STC is proud to announce Temple Grandin as a 2015 Honorary Fellow. The honor will formally be bestowed at the 2015 Technical Communication Summit.
Her citation reads:
For your ability to clearly communicate scientific concepts and your work on how perception and noise affect comprehension and appropriate/expected response, which has influenced learning model theory, accessibility for people with learning and brain differences, usability, user experience, and system design in multiple industries and disciplines.
Check out STC Fellow and President Kit Brown-Hoekstra’s interview with Temple Grandin below, then be sure to register for the Summit to help all our award winners celebrate!
Kit: A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Temple Grandin, one of this year’s Honorary Fellows. It was a delightful and fascinating conversation, covering a wide range of topics from leg conformation in cattle and cattle chute design, to autism and education, to Web design and mobile, to 3D printing and augmented reality.
A full transcript can be found below:
KBH: Today we’re talking with Dr. Temple Grandin, a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, who has written many books on autism, on livestock handling, and on a variety of other topics related to animal behavior. She is one of this year’s Society for Technical Communication Honorary Fellows, and we’re lucky that she’s taken the time to speak with us today.
TG: It’s great to be here.
KBH: Thank you for taking the time. You’ve had an interesting and varied career. I did a quick search on Google Scholar and came up with 7,590 results.
TG: I didn’t know I had that many!
KBH: On topics ranging from autism to animal transport to animal behavior, genetics, learning styles, sociology, sensory sensitivity, among others. You’ve also presented at many conferences on these topics. What is a common thread that ties each of these together for you, and what do you want to be remembered for?
TG: Well, I’m a visual thinker. In everything I think about, pictures come into my mind. When I read a book, I see images of the story; like science fiction with a vivid description of a planet, I will see that.
Also, I’m an associative thinker. A lot of people think more in a straight line, but with associative thinking, you tend to link lots of different things together, and I link things together that I see.
Okay, genetics was brought up, I have a book, Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals. I got very interested in behaviors, things I can see. Right now, I’m concerned about some leg conformation issues in cattle. Again, that’s something visual. Some people say, “Oh, we don’t need to have visual appraisal of cattle.” And I go, “Yes you do. You need it to make sure you don’t cause a problem.”
TG: You see, now what I’m finding is that people who think more mathematically don’t see some of those things. See, there’s an advantage to having different kinds of thinking.
I’m interested in two main things. I’m very interested in proving how animals are treated, and the other thing is I want to see kids who growing up who are different—who get a label like autism, dyslexia, ADHD, some other learning problems—are successful. My mother always encouraged my ability in art. I had a great science teacher in school. There were good people in the industry who recognized my abilities. I’m seeing too many kids today, and they’re not getting stretched to learn things like job skills. They’re not getting their area of ability advanced.
For example, you might have a third grader who is good at math. Well, maybe he should be doing high school math, but he’s going to need some help in reading. I get worried that the schools today are doing too much for one size fits all. One of the worst things that’s happening in education is taking out the hands-on classes. You know, if I had not had art, I would have gone nowhere. Art was my salvation. You’ve got to build on the thing that the kid is good at.
KBH: In many of your talks, you make a point of talking about the importance of flexibility in working with people’s strengths, which kind of segues from what you just said. This is a very similar message to Marcus Buckingham’s in his books, Now Discover Your Strengths and Stand Out. What do you consider your greatest strength?
TG: I’m a visual thinker. Everything I think about is in a picture. I don’t think in words. Now, when I’m working on animal behavior, that’s been extremely helpful to me. With some of the first work I did in cattle, I noticed they’d be afraid of little things that people tend to not notice, like there’s a reflection on a water bottle, and if [that reflection] is on a wet floor, cattle might stop and refuse to move through the facility.
It’s been very helpful for me to learn that many different people think differently. You know, the old thing where the accountants don’t get along with the artists, and the technical staff hate the suits? Some of these conflicts have to do with different ways of approaching problem solving. Now, just being aware that the mathematician approaches a problem differently than the visual thinker can help them to work together.
Let’s take a product like the iPhone. An artist made that interface, but the engineer had to make the inside of that phone work. That’s the two kinds of minds working together. And, I’m very worried that with all this emphasis on reading and math [in schools], we’re going to be blocking out a lot of the visual thinkers. And, you need us.
I did a talk out in Silicon Valley, and I had a slide that I showed of an animal looking at a sunbeam. I’d already talked about things that cattle see, like a chain hanging down, a coat on a fence. Then I showed that slide. I said, “Do you see anything on this slide? Tell me if you saw the animal looking at the sunbeam.” And, fewer hands went up in Silicon Valley than in some other conferences.
TG: See the mathematician doesn’t see it, doesn’t see where physical things could go wrong.
KBH: So, this isn’t on the list, but that brings up an interesting question. What causes problems for you when you’re looking at a website, for example?
TG: Oh, I wish people wouldn’t use the crazy fonts and all the weird-colored backgrounds. That’s the first thing. I’m an older person now. I hate the little tiny print that I can’t read. Or, I was on a scholar website the other day, and certain journals, when you print the abstract out, the print is like that big [pinches fingers together to show how small]. I don’t know why they do that, so I have to find a version where I can actually read it. I just printed one out this morning and there’s no way I could possibly read it. The print was like that [pinches fingers together to show how small].
KBH: Maybe they have a deal with the eyeglass makers.
