We Need to Let Curiosity Drive

I heard a great quote attributed to Jer Thorp recently, “Design is figuring out how people walk across a bridge, engineering is figuring out how to build the bridge itself.”

Spending so much time in learning technology, this really rings true. So many in this field spend their time trying constructing yet another ultimate system to store “all of the information” and track “all of the knowledge.” There are more engineers than we can handle. We have so few actual designers in learning technology that it’s painful.


Not specifically user interface designer. Not even just user experience designers, though UX has the closest skill set to match what’s needed in learning technology today. I spend a ton of time staring at mediocre interfaces and trying to think of ways for them to better serve humans — humans seeking a bit of information in the moment need, primed to convert the information into knowledge. Then I remember such humans tend to end up in a ‘learning’ application when they aren’t explicitly curious to figure something out, or answer answer a burning question. They’re often planted there by someone with authority over them.

This problem is not just in P-20 education or corporate learning, it’s both. This problem is nothing short of a systematic disregard for the innate drive within all people to learn (and yes, I have a hard time maintaining my respect for that natural drive while watching a social feed fill up with talk about Miley Cyrus or Paul Walker. Shush, admit it. You know exactly what I’m talking about too).

Distress and Ignorance.

There’s a book from 1991 titled Information and Information Systems by Michael Buckland. I’ve been dragging it around for years. That’s because his explanation of inquiry is so spot on that I haven’t been able to let it go, let alone disprove it. Every learning technology or systemic learning challenge I encounter, I hold up against Buckland’s arguments.

Whether I was designing an eLearning platform for teaching doctors medical spanish to working with Tin Can (xAPI), Buckland’s point is that when a person becomes aware of their ignorance to a particular topic or item (attempting to solve a problem, make sense of an event, find their way from one place to another) and that ignorance reaches a level that becomes distressing, a person is fully motivated to inquire about information that addresses that gap and to convert that information into knowledge.

Buckland writes,

We are all enormously ignorant in the sense that there is a great deal that we do not know. Some things we are unacquainted with. Some things we do not understand. One only has to look at a computer tape [reminder, old.], peruse an encyclopedia, contemplate a library, or watch a crowd… to realize how little of human knowledge each of us possesses. Yet each example represents only a very small selection from the totality of human knowledge known or recorded… In a very important sense, this colossal individual ignorance does not matter. People can and do live pleasant, happy, satisfying lives unaware of the characteristics of the moons that circle Jupiter… The assumption that ignorance is bliss is less dependable than the certainty that everyone is more or less in ignorance whether or not in a state of bliss. Ignorance becomes important only to the extent to which it becomes distressing or harmful. We use the term distressing to denote occasions when an individual is not only conscious of ignorance and, thereby, the distress. Such ignorance may be a gap in personal knowledge.

That doesn’t mean that every gap in personal knowledge must be filled through the malpractice of attempting to stuff heads with information.

My point is… this is the driver behind curiosity. This recognition of the gap, where mild distress is felt, is the best intrinsic motivator we can work with as designers in learning technology.

We’re not totally helpless, but we’ve all been talking to the wrong people this whole time: the teachers and the managers who have no idea where the actual users feel ignorance and are inspired into learning. They can guess, surely. They probably have a general sense of the motivations for coming to class or work, but personal improvement and meaningful knowledge acquisition are deeper.

If we bring this back to Jer (who does amazing data visualizations that have inspired a lot of my own personal curiosity), we need to stop thinking about how to get information into technology and start thinking about the reasons a person comes to the technology in the first place.


Absolutely, go ahead.

We don’t usually have meetings where I work (Rustici Software), but when we do… Here’s how they work: Everyone comes to Nashville, we all explore the depths of our true purpose within the company and if how we’re balancing work and other priorities we have (life.) We have Jena who does awesome things to help us balance these things. Then we all have new ideas, which we share freely. When an idea is feasible, generally someone says “yeah, you should do that” to the person who came up with it. If you really want it done, you own it and make it happen. With that in mind, it’s always been a little baffling to me when anyone tells me or anyone else exactly what to do. Ask my mom. I think we’ve all seen the terrible quality of work we get when work is handed down to someone (rather than owned intrinsically.)

Which brings me to some strangeness that occurred last week.

At a conference, it was clear that specification I work on (Tin Can API, computers sharing data about people learning and doing) has gained a lot of traction. It was great to see people who were questioning it in June, September, December, now coming back with support and ideas that build on Tin Can’s capabilities.

What was odd to me was that a few people came up and told me what *I* should go do. This is weird because even my lovely bosses (almost) never tell me what I should do. Mostly because they’re really good bosses. They trust that we all will do what needs to be done.

I love that Tin Can has a massively engaged community and we all try to do our part. If that had to do with the reason for tasking me, it’s even more odd because I have a very small voice in the community. I’m not the person to start pulling strings there, nor would I try to without a serious mission.

I really am happy to answer any questions and listen to people’s opinions. I know Tin Can is not easy, but that’s not an excuse. It’s challenging a lot structures that people are comfortable with and people are scared of losing that comfort zone (even if those structures aren’t the best way to do things.)

So, I want to give permission to everyone with an idea. Absolutely, go ahead. Do it. JFDI. etc. If you don’t believe it needs to be done enough to do it yourself, write it up cohesively and share it. Maybe someone else will join in with you, and maybe not. That said, sharing by handing down tasks is not how anything will really move forward.

It’s odd to push an idea or agenda that isn’t mine. Please, own your own ideas and make them real.

