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Rhythm method 2


The comments to the first Rhythm Method post are really intriguing. They point out how thoughtful and remarkable the CPU readers really are. It’s readers like this that make writing a blog so much fun. It’s not just an exercise in writing stuff down, it’s a many-way conversation!  (If a "dialog" is between 2 people, is this blog a "polylog"?) 

If I were to organize the comments into logical clusters, I’d group them like this: 

a. use of rhythms to coordinate actions (sea shanties to pull together better, precise timing of conversational actions back and forth, entrainment between participants in a group behavior)

b. rhythm as defining element of flow states (flow seems to happen with rhythmic patterns)

c. non-rhythmic events that disrupt behavior, primarily exogenous events such as hunger (chocolate!) or software imposed interruptions (“you have mail!”) and delays (waiting on Perforce).

What I found especially interesting were the practical suggestions of rhythm use. It’s obvious what use rhythm has in coordinating teams to work together in close synchrony. But it’s also fascinating to think about using rhythm to go around bottlenecks (as Tim O’Reilly speculates about Larry Bird breaking rhythms in driving to the basket around defenders).

This leads me to point out that rhythms have many uses – as organizers of time and as ways of coordinating groups of people (and processes). But if you can’t perceive the rhythms, you’re in a heap of trouble.

It’s clear that some of our tools help to coordinate behaviors – IM, email, calendars – they all help to align people in time. And it’s true that every tool seems to have its own natural rhythm: IM beats to a faster pulse than email, and if you’ve got multiple IMs going, it’s often a polyrhythm as beats go against other pulses in time.

And we’ve all had those moments of sudden expectation in IM or email when someone doesn’t respond at the right moment. (“Has she forgotten about me?” you wonder… then a few seconds later, the reassuring IM arrives. Whew!) It’s the rhythm telling you when you should begin to worry.

The ability to perceive a rhythm is a fundamental one… as is the ability to generate a rhythm. Yet, it’s still a bit of a mystery how people recognize a rhythmic beat. Some things are clearly rhythmic – think of your favorite Sousa march or Ludacris rap – they both pulse and move along regularly, with both short-term and long-term pulses going on in layers. But how, neurologically speaking, does your brain do this neat trick? I’ll spare you the various theories, but I don’t think we’ve figured this one out yet.

Regardless of what mystery mechanism we use to pick up on rhythms, it’s clear that we humans can detect both simple beats as rhythms (a heartbeat, the gallop of a horses’ hooves) and the wonderful layering of many kinds of events over longer periods of time (the rhythm of weather systems moving across the Pacific Northwest, the rise and fall of Orion in the night sky).

And it’s clear that we coordinate our actions based on what rhythmic devices we sense and the regular pulse of time we feel. Breaking that pulse is a terrible thing to do. 

While latency in responding to a user input is bad manners, creating an unpredictable delay that breaks the perception of rhythm is even worse.

In a kind of extension to the variable reinforcement schedule Kathy discussed earlier, unpredictable delays in response only serve to make the entire experience awful. Passionately bad, in fact. 

But note the difference!  While unpredictable rewards are great for training, for a system that requires moment-to-moment interaction, unpredictable response times are the antithesis of flow. Using such an irregularly reacting system takes up lots of cognitive attention just to recognize when the next event is going to happen. The user ends up having to be constantly vigilant to know when the next event’s going to happen.  It’s ultimately tiring and a pain to use. Worse of all, the irregularly responding system is generating interruptions… that’s the one thing we know we really shouldn’t be doing.

If you (as a designer) have to make the tradeoff, go with the slower, but more regular response so people can entrain their rhythms and get into that flow use condition. That will create the sensation of a more regular and reliably responding system. Faster isn’t always better!


Posted by Dan Russell on December 9, 2006 | Permalink


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Ah... marching to a different drummer. I've often noticed that I march much faster than my friends do, so I've learned to give a nod and let it go when the drumbeat comes and goes and they still haven't responded. I can do something else in the meantime.

Posted by: Michael Chui | Dec 9, 2006 2:47:27 PM

You had me at "exogenous"...

This topic is SO fascinating... and I'm still trying to process the previous comments to your original post, so I'm glad you grouped them into categories. I particularly liked what omni said about using deliberate breaks in rhythm to cause something different or new to happen.

Dan, what I remember you telling me (but it was more than a decade ago) about was something about filtering out all the rhythm breaks as "noise", and then later recognizing that some of those breaks--including things that seemed totally random-- were actually an important component. In other words, that in some cases the rhythm *breaks* were just as meaningful as the rhythm in causing learning to happen, even if the point was to simply re-establish attention by triggering the "orienting response."

This is obviously quite tricky to do by design (although we try -- especially in our books), because there are distractions (rhythm breaks) that wake the brain up so you can refocus, and then distractions that derail you. We like to design in a spiral, where there is a motivating start ("wouldn't it be cool if you could..."), a middle where they're doing the do (and this is where the rhythm/flow should be the strongest), and then a finish/reward that ultimately transitions into the next motivating start and on and on... but the key thing for us is knowing what the frequency should be. How much information before they need to stop and process it more deeply, try to encode it to long-term memory, or just give that part of their brain a break...