TG: Well, maybe. Maybe I could get a magnifying glass and then I could read it. I had a chance one time to test some three dimensional software, a scanner, where you could put an object on the scanner and it would scan it into the screen. You scan it so you could use it with a 3D printer. I just started testing it with all different kinds of objects, and I gave it—now that the little [Tries to pull a keychain filled with keys out of her pocket.] well, I can’t get it out now—but I gave it its worst nightmare.
KBH: The key chain?
TG: Yeah. Well, it scanned okay [with the demo objects]. It scanned a whole lot of things really well, but then I’ve got to really test it. I said, “Try this.” And it had a very difficult time with this [keychain]. It grew blue blobs, it had white shadows all around it. I just started trying all different kinds of objects to see what kind of objects it scanned well, and what kind of objects it had trouble scanning. The person who was doing the person said to me, “Nobody else who’s tried that scanner ever thought to test it with other objects in the room.” Like the Kleenex box, the slide changer, pens, coffee cups, and other things that were just lying around.
KBH: Yeah, because we’re used to, when we think about scanners, putting a piece of paper on the scanner.
TG: No, for this scanner, they had three dimensional demo objects there.
KBH: Oh, Okay.
TG: They had three dimensional demo objects there to try, and the ones they had scanned really well. Then, the slide changer, when I had it right side up scanned poorly, I turned it on its face and it scanned better.
KBH: Oh, interesting.
TG: I started to see what object it had an easy time with and what objects it had a bad time with, and they told me that nobody else had tried it, wouldn’t be on the demo objects that were there.
KBH: That’s interesting.
TG: You know, I just went a tried a lot of other objects that were not too big to put on the thing.
I also want stuff, where I don’t want to have to read a lot of directions. Now, I really like this little wand thing. You press a button on it and I could move things around. I didn’t have to learn how to use it.
KBH: What was the wand?
TG: The wand, you could pick—you look into this three-dimensional environment and I could pick things up, and I could move them around with it.
KBH: Oh, so it was a virtual-reality wand?
TG: Yeah, it was a virtual-reality wand. It had a button on it, and when you pressed the button, you could pick stuff up and move it around, and turn it all around, and make it do stuff.
KBH: Have you tried Google Glass yet?
TG: Yes, I tried Google Glass. This [other system] actually did some of the same things as Google Glass using much simpler, less expensive things.
KBH: Yeah, did you like Google Glass when you—
TG: Yeah, I liked Google Glass, it’s a really cool 3D environment.
I really want to see a lot of creative kids out there who get different labels now—because now in the school systems, to get any kind of services, they’ve got to have a label. I’m worried with some of these smart kids [the label] is holding them back because they kind of get in a handicap mentality. “Oh, little Tommy’s got ADHD so we’ll order his food for him in the restaurant.” No, little Tommy needs to learn how to order his own food.
The other thing we’ve got to control, and I hate to say it, is the video game playing because I’m seeing way too many kids, especially boys, getting addicted and they’re ending up on Social Security Disability with an autism diagnosis and playing video games. That’s not a good thing. When I was 15 years old, I was flying kites and working in the horse barn cleaning stalls, and riding horses, and making things. Estes model rockets, you actually make them. I went on the Estes website and you can buy rockets already made. That’s not the point of them!
TG: I think it’s a problem today. Kids are not making things. Making things teaches practical problem solving. There’s this wonderful magazine called Make Magazine, where you do cool things with technology, and you actually make physical stuff.
TG: I think kids need to be getting into that. The video game addictions are not going down a good road in terms of ultimate outcome, getting employed, and having a good career, and stuff like that.
TG: This sort of lack of practical problem solving.
TG: I don’t think it’s a good thing.
TG: We need to be getting kids involved, technical things that also are tied back to the physical world, and that’s what I liked about Make Magazine. They had this really cool microscope you could make with a Smartphone and the lens out of a laser pointer, and some bits of plywood, bolts, and Plexiglas.
KBH: In your Ted Talk a couple of years ago, you spoke about a couple of concepts that have huge implications for learning, user experience, scientific education and research. One was the importance of hands-on learning, which we’ve kind of been talking about, and the other was the need to get more visual and less verbal in our instructions, in our communication. However, many technical communicator tend to be more verbal than visual, so what are some ways that technical communicators can build their own skills in visual communication?
TG: Okay, you give me very abstract questions there. I don’t think in the abstract because I have to make pictures, and now I’m getting inappropriate pictures of an abstract painting in my childhood house. All right, give me a scientific concept that you want to explain, and maybe I can tell you how I think about it visually. Ask me how I would explain something you want to know about, something specific.
KBH: So, you learned drawing and you’re very visual in your communication—
TG: One thing I’m very good at, when I was working on a lot of cattle handling stuff is writing up instructions of how to move the cattle because when I write the instructions, I see it in my head, and I describe what I see in my head.
TG: I noticed other people, they leave out too much detail. Okay, we’re trying to troubleshoot animal behavior, or we’re trying to troubleshoot a problem with a child. People will ask questions that are way too vague. They’ll say, “My dog is crazy!” Or, “What do you do about autism?” Well, I don’t know. I don’t have enough information to answer that question. I have to know, what does your dog do? Well, crazy dog, did he bite somebody, is he jumping on somebody because he’s happy? I don’t know what he did.
TG: I couldn’t even begin to answer. Or, they say, “What do you do about behavior problems in the class room?” Well, I don’t know, what did the kid do? You see, they tend to grossly over-generalize.
TG: What I want you to do is to ask me—okay, pretend I’m doing an assignment for you. I’ve got to write up some technical writing on some subject. Ask me how I would explain something. Giving me something specific, not an abstraction.
KBH: Okay, if you were going to teach me how to explain a set of instructions—
TG: You’re still being abstract. Instructions for what? Now I’m seeing putting together this BBQ grill that was just a nightmare, and I got a leg cramp from we were down on the floor trying to put this stupid BBQ grill together. Now, I’m thinking about the IKEA shelves and their instructions. You see how that’s specific?
TG: You see, you’re still not asking me something specific. See now, instructions, I immediately saw this horrendous grill we were trying to put together.
KBH: Okay, so tell me what were the problems with the instructions for the grill?
TG: I just remember we had difficulty figuring out how to put it together. They didn’t have enough of the really good, what I call exploding diagrams. I find those are very helpful. They just show how all the pieces go together. Too much verbiage.
TG: It would be better to, you know, say, “Step one: bolt the handle on this. Step two, put the burner on this.” And, there were no good pictures.
KBH: They didn’t break it down enough.
TG: I’d rather see something like exploding view diagrams showing how it goes together, and pictures of assembling it step-by-step.
TG: I would tend to, if it was putting together a BBQ grill, not have many words at all because we have a lot of other people who speak other languages, and then anybody can use those instructions.
KBH: Right. That’s what makes IKEA’s instructions so good—
TG: Yeah, that’s right.
KBH: —is that they’re primarily visual.
TG: Well, I would, for something like putting together things, I make them primarily visual, but you see now we’re talking specific: IKEA and BBQ grills. You see? Where before you were talking about communication in the abstract, and one of the things you’ve got to do is get away from the abstracts. You have a visual thinker. I think in photographic pictures.
TG: It’s not abstract.
KBH: If you’re trying to learn say, a piece of software, a software application—
TG: Oh, it’s horrible. I tried to learn FORTRAN, and it was a disaster. That is something that the visual thinker has a difficult time with. Now, when it came to running the card sorter, the IBM card sorter, I was very good at that, and it always makes me chuckle when I get one of those cardboard boarding passes printed out because it’s the evolutionary remnant of the IBM card.
KBH: It is.
TG: I always laugh every time I see one of those cardboard boarding passes.
KBH: Yeah, it’s even the same size and everything.
TG: It is the same size because that’s where it came from.
KBH: That’s so funny.
TG: You see, those are the sort of things—you see the mathematics in software. That’s not how my mind works.
TG: That’s the mathematical mind, but I’m going to be really good at beta testing a lot of stuff because I don’t want to read a bunch of instructions. I like the fact that when I tried out this 3D thing, they put the glasses on me, and I took the wand and I was moving things around. I didn’t have to read any instructions and I immediately knew how to use.
KBH: Right, so it was intuitive.
TG: I didn’t have to read anything.
KBH: And with the iPhone? Was it the same way for you?
TG: Some of the things are pretty good on that, and some things weren’t. I don’t remember sequence very well so, although some things were very easy, some things were not. It’s way better than the other horrible phones, that’s for sure.
KBH: Okay. One of the things we’re trying to work on is incorporating hands-on learning into the digital environment. You’ve talk a little bit—
TG: All right, let’s get talking about specifics.
TG: You see, you have a very hard time getting away from the abstract.
KBH: I do.
TG: Hands-on learning in the digital environment, like what? What kind of product?
TG: Let’s talk about specific product.
KBH: For example—
KBH: For example the 3D scanner that you were, or the [virtual reality goggles]—
TG: Well, the scanner, okay, that it could scans certain types of objects very well, and objects like the car keys it had a lot of trouble with. And that’s going to be for the brilliant mathematician to use his mind to figure out how it can scan really horrible objects like car keys.
But, I can think of all kinds of things with maybe the other device I tested, where I could move things, I could build things in that environment and just reach in there and move blocks.
Okay, the meat industry, we use concrete, precast Ts and tilt-up walls. Well, how about getting those giant tilt-up LEGOs and I could just build it in there, picking them up with the wand? I don’t need a crane. I’ve got this magic wand and I could just pick it up and I could build the whole plant or building.
KBH: You’re building it around yourself in the virtual environment?
TG: No, no. It’ll just be built, as if I was doing it from the outside. I would just be building it from the outside looking at it.
KBH: Okay, so you’re looking, you’re not wearing the virtual glasses?
TG: Well, I’m wearing the virtual reality glasses, but the way this was set up there were objects in the environment, like a house—
KBH: Oh, okay.
TG: —and a little camera, and some other things that were in the environment where you could have, okay, I can go over here and get the different concrete parts.
TG: Different pre-stressed concrete parts, and I could set them up and just build the building there in front of me.
TG: I’d be outside of it.
KBH: Right, okay.
TG: Just, you could use that for all kinds of architecture things, you know, different programs for building different kinds of things, but you actually would be picking the pieces up with the wand, moving them around. I could see using it for that.
