View this email in your browser


Models, Maps, and Territories

How models inform our experience of reality. Plus Caroline Crampton on curation and other things worth your attention.
Jorge ArangoJorge Arango
November 15, 2020

Welcome to INFORMA(C)TION, a biweekly newsletter about systems thinking, responsible design, information architecture, and other topics relevant to humans who create digital things.

If you enjoy this email, please consider sharing it with others. And if you're not subscribed yet, you can sign up here. Thanks for reading!

The Long Now Foundation's Orrery
Detail of The Long Now Foundation's orrery. Photo by Todd Lappin. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

You have ideas about how the world works. Direct experience informs some of these ideas, but others are less tangible. For example, you believe the earth orbits the sun, even though you’ve never observed the phenomenon directly. (You’d need to stand very far away to see the earth going around the sun!) Still, you believe it — and with good reason. We have ample secondary evidence for this model. Moreover, it’s proven to be useful for making good decisions.

Models are very important. They affect how you think and act. They allow you to go about your life without having to figure out everything from first principles. If you understand the parts of a system and how they relate to each other, you can then act more skillfully when interacting with the system. That is, your choices lead to more predictable outcomes. If you push button A, then action X happens. After several times of X reliably happening after you’ve pushed A, you come to expect the A → X relationship. You’ve built a model in your mind of how the system works. A good model maps closely to reality, allowing us to make good predictions about the effects of our actions.

We take much of this for granted, but it’s worth emphasizing that models aren’t a fixed, solid fact about reality; they’re mental constructs. There was a time when most people believed the sun orbited the earth. This model was reasonable given the (relatively) crude observational capabilities at the time. What could be more obvious when every day you can see the sun rise in the east, arc across the sky, and then set in the west? The ground is fixed; the sun moves. It’s reasonable from that evidence to deduce that the sun orbits the earth. But it’s wrong. Careful observations with more sensitive instruments reveal a different, contradictory configuration. Which is to say, the tools and systems that mediate our perception of reality inform our models. Whether we’re discussing astronomy, business, or politics, good media lead to good models.

Models are the designer’s stock-in-trade. The people who use the things we design bring to the experience models of how they expect things will work. Some models are more sophisticated than others. Some are closer to reality than others. If users’ models correspond to the system’s actual configuration, users will have an easier time learning the system. On the other hand, if they don’t have a good model — which is often the case with more complex systems — then they will need help getting started.

Given my experience as a design consultant and teacher, I’ve come to believe models are the most crucial unacknowledged factor in successful design work. Models are crucial because, without a good model of how the system works, the designer is relegated to stumbling about, making only superficial interventions. They’re unacknowledged because they’re hard. They’re hard to talk about and they’re hard to work with. Models are abstractions, and most of our interactions — both in design and in day-to-day life — deal with more tangible stuff. So, we lack practice. But practice we must, if we’re to become good at modeling. And we must become good at modeling if we’re to do good work — especially with the complex systems we’re designing today, which inform so much of our perception of reality.

Also worth your attention:

Episode 48 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with writer and podcaster Caroline Crampton. Among other things, Caroline edits The Listener, a daily newsletter that curates the best podcasts. In this interview, we find out how she does it, and what she looks for in a podcast.

If, like me, you have trouble keeping up with all of your podcast subscriptions, you may find value in this conversation.

The Informed Life Episode 48: Caroline Crampton on Curation

Parting thought:

“Facts are many, but the truth is one. The animal intelligence knows facts, the human mind has power to apprehend truth. The apple falls from the tree, the rain descends upon the earth—you can go on burdening your memory with such facts and never come to an end. But once you get hold of the law of gravitation you can dispense with the necessity of collecting facts ad infinitum. You have got at one truth which governs numberless facts. This discovery of truth is pure joy to man—it is a liberation of his mind.”

– Rabindranath Tagore

Thanks for reading!

-- Jorge

P.S.: If you like this newsletter, please forward it to a friend. (If you're not subscribed yet, you can sign up here.)

Share Share
Tweet Tweet
Forward Forward
Copyright © 2020 Boot Studio LLC, All rights reserved.

Jorge Arango
Boot Studio LLC
P.O. Box 29002
Oakland, CA 94604

Disclosure: This newsletter may include Amazon affiliate links.

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.

Email Marketing Powered by Mailchimp