IA Summit 10 – Dan Roam Keynote

Written by: Jeff Parks

IA Summit 2010

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| Day 1 – Dan Roam | “Day 2 – Richard Saul Wurman“:http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/view/ia-summit-10-richard | “Day 3 – Whitney Hess“:http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/view/ia-summit-10-whitney |

Full Program

| Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 |

Day 1 Keynote – Dan Roam

Dan Roam shares his unique visual-thinking approach that helps solve complex problems.

In his day one keynote from the 2010 IA Summit, Dan Roam—founder of Digital Roam Inc and author of the best-selling Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures—shares his unique visual-thinking approach with a receptive crowd in Phoenix. Transcending language barriers, his approach helps solve complex problems through visual thinking, and has helped resolve challenges at many businesses: Microsoft, Wal-Mart, and eBay to name a few.

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Transcript of Dan Roam Keynote from Day 1 of the 2010 IA Summit in Phoenix, Arizona.

Announcer: In this day one keynote address from the 2010 IA Summit, Dan Roam, founder of Digital Roam, Inc. and author of the best selling book, “Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures,” shares his unique visual thinking approach. Transcending language barriers, his approach helps solve complex problems through visual thinking and has helped resolve challenges at many businesses including Microsoft, Wal Mart and eBay. I hope everyone enjoys the broadcast. Cheers.
Jennifer:  Our keynote speaker today, Dan Roam, has inspired a revolution in sketching. Sketching is a technique that allows our hand to help our brain think, making our technology more about humans, and taking back design and communication from machines. Going straight to the computer or the slide deck, locks in our thinking. We need to set our minds free. This is important for us because we have complex problems to solve in our work and we can do this with pictures. Please give Dan Roam a warm welcome.
Dan Roam: Thank you. Thank you, Jennifer. Thank you very much. Thank you all for coming. You know I always say that, I always thank everybody for coming, but the reality is, I want to thank all of you for inviting me to come and share some of my ideas with you. I wanted to start this morning, with a little bit of a story. About four years ago, as a matter of fact, I was checking in my calendar, four years ago, almost to the day, I was working as an IA and a user experience lead at a company out in San Francisco, at Razor Fish out in San Francisco, and one day I had just a horrible meeting with the sales team of the company. I don’t mean to point a finger at Razor Fish, it was a wonderful company, but I had a really horrible meeting. And I thought, “I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to go do something else. I’m going to go write that book that I’ve been thinking about for so long.”
But the fact is, you know, I’ve got a family, I’ve got two kids, I’ve just moved to San Francisco, things cost a lot of money, I have no idea how to write a book. So I thought, “Well, I’m going to call a couple of friends of mine, colleagues of mine who have written books and find out what it takes.” So I called a guy named Steve Krug, who wrote a book called, “Don’t Make Me Think,” I’m sure everybody’s familiar with “Don’t Make Me Think.” “Don’t Make Me Think” is without a doubt, the best book on web usability ever, but I also think it’s one of the best books ever just on thinking.
And I called Steve and I said, “So what do you do to write a book?” And he gave me a lot of advice, he told me about agents, publishers, proposals. A whole bunch of good insights. And then he said, “There’s this other guy that you should call who a few years ago co-wrote a book which is the book on information architecture.” He said, “You should call my colleague Lou Rosenfeld, because Lou will be able to give you a whole lot more information about what it takes to actually write a book.” So I had never spoken to Lou, I called him up and I said, “Lou, you know, I want to work on this book.” And Lou was full of all kinds of ideas again, about agents, good or bad, publishers, good or bad, how do you do it.
So the fact is, here we are now, four years later, and I went ahead and I did write that book and the book has been very successful. It’s been very exciting, “The Back of the Napkin,” has done really well, which is wonderful, but the reality of it is, the success of the book is largely due enormous credit back to Lou and the information architect community because this is where I come from.
So about three or four months ago, Lou sent me an email asking if I would be interested in giving a talk at the Information Architect Summit and I said, “Absolutely.” I mean, this to me is like one of the most perfect opportunities to share this idea because in a way, I spend a lot of time talking to organizations that I don’t know anything about. And it’s kind of a scary thing, and we’ll go through several examples of that, so it’s very nice to be able to come and talk to a group of people where I at least like to think that we share an essential base of information of where we come from and where we’re starting from.
And that is not often the case when, I’ll, let me put it this way. The best part about writing a book, I know there are probably a lot of people in here who have done books. How many people here have written books and had them published? I know there’s a lot of people I’ve been meeting. Well I want to give all of you an enormous hand [applause] because I know what’s involved. It is an extraordinarily difficult thing. Writing the book itself, in my opinion is no fun at all. Writing the book is you’re alone, and you’re in your room with your computer or your drawing or whatever, it’s a very lonely process. But the best part about it is after you’ve done the book, then you get invited to go give talks. And then you get to share your idea with all kinds of companies and organizations.
So over the last, three years now, I really have had this extraordinary opportunity to share these ideas with this really incredibly array of businesses and organizations. And as I was mentioning before, in most cases I’ll go in and I don’t know a whole lot about these companies when I show up. So one recent example, this was already two years ago. I am no aeronautical engineer, but I had to go, a chance to go and give a workshop at Boeing, up in Seattle. And it was phenomenal for me because what I ended up doing was being able to spend about half a day with the project managers that are building, that are behind the 787, the new dreamliner that just had its first flight a couple of months ago.
It was magnificent because they explained to me, how do you build what is arguably the most sophisticated, advanced, meticulous machine that has ever been conceived and the amazing part is that it’s being built simultaneously in something like 23 different countries at the same time. And in 16 different languages. How do you build something that is both that big, that new, is built down to tolerances of less than hundreds of thousandths of an inch in 16 different languages? Well the answer is very simple, you do everything with pictures. Everything is being done with pictures. And I thought, “That was really interesting.”
More recently, another organization, one that I know absolutely nothing about but I had a chance to go in and address was the United States Senate. So the Senate, the New Policy Committee of the United States Senate, about a year ago, gosh, it’s a little more than a year ago now, asked me to come out and give a similar workshop. And I don’t have a background in politics, I think, I’d like to think that I have a vague understanding of how Washington, DC works. I know there are a bunch of people here from Washington, DC and I think you’ll agree with me that nobody really knows how Washington, DC works. I came out of this after, it was a wonderful session, I learned a tremendous amount, I’ll admit at the end, I still have no idea of what the Senate really does, but again, the motivator there was: Is it possible to find ways to communicate issues about complex policy through this use of simple pictures?
And I think that the answer is yes. And I think many of the people in the Senate now think that the answer is yes, too. So in the end, what I wanted to share with you is that I have a very simple proposition that I make to all of these different businesses and organizations. And it goes like this. No matter how good everything may be in our lives, or in our work, there is something that we all do have in common which is that not everything is perfect. I mean we all do have some problems.
Well the proposition that I’d like to make is very simple, and it’s this: Whatever our problems are, we can solve our problems with pictures. I mean this completely, it’s a very simple statement but I know it to be absolutely true. We can solve our problems with pictures. Now the reason I can say that as superficial as that sounds, and say it with such incredible conviction because I know it is true is because I have never seen this process not work.
That is to say, every single time people are working together on something, on addressing some problem or challenge or trying to understand a concept, and someone starts drawing out what the other people are talking about, every single time it helps everybody get together on understanding what the problem is. And more often than not, by virtue of creating that simple picture, everybody starts to then see, not what the problem is anymore, but already begins to see what the solution is going to be. It’s already inherent in the picture that you’re creating. We’ll talk more about this in detail.
But I also recognize, and I’m willing to guess that with an audience like this, I’m just going to go out on a limb and guess that probably for most of you what I’m saying right now is not really a surprise or is probably not very new. I’m going to guess that in a room full of information architects, if my experience is the same as yours, we probably are the people who spend the greatest amount of time of just about anybody trying to understand what is the nature of this big problem that the client has brought to us and we do it more often than not by really drawing things out.
I’m not talking about drawing beautiful pictures. I’m talking about maps, schematics, concept models, mind maps. How do I get all these ideas together in a way where I can see them? But that is not the nature of the audiences, what I’ve just said, is not the nature of the audiences that I’m usually talking to. Project managers, financial executives, CEOs. I’ll say, “We can solve problems with pictures,” and they look at me cross‑eyed, they say, “What are you completely out of your mind?”
What they’ll often to say, if they think that through, the really clever people will say “Dan, OK, I’m going to play with you for a moment. Let’s assume you’re right. We can solve problems with pictures. Let’s break that down into three component questions. Which problems are we talking about? Which pictures are we talking about?” And then the third most contentious of all, “Which people are we talking about?” You know, namely, who is going to do this, “Because let’s face it, you know, I’m not visual.” I like those three questions, and in fact, those three questions are really going to be the underpinning of everything we’ll talk about for the next hour or so.
And I’m just going to run through them. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes, super fast, executive summary answer to all three of them. “Which problems are we talking about?” Any problem. Think about it like this: Any problem that we have the ability to articulate at all, we have the ability to articulate infinitely more clearly through the use of pictures, which brings us to question number two. So “Which pictures are we talking about?” I mean, if these pictures are going to help us solve any problems we can conceive of, they must be really sophisticated pictures, right? That must require at a minimum years of training, and probably some really sophisticated and expensive computer software to create, right? Well, you know where I’m going. The answer is absolute not. The pictures are bone-headedly simple.
Now, back to what I had said a little bit earlier. Everybody should be sitting on a napkin. If you’re not, look under your bum and see if you can find a napkin, there should be a napkin somewhere around there. What I’d like you to do, does everyone have, we asked this once before, is there anybody in here that doesn’t have a writing instrument? OK, volunteers. Lou? You don’t have a pen. That’s excellent. Yay for the information architects.
All right, if anybody doesn’t have a pen, we have volunteers who will happily give you a pen. What I’d like you to do for a warm up exercise, we’re going to really work out this napkin, we’re going to use it several times.
So, just, the pictures are if you can draw a square, and how many of you don’t know this, and you can draw a circle, and you can draw an arrow connecting them, and the most challenge of all, of course, I’d like everyone to try, draw a little stick figure. Make it a happy stick figure. If you can draw those things, you can draw every picture that we’re going to talk about, which automatically answers this third question. “Now, who’s going to do this, because I’m not visual.” Yes, you are. Everybody is going to be able to do this. Let me just throw out a couple of data points right from the beginning for anybody who might still be a holdout against this idea that pictures can help us solve problems.
Of all the neurons in our brain that are processing incoming sensory information, so that is to say the entire capacity that we have for understanding the world around us through all of our senses for bringing the information in. Let’s do it with a picture. This is our entire sensory capacity. What percent of that is visual? Three quarters of those neurons is focused on vision. It is arguable and there are neuroscientists who do argue this that it could be said that if you take all of the capacity of our brain to do anything, the one category of stuff that we have the greatest capacity to do of anything is to see.
More of our brain is dedicated to that than any other single thing that we do. Vision is fundamentally what we’re about. I mean, for people who might still be holding out and saying “Oh I’m not visual,” let’s keep the bar really low. If you’re visual enough to walk into the room and sit down without falling down, you’re visual enough, because the process of doing that, the extraordinary process of doing that already tells us how amazing this system is that we have. So there you have it. Any problem, simple pictures, everybody.
Now, one of the things that I have learned, and this was not, this is not in my original book. This is in the unfolding book, the second book that came out, because this was something I learned in giving this talk or talks like this many many times, is I’ve been looking, and people have been bringing to me these underlying reasons, these unwritten rules of why visual problem solving really does work. And I’m going to take you, I’ve identified four of them, and I want to take you through two of them today. They really kind of represent the understructure of what it is we’re talking about.
Unwritten visual problem solving rule number one says this: “Whoever best describes the problem is the person most likely to solve the problem.” So the idea is this. If one of us were to go running into the boss’s office and say, “Oh my god, the sky is falling ‑ give me money to fix it,” they’ll probably throw us out. But if we went into the room and we said, “Look. I’ve created this map and it identifies who’s involved in this particular problem, how many of them are there, where are these things involved or these things involved, how do they overlap, when do they intersect and how do they intersect.” All of a sudden, the solution to the problem is probably going to be already very clear. So the mercenary subtext to this rule is, and this is absolutely true, “Whoever draws the best picture gets the funding.”
Dan Roam: I’m going to give you a couple of scary examples of this being true. Before I do, I want to do a quick little usability test, because for later on this will be important. Is there anybody in particular in the back of the room who cannot read the slide? This is the smallest text we’re going to have on any slide and there will be some later on that we’ll need to read. So if anybody’s having trouble reading this slide, please move up to the front if you can. Even bring a chair. Because we will need you to be able to read at least that size, so a little quick usability test. Now I want to give you an example of this rule. “Whoever draws the best picture gets the funding,” and it goes far deeper than that.
