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

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 | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Getting someone to decide

While Kathy’s away having way too much fun in one of the lands down-under, I thought I’d drop in and tell a quick story about a bit of research that should make a difference to you…

Decades ago people used to do deep and interesting social psych research.  They’d set up strange and complex situations, then watch how people reacted.  Some of these were scary-scary, but some were actually insightful in the day-to-day world as well. 

What does this have to do with Creating Passionate Users?  Let me tell you…

In 1965, back when the Beatles were singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” a few social psych folks did a compelling study about what makes people decide to do something. 

First they showed a bunch of college students a film about the horrors of tetanus (Lockjaw! Seizures!  Death!)  that ended with the strong recommendation that everyone get a booster shot.  They even told them where the student health center was.  Careful testing showed that the students actually learned something AND that their long term attitudes about tetanus and the need to get a booster shot had really changed.  This was great!   

Then they watched to see how many went to the college health service to get the booster. 

It was a total flop.  Less than 3% actually went for the booster. 

Then they gave exactly the same information in written form.  Again, a graphic portrayal of what would happen to you if you didn’t get a booster shot.

And again, it was a flop.  This time 3% showed up for the shot. 

Sound familiar?  That 3% number is roughly how many people RTFM for your great software and will actually use it to full capability.

But then they had a stroke of genius:  What if they showed the movie AND gave the students a piece of paper with a map to the student health center with times you could show up for the booster.  They also asked the students to DECIDE when to actually make it to the clinic.   

Voila!  Suddenly, the number of students that showed up for the booster jumped to 28% of those in the audience.  And interestingly enough, it didn’t matter if the students saw the movie or read the paper version of the tetanus scare story. 

What made the difference? 

Two things seem to make the change… 

First, they gave the students something to take-away from the meeting—a piece of paper with all the information they needed to act.  The health center was clearly marked on the map with a big circle.  Times for open appointments were on the page as well. 

Second (and just as important), the students were asked to make a decision about when they would go to the clinic.  They actually had to make a choice about when they’d show up for their booster shot.

So, what does this have to do with Creating Passionate Users? 

You already know users need really clear direction.  It also really, really helps if they have something to guide them in the completion of the task.  A cheat sheet is great, especially if it’s in the language of the user and helps them satisfy a need they acknowledge.  Keep them short and task-specific. 

It also helps if your user has to make some kind of commitment.  We’re not talking about a lifetime of togetherness, just something simple like working through a short but compelling tutorial that shows off exactly how great your system really is.  You need some kind of engagement with the user to make the connection between the download and what your stuff can really do. 

Here’s the bottom line:  Be specific in your help and support.  Be very clear.  And get your users to decide to do something with your product.  Don’t let it just lie there and go out of their attention—get your users engaged! 

If you want to read more, you can try to find the original article in your university library.  There’s no way this is going to be in your local public library. (And if it is, let me know.  I want to move to your town, that’s a great library you’ve got there.) 

     Leventhal, H.R., Singer, P., and Jones, S. (1965)

     Effects of fear and specificity of recommendation upon
     attitudes and behaviour

     Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2, pp 20-29.

Posted by Dan Russell on May 29, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Your career may depend on your Right Brain

Can you explain to the left side of your brain (you know, the analytical, logical side) why you bought a Michael Graves designed toilet brush from Target?

Or, why candles are a $2 billion dollar annual business in the US when we've had electric lighting for going on a century?

Both speak to our preference for aesthetic, style and pleasure than to logical needs; for a shift towards meaning and purpose.

Daniel Pink uses these examples in an article coming out in the February issue of WIRED called Revenge of the Right Brain, where he lays out an interesting argument that the future is with the right side of the brain (the intuitive, artistic, holistic side). Pink says the movement of analytical, left brain jobs will continue out of the US/West over the next decade as they are replaced by right brain careers.

This reminds me of a brilliant line from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, where he writes about the US in the future:

There are only four things we do better than anyone else:



microcode (software),

and high-speed pizza delivery.

And for the most part these are right brain endeavours. But we can't even take these for granted; to some extent, low-level software coding is already moving overseas, what will be left is the overall system design and architecture. Movies too: unless Hollywood gets a little more right brained, Bollywood will be glad to eat its lunch. Even in the area of music, ClearChannel can't be good for the right-brained music eco-system.

But, this isn't a US vs the world post. Pink's point is that the future lies in right-brained careers (financial counselling vs tax preparation, software design vs coders for hire, the art of the deal vs number crunching). He makes a far more important point though: to prepare ourselves for a right brained path we need to not only have the technical skills of our craft, we also need to be able to "create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative and to come up with inventions the world didn't know it was missing."

And are we preparing ourselves as a society for this shift? Well, we only have to look as far as Kathy's post Most Classroom Education Sucks to have some pretty serious concerns; and we only have to look as far was the local Walmart to wonder if we're really moving in this direction as a society.

That said, how does a Java book enter a saturated market of 2000 other titles only to take over the category as the #1 book (I'm speaking of course of Head First Java)? Of course by taking a right brained approach to book writing. So the opportunities are out there. Are we going to sit around while left brain occupations are commoditized? Or start using our right brain as well to create some inventions the world didn't know it was missing?

Posted by Eric Freeman on January 23, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack