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Rhythm method

Life runs on a pulse:
without that basic rhythm, you’re dead. 

What’s more, that sense of a beat measuring out time is intrinsic to almost everything we do, be it conversations, living our lives or learning how to use software.

A story that illustrates the point…

A few years ago, while studying the way teachers teach Japanese in a classroom, I spent a lot of time watching videos of language classes. If you’ve ever spent time learning another language, you know what it’s like—lots of drilling and practice speaking. It’s an essential part of class; you need to get good at hearing and saying different word forms and that requires a great deal of back and forth between teacher and students.

But as I spent hours doing video analysis of the classes, I ended up doing a lot of rewinding and fast-forwarding. As you’d expect, I watched a lot of Japanese classes go by on the video monitor in 2X or 3X real time. And I noticed that when you watch these classes fly by on video, there’s an amazingly regular pulse to the class. The teacher prompts, the students reply… the teacher prompts, the students reply… on and on.

Curious about this unexpectedly regular pulse in the class, I actually went through one of the classes and noted each prompt and each response, wrote down the timecode, then plotted them out as a graph. To my amazement, the back-and-forth of the interactions was incredibly regular – each event showed up as a regularly spaced dot on my chart.

I’d found that there is a rhythm to a language class, a regular beat to the back-and-forth that makes the class work. I quickly noticed in the analysis that anytime the pulse was disrupted by more than a second or two, that was when something had broken down in the class—a student couldn’t answer a question, or when the teacher moved onto another segment of the class.

Unfortunately, looking for rhythmic structure in the classroom wasn’t the topic of that research study, so I filed this under “interesting stuff to think about in the future” and pressed on with my work.

But what I found completely fascinating was the incredible regularity and structure of the interactions. Was this true of other kinds of interaction settings as well?

Years later I found Edward T. Hall’s book, Dance of Life, that pretty much confirms that observation I’d made. Hall’s an anthropologist who’s made a career out of watching how people interaction in time and space. In this book he shows how people not only interlock the rhythms of conversation, but also how they move closer and farther apart, effectively dancing in their day-to-day interactions. 

More recently, I’ve been looking at the rhythms of people doing search queries. Lo and behold, a similar pattern stands out… If you watch someone’s timing of searches, you can see striking patterns of when they post a query, how long they go between queries and how each day is similar to other days.

Although it doesn’t always feel that way, people are amazingly rhythmic in their behaviors, up to and including their use of software. This is a point beautifully noted by Bo Begole, John Tang and Roscoe Hill in their paper Rhythm modeling, visualizations and applications.

What does this have to do with Creating Passionate Users? It prompts me to ask you, dear readers, a question. What rhythmic patterns do you see in the course of your work?  Do passionate users have a rhythm that works well, signaling happy use? I’m interested in hearing your notes on the time course of events. Do you find people using software in an interesting repeating pattern? Just using something everyday is dull, but perhaps you see other pulses, rhythms and beats that go beyond the ordinary. What about it?  Is rhythm a good thing, or the sign that things have become mechanical? Is rhythm a part of a flow experience, or its nemesis?






Posted by Dan Russell on November 24, 2006 | Permalink


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I am thinking of sea shanties that sailors on sailing ships used to give a rhythm to their efforts. I suspect that a sense of flow has to do with a rhythm of how we think and act when all are in harmony we can achieve wonderous things. Dissonant noises like the phone take me out of "flow" and it takes 15-20 minutes to return to that state. Music helps by setting a tick-tock to our efforts and if our metronome is in harmony the flow returns.....oh by the way the link didn't work.. I used Google and went to

Posted by: JIm Rait | Nov 24, 2006 11:48:27 AM

Fixed the URL. Thanks.

Posted by: Dan Russell | Nov 24, 2006 12:00:56 PM

Intriguing post, Kathy. Makes me wonder, too, about rhythms in our decisions and decision processes. Do we have our own version of a biological rhythm for the decisions we make, and where do automatic behaviors fall into that spectrum? Or in learning new behaviors? I see a lot of people that see the wisdom in some new direction, but are challenged to actually carry through with adopting it.

Thanks for the brain teaser of the weekend!


