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Getting/Staying Organized: my Moleskine PDA


Organization comes unnaturally to me. I've experimented with almost everything, both electronic (Palm Pilot, various software apps), and plain old paper. So far, the one that's helped me the most is my low-tech, high-use Moleskine PDA. Supplies include a pen, a notebook, post-it tabs, and some (optional) 3 x 5 cards.

I won't go into many details, because this is all explained much more thoroughly on the site where I got the idea: the PigPogPDA Moleskine hack. So, what I have here is just one more example, modified to fit my (utter lack of) organizational skills. Obviously my version is based completely around my life- and work-style needs, but part of the beauty of such a DIY system is that it can be customized for just about anything.

One Moleskine notebook, with color-coded tabs for the five sections I care about:

1) Next Actions
2) Projects
3) Travel/Calendar
4) Notes
5) Health/Horses

6) Back Pocket

I prefer the top-binding reporter's style, but other styles might work better for you. At the end of this post I'll explain why a Moleskine and not some other less expensive notebook.

When I start a "fresh" PDA, I number the pages and pick a page for where each section will start. For example, I start Next Actions at the beginning of the book, and Projects on page 61, so I've reserved about 60 pages for future to-do items, and won't use those pages for anything else.

Each area is outlined below:

60 pages reserved, starts on page 1 or 2. (The inside front cover is the color-coded legend/TOC, and I often page 1 for crucial bits like emergency numbers and contact info.)

Picture of inside front cover/legend:

Picture of a Next Action page:

Next Actions is a concept from GTD, David Allen's "Getting Things Done" system. For me, it's mostly just a to-do list. When I've completed everything from a page, I move the yellow tab to the first page where I have unfinished items. That means the tab might be on, say, page 6--where I have an unfinished item--even though I have more to-do items on page 7 and 8. If I have one nagging outstanding thing while everything else for the next two pages is complete, I'll just re-enter that outstanding thing to the end of my latest entries so that the tab is always a little closer to my most current open to-dos.

Note: in the real GTD system, Next Actions usually have a 'context'--a way of grouping items around situations where you're likely to do them. For example, you might have a Next Actions context for "Phone Calls I need to make", so that when you're in front of the phone, you can be efficient about making more calls since all the phone call to-dos are in one place. Or you might have a Next Actions context (list) for "When I'm Out Running Errands". That stops you from having to search through your entire outstanding list of actions to find, say, the things you need to buy when you're out.

The context thing would be harder to implement in this system, because then you'd have to allocate pages for each different context list, although I suppose you could have one list with color-coded post-its on each item to match a category... for example, a 'red' item would be a phone call to make, a 'green' item things to talk to my doctor about, etc. But that seems like overkill, and I don't have enough of these things to make it a problem to scan them.

30 pages reserved, starts on page 61.

Picture of Project Overview List Page:

Picture of a page for a specific project:

The Projects section has two parts: an overview list of all my current projects, and then separate sections for each project where I can add more details including mind maps. Most of my big, ongoing projects have their own separate notebooks, so this part of the PDA is for summaries of some of the key ideas, milestones, mind-maps, etc. related to a project.

10 pages reserved, starts on page 90.

Picture of a Travel page:

I have very few appointments since I don't have an actual job (no meetings to go to... YAY). But I do have a ton of work-related travel, much of it out of the US, so most of my calendar is about that. I also keep an electronic version of my calendar in iCal, but I don't bother putting many details in iCal.

You can see how sloppy I am with this, and it doesn't look anything like a calendar. It's just a place to store travel-related notes including hotel and airline confirmation numbers, check-in/check-out dates, conference information, etc.

15-20 pages reserved, starts on page 100.

Picture of a Notes page:

The Notes are for just about anything other than first-pass, rough brainstorming or project-specific notes that go in the Projects section. I use a lot of paper for mind-mapping, so I usually do the rough stuff in a separate notebook and then transfer a more complete one into the Notes. But sometimes this book is the only thing I have on me, so I do use it for raw brainstorming when I need to.

Mostly, I use it to write down things people tell me that I want to remember, fun things I saw, blog ideas, random thoughts, etc. If I'm working on a book, I have one or two separate notebooks just for that book.

5) HEALTH (mine, and the horses)
5 pages reserved, starts at page 120.
I use this instead of a "tickler" (although I do keep a physical tickler file where I put things like concert tickets, hotel reservation confirmations, etc. for physical things that I'll need on a specific date in the future) for things that come up for maintenance like check-ups, immunizations, etc.--things I haven't made a specific appointment for, but will need to schedule in the future.

I look at this regularly, and if something is getting closer to the present, it'll go on my Next Action list to "make appointment for..." and eventually end up in my calendar.

The back pocket on this notebook is awesome. Inside I store 3 x 5 cards (regular and the post-it kind), which I use for things that I want to use outside of the book like notes I want to post on the refrigerator or my physical cork board. But it's also the place to put things you collect: receipts, business cards, something I want to hang on to that I ripped out of a magazine, etc.

Picture of back pocket:

Issues and problems for me

1) No easy back-up system. Yikes.
I try to make electronic or at least duplicate copies, but it's difficult, and I have so little natural discipline for this sort of thing.

2) Not flexible once a new PDA has been started (in other words, once I've set the page sections for a fresh Moleskine, I'm stuck with it).
I'm always making a rough guess on how many pages I'll need for each section, and it's possible that I'll run out of Next Action or Notes space while there's still a lot of empty pages in another area, so it can be wasteful. The more of these books I complete, the better feel I'll have for how many pages I should allocate for each section.

3) There's no part of this that tracks any financial information. I really need a mini Quicken-like section or something. That's the one thing I miss the most about not having a "real" PDA.

I REALLY encourage you to follow the links to the two sites that set me on this path:
43 folders and PigPog: creativity anywhere.