I want to start by just taking a little trip from where we are here in Phoenix. I live out here in San Francisco, so I flew here yesterday. We’re going to fly out to Washington, DC, but before we do that, does anyone want to know, guess, can anyone imagine why I’m using a Southwest Airlines napkin as my route map? If you know, don’t tell us. Because the greatest back of the napkin business success story of all time took place in 1967 back in San Antonio, Texas. There’s some people here from Texas, yes? There’s a few people from Texas, yeah.
All right, well back in 1967, two guys are sitting in a bar. The St. Antony’s Club in San Antonio. And they’re talking about a business idea. And one of the guys ‑ and I swear this is true. His name is Roland. Roland takes his ‑ we don’t know what they were drinking, but we knew what he drew because they saved the napkin. He said, “Look, here’s Texas. We have Houston down here. We have Dallas up here. And we have San Antonio over here. Why don’t we make an airline that just connects those cities?” And then he drew the triangle of fate.
That’s the kind of picture I’m talking about. That back of a napkin sketch became the basis for Southwest Airlines. Southwest Airlines was started on the back of that napkin. Southwest has gone on to be the most profitable and financially successful airline in history. To this day, it is the most financially successful airline in history. And in fact, dozens of other airlines, from jetBlue to Easy Jet over in Europe to Ryanair have all copied the Southwest model, all of which began with this very simply picture on the back of the napkin. So that’s why I like to use this napkin.
Anyway, back to DC, I was asked as I mentioned before to come out to the US Senate and give a talk. So it was the new policy committee. And before going to give the talk, as I hope all of us would do, I went in and tried to do some research so I could say I have lots of examples from business and information architecture about the use of simple pictures helping solve problems. But I need to find something from politics. But I couldn’t really find anything. I was doing my research, but I found something else that was really interesting and I want to share it with you.
This is a map of Mt. Vernon. This map was drawn, the date’s right up there, in 1776. Mt. Vernon, of course, was George Washington’s estate. Does anyone want to guess who might have drawn this map? It was George Washington’s estate. George Washington drew the map. I didn’t know this. George Washington was trained as a map maker, a surveyor, and a cartographer. And in his notebooks, they’re full of his sketches. I thought: “That’s pretty interesting, let’s continue this line of thinking.”
So here’s another one. This is White House stationery, this is actually Oval Office stationery. Someone is drawing a picture of a boat. It looks like a chessboard with an eraser, a flag that says “NATO” on it, blockade Cuba in a circle. Does anyone want to guess who might have been drawing these pictures? This was JFK. That’s right, John F. Kennedy was drawing these pictures during the Cuban Missile Crisis. These are the doodles that were taken from this notebook as he was talking on the phone, trying to avoid nuclear Armageddon.
Here’s an interesting one. Anyone want to guess what President might have drawn this? And what could that fellow have been thinking? Nixon, absolutely. Very good.
This was Richard Nixon. There have been studies done, sort of forensic IQ tests going back in time, trying to decipher what would have been to unearth, what would have been the IQ of various Presidents. It turns out that Nixon is probably one of the smartest people from an IQ perspective who’s ever been in the White House. But clearly that guy had a lot of issues.
Dan Roam:  You’ve really got to wonder what does that picture represent? Well now here’s a nice easy one.
Dan Roam: Who might have been drawing these pictures? That’s right. This was President Regan and I swear that was taken when he was in one of his cabinet meetings. Those were the pictures that he was drawing at that particular cabinet meeting.
Dan Roam:  So I thought that was very interesting. Those were nice pictures, they’re kind of funny, they’re kind of interesting. After the talk, a guy named Doug Steiger, who’s the head of new policy for the Democratic side of the senate‑‑came up to me and said, “Dan, great talk. Thank you. But I’m going to tell you the best political back of the napkin story ever.” He told me the story and I have checked it out. It’s absolutely true. It involves a guy who is an economist back in the ’70s named Arthur Laffer, who was with USC. But he was a consultant in Washingto,n DC in the ’70s. So Laffer is sitting in a bar again, in DC, with two other guys from the administration, that time President Ford administration. Again, we don’t know what they were drinking but we do know what they were drawing. They got talking about taxation. Laffer on his napkin drew the following picture. It’s a simple X‑Y plot, same thing many of us have drawn thousands of times, I’m sure. On the horizontal axis he plotted out the percent tax rate that the US Government is going to charge us on our income from 0% up to 100%. On the vertical axis, he plotted out the amount of money that the government actually collects in taxation from lots and lots of money down to no money.
He said, “OK. So guys,” and it was all men at that time, they’re all sitting at the bar, the boy’s club. He says, “Think about this. If the government charges 0% income tax, how much money is the government going to make? 0%.” He said, “But think about this, if the government charges us 100% income tax, how much money is the government going to make? Also zero, because no one will work.” If we have to pay 100% of our income back as tax, what’s the point? I’m not going to work at all. So then he drew something which became known as the Laffer curve. He drew a curve and said, “In fact there is some curve that connects these and isn’t it interesting that at some point, reducing the rate of taxation actually increases the amount of money that the government collects.”
Now the guys who were with him at the table found this fascinating. “Take us through that again.” Reducing taxes increases government collections. Wow! They really liked that. “Can we take that napkin?” He said, “Absolutely.” These two guys took it back with them to their boss. They were both chiefs of staff of President Ford. They gave him that napkin. They said look at this idea. That napkin made its way into the hands of the Republican National committee and into the hands of the Regan economic team. That napkin became the basis of Reaganomics, of supply side economics. The idea particular being, reducing the rate of taxation in particular for the most wealthy increases activity in the market and increases the amount of money that the government actually collects.
That napkin sketch became the basis of Reaganomics. Regan, as much as I may make fun of him with his doodles, when someone would come to him and say, “Wait a minute. Tell me this again. You’re reducing taxes in order to increase revenue for the government? How does that work?” He would draw that picture, pretty convincing picture.
Now, the interesting thing is that these two guys who were sitting at the table with Arthur Laffer that night are these two guys.
Who says a simple sketch on the back of a napkin does not have extraordinary influence? It absolutely does. Whoever draws the picture gets the funding. Whoever draws the best explanation, of the idea is the one that people will believe. Why? Because it’s simple. I can understand it.
Now the Laffer curve, ever since has been debated endlessly. Where is the curve? Is the fundamental assumption correct? Doesn’t matter. He drew the picture. That’s the picture that wins.
Now, moving along, we are obviously in a new era. Who might have drawn this picture? Exactly right. President Obama drew this picture. Turns out, our President can draw extraordinarily well. It turns out also that our President is left handed. Now that by and of itself doesn’t mean anything. But we do know that there appears to be some correlation between people who are left‑handed and may be more spatial in their thinking.
Get this, I just did this math the other day. Five of the last seven US Presidents have been left handed. That is a really crazy number. Five of the last seven. Regan was a forced righty. He was naturally left handed. But through education, at that time was forced to become right handed. So Obama, Clinton, Papa Bush, Regan and Ford were all left handed Presidents. Pretty remarkable when you think about it.
So the question I have… Regardless of your feelings about our present administration might be, I think everybody can acknowledge, and I have said this, all over the country, everybody agrees that President Obama is one of the greatest public speakers that anybody’s ever seen. There’s no question that verbally, he’s one of the most articulate and passionate conveyers of information and thoughts we’ve ever had.
But the question I have is given the fact that he can draw, and draw extraordinarily well, why is it that he’s not drawing pictures to help explain some of the extraordinarily difficult problems that we’re facing? Whether it’s the economy, whether it’s global climate change, whether it’s Afghanistan. All of these challenges, and in particular I want to focus for a few moments on healthcare. This is not going to become a political conversation, I promise you.
Regardless of where you may fall on the political spectrum around your feelings of this healthcare so called debate that has taken place over the last year‑‑the intent from all people involved could not have been the anger and anxiety that we have seen exhibited in the last few months. By no stretch of the imagination could this have been the intent.
This horrible anger, that’s splitting the country around healthcare just doesn’t make any sense. I think the real problem, and I know this is true, the real problem is not so much accepting a lunatic fringe all over the place, accepting that the problem isn’t that people disagree with what’s being said in Washington. The problem is that people don’t understand what is being said in Washington.
We all know healthcare passed. How many people in here are confident that they understand what the new healthcare bill actually says? We’ve had this battle that’s become in some people’s mind, the virtual new civil war regarding healthcare. But nobody understands what the actual legislation is about. That is the fault of our elected officials. Why is President Obama not drawing a picture? We’ll talk this through in great detail.
Instead, I want to know what it is that DC is actually conveying to us in terms of their information. Talk about information architecture. This is the actual house bill passed back in October. The house healthcare bill. You can download all of these things online. I downloaded it. I said this represents this enormous shift in the way American government is handled that will impact all of us. This is an important piece of government documentation. Someone must have the vision. I use that word intentionally. The vision of what this healthcare reform is about. What does it actually look like? Why are we changing what we have now? Good or bad as it may be for something else. There must be a picture.
Well, I thought, “This is an important government document. So of course, nobody is going to put a picture, a sight map, a mind map on the fist page.” So I continued looking and no, there are no charts or diagrams or maps or vision documents, images anywhere in the first eight pages. Not in the first 64 pages.
Dan Roam:  Not in the first 200 pages. Nowhere in the 1,447 pages, there’s not a chart, there’s not a graph, there’s not a sight map. There’s not a single diagram that says this visually is what it means to shift from this particular model to this particular model. This is an unreadable document. Nobody can understand it.
Is it any wonder that [laughs] some people would claim we’re on the verge of civil war about this. Because nobody actually understands what’s in it. I thought, putting my money where my mouth is, what would happen if someone tried to draw some pictures of what this healthcare debate is actually about? Now, I thought, I’ll do it. Why not? I have worked with healthcare companies in the past as a consultant. I know just enough to be really dangerous but the good new is I have met healthcare consultants who know a lot.
So I called one of the best, one of the smartest consultants I’ve ever worked with, a guy named Tony Jones, that Jennifer, you would know, who is a health care consultant, he’s an MD and an MBA, pretty interesting fellow, pretty interesting mix. Tony’s office is down in LA. I said, “Tony, I’m flying down there. I’m bringing along copies of the legislation,” this is about seven months ago, now. “And we are going to lock ourselves in your office with the white boards and we are not leaving until we’ve created a set of simple pictures that explain what is the business of health care in America today, what is the actual legislation that’s being debated, not about killing grandma and death panels, but the actual legislation that’s being debated, and how does that map into how the model might change.”
And so we did that. And I’m not going to take you through the whole thing, but I want to show you a couple of pictures that I excerpted from that document.
One of them, was this picture, which kind of lays the base out and says the number one thing we all need to understand baseline is that health care in America, unlike any other developed economy on earth, remains a business. It is all a profit driven business, that is in our DNA and that is what people at the end are really arguing about is whether health care should be a business or should it not. It boils down to that. But the real issues is it’s not just one business, it’s two businesses that are completely distinct.
One of those businesses is the business of the providers. These are the doctors and the hospitals and the pharma companies. Businesses that make money by making people healthy. At the other end is the business of the payer. These are the insurance companies. These are the organizations who make their profit by handling the payment of all of the money through this system. These two businesses hate each other because as a tax paying employed citizen, I am the only source of money going into this system. There is no other money miraculously being created. As an employed, tax paying person, I am the only one putting money into the system.
The doctors, the providers want more of my money to be able to do good things with that money and to earn a profit, fair enough, that’s what we do, and the health care companies want more of my money to be able to do good things and earn a profit because that’s what we do. It is getting so bad that I am running out of money, my business is failing because there’s not enough money to provide both sides in this equation, so government decides it’s time to step in and help. And to do that through regulation. And as you look at all of the legislation that was being debated, ninety five percent of it did not focus, anywhere on the doctor, on the provider side of the equation. All of the reform was focused on the insurance side of the equation. We’re going to reform the insurance companies.
In hindsight, I believe had the White House called this not “Health reform,” but “Insurance reform,” it would have passed without anyone batting an eye in a few months because everybody hates their insurance company.
In the end you could take all of the legislation that was being debated and map it onto a very simple spectrum from completely private, not restrictive, unregulated, unlegislated, private insurance, which is what the conservative side really wanted, all the way through a purely government owned, national health service kind of a model, which is never what the White House wanted. The White House initially wanted to have a private insurance supported by a public option as well. And you could map all of the legislation across this spectrum.
Now what we’ve ended up with, what has just passed is something like this. Health insurance companies are no longer able to throw you out because of pre‑existing conditions, or because you hit a limit, so what’s happened is that some of the regulations have been taken, have been put on them but there is no government option. So in the end that’s what we’ve ended up with. It’s debatable whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing but at least something.
So the long story short, I don’t want to go any further than that, is to say, I created that presentation about health care, I posted it on SlideShare, you all know SlideShare, it’s gotten a quarter of a million downloads. Now, that’s nothing compared to Lady Gaga’s new video or something, but let’s face it, this, now get this, this is a PowerPoint document about health care. What could be more boring on earth?
