Dirk Knemeyer

The Digital Life #052: Design for Understanding with Stephen Anderson

At the intersection of learning, play, and information, lies the practice area that is “Design for Understanding”. From the intricate complexities of information design for Big Data, to the mundane, but important task of creating a mobile phone bill that can be decoded by consumers, to the creation of new forms of education in the digital age, our guest Stephen Anderson, and Digital Life co-host Erik Dahl explore the topic that can only grow in prominence as we continue to struggle to understand the information age.

Dirk: Hi, I’m Dirk and this is The Human Factor. Today’s episode of the Digital Life is talking about data, designing for understanding, and one of the big memes, of course in technology today is the notion of Big Data. Big Data has gotten so big that you see it everywhere to a ridiculous degree. As all of these things happen — in social networking and Web 2.0 — different things get big. They become a phenomenon and then they fade away again. More right now with Big Data, one of the things that I’ve been a little bit surprised about is the fact that the information design community or the discipline of information design, to look at it in a different way, hasn’t taken a role of more prominence. Information design is the community that is typically synthesizing the notion of information organization as well as presentation … and maybe I should say more specifically presentation. Information designers tend to be people whose skills are really graphic design and/or writing and using those skills to design for understanding. This is a community that I first got involved with back in 2002. I found that, of the different design disciplines, information design was one of those that I really had the most aptitude for and really took an interest in. What struck me at that time was that the community was relatively behind the curve in terms of technology. It was a field that was marked with real luminaries, Richard Saul Wurman and Edward Tufte being perhaps the two most famous beyond just the field. But a number of tremendous, largely senior and generally older people who were and still are wonderful practitioners of information design. But as a field as a whole, information design was behind on the technology side, while information architecture, which is somewhat related, fields like interaction design, were evolving.

Even at the time, it was still way behind the curve as well, but more recently graphic design has been accelerating their move into technology as well. Information design is a field that really was behind the times in terms of technology; was much more paper; was much more a traditional application. I think that’s one of the reasons why as Big Data has become such an important thing and really has created an opportunity for design in general. Information design in particular, to step forward and play a really crucial role but I haven’t seen that happen. The information design community, the notion of information design as a discipline hasn’t risen with Big Data. Hasn’t stepped into a position of prominence and attention like other sub-design disciplines have in years past, as things pertaining to their rhythms became significant or became what people were paying attention to. It’s too bad, because information design at its core, in terms of the tenets, in terms of the methodologies and approaches and particularly in terms of the outcomes and outputs, are exactly aligned with what’s going on with Big Data. It’s all about looking at very complex stories, very complex data sets, and the designing those to tell very crisp, understandable, elegant stories. The fact that that community hasn’t stepped into that opportunity is terribly unfortunate. I say it as a third person, but I’m still involved with it. I’m on the editorial board for the Information Design Journal — that’s the academic guide for the discipline. So, I guess I’m responsible as well. It’s just a tremendous opportunity, and the trends go in and out.

This Big Data trend is one where information design certainly could have and should have stepped more to the fore, but it just hasn’t happened. The remarkable thing about it is no other discipline really has either. Big Data, from my perspective, remains this very hand-waving vague thing that people abstractly understand; that there’s a lot of data, and if it’s used in the right way it can be very valuable, but it doesn’t really manifest in valuable ways or at least in as valuable ways as it can and should.

It is a lack of design that really contributes to that. The visualization of complex data sets and information, it’s not easy. Because of all the time I’ve spent in the information design community along with … at this point I’ve worked with hundreds of designers in my career. I know very well that your garden variety, even talented graphic designer isn’t necessarily going to be good at information design; in fact, most aren’t.

It takes a really specific sub-set of the skills that go into graphic design and to the point earlier, where I said that the practitioners often are strong in one or the other; of graphic design and writing. That gets at it a little bit too. A lot of what’s been done in the information design community … it’s a minority. More is on the graphic design side but a big chunk of it has to do with writing, has to do with things like forms and instructions, and bleeding into some other communities.

It’s a different skill set, it’s a different way of thinking and it’s much more structured. My wife, for example, is a medical illustrator, which is an aspect of illustration that is all around photo realistic representations of biological topics of the human body; of genomes; of animals; whatever the case may be but for … in a very instructional way.

