Culturally, I think it’s unfortunate that what seems only to be offered as a solution is a western model of therapy and that eastern modalities of healing or other cultural modalities of healing are sort of shelved as “not real”, or more exotic. The western therapy, which is what’s available on campuses or available on health plans, is very taboo – it’s not something that people of color, specifically Asian-American people, are accustomed to understanding, or understanding, “OK, so, what I’m going to sit and tell a stranger my story?” You know, or explaining to older relatives, “You have to go into this room now and tell this white person all your secrets” – you know, they’re not going to do that.
—  Mental Health and the Model Minority Myth: Victoria Uren In Conversation with Kristina Wong, Doll Hospital Journal, Issue One

Mental picture of others can be seen using fMRI

It is possible to tell who a person is thinking about by analyzing images of his or her brain. Our mental models of people produce unique patterns of brain activation, which can be detected using advanced imaging techniques according to a study by Cornell University neuroscientist Nathan Spreng and his colleagues.

“When we looked at our data, we were shocked that we could successfully decode who our participants were thinking about based on their brain activity,” said Spreng, assistant professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology.

Understanding and predicting the behavior of others is a key to successfully navigating the social world, yet little is known about how the brain actually models the enduring personality traits that may drive others’ behavior, the authors say. Such ability allows us to anticipate how someone will act in a situation that may not have happened before.

To learn more, the researchers asked 19 young adults to learn about the personalities of four people who differed on key personality traits. Participants were given different scenarios (i.e. sitting on a bus when an elderly person gets on and there are no seats) and asked to imagine how a specified person would respond. During the task, their brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow.

They found that different patterns of brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) were associated with each of the four different personalities. In other words, which person was being imagined could be accurately identified based solely on the brain activation pattern.

The results suggest that the brain codes the personality traits of others in distinct brain regions and this information is integrated in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) to produce an overall personality model used to plan social interactions, the authors say.

“Prior research has implicated the anterior mPFC in social cognition disorders such as autism and our results suggest people with such disorders may have an inability to build accurate personality models,” said Spreng. “If further research bears this out, we may ultimately be able to identify specific brain activation biomarkers not only for diagnosing such diseases, but for monitoring the effects of interventions.”

Hopefully this isn’t a perverse simplification of mental models, but I was pleasantly taken aback by the display on my new washing machine. As opposed to the usual dominate wash options (water temperature, perceived soil levels, and the like) this display more closely resembles real mental models for people attempting to wash a load of laundry. Typically, laundry is done according to the color/ condition of the clothes and how much time one has to do laundry. This display obviously accounts for this criteria flawlessly. And even though I’m not so sure what to expect for the “basket clean” option, I think this is one of the best washing machine displays I’ve seen.

As they shared their successes and failures with us, we identified a common factor that seemed to consistently undermine their efforts: their mental models—ingrained assumptions and theories about the way the world works. Though mental models lie below people’s cognitive awareness, they’re so powerful a determinant of choices and behaviors that many neuroscientists think of them almost as automated algorithms that dictate how people respond to changes and events.
—  W. Chan Kim & Renée Mauborgne, HBR
What kinds of distractions are good for your productivity?

An exploration of why you might not want to check Facebook or email during a pomodoro break.

While reading Mark Lesser’s book Less, I found myself searching for a way to understand the different kinds of distractions and the effects they have on our mental state and therefore our ability to be productive. Since “multitasking” tends to be counterproductive, and working intently for hours on end is hard to do consistently, it can make sense that we might want to find healthy ways to distract ourselves in between rounds of working.

The pomodoro technique

I, like millions of other people, use the pomodoro technique for a lot of my work. It has several components, the most central being its focus on having a dedicated focused-work period followed by a mandatory break period (typically 25 and 5 minutes, respectively). The break period is important, because it allows you to keep your mind fresh so that you don’t find yourself feeling compelled to take an unscheduled break later on. That said, it can feel a bit unnatural at first to insert a break when you’re feeling most productive.

With an unstructured work-break schedule, it can be easy to take a break when the going gets toughest. With a pomodoro, you push at it until either you break through, or you get a structured break. Then, the question becomes: what’s the best way to spend that structured break?