KBH: Yeah, so do you think that could replace the actual—
TG: No, it’s not going to replace hands-on. Let me tell you why, the hands have to touch in order to perceive. Okay, I’ve been in the meat industry since the 70s and of course everything was hand drawing, all hand drawing. I watched my industry go from hand drawing to computers. My designer, Mark, I had him learn how to do drawing on the computer. I hate to say it, I never made the switch. But, I noticed odd things happening when the people switched over. The older people, when they switched over, they were fine. But, when you took a young kid in maybe his early twenties, who never has drawn by hand, who never has built anything, you start seeing very odd mistakes on drawings, like, they don’t know where the center of the circle is. Odd perceptual mistakes.
KBH: That’s interesting.
TG: I had an interesting time when I went out and visited Pixar, and we talked about this. I went to Disney Imaginarium and we talked about having to touch, and both of those places have 3D printers, and they’ll draw a character and then print it out. And, they don’t put it on the shelf to look at; it’s right down there by the computer mouse. They’ve got the mouse in one hand, and they’re handling the figure with the other hand.
KBH: Oh, that’s a great idea.
TG: They’re touching it. Now, maybe that eventually could be replaced with some kind of 3D thing, but it’s going to have to give touch feedback. Another thing that makes me realize why I think you need to have this is Oliver Sacks wrote a chapter about a man who got his vision back as an adult, and he didn’t understand what he was seeing with his eyes until he touched it. [For example], his pet. He didn’t know what his pet was until he touched it.
KBH: Right, because he’d spent his whole life touching everything to see.
TG: Touching and he didn’t know what his pet was until he put his hands on it and—
KBH: Then it turned on the visual.
TG: You need to be— In talking to some of the animation companies, they say, “Sometimes we’ve just got to get them off of the animation.” In fact, in Toy Story, they pinned the original story board up on the walls in the hallway. It was drawn by hand. They still say sometimes they’ve got to get them off the computers and have them do some of the drawing by hand.
KBH: In order to get the perspective.
TG: Really good 3D printing might reduce that because now you can print out the figures and then you can touch them.
KBH: Have you gotten to play with a 3D printer yet?
TG: Yeah, a little bit, but the thing I like about that is it’s connecting the digital world back to something physical. It’s a tricky little glue-gun thing and I thought it was very interesting that on the MakerBot website it said, “Caution, patience is required.” A lot of these kids, I think we need to get them back doing things with physical things.
KBH: Blogger Timothy Scahill did a post about your work after Usability World in 2009, and how it relates to user experience design. In the post, he talks about how we can apply your research on herd behavior to web design and usability, saying “when online users respond instantly to visual cues, the emotions, and the atmosphere of whatever they’re consuming.” What are some other ways that we can apply your research to human communication, product usability, and user experience?
TG: I’m really, really worried that we’ve got to work on breaking down silos. I’ve made a point of this. I’ll do a talk at a tech company, do an autism talk, then I’m going to go up to Montana where I’m going to do a cattle talk. Then, I’m going to do a talk for teachers. Everybody is in their silos, and they’re getting worse now with all the Facebook groups and things like this. It’s not getting better; it’s getting worse.
KBH: Yeah. You don’t have to talk to your neighbor any more.
TG: Yeah, like okay, if I read the New York Times on some little bitty phone, I don’t see all the variety of articles. I like the fact that when I open up the real paper that there are 10 different things on that front page. Some of those things, I’d probably never read if they were on the iPhone. Also, it comes in sequentially and people tend to just say, “I’ll read the sports section.” Or, “I’ll read just the headlines.” Or, whatever.
TG: Then, down on the corner on the regular paper, there’s some interesting little tidbit about some survey that was done.
KBH: That’s great. One of the things that Timothy did with your famous drawing—
KBH: —of how cows move through—
TG: Yeah, that’s how they move through a single file chute there.
KBH: —through, yeah, through—
TG: That represents a single-file chute.
KBH: What he did was he applied that drawing to a web, an actual web design page and put different usability elements about the back button, you know—
KBH: —and the add blind spot where, you know if you put an ad in the upper-right corner nobody sees it—
KBH: —and that kind of thing.
TG: If you put an ad so it gets gigantic in the middle of this frame, I’m doing everything I can, I’m trying to click it off.
KBH: I know, me too. I hate that.
TG: You know, it’s just because I want to read the article.
TG: I know that people want to show their ads, but what happens there is I just click it off.
TG: You know, actually if it was just there on the top, you know, like maybe just this much of the screen on the desk top [gestures to indicate size], I would look at it and I wouldn’t be madly trying to click it off. This morning, I was looking at some stuff and I remember when I clicked it, a big thing came up—and I don’t even remember what it was—I was so annoyed trying to click it off. It had this thing I had to get off of it.
KBH: I think they’ve gotten worse about the ones that pop up in the middle of the screen.
TG: Oh, they’re horrid. They’re just horrid. I can understand a newspaper having a subscription thing pop up because they want people to subscribe.
TG: That I’m much more sympathetic about, and you can still see through that, but just a great big gigantic BLEH.
KBH: Yeah, it makes me actually anti- whatever that products is.
TG: Whatever the thing is, I don’t want to hear about it. On one of the scientific journal sites, there’s this dreadful lady with a coffee cup. I hate her because when I go to print out an abstract, she prints out. She’s on the side of the abstract or the summary of the journal article when I’m reading it, but then when I go to print it out, she’ll get right into part of the print of the abstract. It’s this stupid lady drinking coffee, and she’s all over this website; I hate her. Then, I have to go find the journal article on a different website, like maybe PubMed, where it prints out with bigger print that I can read and that coffee cup lady’s not there. Now, that must be some kind of glitch in the design. Then, sometimes she prints on top of the abstract and sometimes she doesn’t, but it really is annoying.
