Jared Spool: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of the SpoolCast. I am talking today with my good friend, Stephen P. Anderson. Stephen, how are you?
Stephen Anderson: I am doing great. Snowed in this week, but otherwise everything's going well.
Jared: Yeah, yeah. We're recording this at the very beginning of February, just before we're launching all the details for our upcoming Web App Masters Tour. So, chances are, by the time you hear this, we will have gotten the details launched.
And Stephen's going to be speaking at the Web App Masters Tour. Last year he was a fabulous hit at the event. He talked a lot about his Mental Notes cards, which I have sitting right in front of me. They are this beautiful, beautiful deck of cards that help you understand different ways that you can design to help people with their behaviors. He talked about that last year. And we were just talking about his topic for this year, which we're still working on a little because it's a new and novel topic that doesn't have a sort of slick category name already associated for it, because it's different.
Stephen, it's an extension of what you did last year, right? It's taking it a step further.
Stephen: Yeah, it's definitely related. It's focused primarily on visuals. And one of the ideas in the cards is visual information, and we talk about how, when you can actually see information, we make more sense of it. And when we make more sense of it, then maybe we're more likely to change behaviors and so on.
It definitely goes a lot deeper on this one idea. Looking around, I see so much information -- or, more accurately, so much data out there -- that we just can't make sense of. There's just too much information or too many choices or too many options.
And so one of the things I've done, for about the last four or five years, is create these very simple visual representations of the information that can help people make decisions, make choices, understand something that's really complex. I can give examples as we go through this, but they're all born out of personal frustration, situations where I either didn't understand what was going on or other people didn't. So I created these graphics to make sense of whatever it is we were talking about.
Jared: I've been looking at the graphics you sent me and the things you're going to use in the talk, and I'm really excited about this. Somebody once said, and I'm trying to remember who it was -- it might have been Bill Moggridge or Bill Buxton. One of these great folks said that, as a designer, if you think of design as an artistic endeavor, our medium is behavior, right? What we are doing when we're designing things is to get people to behave differently.
So, whether it's putting up an error message that says, "Do you really want to delete this?" or it's some clever way of helping someone understand how to better control their diabetes, in essence what we're doing is we're trying to say, "OK, what's the behavior we desire of the people who are using our designs, and how do we construct the design in such a way that we get that behavior, so they think twice before deleting a file that they don't really want to delete or they may not want to delete, or they understand a little better that if they eat a little bit more healthy during the day, they won't get into insulin issues with their diabetes?"
Stephen: That's exactly right. In fact, you mentioned the diabetes chart, and that was actually something I created for my son when he was four. And in my workshops, just to step back for a second, one of the things I challenge people with is, "As you're looking over this screen, or this page that you just designed, could a five-year-old understand it?" Just that simple question helps us look at things through a five-year-old's eyes, maybe someone who's just learning to read that isn't going to be comfortable with a lot of text but definitely would like some icons and visuals to help them.
My son has type I diabetes. Kind of the personal project I took on was this form that the hospital sent me home with that was just absolutely atrocious. In fact, it took a good 20 minutes for the nurse to explain the form to my wife and I. In fact, there were some areas where, if you misunderstood this information, you could give your son or daughter too much insulin and actually harm them and put them in danger, and this is something the nurse openly acknowledged.
Of course, my wife looked at me and knows my background and what I do, and she said, "You've got to fix this." And so I took an evening, about four hours, and did a makeover on this form, that by the way was created by a legal department. That's who creates most of these medical forms.
Jared: I didn't know that. And I'm fascinated by the idea that your wife assigns you design problems.
Stephen: Oh, yeah. [laughs]
Jared: My girlfriend just makes me clean out closets.
Stephen: Yeah, yeah. Well, my wife was like, "You've got to fix this. This is a problem." So I took an evening and fixed it and made our own version of that form, something that my four-year-old could understand and made complete sense. We did try to share it back with the hospital and get them to change.
That's where we discovered a lot of the politics in hospitals, and that these aren't really documents designed to help people; these are documents designed to protect the hospitals, done by a legal group and a technical writer and so on. And we see this all over health care as well as many other industries, where there's just information that is ripe for a makeover, or for some sort of better way to present it so it's understandable.