Oh yes, so why the pricey Moleskine rather than a cheaper alternative? Two reasons:

1) It's a bit like the Mac/iPod vs. PC/non-iPod question, where Mac users will defend their more expensive choice by explaining the ways in which the qualities they care about are superior. You can choose to believe that the extra price for Moleskine notebooks is justified by the higher quality/durability, or you can choose to believe Moleskine users have drunk too much koolaid or are just showing off. (The higher quality isn't really open for debate, it's the whether that quality is justified that sparks the arguments between the Moleskinites and the... lesser beings.)

The extra-sturdy aspect of Moleskines makes them better suited for archiving the physical books. They wear well when in use, and they keep well when you're done.

2) There's a theory that says you'll place a higher value on something you've spent more money on, and this is a big part of it for me. I'm forever losing pens and cheap notepads, but this thing I treat a little more like my cell phone or--when I used one--my Palm PDA. This second reason might seem silly or trivial, but I believe it matters. Think about the fact that most people treat the things they've invested in with more care than cheaper disposable items.

Side note: my friend Tara Hunt recently started a mini firestorm when she called a Moleskine a "bloomin' pad of paper". Tara, Moleskines are an acquired taste and... you obviously Just Don't Get It. ; )

Given that I began this post by saying that organization does not come naturally to me, I'd really REALLY love to hear comments, suggestions, ideas on anything related to organizational systems and strategies including paper and paperless. I can use all the help I can get!

Posted by Kathy on January 31, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (64) | TrackBack

Add a little more random to your product


You know the feeling: You follow a near-random trail of blog links and land on the post that solves your big business problem. You randomly flip through a physics book and find next week's sermon. You're shopping for discount dog food when you find your dream date. It's the powerful charm of the iPod Shuffle ("How did it KNOW that's just the song I needed to hear right now..."). It's serendipity. And maybe we should build more opportunities for it into our products, services, and lives.

In user experience design, especially, we often work our asses off to remove unpredictability. That's a good thing, mostly. An interface that does what you expect drops away so you can focus on whatever it is you're using the product to do. While we assume that randomness plays a big role in games, we do our best to strip it from "serious" products and services. But there are plenty of ways to keep a user experience consistent while still supporting--even encouraging--the chance for serendipity. And serendipity is delightful, astonishing, sexy, rewarding, inspiring...

When the iPod Shuffle first came out, the ads were based on the theme, "Life is random." I thought it was one of the lamest marketing spins ever. I imagined the meetings, "Let's spin the lack of display as a feature. Yeah, that's it. We'll sell the inability to choose your music as a benefit!"

But I was so so so wrong. Within a few weeks' of the Shuffle's release, the serendipity effect had kicked in. "OMG! That was the perfect song for this!" "Seriously. It can't be random. It's putting songs together that just... work*" The Shuffle was getting people out of their playlist ruts. Out of the music comfort zones we all fall into (emo, anyone?). Exposing them to songs they'd loaded onto their pre-Shuffle iPod but that never seemed to be one of The Chosen Ones. Think about it. Think about all the music on your (non-Shuffle) iPod, computer, or vintage CD rack. Now think about the subset you actually listen to regularly. For most of us, it's a pathetically small set. By literally forcing people to listen to randomly-chosen songs, the Shuffle was constantly delighting, surprising, rewarding, stretching users. And users loved it.

Filters drive a bigger need for randomness today
We're all on info overload, and filters are the best antidote. Whether it's a tech or politics aggregator like Techmeme or Memeorandum, a topic-specific blog/online news site like Slashdot or Engadget, or our own hand-crafted custom news page like My Yahoo, we're all looking for ways to narrow the funnel. Even semi-smart online shopping sites like Amazon become a filter, telling us what we're most likely to be interested in, and even letting us help tune it to be more precise. But all this filtering, tuning, and pruning keeps us stuck! We end up seeing only what we think we want to see--what we're already familiar with--and slashes our chances for serendipity. And that means slashing our ability to create and innovate, or even to be truly surprised and delighted.

How can we add more chances for serendipity into our products, services, and even lives?

Of course it depends greatly on the product, with random-by-design (like the Shuffle) on the extreme edge of the Predictable/Random continuum. But here are a few (randomly-chosen) examples:

1) Staff picks of the Day/Week/Month
The bestseller lists reflect the popularity of the many. "Recommended for you" picks reflect what people just like us have bought. Both of these narrow the funnel, but the "Staff Picks" can introduce something new, especially when the staff pickers go out of their way to introduce things you might have otherwise missed.

2) Encourage other users to post "off-label" uses of the product
Don't just showcase examples of how the product can be used in the usual way. Get users to submit stories, pictures, examples, etc. of ways they used the product to do something nobody (or at least YOU) never imagined.

3) Randomly introduce things from completely unrelated domains
If you aggregate home improvement stories, for example, have a place where you insert a semi-random--but high quality--post from a non-home-improvement field.

4) Use cards from a shuffled "idea" deck
The idea is simple: select a card from a shuffled deck, and act as though whatever the card says is directly relevant to your current problem.
Some favorites:

Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies (designed for musicians and artists, but works for anything.)

Roger von Oech's original Creative Whack Pack (a long-time favorite of mine... I started using it more than a decade ago, and it's a big part of why I'm such a fan of Roger).

The IDEO Method Cards
I've never used them, but they're visually stunning, and others have recommended them.

5) The old standby: subscribe to magazines from unrelated domains
Walk through a large newstand, and linger in some of the sections you usually skip. You just never know when Cat Lover Today is going to have that perfect answer for you.

Even more challenging--but interesting--is to go beyond newstand magazines and flip through professional journals you find at the home of a friend or business associate (or waiting in the dentist's office). Who knows how many times we 'reinvent the flat tire' simply because it's never been solved in our world, while a gazillion solutions are out there in unrelated fields.