She’s talked about how medical illustrators are known in the illustration community as being more conservative; more buttoned up; more controlled and information designers are very similar. The conferences that I’ve been to with some wonderful people but there’s just a little bit more conservatism, austerity. I’d even say a little bit more introversion perhaps but because it’s really about trying to think about these complex sets of information and data; and not only structure them properly but present them well.

Those two things are related but they also require very different skills to pull off and do correctly. The topic of data and designing for understanding, it always makes me think of information design because it is the one discipline that very specifically and emphatically is focused on that. Here we are in this huge trend for Big Data and information design doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of that.

It’s too bad; both because the field for a long time has stood to benefit from more attention, more opportunity to really imbue the world with the good that it has to offer. The field suffers but also the potential of Big Data is lessened. I feel almost ill saying the potential of Big Data because it’s strictly cranking along the hype machine. But Big Data at its best — when you have the right data set on an interesting topic and it’s designed properly — is massively powerful. That is the kernel behind the hype. The problem is the hype around Big Data; it’s very rarely paying itself off. Information design is something that really could lead the way in doing that. I’m guessing that the trend moves on to something else before that becomes relevant but who knows? Maybe there will something that happens and there will be a better confluence between information design and the Big Data trend to everybody’s benefit.

That’s all for this month and I look forward to talking with you next time.

Erik: Hello and welcome everyone to this episode of Five Questions. Today we’re joined by Stephen Anderson. We’re going to be talking about design for understanding. Stephen and I met a couple years ago and he’s a designer and educator and creator of the Mental Notes card deck and the author of Seductive Interaction Design. Welcome, Stephen.

Stephen: Glad to be here, Erik.

Erik: Great. Why don’t we just jump right into it? One of the things that you’ve been talking about lately is the idea of design for understanding. You sometimes frame this as the idea of solving small data problems. Everyone else is talking about Big Data so why should we be looking at and caring about small data problems?

Stephen: Yeah, certainly. Just to give credit or credits to, I think that phrase, I either picked up from Karl Fast or I think in the same week I heard him use it, someone else used the phrase. It kind of resonates that regardless of the size of the data set we have these problems where you just can’t make sense of things. I think there’s a lot of hype around big data and how do we make sense of trillions, billions of points of data. I like to look at the other end say, when I go to shop for a health insurance or purchase a new TV, these things or make sense of medical forms, like I can’t make sense of that. That’s not big data. That’s things that may be a dozen choices or 50 choices and so I don’t know. I often wonder how we’re going to make sense of big data when we rustled with small data problems for the last several decades. Yes, that’s kind of my framing, how I kick off this conversation a lot of times.

Erik: I thought that was really interesting and I thought that I think you pointed out the point that if we can’t even solve these small data problems how can we hope to solve the sense-making problems of big data because I think a lot of the … when I we start to think about the concepts, the general concepts or sense-making and meaning-making and understanding. The same thing carries over from small data to big data.

Stephen: Absolutely. In the workshop by doing this is we take a moment after about 30 minutes and talking about this and I have everyone brainstorm. What are some small data problems? What are some, just some things that you don’t understand or can’t make sense of and there’s no shortage of responses. I mentioned choosing a health insurance plan and that’s actually a big one at the state level right now with the Affordable Care Act where each state has been mandated to make the plan options easy to understand. You see lots of companies scrambling to figure out how to do this. I mentioned shopping for electronics. TVs, point and click digital cameras, these things bring up hundreds of options and no real good way to make sense of it.

We have filters and facets but they’re not all that helpful most of the time. 401(k) plans come up. Understanding my phone bill like when I travel internationally and I come back and I have the international long distance charges. That often makes no sense and I actually have multiple times with my cell phone provider where they double billed me for the data use while I was overseas but also for the plan that I paid for to cover the data used. A lot of that is just how they represent the bill. It’s hard to find that information and find out where the problem was. A couple years ago I went through into the home mortgage, went through that process. There were some parts of it that were very nice like the mortgage calculator where you could actually model different monthly payments and down payments and APRs and get a sense of what I could afford. There are other things like when it came down to closing cost there’s no hard and faster rule. I think closing cost could be 1 to 8% of the cost of the home which is quite a range on something that’s … this is a home.

