Definition: A set of connected objects or concepts.
Also referenced as: Lists (noun)
Related to: Associated, Category, Classification, Content, Define, Index, Term
How varies widely.
The saying “there are many ways to skin a cat” reminds us that we have options when it comes to achieving our intent. There are many ways to do just about anything
Whether you’re working on a museum exhibit, a news article, or a grocery store, you should explore all of your options before choosing a direction.
How is an ever-growing list of directions we could take while staying true to our reasons why.
To look at your options, ask yourself:
Karen is a product manager at a startup. Her CEO thinks the key to launching their product in a crowded market is a sleek look and feel.
Karen recently conducted research to test the product with its intended users. With the results in hand, she worries that what the CEO sees as sleek is likely to seem cold to the users they want to reach.
Karen has research on her side, but she still needs to define what good means for her organization. Her team needs to state their intent.
To establish an intent, Karen talks with her CEO about how their users’ aesthetic wants don’t line up with the look and feel of the current product.
She starts their conversation by confirming that the users from her research are part of the intended audience for the product.
Next, she helps the CEO create a list of questions and actions the research brought up.
Afterwards, Karen develops a plan for communicating her findings to the rest of the team.
State your intent.
Like Karen, you need to make sure the language you use to state your intent doesn’t stand in your way. The following exercise will help you state your intent and clarify your language with other people.
- First, choose a set of adjectives you want your users to use to describe what you’re making.
- Then, choose a set of adjectives that you’re okay with not being used to describe the same thing.
I find these rules helpful during this exercise:
- When put together, each set of words should neither repeat nor disagree with each other. The second set shouldn’t be a list of opposites from the first.
- Avoid negative adjectives, like slow or bad or ugly. Keep each word as neutral as possible. A good test is that someone shouldn’t be able to tell which list is positive or negative.
Objects let us have deeper conversations about reality.
When you discuss a specific subject, you subconsciously reference part of a large internal map of what you know.
Other people can’t see this map. It only exists in your head, and it’s called your mental model.
When faced with a problem, you reference your mental model and try to organize the aspects and complexities of what you see into recognizable patterns. Your ongoing experience changes your mental model. This book is changing it right now.
We create objects like maps, diagrams, prototypes, and lists to share what we understand and perceive. Objects allow us to compare our mental models with each other.
These objects represent our ideas, actions, and insights. When we reference objects during a conversation, we can go deeper and be more specific than verbalizing alone.
As an example, it’s much easier to teach someone about the inner-workings of a car engine with a picture, animation, diagram, or working model.
6. Swim Lane Diagram
A swim lane diagram depicts how multiple players work together to complete a task or interact within a process. The result is a list of tasks for each user. This is especially useful when you’re trying to understand how different teams or people work together.
- Make a block diagram that shows how the pieces of a concept interrelate.
- Demystify a process by making a flow diagram.
- Break your latest project down into its individual tasks and make a Gantt chart.
- Compare a group of restaurants in your neighborhood in a quadrant diagram.
- Explore what happens when concepts or objects overlap using a Venn diagram.
- Break any multi-user process into a list of tasks per user with a swim lane diagram.
- Depict the content and organization of your favorite website in a hierarchy diagram.
- Unload all of the cool ideas in your mind right now in a mind map.
- Explain how to make your favorite food with a simple schematic. Bonus point for exploding it!
- Make a journey map of a day in your life.
Control your vocabulary.
Are you facing a mess like Rasheed’s? Do your stakeholders speak the same language? Do you collectively speak the same language as your users? What language might be troublesome in the context of what you are doing? What concepts need to be better understood or defined?
To control your vocabulary:
Reduce linguistic insecurity.
The average person gives and receives directions all day long, constantly experiencing the impact of language and context. Whether it’s a grocery list from a partner or a memo from a manager, we’ve all experienced what happens when a poor choice of words leads to the wrong outcome. Whether we’re confused by one word or the entire message, the anxiety that comes from misunderstanding someone else’s language is incredibly frustrating.
Imagine that on your first day at a new job every concept, process, and term you’re taught is labeled with nonsense jargon. Now imagine the same first day, only everything you’re shown has clear labels you can easily remember. Which second day would you want?
We can be insecure or secure about the language we’re expected to use. We all prefer security.
Linguistic insecurity is the all too common fear that our language won’t conform to the standard or style of our context.
To work together, we need to use language that makes sense to everyone involved.
Design with, not for.
It’s important to discuss and vet your ontological decisions with stakeholders and users. Talking about language choices gives you a chance to test them.
It may sound obvious, but it’s quite common to think something is clearly defined before talking about it with other people.
A good starting point in exploring ontology is to bring everyone together to make a list of terms and concepts. Ask each person to share:
Go through each term as a group and use this as a forum for educating each other on what you know about language and context. Don’t “uh huh” your way through words you’ve never heard or don’t understand. Instead, untangle acronyms and unfamiliar phrases.
If someone uses a different word than you do, ask for clarification. Why do they use that word? Get them to explain it. Complexity tends to hide in minutiae.
Create a list of words you say.