KBH: So it sounds like there’s something underneath there in the code that’s—
TG: I don’t know but it’s really annoying! And, the other thing with mobile devices now is drop-down menus. That does not work with the iPhone.
KBH: Right, so yeah, we’re trying to—
TG: [My website], www.grandin.com might be old fashioned, but it actually does work on a phone, and I got my videos fixed so that they link directly to YouTube now.
KBH: That’s great, that way you don’t have to download.
TG: Well, because my old videos—Windows Media Player is terrible, that doesn’t work. We got rid of that and the link now is directly to YouTube.
KBH: That’s great. Your latest book came out last year, The Autistic Brain: Helping Different Kinds of Minds Succeed. What lessons can we take from studying autism in animal models of perception, and apply them to user experience?
TG: All right, first of all, it’s sensory based not word based. Now, I notice that you’re a very word-based person and have a hard time asking me about something specific. When it’s sensory based, I’m going to see a picture, I’m going to hear something, I’m going to feel something, smell something, taste something. It’s not abstract, it’s specific.
TG: Then, my concepts are formed with specific examples. It’s bottom-up thinking. Specific examples create concepts, so my concept of what a dog is, when I was a little kid, was based on seeing a whole bunch of dogs in the neighborhood. I sorted the dogs by size. I sorted cats from dogs by size. Then, our neighbors bought a dachshund, and I remember studying this dachshund. I was trying to figure out why she was not a cat. Well, all the cats have a different nose than the dogs have, so I could sort them by nose shape. I can also sort them by barking versus meowing, they smell differently. You can see that cats have claws that retract. Okay, there are certain features, sensory-based features that all the cats have that none of the dogs have. It’s sensory based. It’s much more specific. I want to see if you can ask me about something totally specific, like when you asked me about these instructions, I thought about the BBQ grill and the IKEA shelves.
KBH: Sure. Wow, you know, of course, on the spot it’s hard to do that.
TG: The thing that interested me when I was testing this 3D thing is they told me that other people never tested the limits of it. They just would use the test objects they provided, which scanned really well.
TG: I started putting Kleenex boxes on it, and pens, and cups, and then my car keys.
KBH: Yeah, so applying that to a website would be—
TG: Well, I get frustrated with some of these drop-down menus. I mean, even when you’re on a desktop with the mouse, you pull the drop-down menu down and then it disappears, and it jumps around.
TG: I find those hard to use. Little tiny tabs I can’t read. But, one of the things I really hate is people just go crazy with all the ridiculous colored backgrounds, you know, blue writing on pink and purple textured background. You can’t hardly read it. It’s not pretty. I mean, I learned when we were typesetting for the Farm & Ranch Magazine not to use all those fonts and all that rubbish.
KBH: Right. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.
TG: You don’t, that’s right.
KBH: Okay, I’m going to try and make—my questions are still pretty abstract, but I’m going try and make them more specific. When talking to technical audiences, you frequently point out that many of the people in the audience might have some autistic or Asperger traits, and a few years ago a study by the University of Oklahoma estimated that about, up to 60% of computer programmers had autistic traits.
TG: Oh, I think they do.
KBH: Which means that those of us are “neurotypical”, are often working with people, like yourself, who have brain differences or autism.
TG: I think the first step in working with people with different ways of thinking is to understand there are different ways of thinking. That is something that I worked with in my Ted Talk: the visual thinkers, the mathematical pattern thinkers, and the word thinkers.
TG: Once you kind of recognize—I recognize that you’re a word thinker, but just recognize that is important. I gave another talk recently where I talked about, well, you’ve got the techies who don’t get along with the suits. I just read that new book on Google and that was brought up. You’ve got to take the accountants, and then you’ve got the field staff maybe working out on something like range management and they don’t get along with the academics, and I think the reason for this is they approach problems differently. Now, just understanding that there are different ways of thinking will help with people.
TG: Just know that there are differences. You know, when I was young, and a visualization mistake was made on one of my projects, which ended up with some steel tracks and rails getting ripped out of the ceiling in a meat plant. I said, “Well, couldn’t the engineer see that if they jerked on that chain, they’re going to tear the tracks out of the ceiling?” When I was young, I called it stupid. Now, I realize they don’t see it. The mathematician doesn’t see it.
KBH: I don’t know that I would have seen that.
TG: This worries me.
KBH: When you’re working with someone, you do a great job, I think, of recognizing when people think differently than you do.
TG: Well, I’ve learned. You see it’s been a very interesting journey for me to learn how I think differently because when I was young I thought everybody thought the same way I did. I didn’t know my thinking was different. I couldn’t figure out why people couldn’t understand some of the stuff that I was saying.
Now, I understand that they think differently. Most so-called normal people are more even, but you when you get a label—autism, dyslexia, ADHD, or some kind of learning problem—that’s when you tend to have uneven skills. And, you can have an area of ability, maybe sometimes extreme ability in one thing. Okay, then you disconnect some social circuits and you have math circuits. You know, there’s always a trade-off, and unfortunately, schools bang away too much on the deficit, and don’t work enough on the thing that the person could turn into a career.