Divergent distractions

What a lot of people will do during their breaks is whatever was attracting them before they settled down to work—facebook, perhaps, or their email inbox. Reading blog posts that you had to put aside to start the pomodoro. And, while this can be a relief from your work, especially if the work is challenging, these kinds of distractions can also be problematic.

Because they’re divergent. They make your attention spread out.

Everyone knows that facebook is designed so that it’s not easy to just quickly check something, or to just spend 5 minutes and easily pull yourself away. Your email inbox isn’t necessarily explicitly optimized for such a purpose, but it provides pretty extensive dopamine hits as well, and is very good at tangling your mind in the many threads of conversation that are present there.

Honestly, almost the entire internet has this property. One of the best ways to understand what I mean by divergent is the concept of a “tab explosion”. Commonly experienced on Wikipedia, LessWrong, and media-analysis-site-that-shall-not-be-named, this is when you open one article, and while reading that article, you see several more that look interesting, so you control-click to open them in new tabs, and then when you’ve finished the first, you go to the second, but it also prompts you to open a few more.

There is no escape. The best thing to do is get OneTab, collapse them all, and intend to get around to them later, while knowing you probably won’t and that that’s probably okay since you really didn’t need to be reading the Wikipedia article on… the Euler-Mascheroni constant anyway. (I have no idea what that is, but when I searched my web history for “wikipedia”, it was there.)

Now, something being divergent is far from being a bad thing. The best conversations tend to be the most divergent, because you find each topic yielding three more that you’d also be excited to talk about. Again, there’s probably no way to every talk about it all, but the experience is enjoyable and so it’s worth trying!

But, you probably don’t want to get into a hyper-interesting conversation if you’re on a 5-minute work break. Unless the other person is also doing pomos? …but even still.

Centering distractions

So what kinds of distractions do work well during a 5-10 minute work break? Intuitively, I think we have a pretty good sense of some things that work well:

  • meditating
  • getting a glass of water
  • eating a small snack mindfully
  • going for a walk outside or around your office
  • stretching

Some that might be less obvious:

  • dancing
  • doing a mini-workout
  • free association (just letting your mind wander)
  • napping (better for a slightly longer break, but I want it in the list)

There might be some other ones that work well for you individually. I’ve really enjoyed playing a single song on my guitar, or doing a bit of juggling or devilstick-spinning. Practicing physical skills intensely for 5-minute chunks can be a cool way to see rapid improvement when you’re almost a complete beginner.

Anyway, like I said, you basically know this. I did too. What was more of an aha moment was learning to call these distractions. Because they are. They’re a drawing of the mind away from what it was previously doing. This drawing away is valuable for allowing your brain to do some offline processing of the stuff you’ve just been working on. However, unlike the divergent distractions, these centering distractions don’t draw your mind away too far. By contrast, I sometimes find that after a few minutes of doing them, that my mind tends to naturally drift back towards the work that I’m in the middle of.

Creating contexts for sustained focus

What I realized when I noticed this distinction between these two kinds of distraction was that I would be way more productive if I gave myself several consecutive hours of only indulging in centering distractions. Checking facebook or email in the middle of trying to write or code does two things: it makes me less likely to start work again once my pomodoro break ends, and even if I do pull myself away and go back to work, it means that I’m going to have a harder time staying focused on the work that I’m doing.

So I encourage you to decide on a trigger that will prompt you to turn on focus-mode, ie “no divergent distractions”. This could be a certain time of day (eg while I was doing software development at Twitter, I used to do this between lunch and supper) or it could be a certain task (like the writing I’m doing right now). If you have a browser extension that blocks stuff, make it block stuff. If you don’t need the internet, turn it off altogether. Put your phone on silent and airplane mode. Tell your coworkers that you’re going heads-down.

Then experience a much more relaxing experience of being productive.

You can also be really intentional about the kinds of things you do on your break. For instance, I’d been meaning to start a meditation habit for years and I finally got it working when I decided that I would always do a 4-6 minute mindfulness practice during my first pomo break of the day. Now I meditate almost every day.

