The Key to Understanding Why Things Happen

When a systems thinker encounters a problem, the first thing he or she does is look for data, time graphs, the history of the system. That’s because long term behavior provides clues to the underlying system structure. And structure is the key to understanding not just what is happening, but why.

— Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems

Every year, I introduce systems students to the iceberg model. The model is a helpful way of understanding situations by looking ‘beneath the surface’ of the things we experience, to the structures and mental models they manifest.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the iceberg model, it’s a framework that encourages you to think about situations at four levels:

  1. Events, or the tangible manifestations of the situation; the things we can see, hear, and record — “just the facts.”
  2. Patterns we perceive in events; outcomes that happen not just once but manifest time and again.
  3. Structures that may be causing the patterns we perceive; these could include rules, regulations, incentives, etc.
  4. Mental models that bring these structures into being.

Notice the fourth level is more abstract than the first: we can ascertain events, but we must hypothesize mental models. There’s also a causal relationship between levels: mental models elicit structures that elicit patterns of events.

As a result, events are easier to grok than mental models. But as with pace layers, the deep levels are where the true power lies. A change at the level you can see has less impact than tweaking the mental models that bring it forth. The ability to change minds is an incredibly powerful lever.

The iceberg model is helpful when doing research. Research produces lots of data points: Google Analytics and search logs tell you about usage, landscape analyses tell you about competitors and analogs, user interviews tell you about intent, etc.

But research doesn’t stop with data. Insights only emerge once you spot patterns in data. If lots of people enter the same term into the search box and do not get good results, that tells you something important about your system.

But you can go deeper still. Patterns only tell you what is happening, not why. You should at least have a hypothesis about why things are happening. This calls for understanding the underlying structures and the mental models that enable them.

Collaborating on these levels can be uncomfortable since the work is speculative. Acknowledge the awkwardness upfront. Allow the team to speculate. You’re not making anything normative yet, just understanding why things might be happening.

Knowing causes helps produce better outcomes. You might not know causes precisely, but you can test hypotheses. Ultimately, a better understanding of the system’s structures and underlying mental models will lead to more skillful interventions.

Cover image: NOAA’s National Ocean Survey (CC BY 2.0)


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Flexibility vs. Ease-of-use

Chris Welch, reporting in The Verge about a new Android tablet feature:

The simply named “Entertainment Space” will be a new section to the left of the home screen on tablets… It’s an all-encompassing hub that brings together video (TV shows, movies, and YouTube), games, and books.

In other words, the feature aggregates the user’s media, making it easier to access. Instead of having to open individual apps to find movies, TV shows, YouTube clips, etc., users can now access a single screen that puts content upfront.

Computers are universal devices — tools for making tools. Depending on what app you’re using, your computer can be a spreadsheet, a music player, a book, a video editor, etc. This flexibility is a big part of what makes computers powerful.

The tradeoff is complexity. Learning to use a single-purpose tool entails forming an accurate mental model of how it works. This can be hard enough. (I’ve been using Excel for decades and still learning new things it can do.)

But when you’re using a platform, you must not only form a model of each tool but also of the means through which you manage tools — where to find them, how to install, launch, and configure them, where to save work-in-progress, etc.

There’s an inherent tension between flexibility and ease of use. System designers oscillate between both extremes. A new device may launch as a single-purpose appliance and evolve towards platformhood.

An example of this is Apple TV. Originally designed as a simple living room media player, today’s models offer a broad range of functions, including the ability to install apps like games and third-party media “stores.”

This flexibility makes the system more powerful but also more complex. In the earlier, simpler version, users could easily choose what content to experience. Now, they must keep track not just of what to experience, but where to do it.

Users of a single-purpose system must only understand a small set of taxonomies. For example, if they’re going to watch movies, they’ll expect to deal with genres, movie studios, directors, etc.

In contrast, a more complex system asks that users understand taxonomies of taxonomies: “this is the type of app where I can expect to see movie genres, whereas this other app over here has levels and health points.”

Features like Entertainment Space aim to square this circle by layering a simplified, content-first experience atop the platform. I expect their effectiveness depends on their discovery algorithms. It’s a tricky design challenge.

Google’s Entertainment Space makes Android tablets look like Google TV – The Verge

Building Bridges to Understanding

Some tasks are easy, like choosing a flavor of ice cream; other tasks are hard, like choosing a medical treatment. Consider, for example, an ice cream shop where the varieties differ only in flavor, not calories or other nutritional content. Selecting which ice cream to eat is merely a matter of choosing the one that tastes best. If the flavors are all familiar, such as vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, most people will be able to predict with considerable accuracy the relation between their choice and their ultimate consumption experience. Call this relation between choice and welfare a mapping. Even if there are some exotic flavors, the ice cream store can solve the mapping problem by offering a free taste.

Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge

Thaler and Sunstein are describing part of what I understand as a mental model. New users aren’t blank slates. They approach interactions with a system using preconceptions shaped by prior experiences with analogous systems.

