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Daniel Stillman on Conversation Design

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

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

Show notes

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

Transcript

Jorge: Daniel, welcome to the show.

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

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

Daniel: And this is information.

Jorge: It is information! So welcome.

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

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

Daniel: Fair.

Jorge: So I have a question for you.

Daniel: Okay.

Jorge: What’s lighting you up these days?

What’s lighting up Daniel

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

Jorge: Well, that’s fantastic…

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

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

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

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

Daniel: It’s very meta.

Jorge: That’s why it is meta, right?

Daniel: Yeah. Conversating about conversations.

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

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

About conversation

Jorge: So, what is a conversation?

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

Jorge: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Jorge: Cultural differences.

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

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

Daniel: I love it.

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

Daniel: Yeah!

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

Daniel: Yeah.

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

Daniel: Yes.

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

Daniel: Yes.

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

The conversation operating system

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

Jorge: I do know Carl.

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

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

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

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

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

Jorge: It’s like the list of participants.

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

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

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

The nine elements of conversation design

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

Daniel: Yeah.

Jorge: And each one contains one of these elements.

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

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

Daniel: Yes.

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

Daniel: But it is for you.

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

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

Daniel: Yeah, totally.

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

The story of a conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Factors for better conversational outcomes

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

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

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

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

Jorge: Specific feedback.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jorge: For the record, no.

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

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

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

Jorge: Right.

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

Jorge: To evoke some kind of childhood memory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel: Yes, if we’re lucky.

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

The human dynamic of conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel: Yes.

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

Daniel: Yes.

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

Daniel: We covered everything!

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

Conversational awareness

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

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

Daniel: Yeah!

Jorge: As a way to talk about it…

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel: Me too! Time goes fast.

Jorge: Yes. But, alas, we have to…

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

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

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

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

Closing

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

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

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

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

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

Jorge: Absolutely.

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

Jorge: Yep.

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

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

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

Categories
Episodes

Mike Rohde on Sketchnote Thinking

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

Show notes

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

Transcript

Jorge: Mike, welcome to the show.

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

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

About Mike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike: Yeah.

Craft in transitional spaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sketchnoting as a team sport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike’s bullet journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It doesn’t have to be beautiful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing what you (and others) mean

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

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

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

Not everything is a nail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Restore”

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

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

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

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

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

Closing

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

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

Mike: Yes, exactly.

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

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

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

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Episodes

Dorian Taylor on Christopher Alexander

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

Show notes

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

Transcript

Jorge: Dorian, welcome to the show.

Dorian: Nice to be here, Jorge.

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

About Dorian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dorian: Definitely.

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

A Pattern Language

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

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

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

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

Dorian: Towns, Buildings, Construction, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Wholeness

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

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

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

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

Dorian: yeah.

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

A framework for the emergence of order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contextual architecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dorian: Yeah, exactly.

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

Software replacement culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Episodes

Laura Yarrow on Trusted Agitators

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

Show notes

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

Transcript

Jorge: Laura, welcome to the show.

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

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

About Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People, Place and Space

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

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

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

Laura’s Twitter thread

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

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

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

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

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

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

Designers as change agents

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

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

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

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

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

Bad agitators

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura: Yeah.

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

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

Jorge: Oh, right!

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

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

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

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

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

Laura: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming a trusted agitator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confidence

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

Laura: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura: I knew you’d like that one.

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

Laura: Definitely.

Closing

Jorge: Where can folks follow up with you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Episodes

Oliver Caviglioli on Graphic Organizers

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

Show notes

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

Transcript

Jorge: Oliver, welcome to the show.

Oliver: Hello! Delighted to be here.

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

About Oliver

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

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

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

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

Jorge: They being the teachers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking in metaphors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making and sharing models

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

Oliver: Exactly so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oliver: Yes.

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

Alleviating cognitive load

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drawing for learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oliver: Absolutely so.

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

Leveraging the Goldilocks effect

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

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

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

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

The four structures underlying knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing

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

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

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

Oliver: Thank you very much.

