… and let’s say visions of the future. It’s very well known for instance that Douglas Engelbart and Ted Nelson were heavily influenced by the As You May Think article.

And then, of course, a lot of things happened in the eighties and on: personal computers were born; ordinary people were able to access computing and even with the birth of the personal computer industry, people started to use them and it became obvious that a lot of attention needed to be paid to make them usable and to think about all the possibilities on a personal computing level that they could be.

Now then we have the point of 2000s. 2000 is sort of, broadly speaking, the time at which we would say user experience and user experience design was actually coming to the forefront and exploded. Also with the proliferation of the web, of course into thousands and thousands of publications. So I call that “The Candidates,” because if you talk about seminal works, the more recent a work is, the harder it is to determine upfront if something becomes seminal. So if you look at the list you can see that the overall majority of all the works is pre-2000. That means that in the last 20 years, there are hundreds of works that still need to, let’s say, become… or keep their value. So, in that sense, the final part is to still have other limited. So in those four periods, that’s the reason why I divided it.

Jorge: The sense I get is that “a canon” almost by definition refers to artifacts and works that have stood the test of time. So, it makes sense for recency to exclude items from the canon, right?

Peter: Yeah. And if you evolve your career and you read books or publications, some of them are very important to you and your career. But that doesn’t mean that those books, those publications, will stand the test of time, as you said. There are several books that I considered being part of the canon because they were important for my professional development. But after, let’s say, ten years, nobody actually was referring to the book again. So, it only takes some time or quite some time to determine if something is a seminal work that we base our concepts on, or it was a important work in a specific time, but afterwards nothing happened with it.

Jorge: One item which I believe is in your list in the post-2000 era, which has continuously surprised me in its durability, is Jesse James Garrett’s_ Elements of User Experience_. I am old enough to remember when that first came out, and I’ve seen it be re-discovered and re-engaged by succeeding generations of designers. And every once in a while in Twitter I’ll see someone sharing that diagram and saying, “look at this thing!” Somehow, there are some of these artifacts that keep speaking to people.

Peter: Yeah, and of course the diagram is sort of the most iconical image of, let’s say, in the beginning of the 2000s, concerning user experience. And it keeps coming up and up and up again. And when I’m teaching, it still provides a sort of mental model for first time designers to think about what are the different perspectives on how you can view the web. So, in that respect it’s still valuable for what it was and what it is.

Selection criteria

Jorge: This discussion we’re having brings me back to a question that I had for you, which has to do with the criteria for determining whether something is part of the canon. It sounds to me like part of it has to do with the degree to which the artifact has had an impact, as measured in durability — whether people keep referring to it — and also whether it has served as some kind of scaffolding. You talked about, for example, Ted Nelson and folks of that generation building on the work of Vannevar Bush. I’m sure that people reading this list would have quibbles with some of the things that are in it. Would probably think, “well, it needs more of this. It needs more of that.” Can you speak a bit more to their criteria for selection of items for the canon?

Peter: Yeah, it starts with the title being a canon. So actually it’s my canon. So, it represents my point of view of what I consider important works. And we can have a debate on if something should be in or something should be out. And another thing is of course, it says, a canon of user experience. Now user experience is a term coined, as some of you know, by Norman in ’94, and it resonated and people have, currently, all kinds of associations and ideas with it.

But if you go back to, let’s say, the historical aspects of it, you will find out that influential works come from all kinds of places. We all know that people working in user experience have all kinds of backgrounds. And that means it’s a very interdisciplinary field. So, that means that if I can find a thread of user experience in our community back to let’s say, art, then of course I’ll look at digital art and I come to a work… it’s called Cybernetics and Art. Or, if I think that what is important is, let’s say, information retrieval, I come to things like the paper submitted by Brin and Page. So, it’s a multifaceted and multi-perspective list and it… of course, it’s a tool. It can be debated and we can slowly make explicit what the criteria are.

But, yeah. I did, of course, some historical research and came across all kinds of interesting and important works. So, it’s not completely arbitrary; it’s not completely subjective. But of course every member of our community being in the community for quite some time or being in the community just recently might have some thoughts about it.

Jorge: Personally, reading through it, I found myself in violent agreement with the choices here. So, congratulations on it, because it’s fairly close to the list that I would pick. I’m wondering if you can provide an example of how maybe one of these works has influenced your own work and maybe changed the way that you approach what you do.

Peter: Yeah, it’s the work by Edward Tufte. One of his first publications… it’s the Visual Display of Quantitative Information. In my introduction, I said that I was working as an information designer and this was pre-web. And I was very much aware of the complexity of large amounts of information. The book of Wurman, Information Anxiety, resonates with that. And through the book of Tufte and the work of Tufte, he also published another set of books, but this was his first one. And he showed what a tremendous opportunity information visualization could have of understanding complexity. And I was very much intrigued with the phenomenon of complexity.

So, from that time on, if I am dealing with complex systems or complex problems, I always try to visualize for myself how that complexity can be depicted and how it can help me understand that complexity. Furthermore, of course, people who know the publication know that it is a book in paper technology with outstanding design and outstanding layout and graphics. I would urge everybody to take a hold of it. So, in that sense, it was very instrumental to the way I approach, currently, the work of designing for taming complexity.

Jorge: I think that the Tufte book — the Tufte books, plural — are an excellent example in that they have value in the content they provide, but because they are about clearly communicating information, they also have value as artifacts, per se, as examples of what they’re preaching, because they are clearly conveyed.


Jorge: As you’ve pointed out in this conversation and you point out in the post itself, this list is very much like a first draft at this and I get the sense that you invite folks to engage in conversation with you to expand it. If that’s the case, how might folks reach out to you? How can they get in touch?

Peter: Well, the best thing to do is go to a page called and slash my name, Peter Bogaards. And that means that you can use that as a starting point to get all kinds of contact details with me and as well, see all the online presence I have, which might also be… except this post of course, be of added value for people in the community. On the bottom of this post, you will find the email list or the email address that you can use to contact me and I’d love to start having conversations with anybody who is interested in extending this corpus.