Posted by: John Windsor | Nov 24, 2006 12:01:34 PM

Sorry, Dan . . . I was so caught up in your ideas that I jumped right over the "posted by" tag. Great piece! JW

Posted by: john Windsor | Nov 24, 2006 12:05:06 PM

There's lots of rhythm in my day: Open files for edit, wait 10 minutes, do something, update changelist, wait 10 minutes, submit, wait 10 minutes.

Perforce can get so slow.

Posted by: Ryan Fox | Nov 24, 2006 12:07:04 PM

I think it is also interesting to consider the challenge of breaking a rhythm. I wonder if that is part of what makes new software or upgrades especially alarming to users. They DO have a rhythm to their work - and here are the software creators of the world messing with something so primal and basic to the way their day flows.

There are also rhythms of communication that are different in the computer world. I remember the first time I spoke on the phone to a friend I had met only online (and only via email - no IM back then). It was so awkward trying to have that first conversation. We were both used to the rhythm of "I write 3 paragraphs" and then "I read 3 paragraphs". Yet another reason perhaps that IM makes those unfamiliar with it nervous - here is a new and different rhythm to talking with someone. New rules that are not clear make people nervous.

Posted by: Jeanne | Nov 24, 2006 1:08:50 PM

There's a rhythm that I've noticed that relates to the post "Don't wait for the muse" from a few days ago. When you're doing creative work (in the broadest sense), you've got to get a handle on how long you can go on creating before you have to step back and refill the well. Personally, I've noticed both a daily rhythm and a weekly one. I'm sure that there's a monthly and yearly as well, but I've not charted it (yet).

I don't know if this is typical, but I'm much better at making sure that I follow the weekly rhythm than the daily one. It's easier to push off the need to refill for a short burst of time. I imagine that it's also much more deadly to ignore the longer-term needs than the shorter-term ones, although short-term needs have a way of building up into long-term if you don't watch out!

Posted by: Cyndi L | Nov 24, 2006 1:10:08 PM

You've hit on something here Kathy.
The word Flow suggests that rhythm is part of Flow.
But on second thoughts rhythm is the nemesis of Flow.

No wonder it's difficult and rare to get into a Flow state, because you have the different rhythms of everything else getting in the way.
Flow assumes that all the rhythms are lined up or have been silenced. How can you shut out every rhythm that's banging at the door, such as my regular desire for chocolate, my stomach, the urge to check email, let alone all the other more sensible rhythms!

I say damn you for your rhythms, which are stopping my Flow!

Posted by: Tony Goodson | Nov 24, 2006 2:53:31 PM

Another book that goes through this topic is "Inside intuition: what we know about non-verbal communication" by Flora Davis.
Anyway, rythm is neither a good or a bad thing, it's just a simpthom that things are going smoothly cause that's how everyone in this world works, from humans to flowers, all living beings.

Posted by: Beren | Nov 24, 2006 3:13:32 PM

I've noticed a few people have accidentally identified Dan as Kathy, and this isn't the first time. Might I recommend some type of avatar somewhere to visually identify the article? The small "Posted by" is too quickly skipped over by most of us.

Posted by: Michel Parisien | Nov 24, 2006 4:13:28 PM

I've often found in the past that when I've been doing some very repetitive task for an extended period of time (like folding letters, licking envelopes and applying stamps as a simple example) that you do get into a rythm. You peform exactly the same action in exactly the same way over and over and over...
Until something changes - and the bits of your body that have been happily doing the same thing in concert for the last hour suddenly forget what order they're meant to do things in.

I've always wondered about that. I've wondered whether it's just your brain going to sleep on the job. Or if it's your brain's way of injecting a little randomness into the procedure, just in case the new way that you do it turns out to be better.

It's also likely that everyone has at some point found that they perform some tasks on autopilot - I know that there are times when I've been trying to test and debug a project that I'll type in exactly the same set of commands perhaps 100 times. Ask me what they are, I have no idea.