The Unknown

One of the main differences between Up to All of Us this year and last year is the number of unknowns. Last year Aaron or I knew everyone coming to Sedona. We had seen the location. We had so many details that they were almost in excess. This year, we didn’t know a good amount of people who were coming to Texas. We had never seen the location we were bringing everyone to. I had been talking to the owners since March, 2012 but it’s not the same comfort as walking the site with time left to reorganize.


I definitely came out feeling more of a shared experience this year, partially because we had tested this format twice in 2012 so there was less anxiety. More so because I felt the plunge into the unknown with everyone. Albeit about different aspects, but it’s funny how when things work out the fear becomes so much less relevant. The details fade and the shared sense that we’re all still breathing brings people together.

Perfect Plans

One of the balancing acts I’ve often played in the product manager role is around encouraging designs and roadmaps that accept people will use them however they please. One may build an app for a single purpose, but sometimes people start using it and find a much better way to apply the functionality than the vision had included. I’ve experienced the argument from people who hand money down about their dream of a flash card game that nurses will play to learn medical spanish, when it’s highly possible a nurse may just want a good spanish medical dictionary on their mobile device to use in real-time at the bedside. I’ve also seen people remove corks from wine bottles with a shoe. The shoe designer surely didn’t design for that use case. People are fucking creative.

What I’m saying is that if a design is too limiting of the possibilities for doing ‘it’ differently, whatever it is. One may well kill it off by strangling the imagination that people naturally approach experiences with.

Making Spaces

It’s not about the panacea of perfection, it’s about encouraging autonomy. Whether it be an event, an application, and beyond. You will not please everyone in your design, the more structure the less who will be pleased. People are incredibly unique, no matter how much we want to try to lump them together in personas or stereotypes.


I’ve been to a lot of conferences, most of which have a formal session structure and schedule. They have chosen to make a lot of ‘breaktime’ in between sessions because the hallway conversations are what their minions have told them is most important. Yet, still, they’re pointing to serendipity as a harsh mistress if you never find anyone to have a good conversation with. The presenters end up mobbed, because they seem like the most likely candidate to become interesting (I won’t go into my opinion there.)

It’s not just making time or space, it’s (as Aaron loves to say) stacking the deck. Queuing people, topics, and mind bending ideas in small doses. Planning holes in space and time for people to absorb and play with the ideas. Naps are important, people. In designing this I had a few directions in mind. Also, a list of freaking amazing people coming. The design ended up being really loose, maybe even looser than I intended, but all in all it worked. People who were motivated to push themselves forward found people to have the right conversation with. People who just wanted a party weekend with friends that they can speak openly to… They did that too.

I was really happy to see groups materialize and start hard conversations. Many people walked in somewhat petrified by the lack of agenda and structure. Not knowing what was going to happen before it did. We’ve all been pretty well-trained to demand people tell us exactly what will happen so we can pass immediate judgement. Most times we have nothing to really evaluate it beyond a few well formatted words. In terms of taking responsibility for one’s own happiness, growth, and self actualization, that’s not conducive to progress.

We’ve decided to change that. It’s working. I love everyone who has so wholeheartedly jumped into this. It’s about the people who come, it’s all of you. Not me, not Aaron. We could never hope to absorb the brilliance in anyone of you and successfully serve you exactly what you need.

Thank you.

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Flows and controls

Dave Gray shared this for feedback recently, http://davegray.looplogic.com/change-tool it’s the starting model for an organizational change tool. There are two very interesting pieces of this, how do you influence without control and how do you move an organization to it’s optimal state to evolve in a fast changing world.

Dave proposes three levers that can be used to affect the organizational change: variation (of people and groups), selection (of environments), and interactions (ways to create motion)

If you take this literally, when operating a tractor (yeah, yeah typical farming reference) when you pull a lever it literally changes the flow of material or current that creates a change in operation. Constructal law describes the phenomena of flow changing the natural design of systems (whether a complex organization of people or a tree). Adrian Bejan in 1996 described constructal law as:

“For a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it.”

In nature, this explains how rivers branch. That they will always evolve in a way that optimizes the flow of water under the force of gravity. In space design, people may move through and congregate in spaces based on optimizing their efforts towards the motivating factor for their movement. In sales incentives, people will be motivated to sell the things that create the most value for themselves (flow of cash back to them) and they attempt to sell them in a way that creates the most productive flow from entry into a system to closure. They will look at ways to tear down obstacles that are impeding the flow of cash back to themselves.

Taking the problem of control in an organization, there is a lot of hierarchy and stagnation that are obstacles to allowing motivation and creativity to create change in an organization . Going back to the three levers Dave described. All three can be effective if fanagled with from the top down, but if the organization does not have the room to flex and allow new flows of practice, be it conversation, resources, strategies, or motivations for those flows to occur, there is little hope for real change to take place. My point is that people throughout the organization each have some control of the many flows that allow daily business to be done. Pulling a new person in to a conversation changes the flow of the conversation, adding new information to a system creates a new possibility for flow of information to people, creating a space for sharing or collaboration opens the possibilities for many new flows to occur.

While physics will determine how flows occur in nature very predictably, there are far fewer clear indications of how a flow will occur when it comes to complex systems filled with agents who have free will. What I would suspect is that motivation and shared vision are key to encouraging the right movements towards change to occur. You can pull a lever all day and the inanimate object will respond (if properly functioning), humans are not in anyway as predictable. My main point is that pulling a series of levers wont change anything unless the people in the flows know what they can control, see where they (or someone else) are experiencing an obstacle, and they pull only the levers to an extent that it helps remove the obstacle. This needs to come from within, not from the top.

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