What I Learned about Labeling from Making Hot Cocoa

I love hot cocoa. A friend taught me a great recipe: cocoa powder + maple syrup + homemade cashew cream + hot water. I add a pinch of cayenne pepper for bite. (Cashew cream: soak unroasted/unsalted cashews overnight in water, then liquefy them in a Vitamix.)

Before you try to make this, you need to be aware of an important distinction. In American grocery stores, you’ll find two kinds of cocoa: cocoa mix and cocoa powder. They’re not the same.

Based on the selection of brands and varieties, cocoa mix seems to be more popular. You’ll find it in the same aisle as coffee and tea — i.e., the store assumes that if you want to drink cocoa, you want cocoa mix.

It’s a safe assumption. If you want a cup of hot cocoa, the mix is more convenient: it includes powdered sweetener, creamer, and (in some cases) frills such as freeze-dried marshmallows. You simply add hot water, et voilà — a sweet cup of cocoa.

That’s not what you want for this recipe. Instead, you want cocoa powder, which is just the primary ingredient without the extra stuff.

It may seem subtle, but this distinction matters. Here’s how Wikipedia describes cocoa powder:

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How Do You Know What’s True?

How do you know what’s true? I mean this in the most prosaic way you can imagine. As in, how do you know which conditions about the “real” world should inform your decisions? Your answer to this question will have a big impact on your life.

Imagine you’re walking in the dark and hit a wall. The pain you feel is a good sign that the wall is “true.” It’s unarguably there; you just ran into it. The bump proves it. There’s a baseline here: what your senses are reporting back to you. The pain is information. If you have any wits, you’ll avoid doing that again.

Not everything is as obviously true. Let’s take another example. Say you’re trying to manage your weight, so you step onto your bathroom scale. The number you read on the scale’s display, too, is information. By itself, it’s less obviously meaningful than the pain you feel from the wall. To begin with, it’s more abstract than the bump. To make sense of the number, you must know what it is and what it means. Is it higher or lower than “normal”? Well, that requires that you know what “normal” is. If this is the first time weighing yourself, you may not have anything to compare it to. So you may have data, but not necessarily information.

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A Key to Conveying Meaning

Consider this sequence of numbers: 7, 24, 153.6, 7, 25, 153, 7, 26, 154.2, 7, 28, 154.4, 7, 29, 155.6, 7, 31, 154.6, 8, 1, 154.6. What do these numbers mean to you? Seems there’s a pattern there, but perhaps their meaning isn’t clear.

What if I show them to you like this?:

7 24 153.6
7 25 153
7 26 154.2
7 28 154.4
7 29 155.6
7 31 154.6
8 1 154.6

I’m willing to bet this layout changes everything. When seeing the numbers in a two-dimensional matrix, your brain starts making distinctions. There are three columns of numbers, which are related somehow: the numbers in column one are of a type, and so are the numbers in columns two and three. The fact that some of the numbers in column three have decimal values also hints at their belonging to a family, but you could’ve gotten that from the original list. Still, the 2-D matrix layout does much to help you make sense of the distinctions between the numbers.

So a layout change has helped you know there are three types of numbers here. But what are they? There’s no header row with labels, after all. Well, you can make educated guesses from looking at the range of numbers. Let’s take the first column. There are six 7s, followed by an 8. Apparently,​ this isn’t a random list; there is some relationship between these numbers.

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The War Room

Most spaces serve as shelter; they keep us safe, warm, and dry. That’s the baseline. But some spaces go beyond that: They also help us think better. One such space is the war room.

A war room is a space that allows the team to focus on a project or initiative. It allows team members to see the latest developments in the project, but also trace its history; to see where critical decisions were made (and why.) The war room extends the cognitive abilities of its inhabitants. It creates a shared context that allows them to have intelligent discussions about the project.

Walking into such a room focuses your mind on that project. You and your teammates are (literally) surrounded by the information you need to make decisions about the direction of the project. The room functions as a substrate for working towards a shared goal. It’s an inhabitable shared notebook that allows for real-time collaboration.

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Switching Modalities

Whenever I’m in the process of working on something, I find it useful to switch modalities. By this, I mean going from one way of working to another; seeing the work from a different perspective.

For example, this blog post started as a series of notes scribbled in a (paper) notebook. That was one modality. When my ideas were more definite, I switched to writing a draft in Ulysses. That’s another modality. I think differently when I’m working on paper than when I’m writing in Ulysses; writing words in a text editor happens at a higher level of granularity than thinking about concepts. Instead of thinking about what ideas I’ll get across, I’m thinking about how I’m getting them across.