Jorge: Fantastic, Peter. Thank you so much for your work through the years, but also especially for compiling this list and for sharing it with us today.

Peter: Well, thank you for the compliment and looking forward to receiving all kinds of reaction from the community. Love to hear from everybody!

Jorge: Let’s hope so.


Dan Klyn on the BASIC Framework

Dan Klyn is co-founder of The Understanding Group, an information architecture consultancy based in Michigan. Dan has also created useful and influential IA frameworks, and in this conversation, we focus on his latest: the BASIC framework.

Show notes

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

Read the transcript

Jorge: Dan, welcome to the show.

Dan: Thank you.

Jorge: It is such a pleasure to have you here. As I was telling you before we started recording, you’re one of the people that I originally thought of having as a guest on the show, when I first conceived of the show. I am constantly inspired and just amazed by the contributions you’ve brought to our field of information architecture. And I’m honored to have you on the show and looking forward to hearing about you. In particular, about a framework that you’ve been sharing recently.

About Dan

Jorge: But before we get into that, I’m hoping that you will tell us about yourself. Who are you, Dan?

Dan: Sure. Let’s see… I was a fat baby.

I think the reason that I have the pleasure of talking with you today… we can blame Chris Farnham, who is an information architect in Southeast Michigan. I went to a conference about information architecture in 2009. My first professional conference had ever been to in any field, and I didn’t know if I was particularly welcome or fit well into the field of information architecture, but I had a mentor who encouraged me and that was Peter Morville.

So Chris Farnham and Peter Morville, these two guys from Ann Arbor are the only people I thought I knew at this conference, which was true for about five minutes. And as we were walking to the opening reception, Chris said, “Hey, those two guys walking in front of us… those guys are architect-architects. Like, you know, like what you’re interested in, Klyn!” Because even back then, the architecture part of information architecture is what I was mostly interested in. And walking in front of me on the way to this opening reception at the IA Summit, as it was called back then was Jorge Arango and Andreas Resmini.

And I never talked to Chris again for four or five years, I think. And I have held fast to Jorge and Andreas ever since. And I’m so grateful to have had… I’ve been given by you guys permission to be as excited as I am about the architecture part of information architecture. Which is so different than my experience with other professionals in the built environment.

When I started enthusing about information architecture and the ways that I think what makes places good for people in the built environment has something immediately relevant for us to learn from, as people who make digital products and services…. they’re not into it. They scold me for not having consulted the correct sources. Or having the wrong opinions about some buildings or what have you. And you and Andreas both welcomed my amateurism, at a time when you could have just, you know… I don’t know! So that’s why I’m here.

Hi, my name is Dan Klyn. I’m an information architect and I am fascinated by — I am on fire about — the ways that architecture in the built environment can teach us how to do things with digital products and services. And any second now, metaverse-icle products and services and such.

So that’s what I’m interested. I’m interested in the spatiality of meaning. That is a mouthful that nobody wants to hear, but that’s how I say it sometimes. And I have drawn most of my ways of thinking about and seeing this from an increasingly intensive pursuit of Richard Saul Wurman from a biographical standpoint. I figured if I could learn everything that he knows about information architecture, then that would be pretty good. So I’ve been trying to turn him upside down and shake him, and catch what comes out of his pockets for about seven years or so now. So, that’s what I do.

Jorge: That’s a great intro and I feel like this episode is turning into the Jorge and Dan mutual appreciation society. But I think that we can’t wrap up the intro without also naming the fact that you are a co-founder of The Understanding Group,

Dan: right?

The Understanding Group

Dan: That’s right. Yes! And Mr. Wurman having been so essential to the founding of our company. Bob Royce and I, when he… he as a serial entrepreneur was in the school of information and library studies at the same time that Peter and Lou were back in the day.

And so, as somebody from a business development background standpoint, interested in information architecture, his interest in it went all the way back to Richard Saul Wurman. And the first time I saw Richard in person was a speech that he gave at the University of Michigan and the only person that I knew in the audience and we sat right next to each other right in the front row is Bob Royce.

So yeah, together, our enthusiasm for information architecture, digital strategy… whatever ways that we can apply architectural thinking to usually large-scale software and information systems, that’s what we wanted to start a company to focus on. And certainly we were inspired by and got to learn through their advice.

Peter and Lou having operated the world’s first really large scale information architecture consultancy, which was called Argus, which operated back in the late 1990s and disbanded, about the same time that a lot of things did in March of 2001. Yeah, there’s probably a way that you could have a business that focuses on information architecture and that… we want it to be that.

So, that was 10 years ago and TUG continues to be among the… if you were to say, “Hey, who should we get to help us with information architecture?” people would probably say, Jorge Arango, Abby Covert. An aspiration that we’re just pleased that we are often in that same sort of three or four things that you would just know about when it comes to taking on significant information architectural challenges in software and digital products and services, yeah! That’s what we’ve become.

“The spatiality of meaning”

Jorge: I want to circle back to this phrase, “the spatiality of meaning.” And you referenced being inspired by Mr. Wurman. And you also talked about “Being on fire about the architecture of the built environment,” and talking about gravitating to Andreas and myself at that first information architecture summit. And one thing that the three of us have in common, the three of us being Mr. Wurman, Andreas, and myself, is that our background is in building architecture. But that is not your background, right?

Dan: Correct. Library science over here.

Jorge: Library science. So, I’m wondering what drew you to the architecture of the built environment?

Dan: It’s gonna sound… it’s exactly… think of the most boring cliche way to answer your question and that’s the answer. Since I was a little boy, I had a Crayola drafting set of a T-square and a triangle. And big paper. And my parents got me a tilty desk. Like it was the only thing I knew that I wanted it to be until I didn’t think that I could because I was bad at math. So, for as long as I can remember, I wanted to make the shapes that I make on paper turn into an experience that people could have. Especially me, but other people may be also. And since then, and especially since becoming a consultant who travels a lot, I have had an extraordinary opportunity to go to buildings.