A controlled vocabulary is an organized list of terms, phrases, and concepts intended to help someone navigate a specific context.
Documenting language standards can reduce linguistic insecurity.
A good controlled vocabulary considers:
- Variant spellings (e.g., American or British)
- Tone (e.g., Submit or Send)
- Scientific and popular terms (e.g., cockroaches or Periplaneta Americana)
- Insider and outsider terms (e.g., what we say at work; what we say in public)
- Acceptable synonyms (e.g., automobile, car, auto, or vehicle)
- Acceptable acronyms (e.g., General Electric, GE, or G.E.)
Create a list of words you don’t say.
A controlled vocabulary doesn’t have to end with terms you intend to use. Go deeper by defining terms and concepts that misalign with your intent.
For the sake of clarity, you can also define:
In my experience, a list of things you don’t say can be even more powerful than a list of things you do. I’ve been known to wear a whistle and blow it in meetings when someone uses a term from the don’t list.
Think about relationships between nouns and verbs.
When you combine nouns with appropriate verbs, the resulting sentences can be referred to as requirements for what you’re making.
From the previous example:
- An author can write a post.
- An author can delete a post.
- Any user can share a post.
- Any user can read a post.
This list of requirements defines the ideal solution. Each requirement tells us who should be able to do what in the eventual state.
When you take the time to make requirements concrete and prioritize them, you can better understand what you’re actually making.
If you’re designing an interface that prioritizes reading, it will be fundamentally different than an interface that prioritizes writing, even with the exact same list of requirements.
Use worksheets to mine data from people.
Once you have a list of indicators to guide you, think about where the data could come from.
A worksheet can help you capture important details that only exist in people’s heads or personal records.
You can fill out a worksheet in a meeting or distribute copies of it and collect them after people have time to answer your questions. To choose the best way to gather the data, keep these considerations in mind:
- Time: How much are you asking for, and how long might it take?
- Access: How many sources are your respondents using to find answers? Who else might they need to contact?
- Bias: Are they applying their own thoughts and preferences, or delivering data?
If your users or stakeholders need a significant amount of time, access, or thought to answer your questions, let them get back to you instead of trying to get through the worksheet together.
Jim owns a retail store. His profits and traffic have been declining for the last few years. His employees are convinced that, to save the business, the company website needs to let people buy things online. But all Jim sees is more complications, more people to manage, and more expenses. He thinks, “If we sell on the website, we have to take photos, and pack and ship each order. Who will do that?”
With rent going up and profits going down, Jim isn’t sure if changing the website will save his business. He doesn’t know the distance he needs to travel to get to his goal. He wonders, “Will improving my website even help? Or will it just make things worse?”
To think through this decision, Jim:
If Jim’s goal is to increase in-store traffic and reduce expenses, an online store probably doesn’t make as much sense as other things he could do.
Set your goals.
Think about what you’re trying to accomplish.
- Revisit what you intend to do and why. Now break it down into specific goals.
- Make a dream list of what would be measureable in an ideal world. Even if the measurement is fuzzy or hard to find, it’s useful to think about the best-case scenario.
- Remember to mine data from people.
- Measure the baseline of what you can. Once you have your dream list, narrow it down to an achievable set of measurements to gather a baseline reading of.
- Make a list of indicators to potentially measure.
- List some situations where you’d want to be notified if things change. Then, figure out how to make those flags for yourself.
Humans are complex.
Tomatoes are scientifically classified as a fruit. Some people know this and some don’t. The tomato is a great example of the vast disagreements humans have with established exact classifications.
Our mental models shape our behavior and how we relate to information.
In the case of the tomato, there are clearly differences between what science classifies as a fruit and what humans consider appropriate for fruit salad.
If you owned an online grocery service, would you dare to only list tomatoes as fruit?
Sure, you could avoid the fruit or vegetable debate entirely by classifying everything as “produce,” or you could list tomatoes in “fruit” and “vegetables.”
But what if I told you that squash, olives, cucumbers, avocados, eggplant, peppers, and okra are also fruits that are commonly mistaken as vegetables?
What do we even mean when we say “fruit” or “vegetable” in casual conversations? Classification systems can be unhelpful and indistinguishable when you’re sorting things for a particular context.
Most things need a mix of taxonomic approaches.
The world is organized in seemingly endless ways, but in reality, every form can be broken down into some taxonomic patterns.
Hierarchy, heterarchy, sequence, and hypertext are just a few common patterns. Most forms involve more than one of these.
A typical website has a hierarchical navigation system, a sequence for signing up or interacting with content, and hypertext links to related content.
A typical grocery store has a hierarchical aisle system, a heterarchical database for the clerk to retrieve product information by scanning a barcode, and sequences for checking out and other basic customer service tasks. I was even in a grocery store recently where each cart had a list of the aisle locations of the 25 most common products. A great use of hypertext.
A typical book has a sequence-based narrative, a hierarchical table of contents, and a set of facets allowing it to be retrieved with either the Dewey Decimal system at a library, or within a genre-based hierarchical system used in bookstores and websites like Amazon.com.