Tag Archives: Rich Pictures

My Tools: IFTTT – Automating Your Life

Why do it yourself if you can get a computer to do it for you.

IF-This-THEN-That

It really is that simple:

  • IF I favourite a tweet THEN create a note in Evernote
  • IF I go to the gym THEN update a log of gym visits in Evernote

In IFTTT terms the This is a Trigger, the That is an Action. A Trigger with an Action is known as a Recipe. The sources of Triggers and Actions (like Twitter, or Instagram) are known as Channels. There are currently 164 Channels.

Imagine a service on the internet and it’s likely that there will be a channel for it which is likely to have a set of triggers then start thinking about what you could do:

  • Every time I go to the gym I could post on Facebook.
  • Every time I leave the office I could email my wife.
  • Every Saturday I could send an email of the day’s weather.
  • Every time TIME.com posts in a particular section I could get IFTTT to phone me and tell me.
  • Every time it’s sunset I could turn on my Philips Hue lights (not that I have any).

I only use a few channels, but that’s all I need for now. It’s amazing what you can do with a few recipes:

  • IF I favourite a tweet THEN create a note in Evernote with the tweet details in it.
  • IF I write a tweet THEN create a note in Evernote with the tweet details in it.
  • IF I post a picture to Instagram THEN create a note in Evernote with the picture in it.
  • IF I write a Blog post THEN create a note in Evernote with the text and picture in it.
  • IF I mark a blog as Save for Later in Feedly THEN create a link note in Evernote with a subset of the post text in.
  • IF I arrive at the gym THEN amend a log note in Evernote with time and date.

My recipes all use Evernote as the target; it’s the place that I use to record my online life, and some of my physical life too, but that’s a post for another day.

If you are wondering how you say IFTTT then the advice from the makers is to image GIFT without a G.

IF THIS THEN THAT

How I Process Information (Normally)

One part of my job is to stay current with the ever-changing technology and business landscapes. This means that I process hundreds (probably thousands) of items of information every day.

I don’t read all of them, but I try to process all of them on a normal day. It should be noted here that I try to have normal days as often as possible, but there are many days when that’s not possible. On those many days I do what I can to keep the framework working.

How I Process Information (Normally)

The normal way that I process information focusses on mornings. I’m mostly a morning person so that’s the best time for me to be alert because processing lots of information you should do when half asleep.

The morning is also the best time, for me, to establish and work through a routine. My morning routine works in six phases:

  • Quiet Time – when I read something that is meaningful normally using an application on my iPhone. I’ll then journal about this into a moleskine notebook.
  • Walk Time – I try to start each day with at least 40 minutes walking. During this time I’ll listen to a podcast on my iPhone. I find that the inbuilt podcast application is good enough for me.
  • Scan Time – I will work my way through the overnight deluge of blogs via Feedly and all the interesting updates from Twitter. My focus on Twitter is a set of people I have in a list called Interesting, I am likely to scan through the first few tweets from the rest of the people who I follow but not always. In Feedly I’ll mark some items as Save for Later; in Twitter I’ll Favourite some tweets. Both the favourited tweets and the saved Feedly posts will get copied into Evernote via IFTTT.
  • Email and Calendar Time – I try to limit the time I spend on work emails. The part that I do in the morning routine is to get to inbox-zero by moving items into one of two folders – Actioned or To Action. We happen to use Lotus Notes as an organisation.
  • Plan Time – I have a physical folder with pre-printed Productivity Schedules in it. I’ll fill one of these out for each day. This becomes my plan for the day, it isn’t a task list it’s more than that, I’ll write about it some time.

It’s worth noting that there is only one application in these phases that is provided by my employer; the rest are either free, or I pay for them, this is my personal productivity regime.

Having written this post I realise that I’m a bit delinquent on posts for the My Tools series; time to do some catching up.

A number of colleagues have written something similar:

Icons by Garrett Knoll, Brian Gonzalez, Andrea Verzola and Agustin Amenabar Larrin from The Noun Project used under Creative Commons – Attribution (CC BY 3.0)

Releasing creativity through doodling

An interesting article in the Wall street Journal entitled Doodling for Dollars says:

YewPut down that smartphone; pick up that crayon.

Employees at a range of businesses are being encouraged by their companies to doodle their ideas and draw diagrams to explain complicated concepts to colleagues.

While whiteboards long have been staples in conference rooms, companies such as Facebook Inc. are incorporating whiteboards, chalkboards and writable glass on all sorts of surfaces to spark creativity.

This is something I have noticed too. People are so distracted by technology these days that they need to be drawn into a meeting before they really engage. The most productive meetings I have are ones where there are a small number of people all contributing to a whiteboard. It’s not possible to be a part-time member of that type of meeting, you’re either in, or you are out.

The most popular posts on this site continue to be ones on Rich Pictures which is a form of doodling to communicate a concept. I regularly walk into meetings with sheets of A3 paper in order to draw out what I think I’m hearing, this often takes the form of a mind-map, but is just as likely to be a spider diagram linking together the conversations.

Axiom: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I really like pictures.

The most visited page on this site is one about Rich Pictures.

I regularly pick out interesting Infographics.

One of my favourite books at home is called Information is Beautiful which is named after the popular website.

In Search of JimmyWhy? Because "a picture is worth a thousand words", or at least that’s the axiom I tell myself.