There’s an additional benefit, which is physiological It’s really easy to alternate back and forth between “work” and “break” without ever standing up, for hours. This isn’t good for you. Sitting in general isn’t, but you can probably mitigate most of that if you’re moving around briefly every half hour. While most divergent distractions involve staying at your computer / desk, most of the centering distractions involve getting up and using your muscles at least gently.

I encourage you, right now, without clicking any links or going to any other tabs, to pause for a moment and ask yourself:

  1. do I think that this would be worth trying?
  2. if so, what is my trigger going to be? ie what specific time of day, context, or task is going to determine when you start and end your focus period?

Call this your version 0.1 Focus Plan—it doesn’t have to be perfect your first try! It’s way more important to try new things than to attempt to design optimal habits for yourself. After all, your current work habits probably aren’t 100% optimal already, and you’re only going to find better habits by trying new ones. You also don’t have to commit to doing it forever. You can try it just for a week. Or 3 days. Or a day.

This isn’t forever. It’s just something to try. A recent survey (halfway down at this link) suggests that the main factor that determines who learns more new techniques is who tries more. Either way, you have about the same success rate. So you might as well give it a shot!

We are trapped in our inadequate mental models.

John Edwarrd Huth, Losing Our Way in the World

A number of years ago, the documentary “A Private Universe,” about how we misperceive the world around us, was filmed at Harvard’s commencement. Twenty-three faculty members, alumni and graduating seniors were asked, “Why is it warm in the summer and cold in the winter?” All but two answered incorrectly, saying the Earth was closer to the sun in the summer than in the winter (it’s actually closer in January).

Arguably, the students were drawing on fragments of what they had learned in class somewhere — didn’t Earth’s orbit form an ellipse around the sun? — instead of what they could perceive themselves, as the seasons changed.

One “correct” answer has to do with the tilt of Earth’s rotational axis with respect to its orbit. But a Neolithic farmer might cast his arm in an arc across the sky and explain that the sun was low in the winter and high in the summer. The farmer’s explanation would be perfectly correct, rooted in experience.

In the documentary you can see the sun beaming down from high in the sky, and had the students given their surroundings some thought, the answer would have been obvious. And yet for them, like many people, the cause of the seasons has been reduced to some disembodied nugget of information we’re taught in school, divorced from our daily lives.

In a way, we can create our own meanings: our own private frameworks to link events. Too often in the modern era, we rely on guardians to interpret events for us, and they’re too happy to step in and tell us what something “means.” But when we do this, we surrender the more primal empiricism that our ancestors surely possessed.

Alternatively, and not to take away from the force of Huth’s proposition, the Harvardites could might have been more well-versed in their academic training, which would have also yielded the right answer to the question of why summers are hot. But I like the image of the neolithic farmer better, too.

This part is called Mental Models

Who ever said that writing does not cleanse your soul, it’s seriously mistaken

Being a tattooed person myself has made me by default be sorted by mental models that our society has. Ironically this term I learned it at work, I never thought this type of terms would ACTUALLY apply to daily life scenarios. 

What is a mental model?  It’s an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person’s intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences.

 Don’t get me wrong I’m not judging, but I guess I’m trying to de debate that this mental models do follow us everywhere. Let’s take an example, a person that likes taking selfies, you might think that person is being narcisistic or self-centre, how about we turn it around? How about if that person is insecure of their looks? How about that person needs an assurance of other people that their thoughts are now that ones that pop in their head?

I guess my point is that, those mental models are the reason that I’m posting this subject. Take me as another example, I’m assumed to be a hardcore partying/slutty type of girl, and if you check my friends requests on Facebook most of them (I might say ALL of them) are guys request either trying to hook up with or trying to ask where I did my tattoos. 

Pfft! If only they knew that I’m so the opposite. Assumptions and representations of what its not real its what actually dictates nowdays our behaviors towards people. I’ve been there also, having a thought of something and trying to take as a fact.