Oh man... I may never forgive you for bringing up such a fascinating topic that has way too many implications in every direction. And fractally too!

Thanks Dan, and hey -- nice touch adding the "By Dan" graphic. But seriously, the fact that you can toss out "exogenous" as casually as you say "exercise" is probably a clue that the post author was the Ph.D. and not the cowgirl. ; )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Dec 9, 2006 5:28:52 PM

Kathy -- You're right... causing a break in a rhythm CAN be a productive move, especially if you're using it consciously as an attention focusing device. People do this all the time in conversation by slipping a cough or "ahem" into the rhythmic breaks in a back-and-forth. This isn't just by accident, but by very careful timing.

Similarly, rhythmic disruptions in a classroom can be just as important (that is, for signalling). We've all heard lecturers that drone on and on in a rhythmic, but totally uninspired, style. Great speakers (and great teachers) know when to create the rhythmic flow, and when to cause a disruption.

To get all musical for a moment, trancey new-age music has lots of rhythm (think Buddha Lounge), and induces a great flow... but a flow that's good for meditation or hanging out, but not necessarily for getting productive work done. On the other hand, Stravinsky (or Bartok or many other composers) are talented at adding off-rhythm accents and shifts exactly for the purpose of disrupting flow.

You're right about the story of rhythmic analysis of classroom teaching. I'd thought of those kinds of upsets as noise... breakdowns in the classroom. But on later analysis it was clear that the hiccups in rhythm signalled something really important to the teacher: students who couldn't perform in rhythm didn't understand what the lesson was all about and needed extra attention.

This IS a fascinating topic. In a future post I might have to write a bit about some rhythm analysis I'm doing on eye movements! Our eyes have a pulse and rhythm that we need to see anything, and we are (for the most part) totally unaware of it.

Posted by: Dan Russell | Dec 9, 2006 7:19:47 PM

(A dialogue is between any number of people; a dualogue is specifically between two.)

Posted by: Greg K Nicholson | Dec 9, 2006 8:10:28 PM

Is there any chance that there will be ever a book, an eLearning course or a comic about all the theory and techniques you use in your books?
A book about learning and teaching and creating learning materials that itself demonstrates the very stuff it is telling?
If there is, count me in. Heck, if it helps, I'm placing an order right here and now and also send you the money for the book so that you have something to eat while writing it.


P.S.: This also goes on the wish list for Santa.

Posted by: Jens | Dec 10, 2006 2:07:22 AM

Just curious, is hunger an exogenous event?

Posted by: Rimantas | Dec 10, 2006 7:29:26 AM

It is certainly an innate and universal ability. For us, in our hybrid little world, it is especially useful in any number of different contexts.
For instance [my boys are autistic] if you speak to them, quite often they won't 'hear' you, they are tuned out. But if you 'sing' the exact same question or comment, they immediately tune in.
It's also useful to learn pieces of essential information that they have no interest [motivation ] to learn such as their home address and telephone number - sing it and it's in there for the duration, speak it or have visual supports and the connection is much weaker.
It's a pity that every time I sing, they tell me to stop, if I whistle or hum I get the same response. They seem to know that this is a form of communication that is harder to tune out.
Best wishes

Posted by: mcewen | Dec 10, 2006 8:16:19 AM

Interesting because I have, for two years, in my day job described our daily life as being interrupt driven. I think it's a sociological change we're undergoing. Kathy and I exchanged blog commentary re Twitter, which is surely an interrupt added to the mix.

Rhythms and patterns of consistency used to be how we achieved "cruising speed" in the work day. We worked up to our optimal productivity and cruised. Is that now changing with interrupts forcing us to redirect and refocus? Or are we becoming like small startup companies that always listen to every customer and never make headway because we've lost focus on the objective.

The path to finding balance is sure an interesting ride.

Posted by: Ken Camp | Dec 10, 2006 6:04:44 PM

Aha! This explains why I was so annoyed when trying to get IM chat support from Hewlett Packard--he'd have these long delays in response without telling me he was looking something up, so I'd be afraid he was gone. He just had bad rhythm!

And then, of course, after an hour he informed me they don't support Macs and hung up. But that's a different story!

Posted by: Heidi Miller | Dec 11, 2006 11:32:45 AM


So that's why I get so upset when you don't blog so regularly! I miss these great readings then! It's just you're breaking your blogging rhythm on me!


Thanks for this great post!!


Posted by: Antonio | Dec 11, 2006 11:40:46 AM

Ok, I admit that I had to read the post twice to figure what you were talking about... After a long Monday my noggin's not to accepting of anything that takes more than 10 seconds to read :)

Great post. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: rashenbo | Dec 11, 2006 3:32:24 PM

Lovely topic.

For me, there are layers of rhythm, perhaps like different sections of an orchestra in a symphony. There are rhythms of the moment, and larger rhythms of life cycles, physical rhythms, and then the tempo of productivity, which swells to a fabulous crescendo when a collective momentum is achieved.


Posted by: Vera Bass | Dec 11, 2006 4:59:39 PM

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