To bring this back to passionate users...
I don't know whether it would be a good thing or a very bad thing, but what effect does forcing a break in a users rythm have? For example, if we need a break in a previously established (and engrained) pattern to force us to attempt a new, and potentially better, pattern - could it be a good thing if new versions of our product create that break?
Or is the highly automated 'autopilot' way of doing things actually central to the flow state, in which case it should be protected at all costs?

Posted by: omni | Nov 24, 2006 4:35:51 PM

I like what Jeanne said about software updates breaking your flow.

In reality, rhythm adds predictability, which reduces stress, because rhythm gives a person a measure of control. In a language class, a teacher will continue on a section until the class establishes a rhythm, because rhythm means that the students have taken ownership of their teachings.

A person, when faced with something new, goes from irregularity, because they don't know what to do, to regularity, which gives them comfort, to faster regularity, to keep themselves challenged. This applies to language classes, learning typing, and many video games, including tetris. Not being able to move forward in these phases at a comfortable pace frustrates a user. Too fast, and you're asking in their first class for the user to know 5000 words, or type at 60 wpm, or play at level 30 speeds. They'll just give up. Too slow, and the person will consider that perhaps they are wasting their time. Even physical activities go from "I can't" to "I can" to "I can better".

Simplicity implies less mental strain, which is comforting, and makes maintaining a rhythm easier. Most creative thinking is an attempt to take something complex and simplify it. A lot of brainstorming has gone into trying to find the fundamental formula for everything in physics, and string theory just doesn't feel right because of its complexity. They want a formula that could easily be taught to a child.

Thanks Dan for allowing me to think about this stuff. It is quite interesting :)

Posted by: Michel Parisien | Nov 24, 2006 5:08:51 PM

Interesting to read about rhythm. As a software developer/architect/project manager I have used this concept a lot over the past 5 years. To find a sense of rhythm in a group working to meet a distant goal a year or so away is one good way to ensure success. Rhythm itself creates microgoals for the team. A weekly deliverable from a project gives everyone a clear sense of progress and also communal satisfaction from the accomplishment. For managers it is a good way to keep track of the schedule. This way of working is essential in the "agile" methods but it can also be used in other method frameworks. We use it with great success in a RUP-regulated environment.

Posted by: Fredrik Rubensson | Nov 25, 2006 1:20:10 AM

The role rhythm has in learning and neurological development is an area that is starting to get some attention. Some studies have shown increases in academic performance in children who are taught rhythm.

If you are interested in this area of research have a look at Tick Tock Talk [ http://www.ticktockbraintalk.blogspot.com/ ] and IQs Corner [ http://www.intelligencetesting.blogspot.com/ ]. Both by the IQ expert Kevin McGrew.


Posted by: Chris Tregenza | Nov 25, 2006 3:07:34 AM

You might want to check out the book "The silent pulse" by George Leonhard (http://www.amazon.com/Silent-Pulse-George-Leonard/dp/142360122X ). It describes the rhythm that exists in each of us. First edition 1978.
:-) stw

Posted by: Stephan H. Wissel | Nov 26, 2006 9:03:34 AM

Great post, Dan.

I find myself altering my rhythms in a gradual and experimental way, a bit like composing, when I add new activities.

A common example of a (sort of) new daily rhythm is mating the scan of the river of news with the morning coffee. Although there are yet many people not hooked up with a feed reading system this way, I've never seen the feed offer made with mention of smooth incorporation into one's daily rhythm.

I also think that this is exactly the right context within which to talk about offering users choice. Useful and welcome choices are related to choosing our own time place and order of activity, rather than to the completely off base proliferation of unnecessary options (featuritis).


Posted by: VeraBass | Nov 26, 2006 1:15:35 PM

One thing to bear in mind is that the interaction between the teacher and class is between two human entities, one of whom is in control, so it is easy to fall into a rhythm. When working with a computer, generally you cannot have such a timed rhythm, only patterns, because only one of you is modulating him/herself. The computer will only do what it can when it can. For instance I'm writing this comment and testing a data process I ran last week at the same time. The rhythm of the switches back and forth at at the mercy of the computer, and how long it takes to process my queries (though there is a degree of human input in the form of how long it takes me to notice when it's done). There's little collaboration in building a rhythm.
The pattern probably runs throughout my day though, write code, submit job, switch to something else (reading stuff online) till it's done, check results, repeat.
When I get under pressure, the pattern changes slightly, instead of "disconnecting" while waiting for the job to finish, I move to a different machine and start working there too, or stare intently at the screen willing it to work faster/better.