Don’t make Assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life. -Miguel Angel Ruiz

Have you ever caught yourself saying something like, “I just don’t understand how a PhD physicist can believe in astrology?” Well, if you literally don’t understand, this indicates a problem with your model of human psychology. Perhaps you are indignant - you wish to express strong moral disapproval. But if you literally don’t understand, then your indignation is stopping you from coming to terms with reality. It shouldn’t be hard to imagine how a PhD physicist ends up believing in astrology. People compartmentalize, enough said.
Emphasize The Product, Not the Process

Zynga recently added a new feature to their popular Words With Friends game: the “Words With Friends Store”. It is not a store for buying Zynga merchandise or Words With Friends apparel; rather, it is somewhere to make in-app purchases of additional content for the game. The content currently consists of a couple features to help people improve their gameplay: a Word-o-meter that tells you how strong your words are, and something they call “Tile Pile” that tells players how many of each letter is remaining.

I applaud Zynga for making a great business move. Based on the number of “cheats” apps out there, we might assume there is some demand for help winning the game. They are opening a new source of revenue among their huge existing user base.

One suggestion I would like to offer is to rename the “Store” so that it aligns more closely with the users’ goals, and less with the company’s. While Zynga is clearly selling something, users are not thinking to themselves “Wow, I’d like to buy something today”. What they are thinking is “I wish I could keep track of how many tiles are left” or “I wish there was a way I could win more games”. They may even be thinking “I wish this game had more features”. Based on that, I would suggest calling it “Words with Friends Add-ons” or something similar. People will still be spending money, but then they will be thinking about what they are getting, rather than what they are spending.

Mini Game Instructions

Just got an email from a student in USA about the game, as they had to do a presentation about mental models for their class. Being initially a student project of mine, I got excited to help, and wrote this mini version of the game. I also want to share it here, as I have been thinking again to push this project a little further inspired by Jussi Galla and Ville Häll, and their card game to help support marketing. Below you can see my response to an inquiry for the game to be used in a 25 min presentation about Mental Models.

The game itself is still in a prototype form in my shelve. I suppose to get the actual card game would take too long time for your class, and also, 25 mins is a short time for the entire game. However, I think you can do a quick prototype of it in a class setting very well. How the game goes, or could go in your case is following:

1. Welcome everyone to the game - tell them about the rule, that there should be respectful dialogue, no judgement, and only one conversation at a time in small teams. 

2. Introduce the concept of mental models to the participants in few minutes, refer to ideas of the fifth discipline, share stories that illustrate why mental models make a difference

3. Round one, divide people into small groups of 3-4 persons, and give them 3-5 minutes time to share their mental models of something easy or funny, e.g. What is your mental model of a good dinner or party? The first question should be about something that everyone has a mental model of, and that is relatively easy to articulate as well. 

4. Round two, mix groups, and give another question, this time it can be more to the topic of the class, e.g. what is your mental model of a good leadership? Or what is your mental model of a good team player? Here it is important that you include adjective in front of the topic, here it was “good” in both. You can play with words and use more explosive terms, such as “insanely good”, “great” or something alike. I think it should be something that spurs emotions and provokes stories for people to share. The main point is to share stories and ways we think. Give people 5 mins time this round. You can ask people to mix teams before they start the dialogue.

5. Ask people to come up with questions, deliver everyone an empty piece of cardboard or paper. Give them 1 minute or less to come up with a question, that includes adjective and the word mental model in it. Preferably also it should be an open question, honest inquiry.

6. Collect the cards, shuffle them, and pick up randomly.

7. Last round(s) can be from the questions people have created for the game. 

8. Finally, you can do a check out, ask everyone to share how they liked the game, what they learnt, or what was meaningful for them.

Bonus ideas:

* A nice addition is to ask people to draw their mental models. Give only 1 minute time to draw, and then share in small teams.

* You can also shuffle the team sizes if you have time e.g. But the challenge is that bigger group dialogue takes easily more time. In small teams more people get to share their mental models.

Please feel free to use the game; apply it, twist, modify etc as you wish. What I would like is to get as a feedback is a little reflection how it went, maybe just answer to following questions in an email from you your group:

1. What went well?
2. What didn’t go well?
3. What did we learn?
4. What would we do differently next time?
5. Other reflection / feedback / ideas?

