Sam Ladner on Managing Research Knowledge

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

Show notes

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


Jorge: Sam, welcome to the show.

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

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

About Sam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jorge: So, spotting patterns over time?

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

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

Sam: Correct.

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

Mixed Methods and Practical Ethnography

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

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

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

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

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

Sam: Oh!

Jorge: How do those relate?

About ethnography

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

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

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

Productivity and the nature of work

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

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

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

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

Sam: My own?

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

The transom from data to insights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting with a goal in mind

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

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

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

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

Sam: The Knowlege. Yes!

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

Tagging across platforms

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

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

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

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

Pruning your taxonomies

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

Sam: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam: Satisficing, yes!

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

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

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

Thick description

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam: Exactly so, yes.


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

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

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

Sam: Sounds good.

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

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

Jorge: It’s scheduled for 2023.

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

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

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

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

Sam: My pleasure.


Veronica Erb on Annotating Books

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

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

Show notes

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


Jorge: Veronica, welcome to the show.

Veronica: Thank you so much.

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

About Veronica

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

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

Learning through narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critical thinking

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

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

Jorge: I did not know the phrase until now.

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

Jorge: Ooh!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veronica: Right.

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

Annotating books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading and marking

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

Jorge: No, I have not.

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

Jorge: Ooh, that sounds interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

Veronica: It sounds a little ludicrous, but…

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

Veronica: Yeah, exactly.

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

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

Jorge: Yeah.

Veronica’s newsletter creation process

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jorge: This is in OneNote?

Veronica: Yup.

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

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

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

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

Annotating ebooks

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

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

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

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

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

Veronica: No.

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

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

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

Veronica: Yeah.

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

What should you read next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jorge: Right.

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

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

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

Centaur note-taking

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

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

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

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

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

Veronica: It sounds familiar; tell me more.

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

Veronica: People were weirded out.

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

Veronica: Oh.

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


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

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

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

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


Indi Young on Time to Listen

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

Show notes

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


Jorge: Indi, welcome to the show.

Indi: Thank you so much, Jorge.

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

About Indi

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Layers of the jawbreaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awareness and focus

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

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

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

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

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

Creating a listening situation

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

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

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

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

Making time for listening

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

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

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

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

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

Jorge: Ask the question about the doctor?

Indi: Yeah. What were you after there?

What is this for?

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

Indi: Yes.

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

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

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

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


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

Indi: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Indi: You’re welcome. Thank you.


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