6) Find SOME means to add randomness (or pseudo-randomness) directly into your product or service
While a random tip-of-the-day is one implementation (and just because it's so often done badly, annoyingly, intrusively, and obnoxiously doesn't mean it HAS to be that way), there are probably a lot of other ways to introduce--perhaps as a user option--some element of random or pseudo-randomness. Drum machines (and other electronic/midi music software) sometimes let you choose to automatically insert subtle, somewhat random shifts in the music to make it just a little less perfect... which means a little more real-sounding.

Google has an "I'm Feeling Lucky" button that takes you straight to the first web page returned for your search query, but there's nothing random there. And while that's a useful feature, it might be equally useful to add an "I'm feeling bored" button that takes you straight to, say, the 42nd returned hit.

Photoshop has a kind of mutation feature that while not random, lets you instantly view your current image with a variety of different color adjustments. Perhaps they could add a "apply random filter" menu item, and let you see the image with some wild--and semi-random--combination of tweaks. It might never have occurred to you that the "plastic wrap" look is exactly what you needed to use on that picture of your ex you're about to put online for the world.

One of the problems with e-books...
Another area where randomness could matter a lot is in e-books. One of the complaints you hear from dead-tree-book-lovers is that they don't get to flip through the pages. On the surface, this might sound like yet another silly argument, and indeed I've heard e-book champions tell us we'll get over it, we won't care, or--hey--they'll just add a page flipping sound+animation to make us feel better.

But it's not the sound or tactile feel of the page turning that matters... it's the chance for serendipity you lose when you can't easily, randomly flip through the pages! How many times have you flipped to a page in a non-fiction book and--viola!--as if by magic, the thing you need-but-didn't-know-it-until-you-saw-this-page appeared? And no, presenting you with a linear list of thumbnails doesn't count.

There is, however, a fairly simple and at least partial solution I've seen in older experimental prototypes, but have no idea if they're implemented in any current e-book readers: a random "flip through the pages" button. But it can't just be a sudden HERE IS PAGE 267 thing. It needs to have a visual that shuffles through the pages (like the Apple cover-art thing on iTunes) in a way that displays them large enough to see something potentially interesting. In other words, it's the serendipity of a simple flip through the book that needs to be retained.


Perhaps the best way for us all to up our chances for serendipity is to cultivate diversity wherever, however, whenever we can. Like I said earlier about filters, the bright side of efficiency and focus comes with a dark side of narrow vision. The good news? Remembering to keep a bit of random (or at least semi-random) input goes a long way. Think of the implications. You really, really, really don't want your kids to think about your music tastes (or potential music stagnation) the way you felt about your parents (who still listen to the music they played in college), do you? Seriously. Who knows which hot hipster band of today is the Barry Manilow of tomorrow... so don't get stuck.

Apple's original Shuffle promo said "Life is Random", but that's stating the obvious. Perhaps a better mantra would be, "Random is Life." We could all use more of it, and if we can give our users a few more moments of serendipity, we're giving them a wonderful gift.

Bonus related links:

*The randomness of the iPod Shuffle is hotly debated (including but not limited to the computer science issues of "random"). Read more here, here, and--if you're a math/stats geek--here.

Randomness, artificial intelligence, and art.

One of Maggie Boden's wonderful essays on unpredictability and creativity. A sample:

"With the help of this mental discipline, even flaws and accidents may be put to creative use. Oliver Sacks reports the case of a jazz drummer suffering from Tourette's syndrome.24 He is subject to sudden, uncontrollable, muscular tics. These occur, though with reduced frequency, even when he is drumming. As a result, his drumsticks sometimes make unexpected sounds. But this man's musical skill is so great that he can work these supererogatory sounds into his music as he goes along. At worst, he "covers up" for them. At best, he makes them the seeds of unusual improvisations which he could not otherwise have thought of. (Similar remarks apply to jazz musicians who use Hodgson's program to help spawn interesting musical ideas, or to artists and designers who use "evolutionary" computer-systems in developing ideas which they could not have thought up by themselves.)"

The Future of the Book

Questions to ask randomly

So... what are YOU doing to keep random input in your life and/or the lives of your users?

Posted by Kathy on January 30, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (45) | TrackBack

Let them do the thing everyone else tells them not to


This sign at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Syndey, Australia took me by surprise. So many signs tell us what we can't do, and it's delightful to see the opposite. We need more of this. And I love the, "Entry is free -- but if you would like to help preserve this wonderful place..." How can you refuse?

So, yes, I'm back. The Linux conference was wonderful (the Jeff and Pia Waugh are awesome), and soon I'll have a lot more to say about some of what I learned there. Sydney is a fantastic city, and I've now moved Australia up to the number two place I'd love to live, just under New Zealand. But I got very, very, very sick while I was there (no fault of the country ; ) although I managed to find doctors who had no trouble giving me drugs I'd need an act of congress to get here. Fortunately, I got to take the time to recover there, in a very peaceful resort up the coast from Sydney, until I was strong enough to travel back home yesterday.

Sorry about the off-lineness, I haven't seen email in almost two weeks. But I'd like to publicly thank my co-hort Dan for stepping in here, and for y'all for sticking around. We're just about to put up some changes and fixes to the blog, too, so stay tuned.

I missed you guys. That's something I couldn't have predicted two years ago when I started this blog. but I really did.

Posted by Kathy on January 30, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Sensemaking 4: Summary of your comments



That was my first thought about reading everyone’s comments on the sensemaking posts. So many thoughtful comments that it’ll be hard to address everyone. But the collection made for some very interesting reading. So first, a big thank you to everyone who commented. (And forgive me if I don’t mention you here. There really were more comments than I can include in a single post.  If you commented, trust me, I read your post at least twice.)

I read through all the commentary, then decided I couldn’t handle it all on my computer display… so I printed it out and went through with my markers, highlighting all the comments about personal process (in yellow), then highlighting all the comments about tools used (in pink), and then all the comments about metacognitive strategies (in blue). I then talked about it with some of my friends at Google to make sense of it all.