Yet we’ve got a quarter of a million downloads of people. And the comments are saying, regardless of where they come in on the political spectrum and believe me the comments come in from all sides of the political spectrum, some of them are scary. They all say at least, “Thank you for having clarified through these simple pictures what the essentials of the health care debate are actually about. Now that we understand what we’re debating, now we can eviscerate each other. At least now we know why we’re trying to kill each other. Thank you for clarifying that, now we know why.”
So it got picked up by the Huffington Post and then the Washington Post and then I get a call from Fox News. Now I had been on Fox before and yes, it’s Fox, now, I live in San Francisco‑ I know there’s someone here, from looking through the list of attendees, there are at least two people here who are from the Fox network so I need to be careful what I say.
I think in San Francisco that we have this sort of electromagnetic pulse signal that we send out that blocks the Fox signal from coming into the city. I don’t think it works all the time, but I’ve got to admit, I love going on Fox because they’re the people who like the drawings. So Fox asked me to come on in a prime time, this is remarkable, they gave me seven minutes on prime time, 5:00 PM. Eastern Standard Time, on Fox Business Channel to explain with my pictures to the Fox audience the essentials of American health care. And I thought, “This is magnificent. How wonderful is that?” We had a good time and people understood it, I think.
So then I get a call. Does anyone know where this is? Yeah. So then I get a call from the White House Office of Communication saying, “Dan, we have to talk.” You know, so I went to the meeting and it didn’t actually take place in the White House, it took place in the coffee shop across the street. It’s all very, you know, sort of, “All the President’s Men,” cloak and dagger sort of stuff. Because it turns out that the White House cannot hire consultants.
Has anybody every worked with the White House? Anybody here who’s had experience working with the White House? It’s very difficult for the White House to hire consultants because of issues around transparency, we want to make sure that every contract is vetted appropriately and it’s very challenging.
So what’s been happening is, we have started some discussions on how it might be possible to use these kind of simple pictures to clarify policy, not so much with the White House but through, interestingly enough, some of the government departments. And the two departments that I was told and have been helped a little bit to get into that are the most open to this kind of innovative thinking are the Department of Defense and the Department of State.
So I’ve had a little bit of an opportunity to work with the Department of Defense and I’ve got to tell you, it’s fascinating. It’s really interesting. Because these are the people, when I talked about bigger problems, I mean, the problems that need to be addressed are in some ways a little bit beyond the scope of what I remember as a consultant typically would be the scope of a problem that a client would bring to me. And it’s pretty fascinating to be involved in that a little bit.
So the question becomes, you know, why is it, if we have all these Presidents who are not drawing who could, why might that be? And I’m not going to buy the answer that it’s because we’re not visual. We’ve already proven that President Obama is visual, we know that. We know everybody’s visual. So why is it that the communications that come out of Washington are so difficult to understand? I mean there’s probably a lot of reasons, but here’s one thing that I’ve come up with.
We’re going to do a test here, in a moment. I have found in something like, 450 meetings or something, that in doing the test that we’re about to do, it does turn out that pretty much everybody falls across a very simple spectrum in terms of how we approach problems from a visual perspective. What I’ve found, I’m going to give you the result first and then we’ll do the test and see how the test matches to the result. What I tell you now will have zero impact on how you actually take the test.
What I have found is that in any meeting, it doesn’t matter what the industry is, what the level of people’s position within the company is within the meeting, whether they’re executives or newbies, you find that in any meeting, typically about 25 percent of the people, you get this really nice bell curve distribution, about twenty five percent are what we’re going to call a “Black pen person.”
Now just to give you a little, very quick overview. A black pen person, we black pen people are the ones who can’t wait after the meeting’s started, we can’t wait to run up to the white board and start drawing out ideas. And say, “Wait a minute, is this what we’re talking about?” And we know who we are.
About 50 percent of the people are what I’m going to call a “Yellow pen person,” a highlighter. These are, we are the people, we yellow pen people, who are sitting there watching this other person drawing and we’re kind of inspired by what we’re seeing. Our mind starts moving thinking, “Oh, there’s something there,” and we, every single time, invariably, it’s always the same, we stand up and say, “I can’t draw, but,” and then we say, “Do you mind if I add something?” What happens is, that’s why I call these like the highlighters, the yellow pen people, are really good sussing out in someone else’s drawing the area that’s really interesting to explore, and then we’ll maybe create our own little picture over here of that area and say, “This, I think, is worth pursuing.”
Now we’ve got a great combination between the two, between the black and the yellow pen people of creating this picture that is both big picture and starting to get into some of the details.
Well, for those of you with a statistics background, you’ll notice [laughter] that we’re missing about 25 percent of our people, we red pen people. And we are the ones who are watching these other idiots up there at the white board thinking, “You know, frankly this is all a bunch of crap because they’re so grossly oversimplifying the problem, they’re probably making it worse.”
I don’t mean to point a finger because we all wear these different hats at different times, but we red pen people are the ones who really do have the greatest grasp of the details and the facts. It really bothers us. It’s just horrible to see these simple pictures being created that are missing so many of the nuances and the important critical details.
But what did we remember from before? The person who draws the picture wins. We’ve got to get these red pen people. We have to participate. So here’s what we’re going to do now. We’re going to do a test. On your napkins what I’d like you to do is follow along with me for a few minutes as we’re going to do a test.
What’s going to happen is I’m going to ask you a series of questions. Here’s why in that usability test I wanted to make sure that everybody was able to read the projector. If there’s anybody who can’t read that size of type, I’m going to need you to move up to the front. We’re going to go through a series of questions.
I will pose a scenario like this one that says, “I’m in a brainstorming session in a conference room that has a white board.” Then I’ll present you a series of possible answers. What I’d like you to do is read through the five possible answers, pick the one that’s closest to what you would do, and write down that number on your napkin.
My wife used to be an art director at “Cosmopolitan Magazine,” and I always like to think of this for anybody who’s ever read “Cosmopolitan Magazine.” This is like the “Cosmo Sex Quiz.”
Dan Roam: Here’s the scenario. Here’s what we’re going to do. So think about it like that only without the sex part.
Dan Roam: So again, Question #1. I’m in a brainstorming session. There’s a white board. Here’s what I do. And I’ll give you a minute or so for each one. Does anybody need any more time? Are we all good? We go on to the next one? Someone hands me a pen and asks me to sketch out a particular idea.
Dan Roam: I saw a gentleman yesterday who had this beautiful bandolier. Who’s the gentleman with like 46 markers? That thing’s amazing. I saw it from the elevator from the 10th floor coming down. It was beautiful. Is that bandolier here in the room? Can we show it? Whoever has that, would you mind showing us what you have?
Hmm? Not here?
Dan Roam: All right. Well, does anyone know who’s the guy who has it?
Jennifer: Jess McGraw.
Dan Roam: Jess?
Jennifer: Jess McGraw.
Dan Roam: Find Jess. Jess, are you here? Oh. You don’t have the bandolier with you?
Jennifer:  The pens.
Dan Roam: Your pens? Everybody, I want you to accost this man later on and take a look at this.
Dan Roam: All right. Are we getting through here? Anybody need more time? A couple more seconds? The next scenario. Someone hands me a complicated spreadsheet and asks me to look it over. OK. I’m going to press on. Just a couple more. Traveling home from a conference, perhaps even this conference, I’m in the airport. I run into someone who I saw at the conference and they say, “Oh, I forget. Your name? Yes, Mary. And what do you do again?” I…? Explaining what I do. Explaining what my job is now.
Dan Roam: And you know what? As of this morning we’re going to change question number three to now say, “I pull out my iPad.”
Dan Roam: All right. We have one more to go. Everybody good? This is an easy one because we’ve all been there. I’m an astronaut floating in space. The first thing I do is…? Keep your comments to yourself. For now. You know who I’m talking to. As you go through that, we’re going to total these up. We’re now done with our test. But before we do, and there’s someone in the room who already said it, so I want you to be very quiet. By a show of hands, how many people noticed something odd in the sequencing of those questions? Raise your hand if you did. OK, so a quarter of the room.
The person who shouted it out, what’s the problem with the sequencing of the questions? There is no Question E. There was no Question E. We went from D to F. Now the reason why that is is because I was asked to come and give a two day conference at Pfizer out in New York. This was a couple years ago now.
Day One I was going to talk to the business strategy people, and on Day Two I was going to talk to the project management people. And on the flight out, I was going through the presentation one more time. I was doing exactly what you’re not supposed to do: sit on the plane going through my PowerPoint.
I thought, “This is just too long.” So I just started pulling pages out. And one of the pages was one of these questions. But I didn’t think to renumber the sequence. So I pulled E, threw it away, and didn’t think to renumber it.
The first day again was with the business strategy people. We did the test. We blew through it. Nobody said anything. The next day was with the project management people. As we were going through it, when I jumped from D to F, everybody in the room said, “Wait! Where’s E?”
Dan Roam: And I thought, “This is more important than the test itself!” The business strategy people, none of them either noticed or cared that there was no E.
Dan Roam: And the project management people, we could not move on until we’d resolved [laughter] the issue of the missing E. I think that’s more telling. So here’s the deal. What I’d like you to do is add up your numbers, and we’re just going to do a quick show of hands. Add them all up. How many people identified themselves as a “Black pen person?” OK, we’ve got, oh, I’d say it’s about a fifth or a sixth of the room. Let’s call it five percent. How many people identified themselves as a “Yellow pen person?” OK, it’s a lot. Let’s go to the other end. How many people identified themselves as a “Red pen person?” OK, it’s roughly…wait! Those hands didn’t stay up very long. It’s OK to be a red pen person.
Dan Roam: I’m a red pen person half the time. You should see what the editor’s like. So I’d say that it’s less. It’s maybe 10 percent. But we still get a distribution, so we get something like this. It’s a little bit less. It’s a little bit bigger and then a little bit less like that. Now here’s the scary thing. Why is it that nobody in Washington, DC draws pictures? It goes back to our educational system. I gave this test. I have given this test, as I mentioned, hundreds of times now and the answer is always some kind of distribution as we’ve seen. Most people are in the middle, and then you get some spread out over the sides, with one exception.
It blew my mind, and I swear to God that this is true. I gave a talk to the NEA, the National Education Association. Teachers and academic administrators, 150 people in the room. Every single person, the same test you just did, identified themselves as a “Red pen person.”
Our educational system! And who knows what is the cause and effect here? Where is the finger to be pointed? We don’t know. But what we can derive from this is in this limited test, highly invalid, highly suspect, but nevertheless compelling.
Dan Roam: If our teachers and our academic administrators 100 percent believe that a picture is not a particularly valid way to convey an idea, and that is wildly off from the distribution of how we actually believe we should solve problems, no wonder we’re afraid to draw. No wonder from the age of six no one is encouraged to continue to use visual problem solving as a viable way to test intelligence. The SAT test includes critical reading, writing, and math. Your determination of whether you’ll get into your university has absolutely nothing to do with your ability to visually solve a problem, absolutely nothing to do. No wonder that by the time people ascend to the level of leadership, this is not going to happen.
And that is an enormous mistake because what it means is every time when we finally do get pictures in a business meeting, they all look like this. Why is it that given this broad range of visual talents and abilities that we have, when it comes time to communicating in a business setting this is what we always get?
In all fairness for those of us in the room, when it comes time to visual communicating, this is often what we generate. How many people have ever made a picture that maybe looks something like that? My beautiful site map that I labored over for weeks, and then I showed it to the client and they ran out of the room?
Dan Roam: Now I debated heavily whether I show you the next picture or not. I’m going to show it to you. This is a picture I don’t like. This happens to be the poster that all of us were given. I didn’t know that until last night. Who am I sitting with at dinner but Dave Gray, of X‑Plane who’s company made the poster. I’m thinking, “Oh God! I love this picture. I love to look at it. It’s beautiful and wonderful. It does absolutely nothing to me to explain how a website gets made which is what the picture’s about.” I think the type of pictures that I’m talking about, this is not what we want to be doing. Now, I ran, I told Dave I was going to show it anyway. He said that was OK. Is it still OK that I show it? OK.
Dan Roam: It’s beautiful, make no mistake. I have made pictures like this and I love doing them. But I’ve got to realize that it’s same with my beautiful sight map that I worked on for so many days. The intention, at the level I’m talking about, this is not every level but at the level that I’m talking about now, is to communicate ‑‑ to get what’s in my head into your head in the fastest, most efficient and most believable way possible. If I wanted to explain how a website got made, I would not do something like this. What I hope I would be able to do one day is to make something that’s very simple. So again, point being this simple picture on the back of a napkin. Now, for the rest of this session, we have about half an hour to go. I want you on your napkin to follow along with me as we figure out a way to draw a simple picture, a napkin picture of any problem that we can conceive of.
Here’s how we’re going to start. This is the way we start. Every back of the napkin problem solving picture, every single one, we don’t think about what our in‑goal’s going to be. No. Nor do we think about how would I even start. We remove that from the equation. We start always the same way. Just draw a circle. In the upper‑left hand corner draw a circle. This is the way I recommend starting every picture no matter what it’s about. Draw a circle and then give it a name.
In this particular case, call it “Me.” For a little extra credit, go ahead and make it look like me or you. Then we draw a second circle and make this one bigger and kind of fluffy down here in the middle. We’re going to label this one “My problem.” Now what’s happening is by virtue of our making these simple drawings on that napkin, and our being able to see them, a whole bunch of channels, neurobiologically speaking, in our brain are now opening up that would not have opened up if we just talked about it.