Jared: I think that this is something that is desperately needed, though I can immediately see, first, the argument you said, that a lot of these things are not necessarily designed for the users to use but are, in fact, designed to protect folks. But if we can get past that, there's also this idea of risk associated with people feeling that maybe if we make everything so a five-year-old can use it, don't we dumb things down to this sort of Fisher Price world that can't be done because the world is far more complex than what a five-year-old deals with?
Stephen: I don't think that's necessarily the case. I'm going to present two responses. This is something that Dan Roam, author of "Back of the Napkin," and I have actually talked about is, can you represent everything in a visual? And we had some interesting discussions about this. Dan is on the side that, "Yes, I think everything can boil down to a visual." I generally agree with that. But regardless of where we fall on that position, I think, at the very least, these visuals can orient people to the space so that they're able to dive down into the deeper details and make sense of them.
I just had a frustrating experience with my cell-phone or mobile-phone provider, and it was a billing issue. And this was the fourth time I've called about international charges, and I've gotten a different answer every time because their own service people don't even understand how international charges are accrued. And it was a case where I was looking at my bill and getting billed twice, basically, for these things. And after four calls over a six-month period, I finally figured out what the issue is. And it just clicked that, instead of the spreadsheet data that we can see online or that they see on their desktops, a visual would make sense of this, and a dynamic visual, dynamic data.
If there was a question about the bill, instead of spending 20 minutes trying to get to the bottom of it and coming back with misinformation, that person, or myself before I ever even call support, could look at it and say, "Oh, I see what the problem with the bill is," or "I see why I was billed this way." That's a perfect example of a case where, for this company, you could take and you could create a simple visual representation of their billing process, or their billing charges, and you could see, in an infographic, a dynamically generated infographic, how you were billed and what you were billed for.
Jared: This is intriguing because this sort of expands this notion of design into the communications space that has traditionally been dominated by IT organizations and folks who are not trained... It's not even a matter of just not knowing how to create the graphic. It's a matter of not even understanding the potential that those graphics can be there. We have such a lack of that type of graphic visual literacy that people don't even know they're missing it.
Stephen: And then you see it and you're amazed and blown away, "Why didn't I think of that?" Because usually it's such a simple solution. But I think we get used to the patterns we have, and we don't see other options. A perfect example of this is, if I go to build an e-commerce site, we think that, OK, we can serve everything back in a list, or we can serve everything back into a grid view if we're feeling really fancy. And those are our two options. Those are the patterns. And how often do people actually look at the content being served back and say, "Is there a better way to serve up this information?"
I'll just keep going on with the examples. Electronics are a perfect example of this, where if you're shopping for something, like a digital SLR camera, or in my case I was shopping recently for a screen projector for doing workshops, there are so many options and choices out there, and the tools that we have to narrow down those options are not good. They're generic tools. There are usually check boxes down the side based on facets that, oftentimes, aren't really things that matter.
If you're shopping for a point-and-click camera, megapixels really isn't relevant anymore. It's gone well beyond that. The brand name, I mean, there might be a few brands you want to filter out, but by and large there are great cameras from all different brands, because they all have all different models at different levels.
So a lot of the facets used to filter cameras aren't important. And what's even crazier is you go to someplace like Amazon or Buy.com or these retailers, and you might be looking at a camera that's got 400 reviews and it's highly rated, and then you scroll down and you realize this camera first appeared on the site in 2001. And it basically undercuts all of those reviews and all the favorable things, because you know there's been better cameras in the last 10 years.
And so you look at something like that, in electronics, and my first question is, why isn't this stuff shown on a time line? Why don't we, at the very least, put it on a time line so I can see things in the order that they're released? And then let's layer in back these other things, like reviews. Reviews are much more important to a buying decision than some of the facet information that's on the side. Provide those as filters, but as secondary things, not as primary things.
Jared: I know exactly what you're talking about with cameras, because we did a bunch of work a few years back where we studied people buying cameras online. And one of the things we noticed was that all the facets that people had to deal with, and the comparison functionality that was on the sites, where you could pick two cameras and compare them and it would give you this big table that showed you what the differences were, but the differences were really crufty. You'd have this row in the table that said, "FPS burst rate." And under one camera, it would say, "3.1," and under the next camera it would say, "1.4," and then under the next camera it would say, "Yes."