I looked around. Truly there’s a pattern here so I can know what to expect and there wasn’t. That’s a place where there’s enough data that you could easily surface a pattern and some estimates. I have a kind of personal note. A few years ago I got tired of going into places like Central Market or Whole Foods and seeing the wall of cheeses, 800 plus cheese options and not having a clue where to start or what the differences were. My wife and I signed up for a cheese 101 class. We sampled 25 different cheeses that night, learned about the 8 different types of cheeses and the 3 milks they come from and out of that I started sketching kind of this info graphic to help me make sense of that world and since then I’ve gone on to sample dozens of more different kinds of cheeses but I have this understanding now. I understand fundamentally what are the differences and where I should go for certain types of flavors and some things like that. I think that’s what’s missing. It’s just this really deep understanding of a space. The kind that comes through expertise and through training but I think if we focus more on how we design content we could help people understand and comprehend a lot more than we do. It’s really a difference between knowing what to do like going through the steps versus really understanding what you’re doing and how it works. My goal would to be to get people that place of understanding where you can make better more informed decisions.

Erik: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. We see that every day and I’m sure you do to, as design practitioners instead of just going through a process, right? Trying to model and make sense of information just so you can internally understand what’s going on before you can then figure out how do we then present that to an end user or to a stakeholder internally if we’re talking about maybe research findings or something like that. I think it’s really interesting. Why don’t we go and move on and start talking about interactive visualizations? I know you talk a lot about this concept of playfulness and I’m curious how you think playfulness plays into our ability to make sense of interactive data.

Stephen: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of what I show and talk about, they resemble on the surface info graphics. When I say that I mean not the info posters you see but the actual info graphics that help you understand something. There’s that same sort of emotional engagement, visual connection. The difference is you can interact with them, you can play with them, you can load dynamic data. What’s really phenomenal, amazing about that is when you can interact with the data suddenly it becomes more engaging because you’re playing with it, you’re in the story there. There’s a story created. It’s personalized, you’re asking what if questions and you adjust the slider and point a new number to see what happens. Through that process of playing with this data in this way you actually start to see patterns and recognize patterns like, “I didn’t know that before. Oh, I see.” This happens over and over.

Let me go back to that mortgage calculator example even though that’s a very crude example of what I’m talking about. In a way you’re modeling and simulating possible futures. You’re saying, “Okay, if I only put this much down what would my monthly payment be? Okay, I can’t do that but if I put this much down and I get this APR if there’s a good credit, what will it be?” You’re playing with possible futures and you learn what makes the difference, what doesn’t, things like that. Of course there’s the serendipity of playfulness where when you play you discover things you didn’t plan on, you didn’t expect and that’s often where the insights and discoveries come from. That’s the idea of playing with data and exploring different perspectives or views. It’s definitely intriguing to me what happens there.

Erik: Go ahead.

Stephen: I was just going to say I was just watching an older Jeffrey Veen video from, I think it was UX Week 2008 and he was walking through this example where he starts off with pure raw data which is average rainfall I believe. He builds it up to the point that you actually see raindrops that are scaled proportionate to the amounts or how many inches of rainfall that were for different states. This progression he’s been walking through up this point, it makes perfect sense. He kind of switches to an interactive model and he shows a map of the United States and you have the slider for the months through the year and the idea is now you can slide across time and see how the average rainfall changes.

At first, I was like, “Wait a second, we just lost some data.” Like he couldn’t see everything for a year at once like you could in a static print info graphic but the same time you’re starting to create more personalized stories at that moment where you’re asking, “Okay, if we’re going to go to Florida, when should we go?” You can adjust the slider and see the average rainfall decline or increase. If you want to look for patterns as you play with it you start to see certain things swell certain times a year. I don’t know, there’s something about when you cross over and make something interactive which is … it’s so much richer. There’s so much you can get out of the data then.

Erik: I was going to say I think that you really hit on it when you’re talking about simulating those what if scenarios and allowing people to kind of play and explore and to think about futures that they may not have come to the table with. I think that’s part of the process that gets lost when we have static data or that playfulness isn’t there. People come in with maybe a question but it’s not necessarily the right question. It’s through those explorations of the what if scenarios they can really find out what’s the right question they should be asking and what are the patterns that they might not have thought to be looking for initially.