Jorge: Thank you, Oliver.

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Episodes

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 informationdesign.org 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.

Closing

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 about.me 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.

Categories
Episodes

Boon Yew Chew on Roam

Boon Yew Chew is a strategic designer at Elsevier and a leader in IxDA, the Interaction Design Association. In this conversation, we delve into Roam Research, which Boon uses to take notes and tame “an ever-evolving multi-dimensional beast of knowledge.”

If you’re enjoying the show, please rate or review it in Apple’s Podcasts directory: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-informed-life/id1450117117?itsct=podcast_box&itscg=30200

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: Boon, welcome to the show.

Boon: Hi. Thanks for having me, Jorge.

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

About Boon

Boon: Sure. So, I’m a principal-level strategist and designer. I currently work at a publishing and analytics company called Elsevier. And I work within the publishing part of the business where I try to help my colleagues and the company at large figure out how to improve our user experience across all our different platforms and products and services.

I’m also a part of a community of designers called the Interaction Design Association, or IxDA for short. Through that I’ve played a number of different roles: I’ve served on the board for a number of years, I’ve volunteered through a number of initiatives, but mostly I’ve been running our local chapter in London, IxDA London, for many, many years along with a number of really dedicated volunteers. There’s a small group of us. And we typically host events around topics of strategy and design here in London. But now I guess it’s all global because, you know, everyone’s kind of joined us from different parts of the world since we’ve gone fully remote.

Jorge: Well thank you for your work, particularly in IXDA. As a member myself and having participated in Interaction, The Global Conference, it’s an amazing community. And if anyone is a designer and not a member or unaware of both the organization and the events it puts on, I strongly encourage that you all check it out.

But the reason I reached out to you is not directly related to the work that we share in common in interaction design, but because you published a post in Medium called “Adding Life Back To My Notes: Roam After 4 Months.” And I was hoping that you would tell us a bit more about that. And for a bit of context, Roam in the title refers to the note-taking tool, Roam, right?

Roam Research

Boon: Yeah. So, for the listeners here if you want to check it out, it’s roamresearch.com because the word Roam on Google might not… might get you a whole bunch of different things. So, to find it you need to use the full term. It’s called Roam Research. That’s the name of the tool. So, yeah. I mean, a lot of people have been talking about Roam for a while now, since its beginnings. I can’t even remember when they launched the tool.

And it’s surprising because, since its inception, it hasn’t really changed much in terms of its core functionality and its look and feel. It’s added a whole bunch of… I suppose, creature comforts? You know, luxury features that make it a lot more smooth, a lot more accessible as a core user. Things like the help tool, tips, things like that, you know? Just to kind of make it easier for you to go, “oh yeah, I have access to that tool. I have access to that top key” or what, you know, “what if I want to use that fancy feature, what do I do?” You know, it built-in little things like that to kind of maximize the benefits of what it offers.

And I suppose I think of it almost like Unix commands. I used to be a former developer, and if you’re a developer and you’re working away on your little console, you’re basically typing up commands, right? Issuing commands right into the computer, as opposed to using a graphical interface. A lot of these tools, these commands, were written by somebody else. They were written by other developers to do specific things. You know, where there’s concatenate strings, or go fetch this to the files.

It’s very similar to that in that, you know, you got a whole bunch of little functionality built into the tool, but what it does really well is kind of… it doesn’t force you to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of that functionality. It hides it quite nicely, through the use of keystroke commands or little kind of text-based features that can be accessed if you understand what the keys are, what the commands are. It almost feels very developer-friendly, so it lends itself to someone who loves to just be stuck to the keyboard all the time and everything is at the tip of your fingers.

It’s also an outlining tool. And so it’s not the first outlining tool that’s occurred in the market. There have been a number of really fantastic outlining tools that’ve been around for a while and have had huge numbers of users and fans using them. Things like OmniOutliner, which is a really fantastic one. I’m not a user of it, but I know that it’s a really popular tool. And basically, an outliner is a supercharged bullet list. Everything is structured as bullets. Every sentence, when you hit enter becomes a bullet, and then if you hit tab, it becomes a sub-bullet.