Best yellow regards from Finland,
Ville / 

Top 10 Reasons We’re Not Connected on Google+ Yet

  1. I have no idea who you are. I mean literally you just added me in some frenzy of circle building.
  2. We don’t know each other all that well, I’d love to know you better before we jump past Twitter and into a circle-based relationship.
  3. You’re simply using your stream as an RSS feed for your blog and adding no personality or comments.
  4. Your avatar doesn’t feature a person which can also mean….
  5. Your name is an LLC (See: “Heel Vitality, Aalid Health Products LLC”).
  6. Your comments lean heavily towards Social Media Strategies to make money with Google+.
  7. Frequent references to Bieber or Nancy Grace.
  8. You’re a “Person of Interest on the Internet” and so many people want to talk to you every post turns unto a 30 or 40 comment orgy I can’t keep track of.
  9. The majority of your stream activity is to sound the alarm over how Google is going to use all this information we’re giving them to screw us somehow! Sometime! Soon!
  10. I  was able to keep up with the invites the first phase but now that invites are available to more and more I just can’t keep up. Be patient.
Taking Notes | Mental Models Style

I discussed here how taking notes is a great way to extend memory but what intrigues me is the whole need to extend the memory. This is the essence of the habit of taking notes.

Sadly, despite having an abundant body of knowledge about how our brain works & which areas of the brain are responsible for what functions, we haven’t been really able to capture the essence of the memory function & how it aids in building thoughts. We know a lot about it through several metaphors & we have readily extended these metaphors into our lives with the help of social media.

Imagine being tagged in a post. If the whole world of social media is one giant memory then we have become part of that memory by getting tagged with a particular item. So now every time we want to access that particular memory we can either directly recall it by clicking on that post or we can access it through our tag. When someone tags us all that really happens is now there is a context created between the existence of that post & us. With this context it becomes easier to remember why the memory exists. Imagine the post just idly sitting on a Facebook wall with no tags, it would soon be buried under new posts or new updates. But if it is tagged more than one people get associated with it & it remains live for that much more time. It gets accessed by other friends in our network who wish to know why we were tagged in it. They might leave their own comments to that post thereby creating more associations. They will get updated about changes in that post in the future only because they had participated in some activity about the post. 

Now translate this idea to our real memory. Suppose we have just learnt a new concept. We read the whole chapter but all we have done is stuffed our brain with the idea (created a post with no tags). Now we don’t know how exactly this newly learnt knowledge might get integrated with whole body of knowledge that we already know. Right now what we learnt is at the top of that stack. We can either associate this newly learnt information with what we already know or we can choose to leave it just like that.

As we are reading, the process of association (tagging) with previous memories works in the background. It is not a conscious process that we have to pay attention to. It is automatic. The best way to cement this association is to take a notebook & jot down keywords (“#<keyword>” hashtags) that are related to what we just read. This process is really easy on computers or apps but very tricky to keep it going on physical, pen & paper notebook. 

Once the keyword is associated, this information is already being cataloged in our mind in a metaphorical folder with the keyword as the title. Once this is done whenever we learn something new which gets associated to that keyword, it only adds up to what we already know. 

I have to admit, this is where the habit part kicks in. Without habitually noting down & categorizing with keywords or tags we tend to misplace data that we know. Once it is misplaced we have to only rely on chance to get the association working again. Otherwise it ends up like random strings of data just floating in our memory, ready to be forgotten. This is the moment when we feel we know something but we’re unable to recall any specific part of what we know. This is perhaps the remnant of some old, un-tagged data which we have half forgotten.

This is where the mental models approach, that I wrote about earlier, plays a crucial part. Mental models is just an idea. It is not some app we have to install in our brain to get it to work in this particular way. Mental models are literally those keywords with which we categorize data. This can work on a broad scale by making a very vague category or very specific smaller ones. For instance if we are reading about ‘How biases affect human decision making’, then we can either categorize under a broad tag/keyword like “Psychology” & have other stuff linked with the subject of psychology along with it or we can specifically tag “Behaviour Biases”. This can be a sub-tag under the main tag of “Psychology”. This way whenever we read new information about biases or decision making, we can just jot down the important points in this particular folder / page under this keyword / tag.