And here’s what struck me…

People resonated with the sensemaking model. That is, it seems to describe a lot of what people do when they’re faced with a sticky problem. That’s good news, as it could have been the other way. More than a few people rewrote the model in their own words, and that’s good (we know that an effective way to learn stuff is to reorganize it to fit your own world, and rewriting in your language is an effective way to do so).

More importantly, commenters point out the importance of continuing to ask questions during the process. This is a great metacognitive strategy in general (see below) and helps to drive sensemaking forward. It’s also important not to get lost in the question-asking weeds as you do this. One really can ask too many questions.

Collecting information is important. As you’d imagine, pulling together your personal cache of information is crucial. Many people pointed out that search engines are incredibly useful in finding data. Alan gave his perspective as a patent attorney who does a lot of collection when evaluating proposed patents. More than a few information-heavy jobs require great skills in information collection.

Yet surprisingly, I’m not sure how good we really are (as a culture). I teach lots of classes on how to be a more effective internet searcher, and I’m constantly surprised to discover how people think about internet search. (We’ll talk about this in a future CPU post.) But the bottom line here is that you can only make sense out of what you collect, as it is played against the backdrop of what you already know.  The collection process can easily skew your results. Be careful here!

Metacognitive strategies.  Aside from being a great word to toss into partytime conversation, “metacognitive” describes things people do to manage their own thinking. And you CPU commenters had lots of metacognitive things to say. LOTS of people commented on giving yourself time to “think about it” and “let the subconscious play” or allowing the ideas to “gel in time.” And that’s good advice—time can be your friend in discovering the intrinsic structure of your information.

Another metacognitive strategy is to consciously ask questions about what you’re doing. If you periodically step back and take the larger perspective, maybe even ask pointed questions “Why am I doing this?” or “What will I learn from doing this?” – then you’re being metacognitive. Congratulations. As is well known from many studies of learning behavior, metacognitive strategies often pay off really well. They help to guide your thinking, and in the case of sensemaking, guide your choices about how much time to spend on collecting, organizing and then working on the target task.

Intuition. Although intuition isn’t exactly a metacognitive strategy, it’s clear that people recognize patterns in the data in ways that they can’t talk about. That kind of inarticulate recognition (meaning that you can’t talk about it easily) is what we perceive as intuition. We’ve all got it, and good sensemakers have good intuitions about how things go together. As Malcolm Gladwell correctly points out in Blink (and we’ve discussed earlier in our blog), intuition isn’t just a mysterious upwelling of innate knowledge, but is based on lots of experience and practice in the field.

So be wary of your intuitions in fields that aren’t your own. I might think I have great intuitions about how steelworkers build skyscrapers, but I wouldn’t trust those intuitions farther than I can spit. I would trust my intuitions about cognitive science, however, since I’ve spent years marinating in that world.

Social aspects. Many of you suggested some wonderful social strategies… Ask a friend. Talk about it with someone who likes a good discussion. Talk about it with someone who disagrees with you. There are entire schools of sensemaking (such as Karl Weick) that see sensemaking as an inherently social process. To them, “sense” is what is made by the community out of many pieces of information—that is, a certain amount of sense is made by agreement. This is a finding with deep consequences. But for us, just working the idea over with friends and colleagues is an important way to structure the information you have at hand. One of my tests of whether or not I’ve made sense of something is whether or not I can tell a story about it. I might call someone (Kathy, let’s say) and try to tell her what it’s all about. If I can do that, then I’ve made at least some sense.

Another great social strategy several people mentioned was “looking for someone else who has already made sense” of the topic. In the internet age, this is an ever-increasingly good idea. (It’s always been a good idea—it’s just easier now, and with a whole lot more coverage than ever before.)

Iteration. Yes, plain old iteration is also key. The consensus of commenters was that nobody got things right the first time around, and that you need to repeatedly look FOR information and look AT the information you have. Just looking once, or just organizing once probably isn’t sufficient.


So… what surprised me?

Representations. The biggest surprise was the relative lack of discussion about the organizations and representations people build up of their sensemaking collections. Normally, I think about people collecting then organizing their information—but how does one organize a collection? In my earlier studies of sensemakers, the particular ways that information was grouped together, sorted out and interrelated was always important. Why didn’t this theme emerge here? Perhaps it’s because people have a set of organizations they always use. Or that it seems too obvious. Or maybe that it’s just too hard to talk about. But it surprised me!

Tools. Another surprise was the number of tools people mentioned. There were very few. Mindmaps, outlines, VooDooPad, Devonthink, search engines – and that was more-or-less it! Is it the case that we just don’t have that many tools to help people with their sensemaking tasks?

Personally, for my sensemaking tasks I use:

> lots of paper notes in various organizations (primarily piles, grouped by common topics), even going so far as to highlight items and use sticky notes as flags;

> many online files that have different roles in my sensemaking process (like “outline” “extras” and “things to do”;

> search engines for discovery and collecting (of course);

> personal desktop search (because I typically collect information into a central repository on my local computer) and I need to find it again;

> Powerpoint --not always, but often for outlining and sometimes for collecting stuff of various media types all together in one place

Sorry to be so low-tech... but it's what works for me!

All in all, I found our sensemaking conversation to be fascinating. It’s been wonderful to hear everyone’s voice in the comments and to get an idea of how varied and articulate the readers of CPU are. Thanks again!

Now we’ll go back to our regularly scheduled Creating Passionate User’s topics… I have a few other things to talk about as well. Custom search engines, color psychology, how people visually scan their world, what it takes to create a really useful user interface… More coming soon!


P.S.  A few people have noted that they're having trouble with the images in these posts.  Would you please comment if you're having trouble too?  I'd like to debug this soon! 


Posted by Dan Russell on January 29, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Sensemaking 3:The search for a representation

I promised a story about a sensemaking episode from my work, and here’s one. It’s a bit long, but I think you’ll find it amusing. It’s really a voyage of discovery as I try to figure out how to make sense of what people do… which is ultimately what my scientific life is all about:  What do people do?  How do they do it?  And why do they act that way? 