You know, it’s literally just bullets everywhere. If you don’t like using bullets, you won’t like using Roam. But the benefit of having everything structured in bullets is that there’s an implicit hierarchy, right? And so, you know whether something exists on one level or a sub-level or a sub, sub level… things have a natural kind of a Petrushka-doll hierarchy to them and it incentivizes you to organize your content that way. To think in terms of the hierarchy that’s structured.

There are, of course, limitations to this way of working, this way or kind of an outlining way of working, because there’s an overwhelming amount of hierarchy and lots of scrolling through lots and lots of bullets. And so, what Roam tries to do is to build in this feature it’s called bi-directional linking, to make it possible for you to connect things to each other, whether it’s words or terms or phrases just by making them into a link. And the moment you make it into a link, it creates a page for that term that you’ve just created into a link. It creates a page for it if it hasn’t already been created for you. And if it’s already been created for you, then it’s just the link. And the way it does that is that it creates the page and it also creates a link back to the original link that you created.

And so, it does a number of these small little things, which seems really insignificant, but when you add it up to, you know, hundreds and thousands of notes, it’s quite powerful because you don’t have to manually link every single thing. Imagine trying to recreate the entire Wikipedia. It’s just going to be insane! So, you know, this cuts down the amount of effort very severely.

Jorge: I’m glad you brought up Wikipedia there because when you were describing it, I was thinking that it’s something of a cross between an outliner like you said, and a wiki, right? In this sense that you… you alluded to the fact that you can very easily create inline links that generate new outline nodes somehow. And I’ll also say that, for an episode-long explanation of Roam research, we had Rob Haisfield on the show in Episode 43 talking about it. And since we recorded that, I’ve become a Roam user myself, so I’m a little more versed in how it works.

Note thinking

Jorge: I wanted to quote back to you a couple of passages from the Medium post that stood out to me. You said that, and I’m quoting here, “I use Roam for what it’s good at: note thinking.” And I’m curious about this phrase, “note thinking.” What is note thinking?

Boon: So, remember what I mentioned earlier before where this kind of tool Roam and outliners lend itself really well for people who really get… like to stick to their keyboards. And that process means that you don’t have to worry too much about the tool… what you need to do to the tool, because you’re already familiar with using the keyboard. All you have to just be comfortable with are the commands to make use of the tool itself.

And so, there’s some memorization to familiarize yourself with, but basically, you’re just typing. And it just kind of lets you sink into that Zen space a little bit easier. And once you get used to that… actually you get to a point where you then consider or maybe reconsider what can I use this tool for? What are its strengths, right?

It advertises itself as a… what does it?… I have to go to the website to see it… a note-taking tool for connected thought, or something like that. And so, working backward from the original intent of the tool… I mean, it has been designed that way. I say, there must be some basic assumptions on how the founders or the people who create the tool, have intended for it to be used. And originally, when I started using Roam, I started using it very much at how I use Evernote at the moment. Which, you know, there are folders and categories and notebooks and things are in boxes, which are then in more boxes, and I actually tried using Roam like that.

I tried to create my own pages, which were like boxes, and put boxes in the boxes. And it was very natural for me to say, “let me try bringing over that setup to Roam!” And it didn’t work. It just… it just made it more complicated. And I said, there’s this thing in front of me, it’s called a daily page, a daily note page. It’s in front of me and I’m like, it must be telling me I need to just use this and not worry too much about what is all the rest of the stuff? There are no folders. There are no categories, no tags… You know, it’s literally like these things kept staring at me. And that’s where you put your notes into; it’s on this daily note page.

And gradually I found myself falling into that way of working, and I almost exclusively now capture all my notes on a daily note page. And the process of that doing is basically cutting away a lot of the extraneous stuff so that I can literally just focus on capturing notes. That’s kind of part of the note thinking thing I’m talking about. The outlining also helps because it gives me something very basic to work with. And I don’t have to think about the underlying structure that I need to set up. It’s automatic by default. It’s a hierarchy, basically. If I can’t work with a hierarchy, I have bi-directional links.

