Learning firsthand about mental models, plus Udhaya Kumar Padmanabhan on India + other things worth your attention.
INFORMA(C)TION — July 11, 2021
Learning firsthand about mental models, plus Udhaya Kumar Padmanabhan on India + other things worth your attention.
Hello! I'm Jorge Arango and this is INFORMA(C)TION: a biweekly dose of big ideas for people who make digital things. If you like this email, please forward it to a friend. And if you're not subscribed, sign up here. Thanks for reading!
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You are here. Photo: Roo Reynolds (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Meeting the User

Early in my career, a support incident taught me a lesson about mental models. Here’s what happened: I was contracted to create a small promotional app for executive assistants who used Windows PCs. Many didn’t have CD drives, so the app was designed to fit on a floppy disk.

To install the app, users would slide the disk into their computer and double-click on a file called INSTALL.EXE. Then they’d follow the onscreen prompts. The disk included printed instructions that spelled out the process.

Shortly after we released the app, I got a message from the client. A user was having trouble installing the app. Would I mind taking a look? So I drove to the user’s office and asked her to show me what she was doing. What I saw blew me away.

She put the floppy in, per the instructions. She looked for INSTALL.EXE — but not using Windows’s File Explorer, as I’d expected. Instead, she opened Microsoft Word, where she looked for the Open command. She found the installer, but it wasn’t a DOC file, so it wouldn’t open.

At first, I was relieved. I’d feared the user might have discovered a bug after we’d already copied and distributed scores of disks. Instead, the issue was what we derisively call “user error.”

But was it? As the designer, I’d assumed that users had an accurate mental model of the overall system. A computer’s OS is a platform for running apps. Our multimedia app ran on that platform, alongside other apps like MS Word. Everybody knows this.

Except they don’t. For this user, Microsoft Word was the platform. Word was likely the app she used the most. She probably seldom (never?) installed other apps. She was used to opening files in Word, so it was natural for her to interpret the instructions in this way.

This “unsophisticated” understanding wasn’t the user’s fault. Computers are complex. (And not as widespread then.) Rather, our instructions were vague. Instead of writing, “Open INSTALL.EXE,” we should’ve spelled out the steps needed to find INSTALL.EXE using File Explorer.

That day I learned users have different mental models of how systems work. Some models are better than others. As designers, our models are likely more sophisticated than those of most users.

Designers need to understand the system. But we must also understand how users think about the system and how it works. To do so, we must meet users where they are — literally and figuratively. Without further work, our deep understanding of the system can be a liability.

Tweet by @johncutlefish: 'So many orgs that struggle with autonomy/agency, are struggling with architecture. Even with best intentions, teams cannot be empowered. Architecture ... the collaboration catalyst. Has a nice ring to it.'

Worth Your Attention

  • Unspeakable certainties. Alejandro Aravena: “Whenever there is a complex question, the scarcest resource is synthesis. If there is any power in architecture, it’s the power of synthesis.”
  • Make something better, quick. “In the early stages of a product, designers think the game is to create the best version of the product, when it’s really just about getting something marginally better than what’s currently being used out the door.” Great Twitter thread from Andy Budd.
  • The rotting internet. Jonathan Zittrain: “Society can’t understand itself if it can’t be honest with itself, and it can’t be honest with itself if it can only live in the present moment.”
  • Back to the web's bad old days, wherein I kvetch about the current state of the web browser market.
  • Systemic design principles. Allison Bouganim offers “principles and themes about systems thinking, circularity, sustainability, and design — synthesized from expert interviews.” (H/t Andy Polaine)
  • More on the state of UX. Chris Risdon‘s “hot take on the influences and seismic shifts that have affected UX over the last 20 years” — a reaction to Jesse James Garrett's post that I shared a few weeks ago.
  • Simple Rules. My notes on a book about making strategy more actionable.
  • Good questions. Economist Tyler Cowen — who asks great questions on his podcast and beyond — on how to ask good questions.
  • Nexialism, a (sci-fi) discipline “that integrates the findings of more specialized disciplines into an effective problem-solving methodology, whose specialisation was to connect specialists from widely divergent fields.” A good description of my approach. (H/t Daniel Souza)
  • Tweaking mental models. What we can learn from an Easter egg in a 37-year-old video game.

The Informed Life with Udhaya Kumar Padmanabhan

Episode 65 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Udhaya Kumar Padmanabhan. UKP — as he's known to friends and family — is a Global Strategic Design Director at Designit, an international strategic design consultancy. He is based in Bangalore, and in this conversation we talk about challenges and opportunities inherent in designing information systems for the Indian market.

Earlier in my career, I was interested in the internationalization of information architectures. I naively assumed this mostly applied to organizations doing business in other countries. But our conversation reminded me internationalization is important even in the context of a single country — especially one as diverse as India.

The Informed Life episode 65: Udhaya Kumar Padmanabhan on India

The Informed Life episode 65: Udhaya Kumar Padmanaban

Listener Q&A

Do you have questions about how people organize information to get things done? How to structure messes so we can find and understand stuff?

I’m planning a listener Q&A episode of The Informed Life podcast. Please reply to this email with any questions you'd like me to tackle “on air.”

Parting Thought

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

— George Box

Thanks for reading! 🙏
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