Me at the whiteboard

Know whiteboards, know design.

The best tool for visual thinking.

Visual thinking — and its sibling, visual communication — are foundational skills for interaction designers. Diagramming is the most commonly found tool in the designer’s arsenal. It would be difficult to design effective behavior without diagramming. We diagram to inventory and categorize the users we observe, the functionality we have to deliver, and the technical challenges we face. We diagram conceptual models of the way our users conceive of their work and how they understand their tools and tasks. And we diagram the course of work we have to perform as members of a team.

There are many tools for diagramming our visual thinking, and pencil-on-paper is the Mark I version. At the very first interaction design class I ever taught, way back in 1994, I gave each student my “Software Design Kit,” which consisted of a mechanical pencil, plastic eraser, and a pad of graph paper all shrink-wrapped into a nice package.

While a piece of paper with pencil lines on it is fine for one person, it’s not such a good tool for communicating and collaborating with a small team. And most interaction design is done with a small team, typically two people. A tool far superior to paper in this situation is the whiteboard. Whiteboards are my favorite tool for this work.

Before I began to define the practice of interaction design, I spent many years as a software inventor and programmer. Visual thinking was vital to creating the complex edifice of “pure thought-stuff” that was code.

The world of software behavior is complex, multivariate, and conditional. The mind can’t grasp all of the permutations without a map, a visual map, an adaptive, explanatory, exploratory, working tool of a map. After many years, I transposed that visual thinking from programming to the world of practical interaction design. Visual thinking was a skill and activity that undergirded everything that design teams at Cooper did.

From the beginning, I insisted that every office, every room, at Cooper have a whiteboard. It wouldn’t be much of an overstatement to say that my interaction design consulting company was started back in 1992 with a single tangible artifact: my eight-foot-long whiteboard that had already served for many years in my home office.

I’ve always been adamant that we use only top quality whiteboards and fresh markers. Each whiteboard had to be big and it had to be porcelain-on-steel. Those people at Cooper who counted beans asked why pay $1,000 for porcelain when you could get melamine boards for $100. I insisted that we equip ourselves with the best tools for our most important jobs.
I also insisted that every whiteboard have a full set of fresh markers. Sometimes it takes all 8 colors to tell a complicated story. If I picked up a marker to write on the board and it was dry or weak, I would unhesitatingly and ostentatiously throw it into the trash. Life is too short for shitty whiteboard markers.

I became infamous for tossing dead whiteboard markers. I would do that at client offices, too. At a client, we’d encounter a dim, crappy melamine board with one dim, pathetic, graying marker in the tray. I’d throw it in the trash in front of the client. They’d whine, “That’s the only one,” and I’d say, “Time to get a new one.” After awhile, all Cooperistas acquired that same habitual intolerance of crappy whiteboard markers and would throw them away even before I could. I was bursting with pride over that.

Melamine whiteboards are cheap, but they have a lot of surface friction which makes them unpleasant to use, difficult to erase, and after a few months of use they gradually lose their erasability and turn an unpleasant, hard-to-read purplish-gray. Porcelain is smooth and pure white. The markers glide and erasing is easy and complete. They last forever.

In recent years, giant whiteboards have become a totem in tech companies. There are whiteboard rooms and whiteboard walls and whiteboard tables in the cafeteria. But, sad to say, I rarely see people actually using them the way we did, as creative tools, constantly, expressively, drawing to discover our thinking and for thinking together.

Whiteboards are working tools. Therefore, I have always had a rule: whiteboards are volatile! Feel free to erase any part of any whiteboard at any time. If what’s on the board is valuable to you, copy it down. Since the advent of digital cameras, that’s become trivial. Whiteboards at Cooper were never allowed to be places for notices or permanent messages. That would utterly defeat their purpose as instantly-available visual thinking tools. In my world, there can be no such thing as “SAVE” or “DO NOT ERASE” written on the board. “SAVE” inhibits thinking and kills the usefulness and value of the board.

Whiteboards were also a vital hiring tool at Cooper. Back before any universities offered degrees in our field, determining whether someone had the aptitude for interaction design was problematic. So we offered various practical tests. Our most effective one was devilishly simple. I’d quickly draw a big dialog box on the whiteboard, then hand the marker to the candidate and instruct them to, “Make it better.” The candidate would offer some change to the dialog, whereupon we’d say, “Make it still better.” After two or three iterations of this game, we could pretty much tell if they were charlatans, theorists, or consulting designers. And most of all, we could tell if they were visual thinkers by the way they used the whiteboard. Eventually, my colleague, Wayne Greenwood, named this “The Five-Step Design Test.” He said, “It’s five steps to the whiteboard and you’d better have an answer by the time you get there.”

One of the latter innovations in the design field is the use of PostIt notes as conceptual tools. They are useful for discovery, for crowd-sourcing, for participatory design, and for organization. I’m a fan. But PostIt notes are generally stuck to the slick, clean surface of whiteboards. PostIts on whiteboards kill the primary purpose of whiteboards: sketching. PostIts should not be stuck to whiteboards.

I walk into offices and see the whiteboards covered with PostIts and this is what it tells me: They listen, but they don’t hear. They gather, but they don’t analyze. They are attentive, but not creative. They have graduate degrees, but not practical skills. Frankly, when I see a whiteboard covered with PostIts instead of complex, layered, hand-drawn diagrams, I see a bellwether of the death of interaction design.

Today, in my workshop in Petaluma, I use whiteboards far less than before because I no longer design interactions or write software, and I mostly work alone. Pencil and paper suffice. But I still have four porcelain-on-steel whiteboards on shop-made, roll around steel stands. Over the last two years I’ve been working with my colleague, Renato Verdugo, to formulate the practice of ancestry thinking, a method for creating ethical technology products. We roll a couple of whiteboards over and cover them with words and diagrams, thoughts and ideas. We simply could not do the kind of creative, inventive work we do without them.

My colleague, Jonathan Korman, once said (playing on some well-known religious antimetabole), “Know whiteboards, know design. No whiteboards, no design.”

The trend in user experience design to eschew the hard work of learning about real users and their motivations and to instead replace it with lightweight visual makeovers has provoked me to making pointed comments on Twitter and here in this blog. My esteemed colleague, Dave Gray, a very generous and talented visual thinker and designer, reacted to some of my statements, alarmed that I might possibly be denigrating the role of visual thinking as part of the interaction design process. Nothing could be further from the truth, and this post — originally a Twitter thread — was my response.

Ancestry Thinker, Software Alchemist, Regenerative Rancher

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