There’s a point in the process where the draft is done, and I need to switch modalities again. I upload the post to WordPress, but I don’t publish it yet. I find that looking at it as it will appear on this blog reveals all sorts of things I missed; I’m now approaching the work as a reader and can spot gaps in the reasoning. In this editing phase, I also correct grammatical problems. For some odd reason, I don’t catch them when I was in the text editor. I need a new way of seeing the work (the preview in WordPress) to spot them, and switching from the text editor to the publishing system does the trick.

Sometimes — when I have a bit more time or a text requires particular attention — I also check the WordPress draft in a mobile web browser. Switching to the smaller screen size reveals all sorts of issues I hadn’t noticed before. This, too, is a modality switch; the mobile screen is a context that allows me to see the work in a different perspective. It prompts ideas and refinements I wouldn’t have spotted otherwise.

Modality switching is good for more than just writing; every creative endeavor can benefit from it. When I used to paint, I’d occasionally take a step back from the canvas and squint at the painting. Seeing it small and blurry would allow me to see the composition as a whole, without details. And whenever I’m working on a navigation structure for an information environment, I switch between text-based outlines and visual sketches of how menus will be laid out.

Switching modalities is also useful in group settings. I’ve been in many workshops that revolve around conversations prompted by presentation decks. This is one modality — one that gets old fast. There comes the point when the group must switch; for example, by sketching out ideas on paper rather than talking about them. Inevitably, the switch is a catalyst for new ideas to emerge.

Changing modes of thinking is a quick and easy way to quickly flesh out ideas, and to get unstuck. For much of my career, I did it unconsciously (and therefore, ineffectively.) Now that I understand it better, I pay attention to how I’m thinking. If ideas are flowing, I stick to the mode I’m in; when I get stuck, I know it’s time to switch modalities. I can now switch very quickly and effortlessly; sometimes, just getting up and walking around will do. Cognition can’t be pushed… but it can be nudged.

Why Don’t You Make More of X?

Anything you make enters the world as part of a context; nothing is truly new. As a result, its reception depends significantly on how it addresses its relationship to the things that preceded it. Let’s say that you work for a company that is known for making sprockets. (Let’s call it ACME.) ACME decides to create an information environment to serve as a community for sprocket experts. Inevitably, this environment will be evaluated in the context of the company’s trajectory thus far. It’s not starting from scratch; instead, it rides on its maker’s reputation in the field of sprockets.

This is useful when the new thing builds on the organization’s strengths. However, sometimes the opposite is true: an organization launches something to try something new, to diversify its efforts. In those cases, its reputation may hinder adoption of the new thing. For example, ACME may want to launch an app that appeals to widget-makers instead of sprocket experts. Both the widget-makers and sprocket experts may be confused. The former may think, “What does ACME know about widgets? Aren’t they the sprocket experts?,” while the latter may think, “Doesn’t ACME care about sprockets anymore? What are they doing?!” Whatever the case, it’s unlikely that either group will evaluate the new thing on its own merits. ACME’s reputation and trajectory will influence how they think about it.

This conundrum must be dealt with. Organizations that aspire to longevity must keep evolving; this requires that they branch out to try new things. (Of course, they don’t need to be as radical as moving from sprockets to widgets!) But they must do so in a way that doesn’t confuse or turn off its core constituencies. 
I’m reminded of something that the musician and record producer Brian Eno wrote about the impact of fan expectations on his own (eclectic) body of work:

… success has many nice payoffs, but one of the disadvantages is that you start to be made to feel responsible for other people’s feelings: what I’m always hearing are variations of “why don’t you do more records like – (insert any album title)” or “why don’t you do more work with – (insert any artist’s name)?”. I don’t know why, these questions are unanswerable, why is it so bloody important to you, leave me alone… these are a few of my responses. But the most important reason is “If I’d followed your advice in the first place I’d never have got anywhere.”

I’m afraid to say that admirers can be a tremendous force for conservatism, for consolidation. Of course it’s really wonderful to be acclaimed for things you’ve done – in fact it’s the only serious reward, because it makes you think “it worked! I’m not isolated!” or something like that, and it makes you feel gratefully connected to your own culture. But on the other hand, there’s a tremendously strong pressure to repeat yourself, to do more of that thing we all liked so much. I can’t do that – I don’t have the enthusiasm to push through projects that seem familiar to me ( – this isn’t so much a question of artistic nobility or high ideals: I just get too bloody bored), but at the same time I do feel guilt for ‘deserting my audience’ by not doing the things they apparently wanted.

Naturally, Eno is writing from the perspective of a creative artist. Many businesses can’t afford to challenge their customers in this way. But this idea of success as a force that nudges towards conservatism and consolidation has broad implications; it’s something to be acknowledged and dealt with as an organization embarks on exploring new grounds.