And I have had my cognition, my heart rate, my pulse, my skin temperature… I have been physically changed by every different kind of place that I’ve been to. And by doing that on purpose, that’s where the BASIC Framework comes from is an awareness that I developed at some point that what these buildings do is they are machines that uniquely change our human experience by changing our blood pressure and our cognition and our pulse. And the effects that it uses are both, you know, the physics of the earth, the density of the walls… if you’re in a crypt of a cathedral and the density of the walls is two feet thick and it is granite, the air pressure changes in there make what your body can… what’s possible for you to experience has been concrete-ized literally in ways that are just extraordinary.

And so, by putting myself in so many of these different places, and yes, I’ve catered to my list of initially is canonical buildings that architects who control what is considered to be a good building in the Western tradition, right? But that’s the kind of list that I started from. And by going to as many of these places as possible, continually re-energizing and re-believing in reifying the reality… not some neat-o idea that I choose to have, but an actual experience that is undeniable that the way that these places have been set up through the arrangement of material and space and through the arrangement of the information that is either encoded in that material or inscribed on that material, the situatedness of things in space changes how we… how we experience things.

The radical architect, Christopher Alexander — people scoff! Like, spit their coffee out when he says stuff like that he knows how to make God appear in a field. But that’s… I think also a part of why I’ve been so interested in this is having been raised in a deeply religious context and hearing about power that people can have access to and experiences with and transformation, transfiguration, transubstantiation, immanence… that I’ve had those experiences. And they’re not so much with sermons of words — it’s sermons in stone that really changed my whole life. So, now I seek out experiences in places so that I can understand better how to somehow transfer or remember at a minimum, all of the different ways that I’ve been made to feel through experiences with architectures. And then, how can I tap into that at some other time for some other purpose. That’s how I’ve been trying to rationalize such the luxurious experience of going to so many kick-ass buildings.

Jorge: Well, that was beautifully put and I’ll reflect it back to you. What I heard there is that this phrase, “the spatiality of meaning,” at least part of it, has to do with the fact that buildings play a functional role in our lives, right? Like they keep us dry and warm — you know, safe from external conditions. But there’s this other role that they can play — at least some buildings can play — which has to do with somehow moving us, reminding us of perhaps higher states of being somehow.

And the question is… you and I both work on architecting experiences that people have mostly within the confines of the small glass rectangles that we carry around in our pockets. And what’s the connection between these — if any — between these transcendent experiences that you have when walking into a special place and the sort of experience that you can have through a digital artifact?

Back to screens

Dan: Well, I’m trying to think about it in terms of the last thing that I worked on or some real case in point. And I’m thinking about an app that I’ve been working on that has all kinds of different functionality. And there are ideas about what does prominence mean?

So, imagine that this app that has all sorts of different kinds of functions, that there’s a giant global organization, and there are people who are mapped to those functions and that they all feel like their thing needs to be the most important and therefore the most prominent or vice versa. So, there’s a space race, or there’s a competition for the most opportune positions on screens in this screen-iverse that they operate. And finding an order that both works from the, “I’m a brain in a jar,” and there are semantic categories and there are things… there’s knowledge in the world, not just in my head. And on the basis of knowledge in the world and on figuring things out from a sense-making standpoint, there’s no right way. But there are good ways. And so what I’m trying to learn from the built environment, every location in the built environment is special.

So, it’s not so much that I’ve been to special places and then, “oh crap. What do you do when you’re working on something quotidian? Something that’s just every day.” It’s the idea that every place is charged with wonder. Every… everything is amazing. Because look at it! There it is! People made that!

And so, trying to help this organization, this global organization with all these poor people who are, you know, if their thing is high up on the screen, then they win. Trying to posit order for how to situate all of those things in space that’s both good for the organization that they can continue to operate as an organization and as a business. It’s good for people who have to use it because it isn’t like, “oh! Where is the blank?” And also then the trifecta is: and could all of this be key to our embodiment as human beings?

And so, we came up with a way to position proprioceptively. Imagine yourself looking at your phone screen. There’s left, right, up, down. To make left and right and up and down mean something, other than “most important,” “least important,” or “most prominent” and “least prominent.” So, things of this nature you can expect to find them over to the left. Things of that other nature you can expect to find those to the right. And governance… a way of working with the organization to help diffuse the person with the highest tolerance for discomfort wins, for there to be reasons for belonging and space and place that everybody can understand, and that, when people follow it, it creates more wellbeing and prosperity.

It sounds like fantasy, but that’s really what we get to do when we’re doing it right. And it’s great! And I couldn’t do it if I didn’t have these experiences in my own body and have felt and believed in the pleasure and the learnability and the… to reliably be able to reach over here and get something because you know it’s going to be there. And on what basis, other than, “well, that’s where it always was.”

Jorge: What I’m getting from what you’re saying there is that in both cases, in both the physical environment than these information environments, there is the possibility of a higher level of order that might bring coherence to what might otherwise be forces that are pulling the experience into different directions, that make it incoherent, right?

Dan: That’s right.

The BASIC framework

Jorge: And with that in mind I wanted to ask you… during your career, you’ve shared a few frameworks that have been influential and helped us see the type of work that we do in different ways. And recently you’ve shared a draft of a framework that is new to me at least, called BASIC. And it seems to me to be an effort in this direction of providing kind of a framework for order and coherence.

Dan: Yes.

Jorge: And I was hoping that you would tell us about the BASIC framework. What is it?

Dan: I am learning along with everybody else what it is. That’s one of the risks! When you put something out there that isn’t done yet, that’s the reason to do something like that.

And so, having put it out there not entirely baked, and then asking for and eliciting feedback… one of the first most powerful pieces of feedback that I got after presenting it for the first time at a meetup online was from a colleague in the UK who posited that what BASIC is, is it’s about where you as the designer… it gives you five vantage points into the problem space.