And so, between these three things, the daily notes, the outlining, and the hierarchies and the bi-directional linking, which then incentivizes certain type of information curation, which all just terms anyway. You’re reusing your own content as information notes, right? You’re not having to create a separate node and call it something… a formal thing, like a category label. You use your content as nodes. I guess I’m using a network metaphor here, nodes and links, right? Your notes are nodes in a network and that cuts away a lot of the extra stuff. And you’re just focusing on creating notes essentially.

Jorge: So I’m hearing two things there that go into this notion of “note thinking.” One is the lower friction, or perhaps the ability to get into a state… kind of like a state of flow, due to the fact these keyboard-driven commands that you can just start typing in and there’s… I’m reading now into it. You don’t have to be clicking around and pecking at a UI somehow. It’s like you’re thinking with your fingers somehow. And, the other aspect to this that I’m hearing you say there is that you are somehow liberated from the top-down hierarchical structure that is inherent in many… let’s call them traditional note-taking apps, which themselves are modeled on things like three-ring binders with their sections, right?

Boon: Metaphors, yeah. They’re like metaphors from the real world, I think. And they’ve been ported over to the digital space. Folders and categories are things that are instantly familiar to a lot of people. And so, they become a lot more accessible for most people. And I think that’s kind of the allure of these tools… that they become kind of a more general audience if that makes sense.

Whereas a tool like Roam has none of that. It is quite a flat tool. And you mentioned that word top-down, I’m not quite sure whether I would find a tool like Evernote, a top-down tool. I would say that it’s a tool with furniture in it, you know? You go into a room or a house, it’s got furniture in it. It affords certain use cases because these objects are familiar to you. A folder, a category, a tag, you know, these are familiar terms brought from the real world into the digital world. And so, people go, “oh, okay. I can kind of use it like that.”

I think it’s only when you start to struggle with scale and certain types of very advanced use cases in the software and digital space where information is so… I don’t know, it’s loose. It’s messy. It’s emergent. It’s kind of, you know, it’s all of that, right? Where they’re not objects, they’re not physical, tangible things. You can put them into real boxes or real folders. They’re just abstract constructs. You make it up. Somebody invented these things and they exist on this screen, you know? And people just decided to call them folders and then suddenly people think they’re folders. “Oh no, it’s not really a folder!”

Jorge: I used OneNote for a long time and OneNote doesn’t use the concept of folders, but it uses a concept of notebooks that have sections in them, kind of like in a binder. But it’s the same idea. And I love this idea of these things being a tool with furniture in them. Things that we find familiar, like familiar affordances from the real world. And I’m guessing that that is in contrast with something like Roam which in many ways, kind of lacks that kind of furniture. So, maybe it’s a little harder for folks to get into. But to your point, it gives you the ability to work on different types of problems.

“An ever-evolving multi-dimensional beast of knowledge”

Jorge: And here I’m going to quote again something from the Medium post that stood out to me. You said, ‘”forcing structure down an ever-evolving multi-dimensional beast of knowledge to make sense of it, is an act of futility.” And this notion of an ever-evolving multi-dimensional beast of knowledge seems to me to be a different type of problem than the sort of notes that somebody would take casually with a tool like Evernote or OneNote. Could you speak more to what that beast looks like, at least for you?

Boon: Yeah. So, I think that that beast actually resonates a lot more with the thing you said about top-down. That knowledge has a certain structure, a preconceived shape. Because people talk about it, they reference it. They say, “it’s this, it’s that — it has a definition.” And so, there’s a kind of formality associated with that knowledge where I suppose people will start with if they ever need to think about a piece of knowledge or a topic, or what have you. I suppose if you really wanted to go deeper and enter the scholarly world there are, you know, tons of scholars building up bodies and bodies upon bodies of knowledge, which also form a kind of top-down type of structure, almost telling people, “this is what it is.” Right? There’s no argument about it.