Stephen: Exactly. Kind of a difference between passive versus active participation. One case, you’re passively consuming the content and looking at what’s on the page, the other you’re leaning forward, you’re active, you’re interacting with it and you’re actually engaged with that moment and I just think cognitively that’s much more powerful.

Erik: I think that’s right. That leads us in to the next question that I want to talk about. On the surface this might seem like odd for some people but a year or so ago I think you posted something on Twitter about Montessori education and how many interaction designers had a Montessori education or something like that or familiar with those practices. I wonder if you could speak a little bit about what you see as the relationship between the tenets of Montessori and then what we’re talking about here in terms of playfulness and understanding and sense making.

Stephen: Yeah, absolutely. Actually, I grew up in a Montessori school through 6th grade. It’s one of those things that you take for granted until later on life and you look back at other’s purchased education and you start to value more what you had. In particular at the Montessori program some of the things I love about it is it’s not the traditional sage on the stage sort of model where the teacher is dispensing information. Quite the contrary. The teacher is really there as a guide to facilitate a child’s discovery, the child’s basically independent teaching, independent learning. In fact, I finally got, after talking about Montessori for a few years I finally read the Montessori Method by Maria Montessori and chock full of amazing quotes that I think would definitely apply to everything we do particularly that the gamification talks and how you motivate people. She had some interesting thought there 100 years ago, right?

There’s one quote I’ve really hang on to and it’s basically she was talking about her approach to designing the school room and designing a learning environment. She’s talked about basically we have prepared the environment and the materials. It wasn’t so much about preparing the lesson and dispensing the information as much as shaping the environment the students are going to be in and placing walls, chairs and materials in that environment that the students could discover and start to play with. Right there, what you’re fostering is independent learning or self-directed learning which is the most powerful way to learn. The tools or the objects you would place in the classroom were often physical objects, manipulatives, things that you could play with.

Examples being like these cylinder blocks of different sizes where they’re all proportionally represent the same volume but they’re different sizes. Some are very fat and shallow and some are very thin and deep and you play with these. They’re physical manipulatives but at the same if you try to put them, the wrong one into the wrong hole it’s not going to fit. There’s feedback loop there that’s coming from this object that let you know that no, that doesn’t fit here. There’s just all the self-learning and there’s these physical manipulative objects and there’s the teacher on the side just kind of creating the environment and noting student’s pattern.

Yeah, definitely I’ve been thinking a lot more about the systems I design and we talked a lot about shaping paths in what we do and in nudging behaviors and fact I’ve written a lot about that in various articles and in my book but lately I’ve been thinking more about the sandbox environments where you create the sandbox and you let users or players or whatever maybe kind of shape their own paths and explore their own ways, Minecraft being a perfect example of this Pinterest, Twitter. These tools, initially people scratch their heads out and were like, “How should we use this or what should we use it for?” Once people started playing in that sandbox you saw the people’s behaviors and you could say, “Oh okay. I’m going to try that.” You could model your own behavior after others. Definitely lots there to take away.

Erik: I think that’s right in terms of the, all those examples that you gave, Minecraft and Pinterest and the others. You call them sandbox but I think we’re starting to see other people call those things platforms, right? I think it’s very similar, the concept of how do we create a platform for our other people to extend that even thinking of an example like Scion a couple years ago. Their whole business model was, “How do we create the car as a platform for our end users, for the people that buy our car to extend it and make it their own.” I think in a lot of ways that was very similar. I really like what you’re talking about when you’re talking about Montessori and tying that in.
To me it’s something again that I’ve been talking about recently which is the designer as facilitator. It’s not the designer crafting this experience or crafting some specific thing but I’m really creating a space for other people to have their own experiences or create their own learning opportunities or sense making opportunities. I see that again, as a designer, as a community developer. How do we create these spaces for other people to learn and grow and do what they need to do? I think that’s really interesting. Something else that you said in there when you’re talking about the physical objects in terms of how do we learn and taking these physical objects and seeing relationships between these physical objects and getting those feedback loops. I think it really ties in to the next question that I want to go to which is really about embodied cognition. You talk a lot about some of the work that Karl Fast is doing around embodied cognition. I wondering if you could talk a little bit more about those concepts and how that relates to design.