It’s like, “where should I stand to see the thing that would be good to notice?” So, that’s one way to start explaining it is: it’s an easy-to-remember acronym that gives you five ways to have a posture vis-a-vis some kind of a complex system. And if you stand in these five places, and if you ask some of the questions that I’ve provided with each of those postures, then possibly you will see the architecture of the thing.

So, that’s really the goal. And one of the ways that I came to make it, was a friend of mine… we went on a field trip. We went to the Edith Farnsworth house in Plano, Illinois by Mies van der Rohe. And we were so lucky! It was in the winter and we were the only ones on the tour. So we had a whole hour with the docent. Couldn’t go in because it was winter, have since of rectified that. Have been back with the same friend and we got to go inside.

But first time we’re just outdoors, in the snow, circling the Edith Farnsworth house. And then afterward, I shared the photos that I took. And my friend noted that… he looked at the photos that he… we went to the same place, we took many of the same pictures. But that there was something going on in the pictures that I was taking that he wanted to know about, because it seemed like I was accessing different parts of the same experience. And whether it was just purely on the basis of the otherness of the what… something that somebody else is doing it in the same place, you wonder what that is? It’s not… I don’t believe it’s because I have superior aesthetic judgements or anything like that. I think it has to do though with having developed a set of postures for when I’m trying to relate to buildings first of all, in order to see the right stuff. By my own internal compass, the right stuff.

And then, talking this out with my friend and then him encouraging me to do something with it because it seemed like it could be learnable. Like, if I stood there and if I cocked my head that way, I would see it too. So, that’s what it is. It’s postures that you can use. Questions…

So, the first one is boundaries. And if you didn’t do any of the other elements, if you found a way to perceive the boundaries… and where was the boundary before where it is now, and who gets to move the… just some really dumb questions about boundaries and where one material stops and another begins is an especially potent thing to notice in buildings. But whether it’s buildings or an intranet, the boundaries. How did they get here? Where were they before? Is there a plan to make there be different boundaries? Do you see any evidence of, you know, the ghost traces of where things used to be, or where they’re fixing to go? And then you can go right on down the line. And the second one, let’s see, what is the second one? You’ve got the book there, you tell me!

Jorge: There is a little booklet that you can print out and I’m holding one in my hands. So, the first one is boundaries. The second one is associations.

Dan: Yes. Perfect! So, what do we associate a stepped gable with in the built environment? I’m Dutch. If you go to Holland, Michigan, nearby where I live, there are these buildings that were built within the last 20 years that have these stepped gables not because they serve any functional purpose, but because they remind everybody who lives there, that many of the people here have Dutch heritage, and that that’s how the buildings look. So there are direct associations like that. There are more diffused associations, like the kind… does it link to a PDF? You associate that differently than if it’s to HTML page, then if it’s a video. So just associations. The A, S…

Situatedness. Why is anything where it is? If you go to the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas — which I encourage you to do — there has been an expansion to that museum. It was originally by Louis Kahn opened in 1972, the year I was born. An expansion to the museum was done by Renzo Piano in the nineties. You now enter the Kimbell from the back, relative to where the architect imagined you would enter the building. So just little… why is anything where it is gives you access to so many architectural decisions that were made in the environment.

And then the last two are twinned. And probably I’m too in love with BASIC because it’s so easy to remember and I want it to be basic like food-hole, air-hole, dumb-basic.

But the last two are invariants. So, what are the forces in the environment that don’t change or that seem like they don’t change? Brian Eno has wisely said that repetition is a form of change. So you have to be careful with this one. And that’s why it is paired with cycles. And those two postures, those two places to stand relative to some complex system… if you were able to perceive what was invariant in the environment, that would explain to you why it shows up the way that it does and each of these elements in the model has a building that I’ve been to.

They’re all in the United States so far, and the example cartoon of a building for invariance is a garage I saw in Seattle. Where I live in Michigan, the roofs are a pointy, peaked roof, like kids around here would draw a picture of a house. But in Seattle, there’s a shape of a roof that is inverted to catch the rain because it is on a steep hill, in a microclimate that is a rainforest basically. So, it’s an invariant. There’s so much water there, you’re going to change the shape of the roof to rise to channel those forces better. And that was the consequence… consequence to that, a million other decisions about the building.

And then cycle, the last one, you can plug that one into what’s invariant. In Michigan, we have four seasons. In Seattle, they have maybe two. And so, by looking at what has the system done to anticipate cyclical change in the environment that it’s in… put all those five postures together, ask a question from each one, and I feel pretty good that you’re not talking about the design so much as you’re talking about the architecture of the system.

Jorge: What attracts me so much about this framework is that it takes a systemic lens at examining the… or a set of lenses, right? To your point, these are different vantage points from which you can examine the system. And although it is grounded in architecture, as in built architecture — and like you said, the booklet includes drawings of buildings as illustrations of these various lenses — they seem applicable to other types of things that might be architected, right? Like this notion that you can examine the system through the perspective of what distinctions does it manifest, versus what perhaps memories, cultural or otherwise, it triggers, right? Like those are very different perspectives that are part of architected systems, regardless of whether they are buildings or what have you.

Dan: That’s right. And the caveat here with any methods that I’ve developed, if you’re trying to apply them, it has to be in an architectural context where the nature of the change that is expected or at least possible? Is more than an increment. It can be executed incrementally but the nature of the change… if you’re looking for recommendations about how to change the architecture, it should be safe to presume that those kinds of changes are harder to do, possibly take more time, and are more costly because they are more consequential.