I wonder, though, whether this is really true.

If it were really true we’d spend much more time drawing, and far less time writing words. Yet writing words is what we do and do a lot (much like I’m doing now).

Many think that the saying is ancient and oriental, but the evidence for that is somewhat sketchy at least the literal translation. What can be said is that it was used in the 1920’s, became popular in the 1940’s and continues to be a preferred phrase. The variation on this "A picture speaks a thousand words" didn’t come until the 1970’s:

image

Just because something is popular, and just because it appears to be true doesn’t mean that it is true.

In order to assess the validity of the axiom I set off down the scientific route. What research was there for the value if diagrams?

If it were to be true then there would be some clear evidence for a picture being a much better way of communicating than a set of either spoken or written words.

I was always taught that there were three types of learners: visual learners, auditory (listening) learners and kinaesthetic (doing) learners. So I wondered whether there might be some mileage in the research done into that particular subject. If visual learners are stronger than auditory learners then it would add weight to the premise. But it turns out that learning styles might be one of my anti-axioms. So I gave that up as a dead-end.

My next port of call was to think of one particular diagram type and see whether there was any science behind the value of a particular technique.

Most of the pictures I draw are really diagrams with the purpose of communicating something.

As a fan of mind maps as a diagramming technique I wondered whether there was any clear evidence of their value. Back in 2006 Philip Beadle wrote an article in The Guardian on this subject and the use of mind maps in education:

The popular science bit goes like this. Your brain has two hemispheres, left and right. The left is the organised swot who likes bright light, keeps his bedroom tidy and can tolerate sums. Your right hemisphere is your brain on drugs: the long-haired, creative type you don’t bring home to mother.

According to Buzan, orthodox forms of note-taking don’t stick in the head because they employ only the left brain, the swotty side, leaving our right brain, like many creative types, kicking its heels on the sofa, watching trash TV and waiting for a job offer that never comes. Ordinary note-taking, apparently, puts us into a "semi-hypnotic trance state". Because it doesn’t fully reflect our patterns of thinking, it doesn’t aid recall efficiently. Buzan argues that using images taps into the brain’s key tool for storing memory, and that the process of creating a mind map uses both hemispheres.

The trouble is that lateralisation of brain function is scientific fallacy, and a lot of Buzan’s thoughts seem to rely on the old "we only use 10% of the neurons in our brain at one time" nonsense. He is selling to the bit of us that imagines we are potentially super-powered, probably psychic, hyper-intellectuals. There is a reason we only use 10% of our neurons at one time. If we used them all simultaneously we would not, in fact, be any cleverer. We would be dead, following a massive seizure.

He goes further:

As visual tools, mind maps have brilliant applications for display work. They appear to be more cognitive than colouring in a poster. And I think it is beyond doubt that using images helps recall. If this is the technique used by the memory men who can remember 20,000 different digits in sequence while drunk to the gills, then it’s got to be of use to the year 8 bottom set.

The problem is that visual ignoramuses, such as this writer, can’t think of that many pictures and end up drawing question marks where a frog should be.

Oh dear, another cul-de-sac. In researching the mind-map though I did get to a small titbit of evidence, unfortunately from wikipedia (not always the most reliable source:

Farrand, Hussain, and Hennessy (2002) found that spider diagrams (similar to concept maps) had a limited but significant impact on memory recall in undergraduate students (a 10% increase over baseline for a 600-word text only) as compared to preferred study methods (a 6% increase over baseline).

That’ll do for me for now, it’s not "a thousand words" but it’s good enough for my purposes.

Why am I comfortable with just a small amount of evidence? Because this is one of those axioms where it’s not only about scientific proof.

Thinking about pictures in their broadest sense there are certainly pictures that would take more than a thousand words to describe them.

There are pictures that communicate emotions in a way that words would struggle to portray.

There are diagrams which portray a simple truth in a way that words would muddle and dilute.

In these situations the picture is clearly worth a lot of words, but our words would all be different. The way I would describe an emotional picture would be different to the words you would use. So it’s not about the number of words, but the number of different words.

This little bit of research has got me thinking though.

How often do we draw a diagram thinking that everyone understands it, but we’re really excluding the "visual ignoramuses" (as Philip Beadle describes himself). or the "visually illiterate" (as others describe it)?

In order to communicate we need to embrace both visual literacy and linguistic literacy in a way that is accessible to the audience. I used to have a rule in documentation, "every diagram needs a description". The PowerPoint age has taken us away from that a bit and perhaps it’s time to re-establish it so that we can embrace the visual and the literal.

I’m happy to keep this as an axiom, but I need to be a bit more careful about where I apply it.

To conclude:

image

What motivates?

If you still think that carrot-and-stick is still a good metaphor for how to motivate people then you should watch this 10 minute animation of Daniel Pink giving an overview of his book Drive:

Daniel Pink: Drive

A 40 minute version of the who talk it’s available here.

If you think that Daniel is being a bit idealistic in his interpretation of the science then you should also watch Clay Shirky’s presentation to TED on Cognitive Surplus.

That’s right – money doesn’t motivate other than in the very basic of activities.

I love the way that these animations are a bit like an active rich picture.

(Hat-tip to Mathew Stibbe for the Daniel Pink link)