TG: You see, in designing product, you’ve got the engineering side, but then you’ve also got the industrial design side, which would be the art side. To make really good products, you need the two working together.
KBH: Yeah, so if I was your manager, and if we—
TG: Well again, you see—
KBH: —we were working on a project—
TG: What kind of a project? You see, again, be specific.
KBH: Okay, a livestock handling project, a livestock design project, and I’m your client or your manager.
TG: All right, you’re going to be one of the clients who probably can’t read a drawing. I’ve had so many clients. What I have found in the cattle industry is that people who work with cattle can read drawings, but where people cannot read drawings is someone who’s really good at the commodities market. They cannot read a drawing. You might as well show them a hieroglyphic, and I used to get very, very frustrated with this.
Now, I understand why they can’t read a drawing. Well, this is somebody where, well if I draw on it with SketchUp, I can print it out on the 3D printer. And, he could touch it, then he’d probably do better. Or, maybe make a little cardboard model of the facility because they just cannot read a drawing, some of these commodity traders. Now, I don’t understand the commodities market. It’s different kinds of minds.
KBH: Right, so if we were working together on a project, what would you want me to do [to work with you]? I mean, you’ve mentioned a couple things, be very specific—
TG: You’re probably very good at, you know, organizing. One time, I worked with a student and she was good at everything else, terrible at grade record keeping. She could run every statistics program that there was, super organized, but when it came to creative ways of analyzing the data, I did that because the problem I found, when the students get grinding away at statistics, is that they forget about the cattle.
TG: Back when I did my master’s thesis, back in the days of the IBM card sorter, I had thousands of cards. Each card represented an individual animal, and I called them my cattle, and when I’d take a card, pick up one of the cards and read the code, I actually saw what it was. It was Red River, Fjord, Holstein, heavy-weight, you know, but I’d see it. Even now I’d see it.
TG: You see, that’s seeing if you can match the skills where they complement each other.
TG: I think the iPhone would be a good example of that because you get these interfaces you know, so complicated nobody can understand how to use it.
TG: I mean, to me, a good computer interface is something where I don’t have to read any instructions. I mean, I think that’s one of the reasons why the Google search engine was so successful. It just came up there with that one search box—
KBH: You filled it out.
TG: There was nothing there to learn how to use.
TG: It just worked.
KBH: Yep, of course the underneath part of that is really difficult.
TG: Oh, I know, but the user interface, I think was very clever of them just to make that search box in the middle of the screen and nothing else because then people are going, “Aaagh!”
TG: Then you have things that will never change, like the QWERTY keyboard. People have tried to change that, but it’s so entrenched and when Microsoft came out with that new interface, everyone was going, “Where’s my Start menu?”
TG: I remember when I first saw that I went, “Aaagh!” Then the one where they took away the Start menu—
KBH: Oh right, yeah.
TG: —and then put it back.
TG: You see that’s gotten so entrenched that it’s like the QWERTY keyboard.
KBH: Yeah, yeah, even though the Dvorak keyboard is actually—
TG: It’s better, but [QWERTY has] gotten too entrenched.
KBH: Yeah, those of us who had to take actual typing classes back in the day right?
KBH: I saw on your website that you’re a Sci-Fi fan.
TG: Yes, I was always a Star Trek fan, Mr. Spock, well, he was absolutely my favorite character. I loved Mr. Spock because he was logical.
TG: I really related to Spock. I’ve always liked science fiction.
KBH: Well, besides Star Trek, do you have any other favorite Sci-Fi? We have a lot of technical communicators who love science fiction.
TG: Well, I like science fiction and I though Avatar was a great movie. They’ve got a Man from U.N.C.L.E. movie coming out. I’m probably going to have to go see that. There’s a new Star Wars movie that’s coming out.
KBH: I know.
TG: I’m going to have to check that out.
TG: I loved the original Star Wars.
KBH: Supposedly, they have a really cool robot—I read about it in the paper today, that’s going to be—that has a gyro robot that rolls around.
TG: I didn’t see that. I saw some of the trailers on a TV in the breakfast room of the Hilton Garden Inn.
KBH: Yeah, you’ve been traveling a lot lately.
TG: Yep, I have been.
KBH: Yeah. Have you got any other big trips coming up?
TG: Yeah, I’m going to be going to New York and doing a talk at a teacher’s conference, and then a talk at Stonegate Farm, an agricultural organization.
KBH: That’s great. What’s your next big project?
TG: Well, I just finished working right now on a second edition of my Improving Animal Welfare: A Practical Approach book. You know, somebody’s got to not be talking about these things in the abstract. You know, okay, let’s say, you were hired to be the animal welfare officer for a big pig farm, or dairy, or some other thing, and you’re reading all this stuff, and you go, “Okay, where do I start?” You’ve got to start with the most basic things first.
TG: It’s very concrete. It says, “Okay, this is how you score lameness, either a 5-point or a 4-point scoring system for scoring lameness in all different types of animals.
KBH: Yeah, that’s a pretty interesting [scorecard] that you devised.
[The scorecard being referred to revolutionized the livestock industry and the way animals are handled.]
TG: It’s really, it’s not abstract, and people in developing countries say they really like the book because it tells them exactly how to do stuff.
KBH: Right, right, that’s good.