Maybe it’s not quite to that extent, but there’s a kind of “known known” about knowledge. I can’t remember where I’ve heard it, but I’ve heard it multiple times and I’ve definitely heard it from the information architecture community, this thing where information doesn’t exist on things, they exist in people’s heads. And knowledge comes from that. It comes from people’s heads. And so, if it comes from people’s heads and people’s heads are always thinking about things in different ways all the time, then it can’t be that top-down hierarchy all the time. It has to live in this space where it’s always changing depending on the context or the situation or the perspective or whatever it is, right?

That’s what I mean by the beast. It’s always dynamic in people’s minds and that’s actually what happens when you’re writing notes. You know, you’ve got all these thoughts that are flying in your head because of the way our brains work. There are associative, and then there are all kinds of signals and materials that are in front of you. And either you are thinking about or whatever. It’s recent or they’re serendipitous. They come from all sorts of places. It’s hard to control that. And I think that’s what the beast is; there’s this sense that it exists on its own and you can’t really control it, even though it’s a part of you.

Finding associations

Jorge: The distinction that comes to my mind is between something like a linear stream of thought where one idea leads logically to the next, and there’s a clear, sequential connection between them, and something more perhaps freeform, where a thought might spawn several other possible lines of thinking. And there is no particular shape upfront. I think the phrase you used is, “preconceived shape” when talking about top-down knowledge versus something that sounds more like emergent knowledge, as you start making sense of a problem domain, by discovering connections that perhaps may not have been obvious in the get-go. Is that a fair take?

Boon: Yeah, there’s the stuff that you capture and that has a structure because you’ve chosen to capture it in a certain way. And actually, that structure itself doesn’t really matter. Or you can decide to capture it however way you want, but I think that what Roam allows you to do really well is find the associations quite easily. And regardless of how you have chosen to document your content based on the structure that you’ve used, right? Whether it’s kind of… so I’ll give you an example, right? Recently over the few months that I’ve been using Roam, I’ve developed a certain habit of capturing notes a certain way.

I come across a lot of different things. They are websites or articles, quotes, videos, podcasts. And so whenever I come across a thing like that, I will just literally go… you know, I’ll type out article double colon, which turns into an attribute — it’s a Roam feature. And I’ll type out the title of that thing, whether it’s a podcast or an article. And then I’ll literally write out a whole bunch of supplementary stuff, like referential stuff. Like, “podcast something, something, something, Jorge Arango, you know, This Informed Life,” and then I will not start to create a sub-bullet just yet. I’ll literally continue writing and then copy and paste the URL there.

Just because I want to contain that whole thing in that block. That’s a Roam… every bullet is a block in Roam. They call it a block. And the reason why they call it a block is that there’s a lot of really cool features they build into what that bullet does. So it’s not just a bullet and a bunch of text. It actually does a lot of cool little things. So that’s the reason why they’ve called it a block. But what that allows me to do is number one? It helps me worry less about the structure of it.

Because what Roam allows you to do is allow you to search for blocks and pages. And when it returns a result, it returns a result of pages and blocks. And when you scroll down a list of blocks, the search results give you a list of the visibility of the parents of the block. So, you know what it’s being referenced from, and an easy way to kind of open up the substructure of that block, if there are more sub-bullets and more sub-blocks, which then makes it easy for you to kind of move from one part of your notes to another part in your notes, just for a simple search result. That means you don’t have to worry too much about how you structure your notes. And in this case, it has incentivized me to kind of create these sort of single-line references that if I wanted to, I could add a sub-bullet and say, “actually, I want to write a note underneath this one podcast because I thought it was really interesting.”

You know, Kourosh Dini, who was talking about DevonThink, I wanted to write a few notes on that. Oh, you referenced a bunch of tools. I’ll add that underneath the bullet. You know, I might do that, and sometimes I might do it in a way that’s inconsistent with the way I capture other notes. But I prefer working like that because then I don’t have to worry too much about the structure because I can’t memorize too many things.