If I told you, “Imagine a relatively small circle at the upper left hand side of your page with a label ‘Me’ under it, and now imagine a bigger circle in the middle that’s called ‘My problem’,” an entirely different set of neurons are firing than are when we draw the picture. When we can actually see it and talk about it. We’ve now got all cylinders firing. What our brain really loves to do, and this is why PowerPoints so often do fail, our brain more than anything else gets excited when it understands something. The same kind of endorphins and dopamine that fire off when we get really excited are the same ones that fire off when we understand something.
When we suddenly have that “Oh my God, I get it!” moment, it’s like a shiver goes down the back of our spine. Our brain wants to understand. When someone gets up in front of us and starts to present something, we really want to get it. So our job as the communicator is to eliminate every thing from what we’re showing that’s going to stop the person from getting it. Because we want them to understand it.
So our brain is now ready by drawing these simple little pictures. We want to know what the connection between them is. Why is one bigger than the other one? What’s the next circle going to be? Our brain is already primed and ready to go and with our brain primed I want to stop and tell you a quick story. This is a story… The summary will be a picture that shows how all of this stuff works.
This is a story about two more business people. This is a guy named Ron Walton who is the son of Sam Walton and is the chairman of the world’s largest corporation, otherwise known as Wal Mart. This is Peter Seligman, who is the head of Conservation International, the world’s largest conservation organization. Now, by rights, these two guys should have nothing to do with each other. They should probably, according to our business beliefs, probably hate each other. Because one wants to consume and sell and the other wants to conserve. Well, the two of them are very good friends. The reason for that is because they both like to track outdoors with their family. They like to spend a lot of time traveling outdoors.
One time when they were on a trip, not planned, they happened to meet. This was up at the Northwest Passage. Both of them were on different expeditions that were looking at the ice pack and they met. They started traveling together because they hit it off. Peter Seligman started taking Rob Walton’s family to places where you could see, you could literally see, the impact that humanity has had on the planet in terms of climate change.
So one of the places again, that they continued to visit is Northwest Passage where for the first time in recorded history, the ice has broken up. You can now sail through it without having to stop, which you couldn’t do before, or though go down to the Amazon rain forest, which we talk about, we talk about deforestation. But they would go and look at it and they will see it. Of course, the intent here from Peter Seligman’s side was to motivate the Walton family to understand that there is a connection between human consumption and our impact on the planet, and to see it. Well, it worked.
Because after some of these trips, Mr. Walton said to Mr. Seligman, “OK. I get it. I want the Walton foundation… We’re going to give you 40 million dollars as a start to do whatever you want with at Conservation International.” Mr. Seligman said, “I don’t want your $40 million. I mean that would be lovely. But I’d like something else from you. I would like you a commitment from you that you will at least think about instilling within your organization to the degree that you can some sort of understanding of what environmental sustainability might mean.”
“You’ve got the world’s biggest company. You’ve got the world’s most complex supply chain.”
“You’ve got the world’s best ability to be efficient in delivering products to market. What would happen if you started to make every little step, somewhat more sustainable?”
Mr. Walton said, “OK. I’ll try it. But the guy we have to convince is Lee Scot.” He’s the CEO of Wal Mart or at least he was up until six months ago and he left on a good note. Because he was generally considered to be a pretty successful CEO. Let’s face it, in the end of the day, Lee Scot doesn’t answer to the environment, he answers to his share holders. If whatever he decides to do isn’t profitable for them, it’s not going to fly. So he’s the guy that we really need to convince.
So they did a test project, a pilot project, ‑where they said, “OK. What’s a product we can make that’s environmentally sustainable, that we can test to see if it’s profitable or not?” So they made organic cotton Yoga wear, believe it or not. That’s what Wal Mart decided to do. So they created a new line. They went out and they bought almost the entire organic cotton crop of Turkey which is the world’s largest provider of organic cotton. They made Yoga wear and sold out in three months at enormous profit. So they’re certain he’s convinced, from a business perspective‑‑being more environmentally aware actually could work.
Then in 2005, Katrina took place, wiping out New Orleans. As we all know, FEMA was not particularly agile on its feet in responding to that catastrophe, but Wal Mart was. Wal Mart was down there instantly, with hundreds and hundreds of truck loads of food and water that they were sending down and the way that, at least, Scot described it. I met him and he gave a talk. This is a couple of years ago. Now it was pretty inspiring. He said, “These are our people. If you look at the citizens of New Orleans, these are the life blood of an organization like Wal Mart. This is where we’re from, this is who we are. We are not going to let our own people go down.” So on their own, purely philanthropically, I believe that, they just sent materials, truck loads, food, water, building materials, you name it. They were the first responders to help people out in New Orleans until the federal government kind of got its act together.
What Lee Scot was saying at this talk is, “Why can’t we be the company that we were during Katrina? Why can’t we do that every day? And I don’t mean giving stuff away, but I mean being that thoughtful about what we do.” So he decided to go ahead and make Wal Mart become a flagship company for environmental sustainability. Depending on whether you like Wal Mart, you believe it. Or whether you don’t like Wal Mart, you think it’s all a bunch of crap. It’s a bunch of green washing.
Now let’s face it, there are two kinds of people on earth. There are people who love Wal Mart and there are people who hate Wal Mart. And they will never mix, and they will never change their mind. So what Wal Mart said is, “Look we’ve got to come up with a simple message to explain what environmental sustainability does actually mean from our perspective.”
They put out a tender to a bunch of PR companies and design organizations and what not. I had a friend at Wal Mart who handed me a copy of the RFP. The problem is all Wal Mart has is a tremendous amount of data. It’s not emotionally sexy, it doesn’t make any difference to you, we can’t understand it. So I said, “Why don’t we…,” in my response, “just create a set of pictures that make the data visual, so that we can understand it at a root level.” And among other things, “Why don’t we make a simple little model of the Wal Mart supply chain that actually shows how it all works and it’s too big to understand on a global basis. So let’s make an essentially like a little scale model. Like I would have made as a kid that just is a sliver of the entire supply chain. Then we can look at it in more detail and understand what would work.”
This was my proposal to them and I won the contract based on these little drawings. So in the end that’s what we did. We built this beautiful little 3D model that this is all of the aspects that make Wal Mart operate, from stores to transport to production to disposal and all of that. Then that model, you could break up into these different layers. Each layer represents a different aspect of environmental sustainability from carbon output to electricity consumption.
Then from those models you would be able to build visuals that people could understand. So instead of a big table of data that no one understands, this is how much CO2 is put up by Wal Mart around the world on a comparative basis. So you can suddenly see how much CO2 is put up in the United States versus how much is put out in Japan versus the UK.
But the point I wanted to make is that those were not the pictures. I love those. Those were a little bit like the X‑Plane pictures. In fact I was always inspired by X‑Plane, these beautiful little 3D models. But I realized in hindsight, those were not the pictures that mattered. The pictures that mattered were the pictures that we were drawing in the executive meetings. These extraordinarily simple little sketches, that said, “Wait a minute, if we break it up into these layers and each layer we can come up with some way of visually showing if this is how much we consume today, this is what we’ll consume tomorrow.”
This is the picture that actually made the difference because this is the picture that the decision maker’s really got. Which brings us to our second unwritten rule of visual problem solving. The more human your picture, the more human your response. Which really means we like to look at things that match the way our mind sees. I want to do a little test of this for a moment. Then I’ll run quickly through helping you figure out the rest of our napkin picture. Hopefully leaving enough time for a little bit of Q&A.
There are going to be four pictures that I’m going to show you. They’re all very simple. They’ll look very much like this one. I’d like you to look at this picture for a couple of moments and just see what you see. Now I’m going to move to the next picture. This is A. I now want to show you picture B. This is B. I’m going to move back and forth. This is not a test. I want people to really see what’s going on here. I want you to notice that some things have changed. I’m going back to A now. This is picture A and this is picture B.
Does everybody see that somethings have changed? How much time do you think might have passed from picture A to picture B? Is it a day? A few seconds? A few minutes, OK. Now I’m going to show you picture C.
Dan Roam: Something obviously has happened. Now I’m going to show you picture D. Something else has happened. How much time do you think might have passed between picture C and picture D? A few hours, OK. That’s all that we’re going to do for that little test. But as were through what just happened? A pretty amazing thing just happened. Look at how simple these pictures are. They’re nothing but some stick figures drawn in black. There’s no color. There’s no shading. There’s no drop shadows. There’s no 3D effects. There’s no color at all.
And yet, as extraordinarily simple as these pictures are, we just saw every major fundamental aspect of our visual processing system kick into action. It takes such an extraordinarily limited amount of information for us to activate every major processing center that we have. What I mean by that is as we learn more about the neurobiology of vision, we’re beginning to understand that vision is an extraordinarily complicated process, “Duh!” The more we understand about it, the more complicated it becomes. But there are a couple of things that we do know. Vision works as both a serial and a parallel process. That is to say the amount of information that is out there for us to process every second is overwhelming to our brain. We don’t have the capacity to process everything that’s out there.
So what our system has evolved is to be able to split up the entire work among a number of different work streams. So one of those work streams is called the “What pathway,” and this is the real name. It’s called the “What pathway.” Another work stream is called the “Where pathway.” Another one is called the “How pathway.”
One could make the argument, and I’ve had this argument with a handful of neurobiologists. They’ve all agreed that it’s fundamentally correct. One could make the argument that essentially the way we see the world is we break it up into six different work streams.
We process most of them independently and simultaneously. Then we stitch them back together in order to create the entire picture of the world that we see in front of us. There’s a reason why I’m telling you all of this. It’s something that I like to call the “6 by 6” rule. It tells us this, “To create a picture of any problem that we can conceive of we do not need to know how to draw hundreds of different kinds of pictures. We need to draw how to draw six.”
The rationale is if our vision system already breaks the world up into six different streams for processing, all we need to do to convey an idea is make one picture that taps into each one of those streams, shows that stream the information it needs to create the whole picture. Now we’re going to go through this on a napkin for the rest of our time.
I’m going to do this fast. We’ve got about 10 minutes more to go. Then I’ll leave time for some Q&A. So we’re out of here by 10:15. But back to our napkin now. What I’d like you to do is slice our problem up into six slices. Just like a pizza. We don’t have to think of our problem as one big scary thing that we can’t understand. We’re going to slice it up into six different slices exactly the way our visual system does and break it down into pieces.
The first one is the who and the what. This is what’s triggered by the what pathway. What the what pathway does is that it recognizes the things in front of us. It says, “Oh, that’s Dave. Oh, that’s a light. That’s a door.” Think about this as the nouns of our world. That’s what the what pathway does. It identifies the things that we see in front of us. The picture that we would draw to represent that slice is just a simple portrait. What I mean by that is, “Here’s a man. Here’s a woman. Here’s a car. Here’s a box.” Just a little simple portrait. The most basic thing that we need. Just enough information for us to understand what is the thing that we’re describing. That’s pathway number one.
Here’s an example. This is something called the “Wong Baker faces scale.” This is used in emergency rooms. This is developed by two doctors for use in places where there may be a language problem or people may not be verbal at all. The doctors trying to diagnose what’s wrong with this patient and they can’t communicate verbally. Well the doctor points to a part of the patient’s body and the patient points to… This very simple portrait conveys a tremendous amount of information. The simpler it is the more information it actually conveys. The more essential it is the faster we tap in to what is the difference between this and this.
Here’s a very simple little portrait. This represents a visual description of the second most important financial decision that most Americans will make. You’re wondering what I’m talking about? Well, am I going to buy an automatic or a manual? Very simple little picture. How’s that for manual?
Slice number two, the how much pathway. Doesn’t know what things are, it’s triggered by what things are because then it starts to count them, loves to count. We’re really good at counting. We’re really good at counting up to five. For most all of us, if we were to take and make little piles of things, pennies or marbles on the floor, and then look at them, the maximum number that most of us could look at and know how many it was without counting would be five. Our mind is really happy with that. Because once we get to six we have to stop and count. Our mind, remember it’s trying to process everything as fast as it can. It doesn’t like to stop and have to count it wants to just see it.
So what the how much pathway is doing is it’s trying to make guesstimates of quantity. That’s what it is doing. So the picture that we would draw if we want to reflect the how much statement, or how much is a chart, a visual representation of quantity. That’s what charts are for. So here’s a chart. This happens to show the price of tea in China.
Here is a little pie chart and yes I think pie charts are just fine. Dr. Tough Tea will have to argue that later. This is a little chart that shows the typical break down in a meeting, in a typical meeting, of how people go about solving problems visually.
The where pathway now. Slice number three. This one’s really cool. It has no idea of what anything is. But it knows where everything is. Completely distinct pathway separated by 30 million years of evolution from the part of our brain that identifies what an object is, the part that knows where it is. Has no idea what stuff is but it knows what its proximity to me is and it’s proximity to something else.