Stephen: Wow. How do you make sense of that?
Jared: Exactly. At first, what the hell is the FPS burst rate? And the second is, what do those numbers mean? Do I want higher or lower? And what does "yes" mean? None of that made sense to anybody, right? The FPS burst rate being the speed at which a digital camera can take the picture and save it to memory and then get ready to take the next picture. It makes a huge difference if you are trying to cover your kid's soccer game and you want to take a lot of really fast action shots.
But that's what people care about. They want to know, is this a good camera for taking pictures of my kid playing soccer? But they have to translate that need into a meaningful item called "FPS burst rate." That translation is not easy, and we don't make that easy for people. Using visual techniques, how might we start to bridge that gap?
Stephen: There's different ways to solve that problem. I think, one way, like you said, people are looking for that story. Here's my situation. Here's my context. Give me the product that will solve or meet my needs. I want to take lots of pictures of my kid at soccer games.
In my case, I do a lot more indoor photos. People at a dinner table or parties in their house. So for me having something that can do well in low light situations is important.
You're right. Looking at all these numbers and unless you know what you're looking at, and what you're looking for, they don't really mean a lot. That makes sense, because we're dumping all this data into our databases and pushing out this factual information, but what I'm proposing is within a domain, within a space, like cameras, for example, let's actually turn that information into something that people can connect with emotionally and make sense of. So is the number good? Is it bad? High or low?
I use an example with providing a personal feedback loops on your performance. This is in the meeting tool that I'm working with a startup on. We had talked about things like providing a score or coming back with a grade, A, B, C, or D, but we felt like there was no emotional connection there.
So instead what we came up with was this idea of a hot air balloon. And when you get back this report, you see a hot air balloon. If it's fully inflated, you're doing great. You're staying in the sky. Everything's fantastic. But if you see that balloon is sort of deflated or losing air, there's an emotional connection with that. That's not good, right? The hot air balloon's going to sink and crash.
So we've turned that score, that metric, into something that people can connect with in an emotional way. It's something that people will look at and they don't have to say, "Well, is this good or bad?" They know right away this is probably not good. I need to work on this. I need to get my hot air balloon full again, to use that metaphor.
And this is something going back to the medical space. I just watched a TED video where someone has done some amazing work redesigning these medical forms, like I started off the conversation with, but even there, as great as these were, I looked at it and I understand the information more. I understand whether this is good or bad, but I don't know that I have the emotional connection that would cause me to change my behavior, to do something different. We've moved from a bunch of numbers to understanding information, but we still haven't moved from understanding information to taking action, which is also key.
Jared: So what do we call all this?
Stephen: Yeah, yeah, I struggle with this, and still am trying to figure out the right anchor or the right word to use, but for now I'm saying that it's somewhere between data visualization on one end and infographics on the other.
With data visualization, we have these really great things like pie charts, scatter plots, relationship circles -- all these generic patterns for visualizing numeric information, and that's dynamic.
On the other end we have infographics that are created by magazines like "Wired" and "Good" and newspapers to explain something that's going on. And these are created one time, they're used once, and then they're dated. They're no longer relevant.
What I'm talking about is kind of in between, where can you have that same visual, emotional connection that an infographic does, but can you use dynamic data? Can you change the data, so you have this thing that people can interact with and change the variables and change the information?
This thing I've seen with this is what the "New York Times" does on a regular basis with their infographics that you can interact with. They release a few of these every month, and they are just really powerful ways to communicate complex ideas. To take complex news stories or information and distill it into something that people can actually use or make sense of. And that's -- it's really the closest example.
And then occasionally you'll see start-ups where their entire business is based on a new way to visualize or respond to some space or some problem.
Jared: It is this interesting intersection of information and -- I don't want to just say "graphics," I almost want to say -- well, maybe it is graphics, but it's also sort of storytelling. And it's emotional connection and changing behavior. So it's going from the base information to rendering it in a graphical form that tells a story that allows people to connect to it, that produces the behavioral change.
Stephen: I like that. Maybe we're seeing the formation of it with health care?