Changes to workflow

Jorge: You published this in April of 2021 and in the title of the post, you mentioned that you had been using Roam at that point for four months. We’re recording this at the end of November. So, I’m guessing by that timeline that you’re coming up on a year of working this way, or so. And I’m wondering how this way of working if any, has changed how you approach your work and take notes in general?

Boon: I have some real-life examples or case studies, little stories that I’ve… I should write it down. But, they’ve just happened in the last week or so where people have asked me permission, “Hey, can I share the notes that you captured during that meeting? It contained a whole bunch of really good material that we were discussing on that call. I want to share it with the stakeholders,” right? Over the years, I’ve developed the skill of being able to capture notes live, in a session, through another hobby or activity that I do, which is sketchnoting. And sketch noting for me is the art of capturing notes in real-time. Fundamentally to me, that’s the core skill that I’ve gained from that habit.

And I’ve applied that… a lot of the kind of real-time capturing, paying attention, and synthesis of notes in real-time to Roam as well. And I think it’s a natural tool for people who capture notes live because it gives you the basic components to capture just enough of the right information and not have it too messy, but not worry too much about some of the extra stuff like formatting, which tends to eat into your time when you’re time-pressed on a Zoom call and you’ve got tall stakeholders all talking to each other! Yeah, so I’ve been capturing a lot of meeting notes, all exclusively using Roam. Anyone and everyone, and I’ll have a tag for “meeting” basically, and if I wanted to, I could look for a meeting very quickly.

And that’s changed, I think a lot of the ways we have worked, it’s not just me, but we across the business have been working because we have an information challenge. I work with stakeholders who work across multiple departments in the business. And each unit has certain ownership over certain platforms, and they all run various projects within their own domains. There’s a lot of cross-functional collaboration. And so the information that I capture on these meeting notes and beyond is really, really important because I will never know, like when a piece of information will start to surface again, and I also need a way to find it really quickly just through an associative search. This person said this. When? About this project, you know? Or something associated with it. Is it somebody that they’d been working with? You know, it’s something associative that I’ll try to capture in my notes so that when I refer back to it, it’s easy for me to find. And Roam’s search capability is pretty fast. It’s able to kind of fetch back a huge volume of these notes. So it kind of lends itself to those use cases.

Closing

Jorge: I want to encourage you to write them up and publish them because I do think that it would be valuable for folks to see how other people are using this stuff. If, and when you do, where is the best place for folks to find that? Like, where can folks follow up with you?

Boon: I usually interact with people on LinkedIn. It’s a bit old school, but it’s linked to my professional profile and I’m relatively active there. I used to use Twitter a lot, but I don’t use Twitter so much now but if you want to, you can find me. Search for @BoonYCH. So it’s basically my name with the letters, Y C H behind. That’s my Twitter call sign. Or you can search for me on LinkedIn. Use my full name Boon Yew Chew. Or I run monthly events through IXDA London. We have a meetup page, meetup.com/ixda-london. And yeah! If you join our events, just ping me and say, “Hey, you know, I came across the podcast you did with it Jorge.” yeah, we’re a pretty informal and friendly group. It’s always up for meeting new people. And obviously, I try to publish on Medium. I don’t… I’m not as good at getting a large amount of stuff up there, but I’m trying to build up that habit.

Jorge: Well, fantastic. I’m going to include links to all of those in the show notes. And I look forward to hearing more from you and how it’s going, you know, with using these tools to tame the beast. Thank you so much Boon for being on the show with us.

Boon: Thanks, Jorge. Pleasure!

Categories
Episodes

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?

Responsibility

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.

Closing

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 understandinggroup.com/basic, 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.

Categories
Episodes

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.

Closing

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.

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Nathan Shedroff on Foodicons

Nathan Shedroff is an entrepreneur, author, speaker, and a colleague at the California College of the Arts, where we both teach in the graduate interaction design program. Nathan has worked for a long time on driving innovation and sustainability through design. This conversation focuses on his latest project: Foodicons, which is creating a shared, open-source, and royalty-free iconographic language of food.