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Future Practice Interview: Indi Young


As part of our new Future Practice webinar series, we’ll be interviewing presenters to give you a preview of what they’ll cover. Next up is author and Adaptive Path co-founder Indi Young.

Her webinar Using Mental Models for Tactics and Strategy took place on December 11, 2008. Use code RMWBNR for a 20% discount off the recording of Indi’s webinar.

Victor Lombardi: Hi Indi, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. You’ve shared a sneak peak (44Kb PDF) at an example that demonstrates how mental models can remain consistent over time. How will you use this example in your webinar?

Indi Young: This example is a mental model about buying a home. It contains topics like “Figure Out If/When I Can Afford a House,” “Explore Where to Look for a House,” “List My Criteria for a House,” and “Find Likely Houses.” Below these items, I list the services that our grandparents used to buy houses, as well as the services that we use currently. It’s evident that services have changed over the years, but the behaviors, beliefs, and emotions involved remain the same. Your grandparents looked at ads for houses in the Sunday edition of the newspaper. You look at them online and watch video walk-throughs of the place. But behaviors like “Wonder About the Location” and “Decide Which Ads are Worth Pursuing” are exactly the same. This is a perfect example of how many parts of a mental model remain stable over the decades.

Victor Lombardi: Recently you’ve written about how we can improve our work by changing our perspective. Can you say a little about this and how it helps your work?

Indi Young: What I talk about is two-fold. On one hand, organizations know they need to be “customer focused,” but they tend to understand customers through the lens of their existing products, seeking how to improve them. On the other hand, practitioner-designers like ourselves keep making assumptions about people’s behavior when we are conducting research. Instead of having the “researcher” mindset, we are better off being naive, and using the power of “why?” to get to the real motivations behind someone’s behavior. In both cases, it’s just a little shift in the “customer focused” approach.

Instead of thinking in terms of the organization and all the services and support this organization offers people, think in terms of real life. Look past the clinical kind of data and get to the warm, fuzzy, human heart of how people are making decisions and justifying actions and having emotional reactions to things that get in their way. This kind of data is mushy and murky and rarely the same for two people, but if an organization can stop thinking about what they are doing and just think about what customers are doing, they will be able to see where the support they offer is not really a good fit. And if we, the designers, can shift from making judgments about what is significant and what is not, and instead intensify our ability to sense when a statement or behavior might have more layers beneath it than are apparent, then we will get richer data. Our resulting designs will be much closer to the mark.

Victor Lombardi: I know your book Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior has quickly gone to a second printing and you’ve been busy with client work. Can you bring us up-to-date on your mental models-related consulting?

Indi Young: I continue to consult in a number of different ways. Many teams ask me to help them through a key step or two, and review their work with them. Other people ask me to do the mental model work for them, since they either don’t have enough people to do it in-house, or they prefer to hire an outside expert. For these folks, I pick up where they leave off, sometimes doing just the analysis work after they do the interviews, sometimes doing the whole project from scratch. A few organizations have hired me to conduct in-depth workshops so that their internal teams understand the method well enough to set out completely on their own. Recent clients tend to be big Fortune 500 companies in the software, hardware, communications equipment, finance, food service, and realty industries, though I’ve done a mental model of prospective students for a university as well.

There are also the clients asking for evaluations of their products and for help designing interfaces. In these cases I base my recommendations on their answers to questions about audience segments and behaviors gleaned from their personal experience in the industry. These consist mostly of web start-ups in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Victor Lombardi: Your webinar participants will receive a copy of your book when they sign up. How will your presentation complement what they read in the book?

Indi Young: All my presentations are different from the book, so that I can give people a broader range of examples and descriptions, hoping that one perspective might speak to them more clearly than another. This makes a lot more work for me, but if there’s one thing I wrinkle my nose at, it’s an author doing a presentation using exactly and only the material from his book. If you’ve read the book, you don’t need me to parrot it back to you; you need to reach a little farther and see how you can make it stick in your own world. Some parts of the book might be unclear to you because I used, say, an example about laboratory practices, and you are a community recreation center. It didn’t translate. So you need more description so you can apply it to your situation. In my workshops and webinars, I try really hard to answer questions with language and examples that resonate with your industry.

Victor Lombardi: Thanks Indi! It seems the webinar will illuminate the long-term benefits of this work and make mental models-related activities even more valuable.

Indi Young was afflicted with the “problem solving” disease at an early age. Her parents are both inveterate problem solvers. At her father’s side, she watched him figure out how to build an airplane with folding wings so it could be stored in a garage instead of housed in an expensive hangar. With her mother, she learned about growing wheat and grinding it for flour to make bread, since there were no good whole wheat loaves available at the supermarket. When it came time to leave for university, Indi chose Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, wholly because of their motto: “Learn by Doing.” (full bio)