For example, imagine you encounter chocolate as a possible ice cream choice for the first time. (I know, it’s inconceivable. Everyone loves chocolate ice cream. Right? I know I do. Please bear with me.) If you’ve had chocolate candy and any other kind of ice cream before, you may have a rough idea of what to expect. Chocolate has a particular flavor, and ice cream is sweet, cold, and creamy.

Now consider an exotic ice cream flavor such as green tea. You may have had ice cream and green tea before, so you have reference points for both. However, your prior experiences confound your expectations of how green tea ice cream will taste and feel. Ice cream is sweet and cold; green tea is bitter and hot.

So, when choosing between chocolate or green tea ice cream, you’ll have a better model of the former. That is, your expectations of the taste of chocolate ice cream map more closely to your experience of eating it. If you’re feeling adventurous, you may pick green tea anyway. But it’s a gamble. Hence, those (obnoxiously small) free sample spoons in ice cream shops.

The primary function of information architecture is establishing meaningful distinctions. These distinctions appear as choices to users. Users understand those choices in relation to other choices (i.e., as sets of concepts) and in relation to prior interactions with similar choices (i.e., as individual concepts.)

Some of these concepts will be more obvious than others, much like chocolate is a more obvious choice of ice cream flavor than green tea. Users need help when choosing between unfamiliar or ambiguous concepts.

In other words, users need semantic analogs to those free ice cream samples. For example, each choice could include a clear label, plus an icon or a short phrase that clarifies its meaning in this particular context. Ideally, such aids give users a high-level preview of what they can expect to find when they choose that option. (I.e., they “give them a taste of what’s to come.”)

Much of the craft of IA consists of orchestrating the expectations of users as they’re inducted into new systems. This requires building nuanced bridges between users’ (imperfect) mental models and systems’ (complex, unfamiliar) conceptual models. When done successfully, a user‘s confidence in making choices will increase as he or she interacts with the system.

Cover photo: Ruth Hartnupt (CC BY 2.0)


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Book Notes: ‘The Scout Mindset’

The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t
By Julia Galef
Portfolio 2021

We live in an increasingly polarized world. All spheres of life are becoming politicized. Tribalism and zero-sum thinking seem inescapable. In this context, Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset is a refreshing (and much needed) call to lead more rational lives.

We’ve been sold self-deception as a way to get ahead. (E.g., by projecting unwarranted confidence.) The book makes a compelling case for making clear and realistic assessments instead. It’s a practical guide on how to stop deceiving yourself — “to see things as they are, not as you wish they were.” The goal: to know truth in service of better decisions, leading to more skillful actions.

Continue reading

The Informed Life with Kat Vellos

Episode 60 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Kat Vellos. Kat uses her background in experience design to empower people to learn, grow, and thrive. She’s written two books about adult friendship, We Should Get Together and Connected from Afar. In our conversation, we discussed the importance and challenges of making friends.

Why focus on friendship? Kat noted that a high percentage of people in the U.S. feel lonely. As she put it,

it’s not that people don’t want friends or that they don’t want to make friends or that there’s nobody making friends, but it’s that loneliness is climbing. And my hypothesis is that the cure for that is healthy friendships and healthy communities. And for some reason there is a need for more support and more resources that will help people do that within the demands of our modern world.

“Our modern world” refers not just to the pandemic-induced lockdown in social relations, but to a generalized busy-ness that can keep us from connecting deeply with others. Kat highlights the conditions that make it possible for friendship to blossom, even in such difficult terrain. (She uses a gardening metaphor in We Should Get Together.)

When I asked if a more intentional approach to friend-making risks turning friendship into yet another thing to check off our to-do lists, Kat responded with sensible advice:

don’t treat it like a to-do list item, you know? Because if it feels like a checkbox to you, it’s likely going to feel like a checkbox to the other person and nobody likes to feel like that. So, I would suggest checking in with one’s intention and really clarifying for yourself, is your intention just to say like, “all right, I did my like one hour of friendship time this week, I’m done.” Or is your intention to actually listen and connect and commune with another person? How do you want the other person to feel when that time is done? How can you show up as who you really are, in the open-endedness of getting together in a conversation or an activity or whatever may happen… because there is a certain open-endedness to this?

Ultimately, friendship isn’t about making you less lonely but about being present with and for another person. As Kat put it,

the more you immerse yourself in what is actually happening in that time that you’re connecting with the other person, the more likely you are to feel the benefit. You know, when you’re spending time sharing stories with a friend say, focus on their story, focus on them. Get curious. Ask follow-up questions and have that be the focus of your attention, rather than halfway listening and halfway being in your own head. Like, “do I feel less lonely right now? Do I feel less awkward right now?” Get out of that mental evaluation mode and get really immersed and real curious and interested in the other person. And that’s actually when somebody feels heard. That’s actually when somebody feels more connected is when you’re really present and holding space with each other.

Kat’s work is an invitation to be more intentional and genuine in our connections with other people. Good advice at any time, but especially important now that many of us have been isolated for over a year.

The Informed Life episode 60: Kat Vellos on Friendship

Book Notes: ‘How to Read a Book’

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
By Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren
Touchstone, 2011 (revised and updated edition)

I’d been aware of this book for a long time but finally took it on after Kourosh Dini posted about it. As stated in the title, it’s a meta-book on how to read books better.