And so, if people are just making shit, then this framework won’t help you because there isn’t a reason for everything that was done. And that is… I’m so glad that we’ve got to here and maybe because of time, we might land here or start landing here, is: the built environment is such a terrific teacher because almost always, except now, every decision that was made is because of a reason. And the traceability of every move that is made to a reason, you need to do that in design too, if you’re doing it right. But when you’re talking about architecture what that means is that it’s being taken on and thought of systemically. And if the thing is being made in a way where it doesn’t care about being systemic, then these lenses won’t help you because it just is the way that it is because it is. This all presumes total accountability for every move that you make as a recommender of changes to an environment.

And I’ve recommended changes to a digital environment that have made it so that people’s jobs went away. I’m glad that I haven’t worked on products and services where the changes I’ve recommended have caused harm to people, that I know of, but it’s certainly possible. And as we enter into this metaverse time of everything being part of the experiences that we work on, I think having a framework like this is also helpful because it might check an impulsive feeling of, “oh, I get it.” Or, “I’ve seen it.” Or, “I know what it is.” Or, “clearly the solution is…” Maybe this framework would help you go slower and not move with so much certainty. Maybe these are five ways to undermine the decision that you were about to make. And I would be good with that, in most cases.

Jorge: How do you keep that from paralyzing you altogether? Because when you say you have full accountability over a thing, like…

Dan: It all depends on having extraordinary clients. Without clients who are willing to work in that fashion… I mean, whether you want to take maximum accountability for your recommendations or not,

Jorge: I can see what you mean, but I can also understand how that sense would or could paralyze you as a designer, right? So, how do you keep the dance going?


Dan: It’s a two way street and if the client isn’t playing along and giving you that accountability and that responsibility, then you’re not actually… you know, it’s not actually happening. So, I think it absolutely depends on having the right clients and TUG has been so fortunate to have not prospered enough to have clients that aren’t the right kind. It’s weird to engage with information architects to affect change to complex digital products and services. And I think we show up… weird enough, where we’ve scared away the ones who wouldn’t be a good partner with us in wanting to have that level of accountability, that level of traceability for the recommendations that we make. Because it requires that the stakeholders be super accountable to what they want, because you’re going to get it, right?

Like, that’s what I’m saying is, as your architect, if you show me your intent, if you let me make a model of your intent and then the model is more or less correct, then I can make a whole bunch of decisions about the situatedness of things in your space that will deliver against that intent. So God help you if you don’t know what you want. Because I need that in order to make decisions on your… with you, not on your behalf.

When we started TUG a long time ago, we decided the word agency must not be the word for… We don’t want to borrow anyone’s agency for money for a couple of months and then give it back to them. They need to keep their agency all along the way to keep instructing us and intending back when we make our moves to make sure that things stay good. So, yeah, it’s all about having the right clients and quite frankly, it has a lot to do with my own personal choices over the last year or so to get away from consulting as much as I personally can, and be more in the mode of scholarship and writing because I don’t know how much longer the client world is going to be able to make room for the kinds of work that I personally want to do.


Jorge: Well Dan, I would love to hear more about what that might be. And I would like to extend you an invitation to do another recording with me, if you are open to it, to explore that and the notion of architecting the thing that architects the thing, somehow, right? Because that’s what is implied in what you’re saying, I think. But for now, where can folks follow up with you?

Dan: Well, I think maybe BASIC would be a good way to start. So if you go to, you can download a PDF of the most recent version of the little mini booklet. I’ve created an instructional video for how to cut and fold said booklet so that it has its maximum booklet-iness for you when you make it. And from there I… yeah, I’m omni-available, except through Facebook, WhatsApp, or Instagram.

Jorge: You’re not going Meta.

Dan: I would accept money from Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp to research the potential for harm to human beings, through what they intend to do in the so-called metaverse. But I’m not willing to use their products.

Jorge: It sounds like that might yet be another reason for us to have a second conversation here. But I’ll just allude to it because I’ll include links to the stuff that you’ve been discussing on the show. And, I’ll just reiterate that the booklet is beautiful, simple, useful. I have one printed out and keep it on my desk. So, I encourage folks to check it out. Thank you, Dan, for…

Dan: The only thing better than that for me Jorge, is if I could be little and be there on your desk instead of the booklet, but that’s… I’d love that.

Jorge: I can see you on a little screen here. On a little window in my screen, so… it’s not the same, but it’s… it’ll have to do for now. Well, thank you so much for being with us, Dan. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you.

Dan: Let’s talk again.


Dan Brown on IA Lenses

Dan Brown is the co-founder of UX design studio EightShapes. He’s also the author of Communicating Design, Designing Together, and Practical Design Discovery. In this conversation, we focus on Dan’s Information Architecture Lenses, a set of cards that help designers interrogate IA decisions.

Show notes

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

Read the transcript

Jorge: Dan, welcome to the show.

Dan: Jorge, it’s fantastic to be here. Thanks so much for having me.

Jorge: It’s such a pleasure to have you here. I believe that you are one of the very first people I ever met in person in the information architecture community. And I am not going to reveal the year because that’s going to peg us as old, but, I’ve known you for a long time, Dan.

Dan: It has been a long time and I love it! It never occurred to me that I would end up in a field where there would be a community and that community would be strong enough where I would have relationships with folks for decades. Do you know what I mean? Like to me, that is one of these unsung parts of the world that we find ourselves in. I don’t know if that’s still true. Like, I don’t know if you become a UX designer today if you’d still feel that same sense of community, but for me it was… it’s been one of these aspects of being in this world that I have come to appreciate more and more with each passing year.

Jorge: Hear, hear! It’s been a true privilege to be part of this community. And to… like you’re saying to have these very long-standing relationships with people who have a real commitment and passion to the discipline. And I certainly place you in that category. Now, it’s clear from what we’re saying here that we know each other, but some folks tuning in might not know who you are. How do you go about introducing yourself?

About Dan

Dan: Yeah, that’s… it depends on who I’m talking to, but in the field, I will say that I run a small web design and user experience design company. It’s kind of a boutique shop, based in the DC area. Most of my professional career has been in the Washington DC area and I specialize in information architecture but also the discovery process, as part of the design, and I like thinking about… let’s call it, sort of the dirty underbelly of the design process. So how do we work together effectively and how do we improve our collaboration and how do we embrace the mindsets that are essential for creativity and collaboration.