How do people manage interruptions?

A few years ago I became very interested in how people manage their interruptions. We’ve talked a lot about this in the CPU blog over the years.  See:   The Asymptotic Twitter Curve and Multitasking makes us stupid? and it’s still an area of active interest in the research community and here at Creating Passionate Users.   

But back in 1996 I was still at Apple and very much curious about how people did to actually manage their time and attention resources. So, being a good research guy, I went out and did a field study of some experts in attention management—our administrative assistants. After all, they somehow manage to simultaneously answer the phone, respond to email, process paperwork, deal with visitors and answer questions shouted out down the hall. If you watch a good assistant for any time, it’s clear that they’re masters at interrupt handling.  The ones that are good, are REALLY good.

So, how do they do it?

I videotaped several hours of assistants during the busy parts of their day and was pretty amazed. As I coded up each of the events they handled (phone-call, person-at-desk, email, etc.) I wrote down what the event was, when it happened, what resources the assistant needed to resolve the request and how long it took to handle it. Simple.

Then, from this data, I thought I’d build an interruption model that would allow me to predict how well a given person could handle various kinds, speeds and degrees of interruptions. What I was REALLY after was a kind of test bed where we could simulate different kinds of software tools and gadgets to help out with interruption handling. I was also curious about what the upper limit of interruptions is in the office environment. NASA has done some great work in modeling pilot workload factors, and I was wondering about the office worker—how would they respond under differing workloads?

So I collected my data and began to try and build a model of it.

Now there’s a representation of problem-solving behavior that’s been around since 1972 when Alan Newell and Herb Simon wrote about Human Problem Solving in their (now classic) tome. A problem-behavior graph (I’ll call them PBGs) is a boxes-and-arrows way to show what “knowledge states” people go through in the course of solving a problem.



It’s a way to show that people know a bunch of stuff about the problem (box 1), then think about it for a while and get themselves into a new knowledge state (box 2), think some more (and get to box 3). This goes on for a while, with the person trying out different ideas about how to solve the problem. Sometimes they’ll back up to something they’ve already thought about (for example, box 4 is really the same as box 3,  it just happens after box 3) and go forward with a new thought (box 5).  Etc.   

The diagram is what’s important here. Notice that it runs left-to-right, then top-down. That means that the problem-solving process has time going back and forth on the page. This is a great way to show how people learn stuff, change their minds, and generally go back and forth trying to solve the problem (and Newell & Simon typically used puzzles in their studies).

I’m a researcher who knows his literature, so I pulled this diagramming scheme out of their book and tried to use it for my real-life observations.

Now bear in mind that my goal (my “domain of interest” from yesterday’s posting) is to be able to understand what the admins are doing, how fast they’re doing it, and how well they can handle their interruptions.

But the PBG has a whacky way of showing time. The PBG is good at showing the space of alternatives considered by the person, but not so good at showing parallel activity or how events unfold in time.

So I came up with the parallel problem behavior graph – a nice variant way of diagramming what people were doing.


You can see that the parallel-PBG has time running left-to-right (the way you’d think), but also the ability to show events happening in parallel (such as when the admin answers the phone--event 2.0--while simultaneously writing an email to a different person--event 3.0). I even added a way to show that an event was an interruption—that’s what the dotted lines mean. Event 2.1 is an interruption that happens during event 2.0 (and that’s why you see 2.0 at the end—you have to go finish it up after handing the interruption event).

Great! So I coded up a bunch of events in this representation in a data file and used it to derive a model of how people work under various interruption loads.

Then I wrote a small process model program that I use to model how people worked. Basically, given the task, it would simulate how long the person would take to solve the task, then switch to the next task. Interruptions could happen while other tasks were taking place. Great!

Except it didn’t work.

Remember that I had lots of data from the field study. So I had broken the data up into two parts – the modeling part (which I used to base my model) and the testing part (which I used to test my model). But when I tried out my model against the testing data, it wouldn’t predict anything very well. My model said that the admin could handle 3.0 interruptions per minute, but my testing data showed they could actually handle much less. What was worse, as I tested the model under higher interruption rates, the model results got worse and worse.

What went wrong? I sat and looked at the model for a while, going over the algorithms and methods used. Nothing seemed apparently wrong.

So I went back and looked at the original data. What was I missing?

I remember the moment clearly: I was watching one of the tapes, double checking my coding to make sure I got all the event times right when I noticed something that didn’t quite fit the model. The assistant was answering email when the phone rang. As she picked up the phone, her boss asked a question from the next room.  Ah ha! Key insight: Interruptions can happen during the setup to handle an interruption!

That’s when I realized that my model, which was based on the Newell & Simon problem behavior graph, had a fundamental problem: the transitions between the tasks (the boxes in the diagrams) were assumed to be instant and atomic. That is, there was no way for the model to show that there was a setup time (that was always just included as part of the task). But now that I realized that setup could be interrupted as well, I could break the setup out as a separate time as well.


And that led me to this diagram, what I now call the “parallel task behavior graph.”


Now, the setup time for a task is explicitly represented, and it can be interrupted as well.

I went back to my model, made the changes to the simulator, and voila, the model now matched the testing data quite nicely.

From the sensemaking perspective, what happened to me followed the pattern quite nicely: I collected the data, then organized it by coding it and building a model. I then checked my work by validating the model against the test data. When the data didn’t fit into the model, I went back to the collected data, looking for another way of organizing it that would be better. That’s what led me to invent the “parallel task behavior graph” as a way of organizing this data. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t explain everything about how people handle interruptions, but it does a decent job.

In particular, this model shows that as your interruption rate increases, eventually you start getting interrupts during your interrupts—and that’s when everything starts to fall apart. Your multitasking skills don’t matter at that point, and your ability to get anything done starts to fall apart.