Originally written in the 1940s by a Adler, who was an editor at Encyclopedia Britannica, the edition I read was last updated in the early 1970s. At the time, speed-reading was in fashion. The book argues we shouldn’t just aim to read faster, but to better understand what we read. To do so, we must answer four key questions:

  1. What is the book about as a whole?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part?
  4. What of it?
Continue reading

(Re)drawing System Boundaries

There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion—the questions we want to ask.

— Donnella Meadows, Thinking in Systems

One of the hardest things about making systems maps is knowing where to stop. You start by identifying the system’s components and how they relate to each other, and soon you find yourself drawn to include the entire world.

Should your map of a new electrical product include details about the power grid? Perhaps not; the grid is assumed infrastructure. But what if the product is an electric car? In that case, access to charging matters, so you may want to reconsider.

Where you draw the boundaries of a system map depends on what questions you’re looking to illuminate. (I keep reminding students about the power of good framing questions.) But drawing a map may also reveal the need for new questions.

Maps help us see unexpected aspects of the situation. We draw them in part to avoid unintended consequences. As such, we must be open to re-drawing their boundaries as the exercise reveals new angles. When we do so, our understanding deepens.

System maps are valuable artifacts per se, but they’re more than that. Map-making is a powerful way of knowing the world and — more importantly — intervening skillfully. It calls for continually asking where the boundaries lie — and reconsidering.

Cover photo by sid (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Architectural Skeuomorphism

Sarah Barrett, writing in Medium:

While there is a lot that IA can learn from actual architecture or city planning, websites aren’t buildings or cities, and they don’t have to work like them. Instead, they should be designed according to the same principles that people’s brains expect from physical experiences.

We have innate skills that allow us to navigate and understand the ‘real’ world. Like physical places, information environments (i.e., websites and apps) are contexts where we can do and learn things.

As a result, it’s natural to want to layer real-world affordances onto digital places. But it’s a naive mistake. Digital can do things physical can’t and vice-versa. Thoughtlessly mimicking real-world affordances in information environments can lead to what Sarah calls “architectural skeuomorphism” — a plague of early web and app UIs.

Conversely, digital’s flexibility makes it easy to inadvertently confound our expectations of things when we experience them in more than one ‘place.’ Sarah offers a great example: a Google Doc document object offers different capabilities depending on where you’re interacting with it within Google’s app ecosystem.

To design more usable systems, we must understand how humans make sense of being in and operating within environments. Sarah offers four specific areas for exploration, and promises a longer-form treatment of each. If you’ve read Living in Information, you’ll know why I’m so excited to see where she’s taking this.

Websites are not living rooms and other lessons for information architecture

The Informed Life with Matt LeMay

Episode 59 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with consultant and author Matt LeMay. Matt is a co-founder and partner at Sudden Compass and author of Agile for Everybody and Product Management in Practice, both for O’Reilly. In this conversation, Matt shares with us One Page / One Hour, his pledge to make project collaboration more agile.

The interview kicked off with a discussion of Matt’s background in music, and how it relates to product management. Musicians in a band must think beyond their individual desires (“make my instrument louder in the mix!”) to what benefits the band as a whole. This ethos also applies to product development:

If everybody has their feature that they want to build, if everybody wants to highlight their own individual contributions, you very quickly get to a point where the thing you’re building no longer makes any sense. Where if you can’t prioritize, if you can’t think systematically and then think structurally about how everybody’s contributions come together to create something new and meaningful, then you wind up with something which is just a collection of features, or a collection of ideas that really don’t coalesce into something interesting or powerful, or that solves a problem.

Knowing what to keep out is as important as knowing what to include:

both in music creation and in software product management, you really learn to recognize the power of subtraction. That the most meaningful work you can do is often subtractive work, not additive work. That constraints and subtractions and blank spaces are really what define the work that you’re doing more so than features and additions and things that you add in.

This discussion served as the perfect introduction to One Page / One Hour, Matt’s subtractive technique for more effective collaboration. In his work, Matt recognized a tendency to overproduced deliverables. In response, he

wrote up this pledge to my business partners saying I’m willing to forego the sense of individual accomplishment that comes from presenting finished and polished deliverables to my colleagues. I promise that I will spend no more than one page and one hour working on any deliverable — any document — before I bring it to the team. In other words, if I show up with five beautifully formatted pages or a one-page that took me 10 hours to create, I want you to hold me accountable to that.

The result is a more agile approach to collaboration. I also asked Matt about communication practices suited to this approach, and he brought up the “synchronous sandwich,”

an asynchronous pre-read, a synchronous meeting, and an asynchronous follow-up. In other words, you send something through as a pre-read, using a lot of these same concepts. So, you time box how long you expect somebody to take to send the pre-read and how long it will take them to read the pre-read. Then you work through the document or do something synchronously together, and then you send through a follow-up or a revised copy of that deliverable or whatever it is afterwards.

I was inspired by talking with Matt to think of ways to make my work more agile. I hope you get as much value from our conversation as I did.

The Informed Life episode 59: Matt LeMay on One Page / One Hour