Jared: Yeah, because to me it seems that it's that journey, because if you stop half way -- like a good magazine, every month they put out a visualization. But I will tell you, that in my opinion -- this is just my opinion -- maybe only one out of every five actually is a really great infographic for me. The rest of them are sort of OK. Someone put a lot of ink on the page in this almost "USA Today"-style of dumbing down the stats, without telling a story that means anything.
I look at all these numbers of cell phone usage throughout the world or whatever the infographic is about today, and I don't see the story that they are trying to tell. And therefore I'm not connected to it, it's just, "Oh, interesting. There aren't hardly any cell phones used in the island of Gibraltar."
Jared: Cell phone usage in Gibraltar is not as high as it is in Mozambique. Like, OK. What does that mean? Why should I care? What is that about? I don't care.
Stephen: You're hitting on one of my hot buttons here, which is there's a whole class of things that have emerged in the past couple of years that are called infographics, that really, it bothers the heck out of me that they're called these things, because they are taking all of this data and they're decorating it with nice pictures.
You'll see these in really long things that are 600 pixels wide and 3,000 pixels long, and they'll just walk through and give you this information that's really just been dressed up. Some visual element or icon has been added, and to me that is not an infographic. It's not a concept model. It's not a visual representation of information.
Jared: It's a design school project.
Stephen: Yeah, exactly. What I'm talking about is really looking at a complex space and saying, "I've spent some time with it, and it finally clicked. I see the pattern. I see how these things relate to each other. And here's the model for that."
It's what academia has done for years, where you wrestle with this space, you wrestle with a conceptual problem, and you come up with a model that people can then gather around to understand your ideas, because frankly who has time to read the 20 or 200 pages you've written, but, ah ha! I can see the model. I get it. I get how you're thinking about this is unique and different.
To me that's the brilliance of a beautiful infographic or a concept model is that it takes the time to think through all the complexities and present it in a way that people can make sense of it, and orient themselves, and then go on to other things, like understanding and taking action.
Jared: Right, and I think that there's this element of narrative and storytelling that has to be in that infographic to make that really work. The things that cause us to change in our life are the things that we attach to emotionally, and we don't attach to inanimate things emotionally, unless there's a story around that thing. There's some message that gives us bonding, right?
We may have a car we love, but we don't love every car. We love a certain car for a certain reason, and there's a story around that car.
I think what you're talking about -- a part of this is -- I mean that hot air balloon idea, to me, will work great if I understand the story behind it. If I understand why it inflates when it does and why it deflates when it does, and why I personally care about it inflating or deflating.
Stephen: Yeah, absolutely.
Jared: And that gets back to the elements of storytelling.
Stephen: The interesting thing is sometimes the stories aren't obvious or evident in the thing, the object you're looking at. They're merely suggested or hinted at. And we construct the story. We construct the rest of it.
So for example, in the camera shopping example you were talking about, being able to look at that and say, "My story is I need something to take my kid's soccer photos. You don't necessarily have to literally state that or have people select their situation to drive them there, but you could present that information in such a way that people could say, "Ah ha, that's my story. This is the one I need."
That's a very subtle art, but I think that's definitely key, figuring out how to do that. Otherwise you end up creating 100 different spin-offs of ways to present this information, and now we have a new problem, which is information overload, where we are supposed to be solving that problem.
Jared: Right, right. Kevin Brooks and Whitney Quesenbery wrote a great book on storytelling which actually talks about this a bit.
But you're absolutely right about the camera thing. One of the things that our research turned out when we were doing our camera project, was that what we found when we actually talked to people in the process of buying cameras, was that they didn't care about the camera. They were buying pictures, right? That nowhere on any of these e-commerce sites -- in most cases, sites have changed since then. They're a little better at it now, but in those days, you couldn't even see the pictures that the cameras produced.
Stephen: Yes, to that end, I mentioned this camera idea, and I mentioned the timeline being an important thing, and I mentioned reviews being important. Because that's safety, that's proof that this is an OK purchase according to 30 or 300 other people. But one of the things I proposed was let's look at other forms of what we would call data and other APIs out there.
And so in this camera-shopping view, or this camera-shopping search engine that I proposed that I'll talk about on the tour, one of the sources of data was Flickr, where you can actually see photos taken by real people, like you, using this camera. And even if these are the most interesting photos, and there were certain conditions that made for a better picture, you have this story that you construct.