Posted by: CodeMonkey | Nov 26, 2006 5:00:35 PM

One of the things I love about agile development practices is the regularity at different scales. From small to large:
* the red-green-refactor cycle of test-driven design
* stories moving from to-do to in-progress to done in an iteration
* the weekly cycle of iteration / planning game
* the cycle of regular releases

There's a nice chapter in the excellent "Practices of an Agile Developer" by Venkat Subramaniam Andy Hunt titled "Feel The rhythm" which included the lovely phrase:

"It’s easier to dance when you know when the next beat falls. "

For me anyway rhythm is definately a central part of a flow experience.

Posted by: Adrian Howard | Nov 27, 2006 3:17:05 AM

Lovely post, Kathy. I did a bunch of work on the Edward Hall idea in college -- we did ultra-slow-motion filming of people interacting (1000 frames/second), and it was amazing to watch. When people are "in sync" during a conversation, they really are in sync. Responses come on regular, even multiples of the first person's rhythm. When people are arguing or "missing," they are on off-beats.

I was watching a lot of Celtics basketball a few years later, in the prime Larry Bird years, and it occurred to me (without the film to back it up) that control over his rhythm might be how a relatively "slow" player like Larry could blow past people all the time. It seemed to me that he entrained the opposing player into his rhythm, and then, changing the rhythm, moved in a space that didn't yet exist for his opponent.

Posted by: Tim O'Reilly | Nov 27, 2006 7:54:25 AM

Also, on a related note, Phil Torrone over at makezine sent around a pointer on an internal O'Reilly list to an amazing "traffic hack," in which a Seattle engineer experimented with modulating traffic jams by adjusting his own driving rhythm. Very well worth a read: http://amasci.com/amateur/traffic/trafexp.html

Posted by: Tim O'Reilly | Nov 27, 2006 7:59:30 AM


sociologists call this rhythmic entrainment, and there's a lot of literature on it. The most time has been spent watching dating couples, amusingly enough, but there's plenty on other things as well. Rhythmic entrainment is also key to going into Flow, whether in social situations or otherwise.

Posted by: Ian Welsh | Nov 28, 2006 6:22:52 PM

The back and forth between teacher and student creates a rythm. It also creates a regular series of start and stop points for the teacher to be talking. As you pointed out in a previous post, learning happens at the start, and the end, and the middle is mush. It seems to me that one way to increase learning rate would be to create start and end points in a regular rythm. Something that the students can internalize, and the teacher no longer has to work as hard to maintain.

Posted by: Richard | Nov 29, 2006 2:32:29 PM

Your post actually made me think of rhythm as an important dimension to think about when designing great products. For example, we designed one feature in our product with the assumption that people would process things every couple of days. We later discovered that there were groups of customers that preferred to process everything that happened in one calendar day and groups who would save things up literally over several months and then want to process tens of thousands of things on a single day. This had significant engineering implications but also it made it challenging to design a single UI in a way that made sense to different rhythmic "modes" of work. I think the rhythm in which certain features are used can often be an important detail that gets overlooked when gathering requirements and creating designs. As product designers, we tend to assume that the whole world revolves around our product and surely our customers must be signing in every day, doing things as frequently as we assumed they would. After all, when you develop the product you sit there and use it all day as part of creating and testing it. I am frequently frustrated by products that don't make it easy for me to blast through a big batch of things at one time for example and can think of times when I have literally stopped using a product for that reason. I think that if you can find ways to design products so that they are "sympathetic" to the natural work rhythms of your customers, they will be much more likely to kick a** with your stuff.

Posted by: Shaun | Nov 30, 2006 9:31:34 AM

An excellent post, Kathy. This has really had an affect on my classroom practice, thinking about the best time to stop students working, to interject with an anecdote, the best time of day to be doing various activities. Thanks! :-)

Posted by: Doug Belshaw | Dec 29, 2006 1:34:28 AM

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