Form and Context

If you ask people what they think about when they think about design, many will tell you about things they either like or dislike. You’ll hear about their iPhone, their car, their office, a chair, a book, a poster. It’s always about a thing — a form that exists in the world.

This shouldn’t surprise us. We can relate to forms. We see them, touch them, hold them, get into and out of them. They’re “real”; we tacitly understand where we stand in relation to them.

But forms are not the only product of design. Things don’t exist in a vacuum; they always address — and alter — a broader context. The coffee mug next to your computer is a response to a context that includes your biological need to ingest liquids, the mechanics of your body, a culture that has taught you to prefer coffee hot, etc. A chair hints at a particular course of action, and its dimensions and materials respond to physical, economic, and social constraints. A room with a video camera in it changes your behavior. (This is why public places visibly announce their presence.)

Context is not as easy to perceive as forms are. We can’t touch context in the same way we can touch an iPhone or a coffee cup or a chair. Instead, we experience the effects of acting within a context when the forms that enable it alter our understanding and behavior.

Forms can be explicitly designed to create particular contexts. Consider Albert Speer’s design for the Nazi party rally grounds (Reichsparteitagsgelände) outside of Nuremberg:

Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-04062A / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-04062A / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia

The forms that made up this place were subservient to the context they were designed to create: a place where individuality was discouraged, and social hierarchies and rules were reified. This, in service to reinforcing a broader context — that of the Third Reich — which produced the conditions that called for the creation of the Reichsparteitagsgelände to begin with.

So context births forms and forms alter context in a cycle of constant adjustment. The Reichsparteitagsgelände (along with many other intentionally designed forms) was created by — and helped create — a context which encouraged and enabled unspeakable atrocities. When the war was over, the forms that had enabled this context had to be eradicated:


Regardless of what area of design you work in, the forms you produce also respond to, uphold, or address particular contexts. Are you clear on what they are? How do you know?

Our Own Private Idahos

I once had a client — let’s call her Mary — who’d built a business on a domain that had a good Google ranking. One day Mary called sounding distressed. The site’s traffic was not growing anymore — in fact, it was going down. “I don’t know what’s going on,” she said, “we’re still the number one result in Google for our keywords.” I checked. “No, you’re not,” I replied, “I see you way down the list.” We started comparing notes, and that’s when we realized Google was serving us different results for the same keywords.

I didn’t know what to recommend. I knew SEO was important, but​ it wasn’t the focus of my work. Still, I had a basic understanding of Google’s ranking algorithm: Roughly, it gave greater prominence to older pages that had lots of other pages pointing to it. This meant there were things you could do to the site — clarify language, structure HTML in particular ways — that could help. It also meant everyone saw the same results: if you googled something and I googled the same thing, we’d both see the same list of results ranked in the same order.

But now this had changed. The algorithm had become more complex, taking into consideration other factors. I didn’t know what they were, but it seemed clear Mary’s results were very different from mine. This place we had both referred to — the first page of Google results for keyword x — no longer existed; now there was Mary’s results page and Jorge’s results page, and the two were different.

The upside to dynamically generated environments such as this is that they make it easier for us to find the stuff we — individually — are looking for. Google’s results have been getting better over time; I usually find what I’m looking for faster. But there’s a downside too: if everyone sees a different version of the environment, how can we come to a shared understanding of what we’re looking at? How can we have a dialog when standing in different contexts? What is our common frame of reference?

For example, the algorithm that powers Facebook’s news feed generates a unique instance of that place every time you visit. It’d be meaningless for you to say to me, “Check this out, you’ll see it in your Facebook news feed!”; there’s nowhere for you to point to because the place you’re pointing to is completely ephemeral. And if you and I are chatting on​ Facebook, you may be seeing completely different things around the chat window than I am. Maybe these things are irritating or inciting me, and that’s affecting the tone (if not the content) of my messages.

Context is a very important factor on how we understand things. A conversation between two people during a wake will have a very different meaning than one during a circus performance, even if the same words are uttered. Effective dialog requires contextual stability, and we’re moving to a world where the spaces we converse in are in constant flux. Those of us who design these places are called to make them effective conduits for understanding, and this requires that we think about the contexts they create — shared and otherwise.

En Contexto

(In Spanish)

I delivered this presentation at the first Experience Design Summit in San José, Costa Rica, in September 2013.

Presentation summary:

We can’t talk about design without in the 21st Century without talking about information. The majority of products and services that we interact with are part of information environments that teach, entertain, guide, and influence us. This presentation examines the importance of context in the way that users understand and navigate information, and what we can do to create more successful information-based solutions.