I have wondered a lot of times how often should this note taking obsession be used? The answer is pretty simple. In most of our day to day lives we are automatically doing this. We associate things we see with some memory & that’s how we remember. It is sufficient to get by throughout our life in this default mode of association. But when we are working & want to think analytically & remember specific details, we can use this natural ability & augment it with our note taking habits.This will make us learn faster, learn better & remember more. This remembering more part is a tricky bit. We don’t know how much we have to remember to perform better at some task. So if we have the desire to deeply think over a particular problem & analyze situations by carefully considering all the possible angles, which I can say is a pretty important task in most of our professional lives, then we can augment ourselves with this habit of taking categorized notes. Of course taking notes & not reading them ever again is as good as forgetting. 

The idea is to basically have all the necessary tools (mental models) which will help us perform better. This technique not only makes us keep our tools in order for easy access, but it also keeps them polished by allowing new information to be added to them. This makes learning much more effective. After all effectiveness of learning anything is evident only from how we apply it. If we are not able to apply what we have learnt then we have wasted time in learning it. Why spend more time to re-learn something which we already know but are having difficulty remembering it when it is needed the most? Just consult the notes every now & then and it becomes automatically reinforced in our memory. This is a focused activity & not random reading of our own notes. Our brain automatically bring relevant memories in the front when we are thinking about something. Taking notes over time fine tunes this process by allowing us to access a wider pool of our own knowledge. It basically lets our brain do what it does best with its natural associative skills to pull up this data when it is most needed.

In the end we are only competing with our past selves to become better in the future. Taking better notes is just one of the ways of doing this. 

Something more:

Maria Konnikova wrote this fantastic book called Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes where she uses Holmes’ legendary detecting abilities as an example to explain how we can think & apply better. It is surprising how Arthur Conan Doyle put all this detail in his lead Character when the academic research in the field of psychology began much later after his death.

Apps like Evernote are tremendously useful in helping store data & categorizing them. Not only does it store well but it is also accessible from anywhere, literally anywhere on any device. So now we can store notes on Evernote & their cloud will follow us everywhere, with our notes.

(Disclosure: I use Evernote extensively to take notes & it has helped me in ways I sadly cannot quantify)

What good is technology if we can’t take advantage of it to become better & have a more fulfilling life experience!

Treating Users Like Adults: Incorporating Six Principles of Andragogy into UX Design

A newly designed, yet overly complicated financial management app is launched and users find themselves scratching their heads. What is this unusable application? How does it work? Meanwhile, the UX team members shake their heads in bewilderment. They’ve incorporated a detailed FAQ area as well as dozens of half-hour-long videos on how the new software works. They have done all they can do to teach their users—but they haven’t been thinking of their users as learners. Most digital experiences require users to learn something new. Sometimes the purpose of an app is to learn, such as in an e-class. More often, the user needs to learn how to use the app itself, be it an updated word processing program or a redesigned online banking experience. We call it the onboarding process, and done poorly it can turn users away, which makes it critical that design teams incorporate sound learning principles into their designs. These principles, or “laws of learning” ensure that the experience will be smooth and intuitive. In other words, we need to approach each new application or redesign as an opportunity to teach our users as though they were students. Andragogy, the study and practice of adult education, provides six learning principles applicable which serve as best practices, as we design experiences that teach.

* Learners need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
* Learners prefer self-direction when learning new things.
* Learners build on prior experiences.
* Learners need to learn quickly—in real-life situations.
* Learners’ interest in learning is centered on problem solving.
* Learners’ motivations to learn are internal as well as external.

In this article, we will discuss these principles, and see how design teams can use them when creating digital learning experiences.

Principles of Andragogy

The field of andragogy gained prominence in North America in the late 1960s when adult education theorist Malcolm Knowles began to distinguish between how adults and children learn. Since that time, the principles of andragogy have evolved considerably, and even Knowles determined that andragogy advances good principles of education for all ages. Given how frequently we update software and web based applications, andragogy must factor into every interface we design. As UX designers, we are educators, whether through onboarding processes, help text, contextual advice, or progressive reduction. By following the six principles of andragogy, UX designers can help ensure a better educational experience for all applications- whether based in eLearning or merely requiring an onboarding component. In turn, we can use these principles to develop UX best practices.

