Episode 88 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with sociologist and UX researcher Sam Ladner. Sam describes herself as a “student of productivity and the nature of work.” She’s been a researcher at Amazon and Microsoft and is currently Senior Principal Researcher at Workday. She’s the author of two books on research, Practical Ethnography and Mixed Methods.1

In Duly Noted, I’m writing about how people manage their personal knowledge. Who better to ask about this than someone who does research for a living — especially when that research is about the nature of productivity itself? In this conversation, Sam and I discuss sociology and ethnography in the context of organizations and how to manage the knowledge generated by research.

Sam spoke about of a (conceptual) transom between the data we collect and the outputs that come from it.

if I start by asking people questions in this way, with these tools, with these recording devices, with these questions … what does it look like coming out the other side? Does it turn into a film? Is it evocative that way? Does it turn into structured data that I could maybe quantify or at least sort and filter? Does it turn into just a rich picture? Like, what does it turn into?

I.e., when capturing knowledge in this way, we must somehow keep the end in mind. This resonates with me; I read differently if I’m reading for a particular purpose. For example, if I’m reading a book in preparation for Duly Noted, I take notes thinking about where and how specific ideas might fit within the argument in my book. This is very different from reading for pleasure or general knowledge.

In such cases, I approach the process with a mental framework in place. But there’s a fine line here: it’s possible to overprepare (or overstructure) and thereby cut off possibilities for serendipitous insights. As Sam put it,

if you’re too proactive with your mise en place with designing your transom, you become very narrow in what kinds of outcomes you can power. And if you’re too open-ended, it becomes voluminous and unworkable. You have to figure out what is the right altitude, and it’s almost impossible to know when you start.

As she suggests here, the right level emerges in doing the work and capturing its output — i.e., there’s feedback involved. So, you must get started, even if you’re not fully prepared. The process of doing will prepare you.

One way in which these structures manifest is in tagging the material we capture. To return to the example of my book, if I run across an idea in a Kindle book that merits inclusion in Duly Noted, I highlight it and add a note that says #dulynoted. The hash character denotes a tag that’s ingested into my knowledge garden via Readwise.

This is one of many ways in which I capture tagged notes. If you do this over time, you’ll accrue lots of tags, leading to maintenance headaches. Sam’s suggestion is to not aim for perfection. (I brought up Herb Simon’s term “satisficing”.) As Sam put it, “Anybody who’s tried to make the perfect system will discover quite quickly that they’ll outrun it.”

Finally, I asked Sam if there was anything that we could take from sociology that could help us with our productivity. She suggested the concept of “thick description,” which I understand to mean adding enough context to our notes so that we know what they refer to. As Sam explained it,

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

I found our conversation quite insightful. I hope you get as much value from this interview as I did.

The Informed Life episode 88: Sam Ladner on Managing Research Knowledge

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