Jorge: You have written three books on the dirty underbelly, in part. And, you also share a first and last name with another writer, which might be problematic for folks searching for your books, which is an IA problem.

Dan: Yeah. It’s… you know what? As long as they eventually find me, I’m okay with that. Actually, my hope is that people go searching for that other Dan Brown, and they discover me. So, you know, it works both ways, honestly.

IA Lenses

Jorge: That’s great. Well, I’m going to include links to your books in the show notes, but the books aren’t what bring us together today. Rather, I wanted to talk with you about your Information Architecture Lenses, which started…. why, I think I first encountered them as a Medium post?

Dan: Yes.

Jorge: But then they manifested as a set of cards, and I’m holding the deck in my hands right now. And they’ve gone on to take on other forms, and I was hoping that you would tell us about the cards and the forms they’ve taken and where they come from and everything about it.

Dan: Yeah, yeah. I think I unveiled them at the IA conference in 2018, I want to say, and I honestly don’t remember what city it was in. But I gave a talk on the lenses, and really what it was a talk about was typical information architecture problems and the lack of tooling that we information architects have, in doing our work.

We’ve got tools that help us test IA, like tree testing. We’ve got tools that help us do some investigation, like card sorting. And everyone will talk about how they use spreadsheets to think about categorization. But I think the complexity and the abstractness of the spaces in which we work, make it difficult for us to really meaningfully have tools to help us do the work.

And one of the things that I realized while I do IA work, is that I ask myself a lot of questions. And so I will ask sort of, “what if” questions. Like, what if we create a new piece of content, where does it fit? Or I’ll ask myself how might questions like, “How might someone who’s new to this product navigate through it, or be introduced to it?” I’ll ask questions about how do we balance the needs of users with the needs of the business.

So, I realized that I have all of these questions, and so I just started writing them down. And as I’ve said before, I just couldn’t stop. Like I just… I thought I’d maybe have a dozen, and I kept writing. And I realized that even though some of these questions are overlapping, they each provide a unique perspective or a meaningful, distinct perspective. And it comes from my instinct to try and understand how I do what I do, and how other people do what they do.

My hypothesis is that we all… information architects, you know, people think in a systems sort of way. Even designers look at something and ask ourselves questions about it. But we don’t always know… can’t always say it out loud or don’t know exactly what question we’re asking. But that’s sort of the mechanism. And so, I started writing down and then elaborating on them and then giving them names, and that turned into this set of lenses with the cards, which turned into a talk, which turned into an interview, series, which I completed over the summer.

Jorge: And the interview series manifests in two ways, right? There’s a set of videos on YouTube and now there’s a podcast, yes?

Dan: Yeah. Basically, I recorded it… and this is purely an old dog refusing to learn new tricks. Like I figured out a couple of years ago, how to post videos to YouTube. I could record an interview session via Zoom and I can post it to YouTube. I learned that through some other hobbies that I have outside the business.

And I was like, okay, “well I can just do this.” And then I realized that I could just grab the audio from those videos, and I found an easy way to post it as a podcast, and so this is… it’s literally like to me, the content is what’s important. To me, kind of hearing from 50 different people about information architecture, is what’s important. So finding easy ways to get it out there, was my priority.

Jorge: Well, that’s great. And I want to circle back to this idea of the lenses as tools. And you mentioned that in information architecture we have certain tools that we… or what we think of as tools, right? You talked about spreadsheets and tree jack tests and card sorts. In just those three there’s kind of practical tools. Like, a spreadsheet is an app, right? Like a tangible thing that you can… well, tangible as far as a digital artifact goes, but something that you can open and examine, much in the way that you can pick up a hammer to do stuff. And, a card sort is more of a practice, but that is also kind of tool-like. But the lenses I see not in that realm, but more as kind of conceptual tools, right? Is that the intent there?

Lenses as conceptual tools

Dan: Yeah, I guess each of those is used at a different part of the process. So to your point, some of them are more like methods that we apply in certain moments. And I felt like there were no tools; there was no conceptual tooling to help us think through the complexities of the structures that we’re designing. We could visualize them, yes. We could try and lay them out as best we could in a diagramming program. But really the word I’ve been using is interrogating them. Like really, really doing the work of a creative person, which is to sort of look at something that we built and ask ourselves, “Is this good?” You know, for art, we have the language of aesthetics. For IA, what do we have? And this was, I guess, my swipe at that, right? It’s sort of my attempt to give us that.

Jorge: And folks who might not have seen the lenses might be wondering how these things manifest. And I’ll give an example. I pulled out one of the cards from the deck here just randomly, and it is titled, “Comprehensiveness.”

Dan: Yep.

Jorge: And it says, “the navigation should encompass the entire domain, especially if users come with pre-existing expectations about the domain. If it doesn’t, it should be clear what is excluded.” And then it lists a series of questions that you can ask yourself to assess the comprehensiveness of the structure that you’re working with, right?

Dan: Right.

Jorge: And there’s 51 of them currently, yes?

Dan: Yeah, 51 cards. 51 lenses. Yep.

Jorge: You use the phrase, “interrogating them,” which I loved. It makes me think of something like the… Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards. He did them with someone else; Peter Schmidt, I think, is the name of the artist that he worked with. It sounds almost oracular, like the I Ching or something like that.

Dan: Yes.

Using the Lenses

Jorge: So, what I’m getting by that is that the intent of the deck is when faced with some kind of… let’s call it “architectural conundrum,” you consult the cards. Is that the idea?

Dan: Yeah, I think there are at least two ways I conceive of using these things. One is sort of the way I had to do a lot of my work early in my career, which is, I was not encountering a lot of folks who were good at systems thinking. And so I developed these questions so I could have a dialogue with someone, i.e., myself, about the work. I would design a structure and I would then serve the role of a critique person rather than a design person and try and critique it. So, the intent is to give you that voice — to give you the voice of another designer who might look at this thing and ask these kinds of questions, because you’re too close to it to ask them yourself.

Another mode of using these is to facilitate a conversation, which is not something that I had intended or really thought about when I designed them, but as I get feedback from folks, they are indicating that they bring these cards to meetings so that they can put them out on the table, and have people zero in on maybe what their chief concerns are. Or challenge people to ask questions about the structure. So, it ends up being a tool for facilitating conversations that are otherwise maybe difficult to facilitate or unstructured or hard for folks because they don’t have the range of experience that they need to facilitate these conversations.

Jorge: Well that’s really fascinating. I’m really intrigued by this notion that the lenses are a catalyst for conversation either between groups of people, or in groups of people, or with yourself. I find that really fascinating. And the way that I imagine that would play out… I mean, I’ve used them myself, but not in a group setting. And in a group setting, I would imagine that you would want to be able to gravitate to the lens that is most appropriate to the issue under discussion, yeah?

Dan: Yeah. I mean I think so. The other thing that I’ve heard is that people will use it to highlight issues with the team that they feel like the team is not adequately paying attention to. So, I did try and include… you know, there’s a lens of ethics in there, and there’s a lens of who benefits. And these are difficult conversations for folks to have when they look at their structures of their designing and are really trying to ask themselves, am I really designing this for the users, the actual consumers of this content? Or am I designing this with some other bias in mind?

I’m working with an organization right now. I have the opportunity to provide some IA coaching which has really just been very gratifying for me, but it’s really interesting to see them struggle with getting out of their own heads, getting out of their own space, and design a structure that will be meaningful to the actual end-users — to use an antiquated term — of this system. And even just in our first few conversations, just by virtue of explaining the system to me, just that process of explaining it, they have been able to see their navigation in a new way and understand how they need to bring new perspectives to the table.

Jorge: So, it’s kind of a framework for the articulation of things that might otherwise go unspoken.

Dan: Yes. Well said.

IA Lenses video series

Jorge: That’s awesome. Well, speaking of making things spoken, let’s talk about the first video series and now podcast. You’ve interviewed different practitioners and released a video, one on each lens.

Dan: Yes.

Jorge: And, the range of practitioners is both wide and deep. And I’m hoping that you’ll tell us a bit more about the video series, how that came about. And more importantly, I’m curious to know how your understanding of the lenses themselves has perhaps shifted or evolved, after hearing them reflected from other people.

Dan: Oh, yeah. I wish I had a better origin story for the video series. I was wrapping up a project in the late spring and I saw in front of me that I would have a gap in time. I just, I didn’t have a project to fill it, and I was thinking, “that’s fine. I’ve just rolled off this really big project.”

I have a business partner at EightShapes, Nathan, and he and I frequently give each other permission to take some time to think about our practice or think about our portion of the business or what have you. He was very encouraging of me to not necessarily worry about filling my plate with billable work, but just think more deeply about…

At that moment, I was really interested in thinking more about IA and the IA practice, and the phrase “a lens a day,” popped into my head. And I pitched it to my colleagues at EightShapes and they asked me a lot of really, really, really good questions. And I’m a middle-aged man and did not heed any of their wisdom. And instead said, “you know, I’m just going to do this. I’m going to see what happens.” So I was about to go off on my summer vacation, and what I did was I kind of put together a pitch, an email that I sent to folks, and a Google Form… I think it was a Google Form or a Calendly or something, to sign up, and I had recorded a pilot episode.

So, the first episode I recorded with my old friend James Melzer, also at EightShapes. And the point was just to see like, could I get a 20-minute conversation out of a lens? And it was not really a good test because James and I can talk for 20 minutes about anything. But it was still enough for me to feel like this could be a thing. And then the Calendly signups started rolling in and I was like, “Oh, I think I need to do this now!”

And I would record sometimes ten episodes a week because they were quick little half-hour conversations. And I would change my shirt each time, to maintain the illusion that I was recording a lens a day. And then a couple of weeks after that, I just started posting them. And it was incredibly gratifying.

It was just fantastic to talk to so many different people. I mean, I got to talk to folks like you, Jorge. You know, old friends, people that we’ve known for a while that we don’t always get to dig in and talk shop. Like, really talk about the work that we do.

One of the last interviews I did was with Karen McGrane and that was just so great. You know, we’ve… again like two ships passing in the night, we’ve seen each other at conferences year after year. See each other on various Slack groups, but here to just sit down and talk about the work was awesome. But then I also contacted folks who I barely knew, and just had been following on Twitter, and seen Tweet about information architecture stuff. Folks who were relatively new to the field, and relative meaning three to four to five years into their career, as opposed to twenty-five years in.

And for me, it became an opportunity to do the thing that I get to do at the IA Conference, which is meet new people in a very controlled, safe environment. And have a very specific agenda for that conversation. And that was great. It was really… it was really great. You asked me if I now see these lenses in a new way, and I think it’s really hard for me to think about that at the individual lens level.

I do feel like a lot of my feelings about the world of information architecture were validated. And maybe that is not a good objective for a podcast, but maybe it’s what I need at this moment. But one of the things that people talked a lot about was curiosity and how that plays such an important role in their work and their process, in their identity as an information architect. And that was really gratifying to hear how important just questioning the world was to folks. But also finding joy in… which is what I take curiosity to be, is sort of finding joy in uncovering and learning.

Jorge: Finding joy in finding out.

Dan: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. So I’m not sure I can point to any specific lens on say, “Oh, I got a ton of new insights about this lens in particular.” What was cool was no one looked at a lens and was like, “I have nothing to say about this.” Or if they did, like a couple of people did say that, and then when we got into it and I had a million things to say about it. So, there was also some validation that these lenses as a framework were useful and provocative in the way that I had hoped they would be.