Learners need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction

The first principle of andragogy is that learners need a say in how they learn a particular skill or new information. The same is true of our users. We show our users respect by allowing them to participate in creating an experience. Co-creation (also known as co-design) is the most direct way to reflect this principle in practice. Allowing users to take part in the design process provides designers with immediate user feedback. It also enables design teams to see how users approach the product, and use that information to create a smooth onboarding experience. User experience professionals are also likely familiar with incorporating common UX research techniques into their design process. Prior to engaging in design, teams can conduct interviews to uncover users’ behaviors, perceptions, and possible misconceptions of the topic their design will address. Potential users can perform card sorts to identify the best taxonomy for a website or app. Design teams should consider these methods as well when thinking of a product update or redesign.

Learners prefer self-direction when learning new things

The second principle of andragogy is that learners perform best when they’re allowed to create their own learning paths. We can account for this in design by allowing users to select where in the lesson to start, in the way that does, while still ensuring they’ll have the context they need. Teams that fail to provide content in relevant, customizable chunks are setting users up for frustration, and some users will simply give up if they can’t access the information at their own pace. The Western Extension Committee addresses this principle by allowing users to choose which section of a webinar to view. Each session is a self-contained unit based on topic and presenter. The topics do not build on each other, so it is not necessary to view the sessions in a particular order. In cases when content must be presented linearly, we can provide references back to previous chapters (or onboarding screens), so that users who have skipped can easily access the information they’re missing.

The Western Extension Committee allows users self-direction in deciding content to view.

Learners build on prior experiences

One hundred different users have one hundred different backgrounds, not to mention unique prior experiences. Our designs can take advantage of that reality when we personalize content. Arizona State University demonstrates this principle in a simple, yet eloquent, way. Users are first asked to self-identify as a type of student (freshman, graduate, international, etc). The subsequent information encompasses a variety of relevant topics to that user type, spanning admissions, financial aid, and academics.

After self identifying as a future freshman student, the ASU site presents relevant information across topics.

Learners need to learn quickly—in real-life situations

Dan is a 25-year-old iPhone user. At his friend’s wedding reception, the bartender slips and falls, and Dan offers to fill in. He walks behind the bar, downloads the Mixology app, and is the hero of the night. The app provides him with drink recipes, as well as common terminology, top-rated suggested drinks, and categories based on liquor types. More importantly, the Mixology app was set up intuitively enough that Dan could use it for the first time, and still focus on bartending.

Menu options of the Mixology Drinks & Cocktail Recipes app. Whether using Mixology for a friend’s wedding, learning French for an upcoming trip, or trying out online banking for the first time, most learning occurs when a specific situation requires it. As designers, we need to be aware of this immediacy, and match our users’ mental model, so they can focus on the task at hand—and not worry about learning the app.

Interest in learning is centered on problem solving

Users learn best when they understand how learning is relevant to a problem they need to solve. Similarly to principle #4 (users are learning in real-life situations), this contrasts with learning for the sake of knowledge alone. Educators who practice project-based learning follow this principle by tying curriculum to real-world problems that need solutions. For design teams however, we need to consider when and why our user will need instruction. For example, where a tutorial removes users from their task, progressive reduction and progressive disclosure provide contextually appropriate information as the user progresses through their task. The tutorial is therefore less relevant than help text provided progressively, which highlights the connection between the information and the user’s goals. The team at Intuitive Company offers contextual help in their Intuitive Voting application. When a user enters the “candidates” section, they see relevant advice—essentially, they are taught how to use the section only after expressing their interest.

Learners’ motivations to learn are internal as well as external

Where extrinsic rewards can light the fire of motivation, intrinsic motivators keep it burning. Good onboarding encourages both, through a combination of challenging tasks, curiosity, and authentic simulation.

* Challenging Tasks Fitocracy, a healthy-living app, motivates users to learn more about diet and exercise by challenging them to engage in fitness-related tasks with their peers. Although users may initially be encouraged by gaining points and “leveling up,” these rewards mirror their personal growth, which stokes their intrinsic motivation.