You can say, "Look, there is someone who, with this camera, took this brilliant photo. Therefore, I can do the same. If I get this camera, I can do this." And there's other cases where you look at the photos that come back and, wow, [laughs] you see the flaws in the camera from looking at the photos themselves that are taken.
But I look at that, I'm like, "Why aren't we serving up pictures taken by real people? Why don't we look at that as a data point and show that when people are shopping for a camera?"
Jared: Yeah. And Amazon actually has pictures that people submit for cameras. I actually rent lenses for my camera, and I will go to Amazon and check out the photos that people take with a given lens before I'll even pay to just rent it for a weekend.
The interesting thing is that the tools that Amazon has provided to look at the photos really suck. You have to know they're there. You have to be able to walk through them. They don't really tell you whether, in fact, in the case of a lens, were they using some sort of filter, or were they using a type of flash or anything to get that really cool effect? You don't really have any sense as to what it is.
So you can't get emotionally connected with the purchase because it's like, "Oh my God! This is awesome! This is exactly what I want! Well, I don't know. Am I really going to be able to take that picture with this thing?" And that's where it starts to run into trouble for me. And I think that this is a common problem for all sorts of aspects of life, whether it's choosing a camera or trying to break a nasty habit or making sure you take your meds on time, or just even eating well.
Stephen: Let me add another personal frustration example. Again, I said a lot of these are born out of seeing things, seeing opportunities around this. At my church, I go to one of these large churches, and they have a children's church with hundreds of kids, at all grade levels. And one of the continuous problems is making sure there are enough volunteers and enough people in the rooms for the kids. And they have, at the younger ages, for every three kids, there has to be one volunteer, one adult, in there in the room. For some of the older kids, it's a different ratio, like one adult for every five kids.
But they have these certain things. If you have only two volunteers in a room, you can't have more than so many kids. It gets a little more complicated because some of the volunteers can be high-schoolers themselves, but the high-schoolers can't be the only volunteer; you can't be in there without an adult. So right away, just a little bit of complexity, you start to see this system where the software they have, which is desktop software, looks like it's from the mid '90s, [laughs] it's spreadsheet-based, and it's just terrible at solving this problem.
And so I looked at this, and coming from a world of iPad apps and touch screens and Microsoft Surface and things like that, I thought, "Wow. Wouldn't it be nice if all this was represented almost like bubblegum jars, where you could see the kids and you could see how many volunteers are in the room, and you could just take a finger and drag one of these to another bucket if you saw that one room had too many volunteers and another room was in desperate need and there was a line waiting for people?" And you could do this, real-time. You could build the software.
The data is there in the software they're using today. It's just not shown in a way that's actionable, or it's not shown in a way that people can see that, "Hey, we have three parents waiting to drop off their kids, and there's not enough volunteers in that room but this other room has too many." And those are the kind of things that I look for and I say, "Wow, there's a visual solution to this problem that would help people see that there's the problem and take action and solve it right away."
Those are the kinds of things that I'm constantly looking for, I should say, just constantly seeing and frustrated that those solutions have not been invented yet. And I say "yet" because I think this is the natural progression of things. As we get this gluttony of information, the question is, "How do we sift through it? How do we make sense of it?" That's where I see that visual narrative, engaging representations of the data and information, becomes even more important.
Jared: I think some of it has been constrained by the technology. Because, initially, we didn't have tools that actually let us produce the graphics. And then we got the tools to produce the graphics, but we didn't have the toolkits that would let us quickly produce the graphics, so you had to sort of figure out where every pixel would go by hand.
Now, with the advent of things like HTML5 and CSS3, we actually have all this technological power that is at our fingertips that can actually do really cool stuff, without a whole lot of effort. But what we don't have is the skill sets to do that. And I think part of that is we also don't have a pattern library, right? If I was the designer of that spreadsheet, and I said, "I really want to turn this into graphics," do I, as a competent spreadsheet designer, have the skill set to actually know, "Well, for this type of information, these types of representations will be best"?
Stephen: That's exactly the kind of stuff I'll be talking about on the tour is places you can go to to see patterns that are out there, places you can go to for inspiration. In fact, when I look at the problem I described at my church, with the children's church, the only reason I thought of solutions is I have all these visuals, all these patterns, that I've been exposed to that are kind of jogging around in the back of my head, and I say, "Wow, I see a match here between this problem and this solution."