But you get the idea… Sensemaking is in many ways a search for the right organization or the right way to represent what you know about a topic. It’s data collection, analysis, organization and performing the task.

And as all the comments are alluding, the more you know about the process of sensemaking, the better sensemaker you’ll be.


Tomorrow: Summary of the comments readers have sent in.


Posted by Dan Russell on January 25, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Sensemaking 2: What I do to make sense


I’m a professional research scientist. Research is what I do day in, day out. So what I do for sensemaking might not be what you do at all, or it might be really relevant. I don’t know.

But I do know that sensemaking is a big, big part of my job. And I know that there are sensemaking methods…and then there’s what actually happens. I’m going to ignore the sensemaking prescriptions for the moment and focus on what really goes on.

The common conception of research is that a scientist first thinks up a hypothesis, then collects data to test it, then writes up a neat analysis confirming or disconfirming the hypothesis. That’s beautiful, but it’s also almost completely wrong.

When I’m making sense of some complicated area, it’s more of a full-contact, sweaty, wrestling-around-with-data kind of thing. Trust me: it’s not nearly as antiseptic and passionless as the common conception would have it. This is red-blooded science as played on the field. It’s more of a rugby scrum than a still-life chess game. Here’s how it goes for me…

FIRST: Figure out what it is that you’re trying to understand or get done—let’s call this the domain. This is crucial because you can waste a lot of time doing various experiments or studies on the wrong thing. I find it valuable to write out a quick summary of what I’m trying to understand… often just as a note in my notebook, or maybe in an email to a friend. The point is that you need to frame things because the act of framing helps to focus on what to do next.

Of course, it’s not always so neat. Sometimes you only come to realize later what the topic really is. Sometimes you frame a domain one way and later discover that this isn’t a good framing at all. Then things shift and that’s where it gets interesting.  And then every so often you end up by accident in a domain that you hadn’t planned on studying. That’s serendipity, and it happens more than you’d think. Regardless, knowing your domain leads to the next step…

SECOND: Collect a lot of information about the domain. I like to read about how others think about the domain, what works and (just as importantly) what doesn’t work. Sometimes people will say how they think about the whole domain, and that’s often incredibly useful because they’ll have already organized things in a way that’s useful. I look for varying opinions and results. In the discrepancies between accounts there’s often something of interest. (Something like this: “Smith says people always do X, but Jones says they never do X… how can they both be right?”)

I should point out that often you can make sense of something just by doing this kind of research. It happens all the time—you’re working on a domain, and then someone writes an article that explains it all. A newspaper reporter would call that “being scooped.”

As you collect and organize, you'll find that you can target your collecting more finely.  That's when I'll start to do experiments (to collect exactly the data I need). 

THIRD: Organize the information.  Depending on what the domain is, you might look for an organization that helps you see the entire structure of what’s known, or you might end up building a very detailed model. In almost every case, I spend a lot of time figuring out how to organize the information I have into some kind of representation. This representation could be something as simple as a bunch of folders with topics, or it could be a much more complex spreadsheet model. But figuring out how to represent (and organize) what I know is key. Making this representation is usually when the “ah-ha” moments happen. It’s when pieces of the puzzle start falling into place and I realize the connections between everything.

FOURTH: Iterate. Realize that you almost never get it right the first time. Sometimes I’ll get the original domain wrong, and I’ll be studying the wrong thing. Sometimes I’ll collect a lot of junk information that I have to winnow out. And sometimes I’ll just create representations of that information that don’t work out.

In any case, keep iterating—on the domain, on the information set, on the representation—until you’re to a point where you can satisfy your need to make sense of the original domain.

FIFTH: Do. As in, do whatever it was you wanted when you figured out what the domain was. Research of the kind I work on is always trying to figure out something so you can do the next thing.

I know this is all a little abstract, but tomorrow I’ll post with a real example of a research sensemaking story that will map onto all of these steps. Then Friday I’ll summarize all of the amazing and remarkable comments folks have been making on the “Sensemaking 1” post. (Thanks for all your comments, btw, I’ve been enjoying reading them!)


Posted by Dan Russell on January 24, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Sensemaking 1


Here’s an important question for all of us: How do you make sense of something that’s big and complicated?  Say… something like why your users aren’t passionate about your product?

For the past several years I’ve been thinking a great deal about sensemaking—that is, the processes people go through when trying to “make sense” of a body of knowledge.

Think about it—sensemaking is what you do when you’re trying to organize your taxes, or when you want to understand what’s going on in the Middle East.  It’s what you do to figure out why your software just doesn’t seem to have the right zing for the customers. And it’s what you do when trying to wrap your mind around that great new idea for a startup. It’s figuring out how and why things make sense… or don’t.

What’s always struck me about sensemaking behavior is this: People just don’t seem to be all that good at it. They take notes on the topic, then never go over them, or lose them in the shuffle of life. People seem to rarely understand that sensemaking is a skill like language. You can be good or bad at it, and the level of skill makes a big difference.

So I’ve made this a central part of my research career: WHAT do people do when they’re trying to make sense of the world? And, just as importantly, WHY are people so bad at it? A great deal of my career (at PARC, Apple, IBM and now at Google) has been a long study of these sensemaking behaviors.

Let’s be more precise: If you’re trying to understand a fairly hefty topic… what is it that you do? How do you collect information, organize it and figure out what’s important (and what’s not)?

I know what I do (and I’ll tell you below)… but pause and think about this for a second. What do you do?

(I’ll wait.)

Okay. What’s the answer? When I ask people this question, I get two really interesting responses.

1. “I don’t know, I just sort of do it…” This is a fine answer. It tells me that sensemaking is a skill that you’ve practiced so much that it’s become automatic…. OR… it’s a skill you never practice. In either case, this is a better reply than someone who starts rambling long about what they do, but it’s clear that what they’re saying is just a confabulation (a nice word meaning “they’re making it up”).