Fitocracy is a health app that motivates users to learn by providing them with health related challenges alongside their peers. * Curiosity The Audubon Guide Box Set app inspires curiosity by showing users birds recently spotted in their location, and encouraging them to post birds they spot to the community. The extrinsic motivator of social status is an initial push, but the social aspect only encourages users to pursue their own curiosity as they encounter more bird species.
* Authentic simulation The onboarding processes we create are, by their very nature, authentic. Still, some applications do a better job of conveying the real world aspect of their work to their users. Balsamiq, a design tool, provides users with stencils in order to learn how to use the application while also creating their first project. This follows the very same theory that led history teachers to create a simulation for their students to experience life in a covered wagon across the rugged West. We know that learning experience as the popular game Oregon Trail.

Incorporating the Principles

As UX design team members, we can make a point of incorporating the principles of andragogy into our work.

* Consider the six principles as a check list, and identify how a user experience accounts for them.
* Look for the quick fixes. A 50-question FAQ can turn into contextual help cues, and an hour-long webinar can be broken up into self-contained segments.
* Gather feedback from current and prospective users to identify which principles of andragogy will have the most impact on a specific audience. Use the findings to shape future experiences and approach any problem areas differently.
* Read up on andragogy for more ideas. Look into some of these resources to start incorporating learning principles into every experience: The Adult Learner, Malcolm Knowles classic book on androgogy Androgogy in Practice, Elwood F Holton, Richard A Swanson, and Sharon S Naquin’s article, which includes useful checklists Motivation in Education, by Dale H. Schunk, Judith R Meece, and Paul R. Pintrich, the androgogy website Co-designing with Children, by Catalina Naranjo-Bock Co-Creation: Designing with the User, for the User, by Patrizia Bertini and Elsa Plumley
* Practice designing for the principles. Jared Spool tells us to be proactive in practicing our practice. Next time the team is tackling a design flow, spend some time creating six versions; one to address each separate principle. Look across these flows and determine how the pieces of each might fit best as a whole to incorporate learning principles and address the issue being designed around. As any designer’s skills develop, incorporating learning principles into their experiences will become second nature.

It’s our duty as designers—as educators—to design future digital experiences with these principles in mind. Incorporating at least some of the principles will increase the likelihood users will learn what they need to, and have a smooth and enjoyable experience. It’s in our hands to make andragogy a standard part of the UX design process.

Why Are Execs, Product Managers, Marketers, Designers and Engineers So Often NOT On The Same Page?

This is the fourth post of a five-part series on Product Management. Start the series here.

In my previous post I challenged you a little on why we have a big problem in getting everyone on the Product Management team, as well as the company at large, on the same page. Here is what I think about it.

To reiterate the questions I asked previously- Why are the product teams so seldom aligned? Why do they struggle with achieving common agreement and end up building products that nobody needs?

I want to leave aside, at least for now, the obvious need for strong foundations of a clear overarching vision, trust, accountability and culture of cooperation. Without these, you will not build a great product no matter what, so let’s assume that these are in place. (Wishful thinking, I know, but let’s not go there now).

The Culprit

The main culprit behind the lack of alignment is the fact that everyone on the team (product team as well as exec team and others in the company) tend to have a different mental model in their minds about the problem space the company is in; or in other words, everyone has a different understanding of how their customers see the world they live in. (When I say mental model I mean an explanation of someone’s thought process of how something works in the real word, as defined in psychology, not the specific design process proposed by Indi Young.)

When friends plan a trip to a new place they wouldn’t leave without agreeing on the route over a map. An architect wouldn’t design a house without having the husband and wife agree on their needs. A general at war wouldn’t fight without having his commanders aligned by looking at a battle plan that shows enemies and their strengths. 

Yet, somehow in business we routinely decide what products with what features to build, and what messaging to choose without having a clear common mental model of our customers, their goals, pains and solution alternatives.

Generals wouldn’t fight w/o aligning their commanders. So why do we launch products without alignment? -tweet this

This Is a Big Idea

We talked about one person not being able to do everything. So we built teams with experts in product strategy, product development, product marketing, design, engineering etc., but we fail to consolidate all our findings into one common mental model that would align everyone. All our decisions about what to build and how to market and sell products are based on our individual understanding (or worse - assumptions) of the customers, their goals, pains and how our products are different from competition. Simply put, we are rarely on the same page.

Ok, now we know the culprit. I will talk about potential solutions in my last post.

What do you think? Is it mental models’ fault ? Let me know!


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