In fact, I look at a lot of the infographics I've done, and even the camera one that I talk about, and there were at least three different sources, things that I was thinking about that led to that idea, that triggered it.
And so I think a big part of it is being exposed to those patterns, being exposed to these visual ways of thinking, so that you can make those connections, and then, too, having, I guess, the skills, or knowing kind of the steps to go through to actually create one of these.
Because, like I said earlier, there's lots of people creating things called infographics that really aren't. Adding decoration is not the solution. It's finding the visual information that's in that story. So in that sense, Venn diagrams are very visual. They help us see relationships when we draw these overlapping circles and things. They're great thinking tools.
And so that's really what we're talking about is how do you play with shapes, how do play with these details, how do you identify what the data is that you have to work with, so that you can look for those patterns and look for those different ways to put it all together.
I think I mentioned Flickr photos as an example of data. With a lot of data visualizations, it's all numeric data, like, "Here's the spreadsheet. Here are the numbers. Push this out into a pie chart."
But I think we're moving into an age where data is a lot more than numbers. Data is those photos coming in from Flickr. Data is crawling through 300 reviews on Amazon and saying, "The general sentiment from people is this," or "50 people commented on this particular feature of the camera, whatever it may be." And so that gets into things like sentiment analysis, so you can crawl this now and you can come back with data from, essentially, words that people wrote.
And so I think re-framing what we think of as data and data sources is a big part. And just knowing what the APIs are that are out there and what you can play with is key. And you mentioned technology is just now leading us where we can do this. I think APIs, over the last four years, where you can expose your data and your services and share stuff with other people, is just one of those steps that's leading us in this direction.
So this is kind of the next step. What do we do with all this data, this information? How do we put it together in ways that help people and make sense of things that are really, really quite complicated?
Jared: Yeah. Well, I think this is fascinating, this topic without a name that takes information and renders it in a graphical way that we can then tell a story for which we get emotionally connected and then we change our behavior. I think that that's awesome.
Stephen: Thanks. I'm pretty excited about the topic as well. [laughs]
Jared: Yes. We should have like a contest to name this thing. [laughs]
Stephen: That'd be good. Name an entirely new category.
Jared: It is. It is. It really is. But in the meantime, we'll just go with "de-fuzzle."
Stephen: De-fuzzle. All right.
Jared: De-fuzzling complex information. [laughs]
Stephen: Making information you can actually use.
Jared: Exactly. That's great. I like that. I'm going to write that down: "Making information you can actually use." I like that a lot, actually.
Cool. This has been exciting and fun. I'm really glad we did this.
Stephen: Likewise, yeah. It's always a pleasure.
Jared: I'm very excited to see the presentation at the Web App Masters Tour. You always have such great examples, and your presentations are always so inspiring. So this is going to be an opportunity for a lot of people to really see and understand what's going on, so this is going to be great.
Stephen: I'm looking forward to it myself. We create these talks to help refine our own thinking and focus a bit. And like I said, this is something I've been doing for a while, but it's good to figure out the process I go through so I can turn around and share it back with other folks.
We kind of focused on some retail examples, but this applies to any situation. Any space where there's lots of information that customers or your users just have trouble making sense of, this is perfect for those situations. I see them absolutely everywhere.
So yeah, I look forward to not only presenting but the conversations that follow on the tour, the lunch conversations and the dinner conversations, where we can just talk about, "What's going on at your company, and how could this stuff apply?"
Jared: Right. So this is going to be great. So you're going to be at the Philadelphia and the Minneapolis tour stops.
Stephen: That's correct.
Jared: The folks who go to the Seattle tour stop will actually get a copy of your presentation and the audio from one of those cities, so they can actually sit and hear the whole thing because they get all the presentations. It'll be really great for people who go those sites. I'll be excited to see you there.
Well, Stephen, thank you so much for taking this time to talk with me today.
Stephen: Thank you.
Jared: And I want to thank our audience for listening in and giving us their attention yet one more time. It's always great to have you on board. And of course, we love it, as always, when you encourage our behavior, so thank you for doing that. And we'll talk to you next time. Take care.