The image of what you can imagine this would look like, has anybody ever seen like a sonar scan picture or a radar scan? You don’t know what the objects are but you see shades of gray that indicate how far away they are? That’s kind of what our where pathway sees. Doesn’t know, doesn’t have a clue that that might be a person, that that might be Dave, but it knows there’s something 3‑ feet away from me, slightly below me, not moving towards me, “I probably don’t need to run.” That’s what our where pathway does.
The picture that we would draw to reflect a where problem is a simple little map. So say here’s my home, here’s the river and here’s where the treasure is buried. A simple little map that shows where things are located. A map can show where all the pieces fit, a map, of course, can show, we know this, talking, preaching to the choir here, a map can show where all the pieces fit within an organization or within a site map, we make maps all the time.
But think about what a map is doing, it’s doing one thing, it’s showing us where things are. A Venn Diagram? It’s just a map. It’s not showing a geographical region but it’s showing a conceptual region. Where do these ideas overlap?
When? Things now get really interesting, slice number four. We’ve come all the way around here. Now, the when pathway is pretty complicated because it’s keying off everything that’s come before. Dave, I’m going to single you out one more time. Would you do me a favor? Would you just stand up? This will be real easy for you. I’d like everybody to look at Dave Gray from “Explain,” thank you Dave, you’re doing a great job so far.
Dan Roam: Now, I’ve just identified what you are. Forgive me for calling you a “what” but that’s what my brain says. That’s “Dave,” we know that. Now our where pathway for all of us is also kicking in saying, “OK, Dave is that proximity away from me.” Now Dave, would you walk over here and then walk back and then sit down, that’s all you need to do. Now watch Dave as he does this. You may go back. Thank you. And sit down. Dave, thank you.
Dan Roam: Now what we just saw is a demonstration of our when pathway. Here’s what it does, it turns out that the number one way we recognize the passage of time is by what we see. Our what pathway said, “Dave,” our where pathway said, “There,” then a minute later, or at some other point it said, “Wait a minute, the what has moved, the where is different.” Now, is that a different what? Is that a different Dave? I don’t think so. The only thing my brain can deduce that happened is time must have passed, welcome to the fourth dimension. We see the fourth dimension all the time. We see time all the time. In fact, it turns out, if we go into a sensory deprivation tank, you know, we’d lose sense of everything right away, but if we just close our eyes and we’re in a quiet room, all of our senses impact us, but vision is the number one, one of the first things to go is our sense of time. If we don’t see what’s changing their where, we lose our sense of when. Does that make sense?
Pretty cool. So the picture that we would draw when we face a when problem is one we’re all familiar with, we just draw a timeline. When is one thing happening in relation to one other thing happening. Which one comes first? And which one comes after? I’m kind of a space geek, so here’s a nice picture of a where picture, you know, JFK says in 1961, “We’re going to the moon.” We’re going there. Pretty good vision statement. I mean everybody can see it every night, we know exactly where we’re going. If only health care were that simple. You know, we’re going there.
That’s wonderful as a where picture unless you happen to work for NASA, in which case the question becomes, “We’re going to do it before the end of the decade. We’re going to do it by 1969.” You say, “When? When are we going to do that?” Well, all of a sudden the project managers better start kicking in with their Microsoft project and their timelines and their Gantt charts. Because now we’re going to say, “When does everything need to happen in order for us to reach that particular deadline?”
So now we need a when picture. We need a timeline. And yes, there are lots of different kinds of timelines but they all show the same thing, when do things happen? We can look at that one for awhile. If you want to confuse people, put your timeline in a circle, I’ve all seen us do it, I’ve done it enough times myself. A sure way to get a client to just fade off is to create a circular timeline and then we review it, and then we iterate and then we review it and then we iterate.
We’re getting near to the end, because we’re just going to sneak in under our timeline, so this is perfect. Slice number four. Our brain is really working at this point. It’s combining everything we’ve seen up to this point to try to deduce cause and effect based on what we have seen. The whats in their various how muchs, in their wheres, are moving over when to allow us to start to deduce cause and effect.
What I mean by that is, what we’ll notice is, if dog sees birds, dog will run to birds. And if dog intersects with baby carriage, parents will panic. And that’s the picture that we saw in C. I don’t know how many of you noticed it, but I noticed this because I’ve done this before. Every single time I go for picture A to B to C, which is the one where the dog hits the baby carriage, everybody goes, “Oh.” We’re doing that from stick figures. We have an emotional response from stick figures. I mean holy smoke, what did we just trigger? Well, we triggered our cause and effect. We triggered the how.
Now a how picture, if the problem we want to describe is how does something work? We could summarize it by saying, “What will happen if I push this button?” What will I trigger if I push this button? What series of events? How will this flow? How will the system respond if I push this button?
The picture that we would draw, of course, is a little flow chart. This happens, which triggers this, which triggers this or if not, then that. A visual representation of how something works. And you’ll notice, with each one of these we’re getting increasingly complex in what we’re deducing and what we’re saying about the world.
The first three, all took place simultaneously. What it is, how much of it and where it is, are all happening at the same time. Then they get put together with when, over time and then we start to build this bigger picture.
Here’s a very simple little flow chart of how the human brain works. Sensory information comes in, goes into our reptilian brain, it gets processed and we act. We take certain behaviors based on what our senses have taken in. We humans, with our very sophisticated, fancy neocortex up on top are able to do a whole lot more fancy and sophisticated analysis and be able to execute a whole lot more sophisticated behaviors. Unless we’re talking about health care, in which case it goes like that.
The last slice, the why, combines all of the previous and this is when our intellect really starts to kick in and say from everything I’ve just seen in those little pictures, what rule can I derive? Why is the world the way it is? The picture that I would draw, is a very simple one, well in this case, what I’ve been able to deduce from those, that A, B, C, D picture of those stick figures is, I guess dogs really love birds but birds don’t love dogs.
I’ve been able to come up with a very simple visual equation that describes why the way the world is the way it is. So the picture that we would draw, there’s actually two, I’ll give you the simple one because we’re out of time. Had we had more time, I’m going to break that thing. The simple one is we draw an equation. What I mean by that is it’s the same thing as drawing our little picture of dog loves bird, bird does not love dog. The equation I like to draw is this. Very simple picture, square plus triangle equals circle. A very simple little visual equation that summarizes everything that we’ve seen up to this point.
Now I’m sure some of you are saying, “Dan, by what possible stretch of the imagination does square plus triangle equal circle?” Well, all of us know that triangle means delta which means change, so a square plus change gives me a circle, so there, you’ve got it.
We are now done. We’ve gone all the way around our little problem pie. If I don’t destroy my iPhone I’ll see that we’ve got about seven more minutes to go. There are two routes we could go now. We’re going to do this by a show of hands. I have a five minute story I could share with you to summarize all of this, or we could call it a day right now and use the rest of our time for Q&A.
How many people want to hear one more story and I just keep going on? And how many people want to do some Q&A instead? I’m going to share one more picture and I will go through this fast because let’s test the model, all six, with one big question, “Why does visual thinking matter?” Some of you have seen this before, so you’re going to have to go along for the ride one more time.
We’re going to go through all six slices, starting at the beginning, “what” all the way through “why” to try to understand why visual problem solving is so good for us.
What is visual thinking? Well, it’s a biological neuro-chemical vision science process by which we make sense of the world around us through our visual system. That’s what visual thinking is. Fine, enough of that.
How much visual thinking do we have? You already know the answer, because I told you.
If this is our total capacity to process incoming sensory information, let’s fill it in for vision, and you know when to tell me when to stop.
We’re seeing a lot of stuff. Boy, are we seeing a lot. We see a lot, more than we hear, and that’s where we’ll stop. Our entire processing capacity, that’s how much goes to vision.
How much do we use in a meeting?
Dan Roam: Blah, blah, blah, blah. “No, you’re wrong, sir!” Where did visual thinking begin? Now we’re on slice number three.
How many people know where visual thinking began? It began in France. I do not lie. Visual thinking began in France, at least as far as we can prove.
“What is he talking about?” Everybody’s heard of the caves of Lascaux. How many people have heard of the caves of Chauvet? Not so many people.
The caves of Chauvet are really cool. So what we’re going to do is zoom in to south central France, not far from the caves of Lascaux. If we continued zooming in, we would eventually come to this beautiful river that has cut out in the central mountainous region of southern France. If we continue down this river, we would come to this incredibly beautiful natural bridge which has been there for tens of thousands of years.
For hundred and hundreds of years, people have used this as a place for recreation. In fact, you can see there’s little kayaks down here. I don’t know if they’re scale, but this is pretty good. This is a kayak down here about that big. There’s another one here. People swim here at the beach. For thousands of years, people have been going to this place, and they think it’s beautiful. And it is.
But in 1993, very recently for the first time, a spelunker named Monsieur Chauvet discovered the entrance to a cave hidden on the back side of that arch. And he started with his team to explore that cave, and they were eventually able to map out in an incredibly complex series of caves that as they did their carbon dating, were far older than the Lascaux.
What they were able to find in there are a series of unbelievably beautiful pictures that people had been drawing.
And this is just one wall, this is one part of the wall. These four horses here, I don’t even want to draw on top of them, they’re so beautiful. These four horses were drawn over a period of about 800 years. People kept coming back to this cave for 800 years, drawing similar pictures… Those four horses…
To this day I defy anyone to draw a better picture of a burro than that.
Here’s something interesting. We’ve got a rhino. Who in southern France would have seen a rhino? Pretty wild. I mean, these bulls are incredible.
So when did this begin? How old are these pictures? I’ll give you a meaningless number, since we’re good at five.
32,000 years ago is when those pictures were drawn. And as I say, it appears from carbon dating that people continued to go back beginning 32,000 years ago for the next 800 years to the same cave and draw throughout all of those walls these unbelievably beautiful pictures.
Now, we know that human life actually began in Africa, and we have been able to find shards of things, but in terms of actual human markings that are clearly an intentional human marking, the oldest that we’ve been able to find are these at the cave of Chauvet 32,000 years ago. These are are the oldest representations we have of humans making markings.
Now I thought, 32,000 years… Again, it’s a meaningless number. I really wanted to understand how long ago that is, so I thought, let’s look at time in a different way. Let’s not think about it in terms of years. Let’s think about it in something that we humans understand. Let’s think about it in terms of generations.
So I made a little chart, which is my all time absolute favorite picture that I’ve ever drawn.
Let’s say each little character represents one generation. And let’s just say that on average, a generation from one mother to one child throughout all of human time has been roughly 25 years.
I mean, we can debate it may have been 15, 20, whatever. But let’s say roughly 25 years. So instead of talking about years, let’s talk about generations, because that’s something we can all imagine.
For myself back to my mother to grandmother to my great grandmother, and I wanted to map out how many generations have there been in 32,000 years. Very few. This takes us back to Columbus. 1492. That many generations. That many grandmas and grandpas. That’s it. All the way back to the time of Columbus.
I could draw it in one line. I could count it on two hands. Holy smoke. That’s not a long time ago at all.
Let’s go back a little bit further. Let’s go back 2,000 years to the beginning of the numbering system of years that we have now, to the time of Jesus Christ. That’s how many grandmas and grandpas there have been.
This was breathtaking to me. I always thought history was long. I thought 2,000 years was a long time. It ain’t nothing. That’s how many generations have been since the time of Christ.
Now let’s continue all the way back 5,000 years to the beginning of recorded history.
So here we’ve got Caesar here, five generations before Jesus Christ. Socrates here. We’ve got Muhammad up here. We’ve got the Buddha, the original Gautama Buddha right here. We’ve got Nefertiti, representing the height of the Egyptian empires here. We’ve got Abraham back here. We’ve got the beginning of recorded history, 3,000 B.C. That is it.
You know, it’s amazing to me. You’ll watch “Star Wars,” and they’ll talk about the Jedi Knights have ruled the universe for thousands of generations. No. There are no thousands of generations. That’s how many generations have existed since the beginning of recorded history. It’s 200. I can count that. That’s it.
I don’t know how you feel. I start crying when I look at this. History is so short. The only reason I was able to get that is because I drew it in a picture. I swear I’m going to start crying.
So then I thought, OK, but I want to go back 32,000 years. That takes us 5,000 years back. Let’s go back 32,000 years. How many grandmas and grandpas have their been and their babies since 32,000 years, since the first time that anybody we’ve found made a mark on a wall, drew a picture.
By the way, this is the beginning of, of course, as best as we can find, spoken written language. Takes us back.
So if I compressed everything in this picture into one line, that’s how long it would take us back.
Now let’s keep going. This takes us back 16,500 years back to the caves of Lascaux. Here’s when Lascaux was, and if we complete the whole picture, that’s how far we go back to Chauvet.
Every one of those little dots represents one grandma to one mother to one daughter, all the way through. I was just blown away. That’s it. We really got to get our health care figured out. We’ve got to take care of this planet. It’s not very long that we’ve had it.
Anyway, how did it begin? We’ve only got two more questions to go.
Well, evolutionarily speaking, we first had a reptilian brain stem that was able to process a little bit of fundamental visual information. That’s where much of our “where” pathway is. Crocodiles are really good at knowing where stuff is. They have no clue what anything is, but they know where it is.
Then we’ve got this limbic brain on top of that that allows us to have emotional responses to what it is that we were seeing, and make maybe more emotional decisions about how we would react.
And then we got this fancy old neocortex on top that allows us to do really sophisticated visual processing.
Our last question now. Why did visual thinking begin? So we wouldn’t get eaten.
And my last question for all of you is, why does visual thinking still exist?
Dan Roam: So we won’t be eaten.
Dan Roam:  Oh boy, we are right at the end of time. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you staying through the whole thing.