TG: We need to—
KBH: That’s one of the— We need to what? I’m sorry.
TG: Well, I think one of the things we need to be doing— Okay, thinking about testing websites, and software, and stuff like that, is have a lot of different kinds of people test them. Just bring them in there, can they even figure out how to work it without—? I don’t want to read a book full of instructions.
TG: That’s what I liked about this thing, this wand that I could pick up all this stuff, and move it around, and make it do things, and there were no instructions.
KBH: Augmented reality is going to be a thing for you. Would that would be your preferred way of learning something like a new technology?
TG: Well, depends on what I’m, yeah, it depends what I’m learning. There are certain things that would be really useful, but it doesn’t solve all problems.
TG: I don’t think it totally replaces actually hands-on real things. Okay, let’s say you want to make something with the 3D printer. Let’s say I want to make an airplane, for example.
[Starts drawing.] Well, okay, here are the wings of the airplane, the landing gear here. Well, when you print that airplane, you’re going to have to have some posts here to hold the wings up because this is a glue-gun-like thing that’s moving around. And, if you don’t draw some posts to hold the wings up, you’re plane is going to be a pile of gook on the bottom of the platform.
KBH: It would collapse.
TG: Yeah, you see, you’ve got to design something you can print, and then you design those posts so that they’re like this [sketches], so you just have a little thing there that you can just break off and then sand it smooth.
TG: But you’ve got to design that into it. Now, the beginner things are the kinds of shapes where you don’t have to worry about that.
KBH: Right, yeah.
TG: You see, that’s where in the virtual world, the wings aren’t going to sag.
KBH: Right, and that’s something that I probably wouldn’t have thought of.
TG: In the real world they will sag.
KBH: Is there anything else that you would like to make sure that our audience today—
TG: Well, I think it’s important to realize that different people do think differently. I still have not gotten you to ask me how I would write about something really specific.
KBH: Yeah, I’m trying to come up with a specific enough example. It’s very hard for me to do that.
TG: Yeah, you see, you’re very abstract. All right, let me give you a visual thinking test. Okay, I want you to think about church steeples. How do they come into your mind.
TG: That’s really abstract. In other words, you’re just seeing something sort of like that? [Sketches a triangle.]
TG: All right, that’s really abstract.
KBH: With a cross on the top.
TG: But very abstract. Maybe just something about like that. [Sketches.]
TG: All right. In your own mind, can you walk into the front door of your house, unlock it, and walk around in your living room?
TG: Okay, and you can see it clearly?
TG: Most people can see their own car, or the inside of their own house.
TG: But, you see when I think about the church steeples, I see specific ones, and I can say, “Oh, it’s that one over there on this street.” They are specific.
TG: They are not, there’s no pointy thing that I could fabricate that in my mind for the generic church steeple like the person who’s not a visual thinker can.
KBH: So, like for places that I’ve been—
KBH: —I can close my eyes and picture them, especially if they’re, you know like European cities and—
TG: Something you really—
KBH: —stuff that don’t change very often.
TG: Well, and also stuff you care about because I do not remember every hotel room. I just don’t.
KBH: Well, I don’t remember hotels, no, but—
TG: I don’t care about hotels. They are very low down on my list of things I care about.
KBH: But, like going to a town in Holland, for example. I can close my eyes and picture walking around Amsterdam. I can picture walking around Delft.
TG: Now, you see those are places that you probably emotionally really liked to, and—
TG: —that helps to make the memory.
TG: But on the, well, let’s say you were going to write about walking around Amsterdam.
KBH: I’d start at the train station.
TG: All right, and now you’re seeing the train station.
KBH: Yep. I would talk about, a little bit about the architecture of the train station, and the—
TG: What’s the architecture of the train station look like? I want to force you to be more specific.
TG: Tell me what it looks like.
KBH: Well, on the outside, it’s, well, they’re kind of redoing it but the outside is kind of a red brick and it’s got an archway, series of archways along, and then it’s got this pointy, square pointy part in the middle. Then to the—I’m looking at the front of the train station.
TG: You’re outside at the train station looking back at it? Okay.
KBH: Yeah, and then to the left is a four-story bike garage, so it’s a parking garage for bicycles.
TG: Four stories?
KBH: Four stories, and there are just bikes everywhere. They look like they are overflowing all the time.
TG: What kind of racks do they park the bikes in?
KBH: They had a couple of different ones. They had the kind where you lift them up on the back wheel and hook them in—
TG: How do you hook them in?
KBH: It’s got a little half circle, round bit.
TG: Okay, so you’re starting to get a lot more specific now. You see what I mean by forcing you to get specific?
KBH: Right, right, so—
TG: Okay, now I’m making, I’m forcing you to get down to more of the primary visual cortex now.
KBH: Right, which is harder for me.
TG: It’s hard for you, but by talking to you about a place that you went to that you really liked, you were able to start doing it.
TG: You see when you’re talking about the tech stuff, it’s all in the abstraction.
KBH: Right, because software tends to be abstract.
TG: Well, it tends to be abstract, but there are things, okay, let’s say that new Microsoft program, with no Start menu, I looked at that, “Aaagh! It had all these squares in the middle, what do I do?”
KBH: Oh, right.
TG: Where’s the Start menu?
KBH: Yeah, the Windows 8? Yeah.
TG: Lots of people hated that.