2. I collect a bunch of information, then organize it, then I get the answer. This is also a fine answer. At least you’re aware of the “collection phase” and some basic collection organizational process. But that last step is the killer—how do you just “get the answer”?

Ahh.. there’s the magic! How DO you know what to do to get the answer?

In 1993 I wrote a paper with the somewhat forbidding title “The cost structure of sensemaking,” which basically points out that people take into account all kinds of factors when deciding what to do when making sense. They worry about how long it will take, how many errors will happen during the process and how much the whole process will cost. Interestingly, many of these “costs” are figured intuitively, and often incorrectly, leading people to do all kinds of strange things.

Which is why I think understanding how people “make sense” of their world is so fascinating. This is really why I went to Google—because there’s a ton of data there about what people do when trying to understand their world.

What do I do? Well, I’ll tell you.. I collect a ton of information, then organize it, then I map it to the task I’m trying to do. Then I repeat. The iteration is important because I almost never get the right information on the first pass, or I don’t know how to organize it, or I don’t know how to use it to get the task accomplished it once it’s all organized. (I’ll go into details in my next posting on Sensemaking in a day or two.)

I know CPU readers are a really interesting bunch.  So a question for everyone: What do you do when you do sensemaking? Can you illustrate with an example? I’ll summarize the most interesting responses in another post a week from today.



Posted by Dan Russell on January 21, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (83) | TrackBack

More things that make you smile...


Continuing Kathy's thread of "making you smile..."

Like Kathy, I was just in the Honolulu airport and saw the men's room sign.  It made me smile too, for exactly the same reason.  Some things really are universal.

But I was coming back from the Big Island on my way back to California.  (We probably crossed in mid-air.)  I was in Kona for a conference to talk about ways to test users for the way they do web search.  While I enjoyed the conference, that wasn't what made me smile.

What made me smile was going on a nighttime scuba dive with the manta rays off the Kona coast.  It's an ecstatic, wonderful experience I'll recommend to anyone.  There's something about watching these huge, majestic creatures fly through the water that is just awe-inspiring, fantastic, and just slightly on the edge of unbelievable. 

Manta rays eat plankton--the little critters that swim in the sea, feeding everything from blue whales to mantas.  If you drop a bunch of lights in the water after dark, the plankton is attracted to the light, the mantas are attracted to the plankton, and the divers are attracted to the mantas.

We took a short boat ride from the Kailua-Kona harbor to a little cove just west of the airport.  As the sun set, we bounced around for a while on the waves, waiting for the dark, the plankton and the mantas to appear. 

There were snorkelers on the boat, they just orbited on the surface while the divers went down 30 feet to sit on the bottom with their flashlights pointed upwards--blue-green shafts of light that vanished off into the infinite dark. 

After just a few minutes, the mantas appeared--flying past silently with complete grace and serenity.  The first one passed directly overhead, seemingly inches overhead.  They're big, the largest was about twelve feet across.  I quickly figured the mass in my head--it was about a ton of fish.  Massive.  Quiet.  And stunning.  It's rare that you can get that close to a giant wild animal and live.  The cephalic fins (those big lobes sticking out of the front of the head) give them a strangely alien appearance.  It's not just large a beast, but elegant and beautifully strange. 

They made me smile.  The whole experience made me smile--the anticipation, the ride out to the cove, the dive itself...and then sitting on the sea floor while manta danced overhead.

In that sense it was a classic user experience: preparation, anticipation, crescendo, then delivery. 

We should all have such experiences; we should all have such smiles.


Posted by Dan Russell on January 16, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Who'd you make smile today?


Marketers and managers tell us to "delight" the customer. But they're usually talking about heroic gestures, "empowering the front line", and virtually always about how to use this "happy customers" focus as a competitive advantage. But sometimes it's the smallest of things that can make all the difference. Things that aren't bullet points in the brochure or check marks in product comparisons. Things that just... make you smile. Things the one who made you smile didn't need to do.

In the midst of a two-day travel hell to get to Australia two days ago, I landed in the Honolulu airport for a 9,256 hour layover. I was sleep-deprived, jet-lagged, and still mourning the loss of my lotion at Security Checkpoint Theater. And then I saw it. Marking the entrance to the Men's Restroom on the airport concourse is the typical international "MAN" symbol with one little upgrade... the little guy's wearing a Hawaiian shirt (even has a little lei). I smiled. For the first time in 12 hours.

Too often we see formal institutionalized smile-strategies... like the Southwest airline flight attendants inserting jokes into their safety speech. But some of those attendants are simply repeating the script, and it shows. It's a lot more smile-inducing when the flight attendant just blurts something out spontaneously, in response to something in realtime. Or when they announce to the entire plane that there's a couple in coach celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, having just returned from a romantic second honeymoon. Or when the pilot comes on and starts describing the joy of flying by telling you way too much about the physics of flight. THESE things make me smile, and for those of us who can't afford first-class, it comes just when we need it the most. And I want to know, "What causes these smile-inducing people to behave like this even though they don't need to?"

What are some other non-institutionalized things you can do to make someone smile? And what does it take to support that in your company without trying to institutionalize it? (which of course never actually works). I think we can all assume that someone who goes out of their way to bring a smile to your face--for no reason other than they want to--they must be feeling genuinely good. Those phoning-it-in aren't likely to make you smile. They aren't likely to smile themselves, let alone to care whether YOU do.

A few things that make me smile...
(That they didn't need to do)

* A thoughtful, almost imperceptible feature in a product. Something that surprises you that they'd have that attention to detail on something that appears to exist solely to make you a little happier, but adds nothing to the actual capability of the product. (Or so you might think... in reality, of course, it's those little things that can be the deal-makers or breakers in keeping us in flow).