Case study of agile and UCD working together

Written by: James Kelway

Large scale websites require groups of specialists to design and develop a product that will be a commercial success. To develop a completely new site requires several teams to collaborate and this can be difficult. Particularly as different teams may be working with different methods.

This case study shows how the ComputerWeekly user experience team integrated with an agile development group. It’s important to note the methods we used do not guarantee getting the job done. People make or break any project. Finding and retaining good people is the most important ingredient for success.

The brief

In 2008, we were tasked with resurrecting a tired, old, and ineffective site. It was badly out of date, and the information architecture was decrepit to both users and search engines.

The old computerweekly.com

Our goals were:

  1. Make content visible and easy to find
  2. Create an enjoyable and valuable user experience so users would return
  3. Increase page impressions to bring in ad revenue
  4. Allow site staff to present more rich media content
  5. Give the site more personality and interactivity

The UX team created personas from ethnographic studies, online surveys, and in-depth interviews with users. The data gave us a clear idea of the user’s needs and wants. We also gleaned data from analytics that told us where users engaged and where the bounce rates were highest.

At this point the development team maintained the site with an agile process. They created features for the new site in parallel to ongoing site maintenance, but this work was outside the normal maintenance sprints. The new site was considered as an entirely new project with a separate budget and scheduled into longer term.

Boundary Spanner

As the User Experience team gathered data key team members were recruited. The diagram below shows the key team members needed to produce this large scale site, their specific concerns, and their methodologies.