KBH: Yeah, I actually, when I bought my last computer, downgraded to Windows 7 so I wouldn’t have to deal with it.
TG: A lot of people did, and you see, I think what’s happened on Windows is, with the Start menu, there are certain things that are now turned into the QWERTY keyboard. They’re so ingrained—
KBH: Right, they’re changing—
TG: —that you really shouldn’t be trying to change it.
KBH: —changing the affordance for that particular software program.
TG: What’s the affordance?
KBH: That’s a UX—
TG: I don’t even know what that means.
KBH: It’s a UX design term. I just learned it a little while ago.
TG: What does it mean?
KBH: It’s basically how the shape of something, or the way that it’s input into the environment—
TG: I don’t expect you to explain programming to me. We’re talking about what the screen looks like. That’s not programming.
KBH: I know, but they use it for physical things too, so it’s like how the shape of a faucet dictates how you turn it on or off, or tells you how to turn it on and off.
TG: Okay, so it’s intuitive that—
KBH: How the handle on a door tells you to push or pull, for example.
TG: Yeah, okay, and then that’s the sort of thing where, if I was going to explain this affordance term, okay, here are five faucets with really good affordance, and here are five faucets with really bad affordance.
TG: In other words, I like to understand that design concept. I’d like to see five examples of really good affordance, and five examples of bad affordance.
KBH: Then, have somebody tell you why they’re good or bad?
TG: Explain to me why these are good and why this is bad. Also, I also would like to, if we were doing faucets, and doing a training thing, it might be worth to just go out and get faucets and bring them in, even if they’re just on a table, and let people handle them.
KBH: That’s a good idea.
TG: And, it understands this idea of affordance. I want to make it not abstract. Okay, faucets are something that people use, so that would be a real object thing. Then, how about, you know, the stuff on a computer screen?
KBH: Right, right, and that’s where the way things are laid out on the screen makes a difference.
TG: That makes a difference. Okay, and what are some of the things? Okay, older people hate small tabs. I can’t read them. I just hate that.
TG: They don’t have to be that much bigger.
TG: But the little tiny awful tabs, and most things, like this right here [picks up the question list], I can read this fine without glasses. I can read that just fine when I’ve got good light, but some of those dreadful, awful, colored backgrounds, and dreadful things that people think that make their website cool, it doesn’t.
KBH: So if—
TG: If I was going to be teaching a class just on things like making the tabs so they’re easy to understand, well, let’s have examples.
TG: You know, I go find some of these hideous, horrible web pages that are all these different weird colors and—
KBH: Right, so what the worst color combination for you on a website?
TG: Oh, I can tell you one thing that doesn’t work, that’s blue with red print. That does not work.
KBH: Oh, that makes my eyes go [wonky].
TG: That does not work. I learned that back in old days of—
KBH: Yeah, so if you’re looking at a website, what color background is easiest for you to read?
TG: Anything lots of times, just something very neutral. I don’t like a patterned background, and weird fonts, and stuff that’s hard to read.
KBH: It makes it a little distracting?
TG: Well, and then it prints out really weird, and another thing you have to think about is black-and-white printer friendly. You’ve got to remember there are a lot of people in this world who don’t have the state-of-the-art, fancy, dancy thing. It’s only a crummy old black-and-white printer, and there are certain things to the way the background is [that make it so that] you can’t read it when you print it out.
TG: Black-and-white printer friendly, I think, is important.
TG: Especially things like scientific journal articles where you’re going to want to print them.
KBH: Right, where the graphics aren’t going to be in the way.
TG: Now they tend to be really plain. Where you get into trouble there is this one I just printed out and the print was that big. [Pinches fingers together to show how small.]
KBH: Yeah, yeah, that’s hard to see.
TG: Yeah, I couldn’t even see it, it was so small.
KBH: Yeah, yeah.
TG: I had to go and get that journal article off a different site.
TG: Because I couldn’t read it.
KBH: Well, is there anything else that you would like to tell us today?
TG: Well, I think in explaining things, use specific examples. Okay, let’s say we’re doing directions on how to put something together. Or, let’s talk about IKEA shelves and BBQ grills. Let’s not talk about abstract.
TG: Let’s use specific examples. Here’s the worst set of instructions I ever had. Here’s a really good set of instructions.
TG: You see, I’m a bottom-up thinker so I teach, not with a top-down, big concept, but here are specific examples. If I was going to do something on good and bad instructions, I mean, I would go out and print a whole bunch of instructions off of various product websites of really good and really bad ways of instructions to put stuff together.
It’s interesting that the head of IKEA is dyslexic. I wonder if that has anything to do with his instructions being good.
KBH: Oh, that’s interesting.
TG: That’s been well-publicized, that’s not confidential.
KBH: Yeah, I didn’t know that.
TG: I also read that he named all his departments names rather than numbers because he couldn’t remember the numbers.
KBH: That makes sense.
TG: But, he’s dyslexic.
TG: Maybe that’s why he has good directions.
TG: Because they’re visual.
KBH: Yeah, they’re visual learners.
TG: There’s a tendency to get into a horrible, overly abstract way of looking at things.
TG: Well, and basic principles have a tendency to say something is like something else.
KBH: Oh, so you’re using a lot of metaphor examples.
KBH: Yeah, that helps people, I think, too. Thank you so much for your time today.
TG: Okay, it’s been good to talk to you.
KBH: I really appreciate it.