* Easter eggs in software (good software... as an earlier commenter pointed out, if your software has big flaws and faults and I find an easter egg, it'll really piss me off that you spent resources on THAT instead of making a product that actually works)

* Insider references or homages (a form of easter egg) inside a product manual. (e.g. using TPS reports in a sample)

* Whimsical names for dishes on a menu (often this IS formalized, but sometimes it just feels like someone cared enough to make an otherwise dull diner a bit more festive)

* Playing foreign-language training tapes in the bathrooms of an ethnic restaurant.

* Fresh-baked cookies in the lobby. GOOD coffee in the reception area, not that crap instant with fake creamer. When I taste that first sip of really good coffee, I always close my eyes and smile. Bliss : )

Really, though, there's one really simple thing that we can do to make someone else smile.


We've talked before about how scientists know that smiling produces physiological changes in your body. And thanks to mirror neurons, we know that seeing someone else smile or laugh can trigger the same neurons reponsible for making us smile.

But this cannot be faked:


But we can tell a real one by looking at the eyes, not the lips:



Crinkly eyes = real smile. No crinkly eyes? Faker. (or too much botox)

Bonus: take this BBC quiz to test your ability to spot the difference between someone who's smile is genuine vs. a faker.

Perhaps the real question should not be, "Who'd you make smile today?" but rather, "How can you get yourself to smile more?" We all know it's true... real, genuine, authentic, natural smiles are infectious. Picture the people you know who can light up a room when they walk in with a big, REAL, smile. We can all be those people. Imagine if someone told you that you had the power to instantly alter someone else's blood/brain chemisty in a positive way, potentially improving their immune system and giving them more physical energy. And all you had to do was flash them a smile. We can all be those people.

But for so many of us, we don't interact with our users face-to-face, so the next step, then, is to figure out how we can inspire ourselves and especially our employees and co-workers to "virtually" smile at our users by doing something with our products or services that causes them to smile. (Quickest change: do something with your online tech support pages. Next quickest, do something with the user documentation)

Remember, it's often the smallest of things. Like a bathroom sign that changed the rest of my day.

[Tip: keep a 'smile journal' for a week or two, and try to write down every little thing that caused you to smile when you interacted with a product or service or person, and look for a pattern (or at least some ideas you can use). You can also track another person you interact with, and write down how often THEY smile, and what caused it. If the notebook is nearly blank at the end of two weeks, time to rent some Monty Python.]

So, who'd you make smile today? Who made you smile today?

Posted by Kathy on January 15, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (48) | TrackBack

iPhone and the Dog Ears User Experience Model


I was at the Steve Jobs keynote. And like everyone else in that room, I was thrilled by the iPhone demo. The UI is spectacular, but for reasons you can't see in a photograph, or get from the online keynote video. The best part of the iPhone is simply this: the UI is alive. By implementing one of the key principles of animation, the designers have shown us the stunning power of using Dog Ears as a user experience model.

In the real world, we have physics. We have inertia. Things bounce and stretch and squash. We have follow through. Imagine a dog with long floppy ears sprinting for a frisbee. Now picture the dog coming to a screeching halt in front of the disc. What happens to the ears? They keep going. Then they "bounce" back. And it's a big part of what separates a good animator from an amateur.


Even if you don't notice it consciously, an animation (even of just words) feels more appealing and alive when things move in the virtual world more like things do in the real world (or even more exaggerated). It feels more lyrical, fluid... less abrupt. And that is what the iPhone UI does.

Yes the touch-screen is cool. And the multi-touch gestures are so very minority-reportish. But it wasn't the scrolling that made my jaw drop... it was what happened when the scrolling stopped: it bounced! The thing actually bounced if you flicked it hard and fast enough to send it flying up to the very (or bottom) of the list before it had a chance to slow down and stop. It actually bounced. And until you've seen it slow down and bounce, you haven't felt that visceral, life-like, fluidity.

Someone was quoted as saying, "You had me at scrolling." Well, for me it was, "You had me at what happened when the scrolling stopped."

And bouncing wasn't the only nod to a fluid user-experience... it also uses audio fades when you're listening to music (iPod mode) and a call comes in. Think about it. I attended a talk by Marc Canter in the mid-90's, and it changed the way I think about sound and users forever. In that talk, he railed against us--the interactive CD-ROM developers--for committing one of the worst sound sins--chopping the sound off when a user navigated from one place to another. He demonstrated it by making a huge verbal ruckus and then--dead silence--then back to a huge verbal ruckus. It was annoying. It was stressful. It was what we were doing to our users.

And all it took to fix it was a fade! An f'n fade. Not a long, elaborate, complicated cross-fade. Just a very short fade-out of the audio as you left an area where the sound was not going to continue.

From that moment on, I became hyper sensitive to how stressful it is when sound--especially loud sound--just cuts off. And now, if I'm listening to anything--music, a DVD movie, whatever--if I have to stop the sound for some reason, I attenuate. I grab the knob and rotate it to the left. It's one of those tiny gestures that my companions might not even notice, but on some level they appreciate it.

Life is abrupt enough as it is.

Why not reduce some of that for our users? If we can make a user experience where things don't come to a slamming, smashing, halt but instead move and fade as lyrically as a dancer, we've just added something to their life.

Try it. Turn the music up in your car or home stereo to a pretty strong (but good) volume. Ask a friend to join you. At one point, when they're in the flow, cut the sound completely. Kill the power. Notice their response. Now do it again, but this time fade the volume.

This is not a trivial thing.

And although Apple and the iPhone certainly aren't the first to use this kind of "absence-of-abruptness" to the user experience, they've done it in an elegant, subtle, flow-supporting, enchanting way.

Consider it UI research to sit in a dog park and watch some ears. Big, floppy, ears.

[FIY: after leaving San Francisco, I was home for less than 12 hours before getting on a plane for Australia, where I am now for the wonderful linux.au conference. So, my apologies for being off-line for the last week. It looks like I have a decent connection here in my hotel, so I should be checking in regularly again while I'm here. And oh GOD how I love summer. It was below zero F as I left Denver.]

Posted by Kathy on January 14, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (44) | TrackBack