Jorge: Part of what I see as the value of the series is that it gives these lenses wider exposure. And I’m wondering what kind of reaction you’ve had from folks, perhaps folks who might not be as aware about information architecture. Have you heard about anyone who’s discovered this through the series?

Dan: No. That would be ideal, right? If I were to outline what my objectives were, And, I mean the dirty little secret is, the idea for “A Lens A Day” popped into my head, and then I backed into these objectives. And if you listen to the conversations, you’ll hear that the lens plays really just a… kind of a narrative role in sort of propelling the conversation. I don’t force anyone to talk about things that they don’t want to talk about — I hope! And I don’t sort of force us to come back to the lens if, you know, the conversation goes in a different way. It’s really just an excuse. It was literally just an excuse to talk to fifty-one different people and maybe dig a little deeper on information architecture.

So, that was my goal was to talk to as many folks as I could, and maybe create some momentum around deep thinking around information architecture. I don’t know if I was successful in that goal. There’s interest. People are subscribing. People are listening. I get some nice comments and feedback on it.

At the end of the day, it was maybe as much for the interview subjects as it was for the listeners, right? It was as much for them to give them a place to talk about the work that they do. I’m happy to use whatever cache and platform I have to provide that. That is important to me, to lift up other voices.

One of the things that occurred to me way after the fact was that this is a snapshot. It’s almost a time capsule of where the state of information architecture is in 2021. And I understood the… or I imbued — I don’t know if I understood, but I certainly imbued the work and the series with a sense of importance, because I recognized that even if it doesn’t create any momentum, what it is doing is capturing where we are right now with the practice of information architecture. And to me, in some ways that was almost more important or at least equally important to thinking of this as a vehicle for promoting IA or promoting myself or promoting the lenses.

Jorge: Would you be willing to share with us your impressions of what that snapshot looks like?

Dan: Yeah, and I do want to do a deep dive and look through things. I did try and capture some themes as I was recording the interviews. So, as I said, curiosity is one of the big ones. I think there are two things that stand out to me and that is — and again, the sample that I was working with was you could say biased because it was just people who said yes to some random guy emailing them — but two things stand out to me, one very positive and one very concerning.

The positive one is that people see this work is highly collaborative. I think I was forged in the fires of being a sole practitioner of IA. And one of the things that was very clear when I first moved to Washington and started practicing IA here is how desperate we all were for collaborators. And what I’m hearing today is that is largely changed. I would ask people like… I did ask people about their collaboration practices, right? So I was sort of biasing the conversation in that direction and then about halfway through, I was like, “okay, well, let me change up my first question.” and let me… instead of asking about how do you draw people into the process? Let me ask, “What does it look like when you’re just sitting in thinking deeply about IA?” And this is not a knock on my guests, but none of them could answer that question because they would all say, “Well, I’ll usually go and talk to someone.”

And I’m thinking to myself, that is literally not what I’m asking, but it is very telling, right? That when they’re doing IA work, their instinct is to draw other people into that process. Even though I can say for certain that a lot of… you know, that there’s still a good portion of my IA process that involves just sitting and staring at a spreadsheet and building connections in my head. So, that was one thing that I really appreciated: that there’s an acknowledgment that this is complicated work and that it needs to be collaborative.

I think the other thing that occurred to me is that the fears that I have about the lack of emphasis or the lack of resources that are being given to IA are still very much true. I interviewed very few people who called themselves an information architect; they were either UX practitioners who did IA, or they were content strategists. Which was by design, right? I wanted a wide swath, but it became very clear to me that IA is still something that a few people do and draw other people into that process, but there’s not as much dedication to it in the organizations that probably really need it.

when I’ve come to realize… actually, maybe this is one of the things that I realized through this interview series, is that information architecture is yes, in part, interrogating your structures, answering these kinds of questions. But sometimes the answers are framed in terms of trade-offs, and that by doing one thing in the navigation, we’re not doing another thing, right? Or creating content types in one… you know, following one scheme, are deliberately choosing not to do it in another way.

And so my next project, the next tool that I’m thinking about for information architects, is understanding what those trade-offs are. And I mean, like everything in my life, I’m conceiving of it as a deck of cards where, you can sort of make provocative choices of, you know, if you’re thinking about how to structure the items in your menu, one choice that you can make is that all the items have the same weight and another choice that you can make is that some items are weighted more heavily in that menu right? That’s a trade-off that you would make.

And so, I’m really, really curious about identifying the range of tradeoffs that we make when we’re designing a structure. So, that’s one direction that I think this has provoked me to go in, and another direction that it’s provoked me to go and hopefully I can do this — find the stamina to do this — is to keep up the series and keep interviewing people. It will not necessarily focus on specific lenses, because I think I’ve done that. But I do like the idea of having people help us understand the lens through which they see the practice of information architecture. So I will… my intent is to pick up on that theme and keep going with it, but using the lens metaphor to turn our attention to the practice of IA itself.


Jorge: I’m sure that folks are going to want to find out more and keep up with all the work that you’re doing. Where can folks follow up with you?

Dan: For better, for worse, I’m still enmeshed in Twitter. And so I think my handle on Twitter is @brownorama and I tweet a lot of work-related stuff, but also hobby-related stuff. The IA Lenses have their own Twitter account. It’s @IAlenses. And that may be better if you just want pure IA content in your timeline. Yeah. And EightShapes has a YouTube channel. I don’t know how to tell you where to find it, but EightShapes… you can see the interviews on EightShapes’ YouTube channel, or you can look @IAlenses’ Twitter to see links to the podcasts as well.

Jorge: And I will include links to all of those, including the YouTube channel, in the notes.

Dan: Thanks.

Jorge: Well, fantastic. Dan, it’s been such a pleasure having you here. Thank you for sharing with us.

Dan: Jorge, I love chatting with you. I just wish we could find more excuses to do this throughout the year.

Jorge: Well, let’s do that. Let’s make sure to do it again.

Dan: Cool.