Stephen: Just a little side note. Karl Fast is an amazing guy if no one has researched or Googled some of his writings. He teaches at Kent State University and I was first referred to him after a talk I gave on kind of the brain and perceptions and how we form stories and they said, “Oh yeah. You should go talk to Karl.” We started talking and not only was he talking about this cognition stuff in the brain but he was also talking about visualizations and what he’s kind of called knowledge exploration where it’s not just about reading, accessing information like in libraries, that’s kind of his background, it’s actually exploring knowledge and making those discoveries that we’re talking about.

A lot of similar threads there. I think he’s just several years down the path ahead of me and much deeper than I’ll ever be able to go. Amazing guy. One of the things he talks about is embodied cognition which is relatively new over the last decade. What he’s talking about is how we think through doing which sounds rather obvious but if you look at a lot of traditional HCI models, there’s this idea that there’s some external stimulus. We take it as input into our brains, we think about how to respond and we tell our hand what to do and where to move the mouse or where to move the finger, to touch the glass and all the thinking goes on in the brain. That would be a thinking then doing model.

What he says is that’s just not true. That’s not how we work. Some examples he points out are when you’re playing a game of scrabble. You’ll see players reach out and physically rearrange the tiles to see different possibilities. They’re thinking through doing. They’re using those external space. Same thing happens in chess games where someone will reach out and grab the chess piece. They’ll move it around the board, hover over different spaces and then return it the original position ‘cause they’re still thinking and there’s no change, external change in the environment but they’ve used the environment to explore their possibilities, to think beyond the capabilities of, the limited capabilities of our brains. When he was talking about things like that I immediately connected it to Montessori and some of the manipulatives.

You learn letters by tracing sandpaper letters or you learn basic math concepts with counting beads, like a bead or rod of 10 beads, a grid of 100 beads, a block with a 1,000 beads. There’s this idea that learning is very physical and very tangible. Anyway, that’s kind of where he takes it. From there I’ve just been reflecting a lot more on the role of my body and different activities. Definitely a little bit quantified self-reflection here but I became aware a few years ago that when I lean forward at work like at a desk I’m going to do a different type of work or different … I’m going to think differently than when I’m leaning back say sitting in a recliner working. I started working a standing desk a few years ago. I started initially because of some back problems I was having then I discovered that standing was perfect for meetings or for preparing a talk that I was working on for example and that sitting was actually … I couldn’t do those things. I was engaged differently.

That’s extended beyond being in front of the computer, I found when I go to like my son’s soccer games. If I’m standing I’m 100% engaged, 100% focused but if I sit down on the bleachers then I tend to look around and get distracted. I pull up my iPhone and do other things. I find myself standing a lot more so I can be fully committed and fully engaged in things.

Erik: I think that’s fascinating. I’ve had very similar experiences in terms of body orientation and tying that to thought process. Even to the extent of where if I would get stuck years ago, thinking through something, sometimes I would lie down just to reorient my body to see and I could physically start to think in a different way and event to the point where I’d have different thought processes if I was lying up and the space in front of me was open versus then flipping over and lying down with my body against the surface of a bed or something or the floor. In just those simple, subtle changes and body orientation with the environment seem to have an effect on how I was thinking and the thought process that I have.

Stephen: I can’t remember, I don’t know what the science is behind this but I remember in high school when they were preparing us to take the SAT they said if you get stumped on a question just look up to the ceiling and look right down. I don’t know. They said it might come to you, it will help. Yeah, it’s one of the things that I remember when I get stumped sometimes. I still look up and I’m sure there’s some study behind it that found some correlation but I don’t know. I think we’re on the verge to really interesting research around the body and certain patterns and how that ties a lot more into our thinking.

Erik: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. I think you’re right. We’ve playing a lot recently with the idea of embodied emotions. Not necessarily cognitive and not actually the thinking process but how do our bodily states and our physical form affects the emotions that emerge up from us not from necessarily an interaction with other people but just purely from the physical form of our body orientation and using, for that we’ve been using the Laban Movement Analysis as a framework to talk about those type of things. Yeah, I think you’re right. I think we’re on the verge of unleashing a lot of new understanding around how our bodies relate to our emotional states and our thinking processes and all that.