Boundary Spanner

To bring these teams and disparate elements together requires a launch manager or ‘boundary spanner’. Rizal Sebastian wrote about boundary spanners in Design Issues in 20051. The boundary spanner needs to be aware of the individual issues the project faces. He need not know the detail but needs to know the cultural context of the collaborative environment.

Do people get on with each other? Are communication lines clear? Are there any personality clashes on the team. To throw developers, interface designers, business analysts, SEO experts, and usability guys together and expect them all to gel is optimistic but unlikely. It also requires those people devote all their time to just one project and that is unrealistic for a large operation where several projects are underway simultaneously.

They are more than a project manager because the user— and not the project—is at the heart of their concerns. He is responsible for delivering and continually developing a quality product. He is not just monitoring the features on a checklist. The user is at the center of all decisions on the design and development of the site. This is the only way you can ensure the user will be heard throughout product development – to employ somebody who listens to user voices and never forgets what they said. They must also ensure that SEO and business requirements are satisfied, and a well-defined strategy is in place. The boundary spanner owns and clearly communicates the vision until the whole team understands.

The boundary spanner’s strength is that they are core to the product and not a department or team known for their skillset (like a UX team for example). In many cases it is a product manager, but in this case it was the website editor who was responsible for synchronizing the teams.

Defining a process

To assist this user focused approach, the IAs produced set of deliverables that ensured the launch manager’s vision could be realized and developed.

Defining a process

Diagramming the process using a concept model engaged key stakeholders with the project by communicating the vision of what the UX team would achieve with the speed and clarity of an elevator pitch.

Information gathering

A content audit revealed broken links, redundant content, and poor usability plagued the site. It also revealed how much content became lost the second it moved from the home page. The high value research papers were impossible to find.

30 interviews, 20 ethnographic studies, and 950 responses to an online survey. created six personas. With the content audit, personas, and business objectives (what we wanted them to do on our site), we began creating the taxonomy.


During this project we were very fortunate to work alongside the web analytics manager who provided insight into user behavior, including high bounce rates from visitors arriving from search engines. He also provided a scorecard that showed where the site failed in terms of traffic and user engagement. We knew what users were searching for, and pretty quickly could tell why they were not finding content we knew we had.

Analytics screen showing overlay on the new website

By looking at web metrics we were understood usage patterns and popular and unpopular areas of the site. The depth of information enabled us to quickly formulate a plan.

Persona driven taxonomy

As we knew our user base were industry experts, we also knew their vocabulary was related to specific areas of their markets.

The taxonomy was created by gathering as many industry sources (websites, journals, white papers), breaking these down into unique elements, and clustering these elements together to form categories for our content.

The interface used to manage the CW taxonomy

The CW taxonomy formed the basis of the navigation, content categorization, and highlighted areas for future development. It also ensured our search results served up related content in context.

Search results displayed contextual related content

We defined four main areas by looking at the community of users.

ComputerWeekly Concept

News was an obvious requirement, defined by their particular area of interest within the sector. The need for knowledge was evident, and we created an in-depth research area where case studies and white papers could be easily accessed. Tools and services, RSS, email news alerts, and newsletters reflected user needs to be kept up to date and in tune with their specialization.

Finally, although the CW community was secretive and did not divulge information amongst their peers, they were very interested in expert opinions. This need gave rise to much more integrated blog postings.

Interface development

The navigation scheme defined the elements of the page the users would use to move to other areas in the site. It clarified the naming of those items on the page.


We then considered the prioritization of information and content for each page, and this facilitated the production of wireframes that represented the culmination of all research, showed the interface and interactions for elements on the page, and were a working document that changed as we iterated the design.

Core and Paths

We used Are Halland’s method for ‘designing findability inside out.’2

  • Prioritize and design the core – Satisfy user goals using prioritized content and functionality.
  • Design inward paths to the core – Consider how users will arrive at the page from search engine results, facets, menus, search, RSS, aggregation, email, etc.
  • Offer relevant outward paths from the core – Ensure that the site delivers both user and business goals through clear calls to action and completion of interaction tasks.

For CW.com, we focused on the cores for the home page, a channel level homepage, and a news article page and looked at key content such as lead news story and the editor’s picks or the best from the web aggregated from external sources. The key functionality and supporting content also had to be included and prioritized on the page.

Next we considered the inward paths, which are the channels that our users are likely to utilize to arrive at the page.

Inward paths

Inward paths included search engines, blogs, bookmarks, syndication, aggregators, RSS, and email subscriptions. Considering inward paths helped us focus on the marketing channels we needed to drive users to the relevant type of page. It also focused on the keywords and themes that users are likely to use and helped us optimize pages for search and online marketing campaigns.

Finally we designed the outward paths that helped users complete online tasks for our business objectives.

Outward paths

These outward paths include:

  • Newsletter sign-up
  • Inline links to related articles to drive page consumption
  • Sharing, printing or emailing of news articles
  • Related content types such as video or audio
  • Stimulating community participation in forums or blogs
  • Contextual navigation to aggregated content or the editors best bets
  • Subscription to an RSS feed
  • Prioritizing the content

Prioritizing the Content

Once the wireframes had been approved, the content was organized so the most commercially valuable and user focused content was pushed to the top of the page. As the design went through user testing, certain elements changed, as with any iterative process, but through team collaboration, the solution remained true to the initial vision from concept to design delivery.

The development cycle

The wireframes were handed over to creative, and they began designing the interface and graphic elements. The development group released some functional elements to the old website before the relaunch.


These agile methods allowed the old site to feel the benefits of the new widgets. However, as the site changed so radically in the new design, we still had to release the site in an old style ‘big-bang’ manner. This is perhaps where agile has its problems as a methodology for new launches. It’s focus on many small releases is a great tool to implement incremental changes but not for a completely new site.

As the html flat pages were passed to the team, the SEO requirements were defined and built into the site. By the time the site launched it, had been through four major pieces of testing.

Development Timeline

A holistic solution

Providing user experience deliverables like the concept map and wireframes ensured more comprehensive requirements were delivered to the design and development team. This approach addressed marketing, editorial, sales, and business requirements next to the needs and wants of the user. The vision was aligned with an achievable delivery from the IT team that ensured we delivered the site we wanted to give the user.

The new computerweekly.com

The core IA work enabled the new site to be future-focused and versatile. The structure and design of good sites should be able to adapt to change.

User-centered design and agile can work alongside each other but what is more important is having people who can tie all the loose strands of a website design and development cycle together. The concept map, wireframes and the IA strategy document that listed the rationale behind the design decisions helped ensure the product vision was correctly communicated to the development team, so the product that was developed through their agile processes was in line with the overall product vision.

1http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/0747936053103020? cookieSet=1&journalCode=desi


Bringing User Centered Design to the Agile Environment

Written by: Anthony Colfelt

When the exciting opportunity to work in a post-bubble dot.com startup arose, I jumped to take it. I had the luxury of doing things exactly as I thought right, and for a while it was truly fantastic. I built a team with a dedicated user researcher; information architect; interaction and visual designers and we even made a guerilla usability lab and had regular test sessions.

Unfortunately, the enthusiasm I had for my new job waned after six months when an executive was appointed Head of Product Development — who insisted he knew SCRUM1 better than anybody. As the Creative Director, I deferred authority to him to develop the product as he saw fit. I had worked with SCRUM before, done training with Ken Schwaber (author1 and co-founder of the Agile Alliance) and knew a few things from experience about how to achieve some success integrating a design team within SCRUM. This required the design team to work a “Sprint” (month long iteration) ahead of the development team. But the new executive insisted that SCRUM had to be done by-the-book. Which meant, all activities had to be included within the same sprint, including design.

Requirements came from the imagination of the Head of Product Development; design was rushed and ill-conceived as a result of time pressure; development was equally rushed and hacked together, or worse, unfinished. The end of Sprint debriefing meetings reliably consisted of a dressing down of the entire team by the executives (since nobody had delivered what they’d committed to i.e. they had tried to do too much, or had not done enough). Each Sprint consisted of trying to fix the mess from the Sprint before or brushing it under the carpet and developing something unstable atop the code-garbage. Morale languished, the product stank, good staff began to leave… it was horrible.

This is an extreme example of where SCRUM went bad. I am not anti-Agile although I’ve been bitten a few times and feel trepidation when I hear someone singing its praises without having much experience with it. Over the last eight years, I’ve seen Agile badly implemented far more often than well (and yes, it can be done well, too). The result of this is mediocre product released in as much time as it would have taken a good team to release great product using a waterfall approach. In this article, I will describe Agile and attempt to illuminate a potential minefield for those who are swept up in the fervor of this development trend and want to jump in headlong. Then I will present how practices within User Centred Design (UCD) can mitigate the inherent risks of Agile and how these may be integrated within Agile development approaches.

Where did Agile come from?

Envisioned by a group of developers, Agile is an iterative development approach that takes small steps toward defining a product or service. At the end of each step, we have something built that we could release to the market if we choose to and therefore it can assure some speed to market where waterfall methods usually fail. Agile prefers to work out how to build something as we go, rather than do a waterfall style deep dive into specification and then finding out we can’t build parts of the spec for some reason e.g. a misjudgment of feasibility, misjudgment of time to build, or changing requirements.

A group of developers such as Kent Beck, Martin Fowler and Ken Schwaber got together to come up with a way to synthesize what they had discovered was the most effective ways to develop software – The Agile Alliance was born. It released a manifesto2 to describe its tenets and how it differs from waterfall methods.

Agile can be thought of as a risk-management strategy. Often developers are approached directly by a client who does not know what a user experience designer, information architect or user interface designer is. Roles such as these usually interpret what clients want and translate it to some kind of specification for developers. Without this role, it’s down to the developer to work out and build what the customer wants. Because Agile requires a lot of engagement with the client (i.e. at the end of every iteration, which can be as little as a week) it mitigates the risk of going too far toward creating something the client doesn’t want. As such, it is a coping mechanism for a client’s shifting requirements during development as they begin to articulate what they want. To quote the Agile Manifesto’s principles “Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.

Why do people rave about it?

At the heart of what makes Agile attractive is the possibility of quicker return on investment for development effort, because we can release software earlier than we would have otherwise. In the short term, this is typically borne out. In the long term it can be too, though only when the team hasn’t fallen victim to temptation (more on that later).  Agile is also good at generating momentum because the iterations act as a drumbeat to which the team marches toward manageable deadlines. The regular "push" to finish a sprint ensures that things move along swiftly. Agile is also good at avoiding feature bloat by encouraging developers to do only what is necessary to meet requirements.

Because it emphasizes face to face contact for a multidisciplinary team, Agile tends to encourage contribution from different perspectives. This is generally a positive influence on, pragmatism, innovation and speed of issue resolution. The team is empowered to make decisions as to how requirements should best be met.

The Minefield

In of itself, Agile does a good job of flexing to the winds of change. But one has to ask whether it was devised to treat a symptom of the larger cause: the business doesn’t know what it wants. While Agile enables the development team to better cope with this, it doesn’t solve the problem and in most cases creates new problems.

Mine 1: An unclear role for design

In the best cases of business approaching developers to build some software, some of those developers may have design skills. But that’s not a particularly common scenario. Many developers have also had bad experiences with designers who don’t know what they’re doing. It took a long time for the design profession to come to grips with designing for complex systems and there is still a deficit of expertise in this field. “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project” is another principle of Agile. Where does the designer fit into the frame?