Stephen: You did a workshop on that earlier this year, right?

Erik: That’s right. In the Toronto, at the Interactions Conference.

Stephen: That topic’s definitely growing in popularity. I know Dave Malouf did a similar presentation a couple years ago on just our bodies and space and thinking about how the whole body becomes part of the interactions. I’ve had few conversations with people interested in this particularly with things like Kinect and Leap Motion coming out.

Erik: Yeah, that’s right. The new Kinect just was announced just a couple days ago and just a level of fidelity that those cameras and the sensors have now and the things that they can do both from a sensor standpoint but then also a software standpoint and we start to incorporate in some of these concepts of embodied cognition and embodied emotion into how that technology gets structured and how the software on the backend gets structured around shaping that and again, created … these technologies almost become passive enablers to extend what we do naturally with our bodies.

I want to take that and start to then look into the future just a little bit. In one of your articles last year from the Pastry Box you said, you got the quote that said, “what happens when communication, movement, motion, position and other forms of interaction become part of the designer’s toolbox?” You said for you that’s sort of what you see as the thrilling future. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about where you see that going and how you see that playing out.

Stephen: Just a little backdrop to this. When I wrote the article it was not long after I think Fred Victor had written his critique of the Microsoft future and basically was saying Future Behind Glass. I think that was the title of the article. Critiquing was in this future vision, future world, everything is behind glass. There’s touch screens on every surface you can imagine and he was actually a little saddened by that and saying, “Look, I mean we have more than the tips of our fingers to interact with.” There’s our hand and grip, how we grip things, there’s surfaces, there’s movement, our body through space. There’s how we know how we’re moving, how we’re angling our head. There’s texture. Why not bring texture into these things? Why does everything have to smooth glass? There’s all these other possibilities through these other senses that we have that we’re not tapping into. In that respect it seemed like a very limited vision of the future. One very grounded and the zeitgeist of today but not really grounded in where things could head.

I was thinking about that and then combining it with some of the embodied cognition conversations and looking around with some of the new hardware, new sensors there coming out. Things like you being able to create the sensation of texture on a smartphone for example. As you’re going across in the game on your tablet something might feel like sandpaper like something else feels gravelly while something else feels smooth. You can actually do that and there’s a couple ways to do it.

There are definitely technologies coming out of Disney Labs and Chris Harrison where you can like grip the doorknob as a sensor or touch plants. There’s a lot happening with bringing our whole body into these interactions and when you combine that with how we learn with our whole bodies or how we move through space with our bodies and think with our bodies. To me that’s the thrilling combination, the thrilling future. It kind of puts everything we’ve done up to date in context and says, okay the click on the mouse or the touch on the screen is highly limited to what, where we’re headed.

On a related note, I was thinking I just saw Iron Man 3 and there’s a scene where he’s trying to sift through all the data and the patterns and form connections and the room becomes this holographic environment that he’s walking through and interacting with and it’s definitely a graphic design eye candy to watch but at the same time I was thinking, “Wow.” There’s something to be able to move through and arrange these objects and filter and sort and remove these representations in the way you can’t do with real physical objects that is exciting from a cognitive perspective. I actually could see analyzing you’re thinking and using that special arrangement as mechanisms to help us see patterns or organize things and that of course is what he does and he finds the lead that he goes to and the rest of the movie continues from there. We start thinking of these, those science fiction movies or fantasy, superhero movies have a totally different suggestion to you.

Erik: I think that’s right. Thanks so much Stephen for joining us today. It’s always a pleasure to chat with you. How can people get a hold of you if they want to follow up on some of these conversations or reach out to you?

Stephen: I have a website I never maintain at poetpainter.com. Twitter is definitely the best place. Stephen Anderson on twitter. Stephen with a PH.

Erik: Great. We’ll have a link on the show notes to that as well as a lot of the things that we talked about today in the Podcast.

Stephen: Thank you very much Erik. I definitely enjoyed it and enjoyed the questions.

Erik: Great. Thanks again.

Stephen: All right. Thank you.

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