Mine 2: The requirements gathering process is not defined

Agile accommodates design activities from the perspective of a developer. It tends to shoe-horn these activities into their view of the world where requirements fall from the sky (from the business or customer who is assumed to be all-knowing) and takes for granted that they are appropriate.

According to Ken Schwaber, SCRUM intends to be a holistic management methodology and leaves space for activities other than programming to occur within the framework of iterative cycles. But when organizations adopt SCRUM, too often the good parts of a waterfall process like research and forming a high-level blueprint for the overall design become the proverbial baby thrown out with the documentation bathwater. As the Agile Manifesto says, “Working software over comprehensive documentation.”2 Many latch onto this and don’t want to do any type of documentation that might outline a vision, even if in a rudimentary sense.

Mine 3: Pressure to cut corners

Implementations of Agile that put design activities within the same iteration as they must be developed, ensure designs are achievable in code. But they also put tremendous pressure on the experience design team to ‘feed the development machine’ in time enough for them to implement their vision. This can and does lead to impulsive design. So, what’s wrong with that? Well, nothing if you’re not adhering to user centric principles which suggest you should test ideas with end users before committing them to code.

Some assert that there are plenty of examples of best-practice interfaces to copy out there. So, why reinvent the wheel? Surely we can save time that way? Sometimes they’re right, but how will we know which best-practice interface works best in context with the user’s goals, with no time to test with the user? How can we innovate by copying what already exists? Before Google reinvented internet search, other search engines assumed a status quo which behooved the user to learn how to form proper search queries. It was institutional knowledge among the other search engines that this is how searching was done and customers simply had to learn to use it. Most people’s search results were poor at best. Then Google came along and realized what is now obvious. People just want to find what they’re looking for, not learn how to drive a search engine first. I’m not suggesting the other search engines could not have done what Google did sooner, but I am pointing the finger at a mentality which meant they missed the opportunity. Interestingly, Google is not known for its designers. It’s mainly a development house, but lots of those developers can clearly put a design hat on too.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with using Agile to produce results quickly; that is, if you don’t intend to release them on your poor, unsuspecting user without some usability testing. Just don’t be fooled that this is going to save you a lot of time if you want your new product to be right, because you will have to iterate to arrive at an appropriate solution. Alan Cooper has argued that this creates a kind of ‘scar tissue’ where code that has to be changed or modified leaves a ‘scar’ that makes the foundations of the program unsound.4

Mine 4: The temptation to call it “good enough”

Invariably when we have release-ready working code at the end of each cycle, even if it’s sub-optimal, there’s a strong temptation to release it because we can. Agile condones releasing whatever we have so long as it works. Sometimes, that means doing what we can get away with, not what is ultimately best for the user. Equally, if we do decide that a feature isn’t right yet, it’s amendments get fed back into the requirements backlog where temptation strikes again. Should we spend time in our next iteration on a feature that we’ve already got a version of? Or shall we develop something new instead? Too often, the rework gets left in favor of exciting new stuff. An so on we go building a product full of features that don’t quite meet the bar.

Typical Agile Development

Mine 5: Insufficient risk-free conceptual exploration time

Iteration “zero” (i.e. a planning and design iteration prior to the first development iteration) can be used to do this and other planning activities. However, depending on how long this iteration is, the level of rigor applied to exploration may be insufficient. An argument used by some Agile practitioners asserts that a working example of a solution is the best way to validate whether it is the right one through exposure to the market. This ‘suck it and see’ approach bypasses an activity called “concepting.” Concept activities dedicate time to sketching different solutions at a high level and validating them in the rough with users before digging into detailed design or code. “Suck it and see” would have us just build it, launch it and see if it flies. This way, we’ve wasted time building something we will probably have to take apart or rebuild. The counter argument is: if it took as long to build as it would have to research and design before laying a line of code, then we break even. This statement is a stretch in practice because development itself usually does take longer than well-managed design research and conceptual exploration. Also, there has to be some level of design regardless  of which methodology is used, and this adds days to the timeline.

Mine 6: Brand Damage

Let’s just say that design and research takes the same amount of time as development for argument’s sake. In the worst case, we completely miss the mark with the non-researched and designed solution and we have to start all over again. Then we’re back to the same total duration after developing it a second time, but there’s no guarantee we’ll get the solution right the second time either. All the while we’ve repeatedly foisted a botched product design on our users and adversely affected our brand. Many companies succeed on the back of their reputation for producing consistently appropriate products and services. When a company releases a flawed product or service, then their image in the customers mind (i.e. brand) is tarnished. Brand damage takes far longer to mend than it does to make. Software creators that fall victim to the temptation of "good enough" and fail to innovate through conceptual exploration put their companies revenues at risk. In a competitive market, repeated failure to meet user needs well leads to serious brand and subsequently financial repercussions, as other companies who do get it right take the business.

Agile is good for refining, not defining.

If you have an existing product that you want to develop to the next level, then Agile in its truest sense works because you have a base upon which to improve. This means that if you know what your requirements are and these have been properly informed with user research, comparative analysis, business objectives, and analysis of what content you have and what you can technically achieve, then Agile alone can work well.

But spending money on software development without a plan of what to build is like asking a construction crew to erect a tower with no blueprint. Some level of plan is necessary to avoid a Frankenstein of each individual’s perspective on the best design solution.

User Centered Design

UCD requires iteration – design, test with users, refine, test with users again, refine… repeat till it’s right. This is where Agile and UCD can work brilliantly together. Agile really is about presuming you’ll need to change things, and that’s a good thing when it comes to refinement.

Uncovering requirements to form a strategy

User Centered Design (UCD) is not about answering requirements alone, but also includes defining requirements. When we practice UCD end-to-end, we pretend we know little. Little about what the solution to a problem should be; little about what the problem actually is because assumptions close us off to new possibilities. We prefer to allow some design research to create a viewpoint and then form a hypothesis as to what we might build. In this regard, we cross into the realm of product managers, producers, program managers, business analysts and the like, trampling toes with gay abandon and meeting resistance all around. Facing confinement to defining the boring old business need (distinct from the user or customer need), these folks would prefer we constrain our UCD work to usability testing on designs meeting the requirements they set out. They’d prefer we stick to just helping with development… and if we can do that quicker using Agile? Wahey!

Typical UCD Waterfall

Is it always appropriate to do extensive research before starting design? That’s a good question and one that Jared Spool’s Market Maturity Framework5 helps answer. Sometimes, just getting something off the ground, regardless of how precisely we meet user’s needs with it is all we can afford to do. Once we graduate out of this "Raw Iron" stage into "Checklist Battles" focused on getting the right features and then beyond, research is a core ingredient to putting our feet in the right place.

After researching what the user and business requires, we can make the “Strategy” tier of Jesse James Garret’s Elements of User Experience3which underpins everything we do during the project. Do this well, and you really shouldn’t come up with something that’s fundamentally wrong. Agile doesn’t account for this beyond a planning phase (i.e. iteration zero), which may well define a strategy of sorts. But does it really define the correct strategy? Surely, that’s created through careful consideration of three things:

  1. Empathetic qualitative research that uncovers the user’s context, needs, goals and attitudes i.e. user requirements. Cooper suggests that the customer doesn’t know what they want and advocates a role of interaction designer as requirements planner.4 This would avert building to the wrong requirements in the first place, but the time to do this must come into the development lifecycle somewhere. It involves talking to users, preferably visiting with them in their environments to create experience models and user personas.
  2. A thorough appreciation of what else in the big wide world exists in terms of products, features and technology that can be emulated somehow (not necessarily addressing a similar situation to ours).
  3. A clear articulation of the business problem, objectives, success measures and constraints. Business people sat in a room discussing what they think should be done must be informed by all these things if the right strategy is to emerge. Agile doesn’t preclude that kind of consideration, but it does not mandate it either.

JJG's Element of UE

Concept Development

If we manage to built something usable and reasonably intuitive without research or strategy, did we succeed? Most MP3 players fit this bill but none took off like the Apple iPod. Leaving interface usability aside, the iPod had a service concept behind it which included digitizing, replenishing and managing your entire music library with iTunes. This was part of the iPod concept from the outset and in combination with good marketing and design, continues to eclipse the competition over seven years later. But that concept needed to be sketched and iterated at some point. If we don’t explicitly build this into our Agile methodology, we can miss that thinking time.

Holistic Design Concept

The best of both worlds

UCD can be too documentation-heavy, isolated and risky but Agile needs help with defining requirements and concept development. How can Agile and user centric principles work together? First let’s understand what works well with Agile and not so well with user centered design. In this regard, the work that user centered design calls the ‘design’ phase can produce buckets of documentation which isn’t read, describing interfaces specified in isolation which may not be feasibly coded in the time allotted to them. So, doing detailed design is best done in conjunction with the development team and in a way where resulting interfaces can be tweaked as you go. 

Best of Both Worlds

A shared vision of the interaction fundamentals

In good software development, a conceptual interaction model that has been thought through beforehand, outlines how the user navigates the system, performs tasks and uses tools in generic terms, i.e. not each and every navigation label, task or tool but rather the interface and interaction patterns that will persist. This produces something rudimentary to test with users to see if we got the big picture right. Following this roadmap sketched on the back of research and concepting prior to development activity, ensures consistency and cohesiveness when each component is coded separately to each other later. In many cases, the concept will need iterating to accommodate lessons from the journey. But we’ll at least have some indication of direction at a macro scale. Then, when in the midst of Agile iterations working out the details alongside our developer brethren, a level of expertise and experience is required of the designer because what we design will be built before we’ve had a chance to second-guess ourselves. Domain knowledge and an understanding of interface paradigms that work is also a big help. But to build new projects from scratch without a shared vision is a mistake.

Risky interfaces that are new or significant improvements on what has been seen before, are best tackled as design-only activities in a sprint prior to when they will be developed (i.e. do involve developers, don’t try to produce code). This circumvents the pressure to deliver something before proper thought, reflection and user testing, which ensures you’re not wasting time and effort. Sometimes most of the product will be done this way and that’s fine so long as developers and designers are still working together and talking every day. The first development iterations are an important time for the developers to lay the architectural foundations based on the vision. Designers should use this time to get a jump on any high-priority tricky interfaces so the development team isn’t waiting for something meaty to start on when it comes time to build features.

Most important to success, the business needs to accept that some things won’t be right the first time around and commit to iterating them prior to release i.e. not be led into the temptation to release something that’s not right yet.


In summary, dogmatic attitudes about each of these approaches should be avoided if they are to be combined. Remember, Agile does not mandate how to define concepts or overall design direction, but it is a great way to execute on solid design research and well laid plans. UCD needs to be flexible enough to respond to the reality on the ground when the implementation team encounters issues that mandate a different design solution. Document only what is needed to get the message across and co-locate if at all possible, because cross-disciplinary collaboration and face to face communication are vital. Working a sprint ahead of the development team is helpful in allowing the design team enough time to test and iterate. If these rules of engagement are followed, the two approaches can work very well together.

1. Agile Software Development with SCRUM by Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle

2. Manifesto for Agile Software Development

3. The Elements of User Experience by Jesse James Garrett

4. Extreme Programming Vs. Interaction Design. Interview with Kent Beck and Alan Cooper

5. The Market Maturity Framework is Still Important – Jared Spool