On instruction vs. understanding

I’ve assembled a lot of IKEA furniture in my life, and along the way I’ve learned a few things, such as:

  • Every piece of IKEA furniture comes with an identical Allen wrench, which you will only ever use to assemble that piece of furniture, and which will forever after gather dust in a drawer in your basement with all of the other identical Allen wrenches you’ve acquired at IKEA.
  • A lot of stuff that looks like wood is actually a woodgrain pattern printed on plastic-coated paper, wrapped around a block of glued-together sawdust.
  • Every piece of IKEA furniture will take two hours to assemble, no matter how large or small, or how many separate pieces it contains.
  • Assembly might take slightly less time if you possess a Ph.D in archaeology with a special emphasis in either Egyptian or Mayan hieroglyphics.
  • You will almost always realize 2/3 of the way through the process that you are doing it backwards.
  • It never gets any easier.

Those universal hieroglyphic assembly instructions are, along with the ubiquitous Allen wrench and product names featuring umlauts or o’s with slashes through them, the most easily mocked symbol of IKEA. The pictures are often inscrutable, and the overall impression overwhelming. More than once I have felt compelled simply to curl up in the corner of the room and weep silently.

But written assembly instructions (from other companies, of course) are often far, far worse. If I can’t make sense of a diagram showing exactly how the parts fit together, how am I possibly supposed to understand written instructions along the lines of “insert the ball socket assembly into the reverse threaded wall mount bracket and affix with the supplied 8mm Torx screws and self-locking bushings”? (OK, I just made that up, but it sounds real, doesn’t it? Wait, what are you doing over there in the corner?)

And therein lies the problem: there is a great mental chasm between instructions and understanding. It doesn’t matter what form the instructions take: written, visual, verbal, semaphore. Whether you approach them in an unthinking, just-get-it-done, “paint by numbers” fashion, or you attempt to read and absorb them all before beginning, instructions can only communicate so much.

Recently I attempted to assemble and install a curtain wire system from IKEA, for the purpose of hanging posters from bulldog clips at the new Room 34 studio. The instructions supplied with the curtain wire were some of the most panic-inducing I’ve ever seen from IKEA, and that’s saying something.

The first two times I tried to put this thing together, I just gave up. Then I decided not even to bother with the instructions. Instead, I closely examined the various parts, until I came to my own understanding of how they fit together, and how it all attached to the wall. From that point, I was able to refer back to the instructions in a new way, as a reminder of my own thought processes, rather than as a bizarre alien communication from some distant Hömwørld.

I’ve been in IKEA’s shoes, though. Not literally. I don’t think they sell shoes, although I have seen fuzzy slippers there in a big wire bin for 99 cents a pair. But I have had to prepare instructions myself, and to lead training sessions where I attempt to communicate to my clients how to use web applications I have developed for them. It’s a challenge.

How much information is too much; how much is too little? What is the right information to convey, and what can they do without? Is it better to provide a broad foundation of knowledge or a targeted “cheat sheet” of most commonly used tasks? How do I stop instructing people and help them to understand?

I don’t have the answers. I’m still exploring. In my own experience, it’s direct, hands-on activities that are directly applicable to solving real-world problems that best allow me to develop my own unique understanding of how a system works. But it can be incredibly difficult and time-consuming as an instructor to develop suitable training materials and create an environment where that type of learning can take place.

Morning cup o’ links

Perhaps it would have been better to make a sausage analogy for these links, rather than a coffee-and-sausage one. But since one of the links is to a post written by Marco Arment, coffee seems appropriate. (Then again, a Google search reveals that I am far from the first person to use the phrase “morning cup o’ links” so maybe I should spend less time worrying about it being a non sequitir and instead worry that I am horribly unoriginal.)

Each morning I start the day by perusing the latest on Twitter and my RSS feeds, and I almost always find something interesting to read. But today was more interesting than most, and simply retweeting the links didn’t seem adequate. Also, some of these links may become topics for discussion on this week’s episode of The Undisciplined Room, so this is your homework.

First up, we have a post on The Verge discussing homeless hotspots at SXSW. This is a topic I’ve been reading about for the past few days, but this post was the first that made me think beyond my gut reaction that this was shameless exploitation.

Next, with a HT to Daring Fireball, and via Marco Arment, we have a look at Curator’s Code and why it’s a bad idea. The evidence has been mounting for me that Maria Popova’s 15 minutes of (borrowed) fame are almost over (especially when I’m reminded of her love of Ayn Rand and Malcolm Gladwell), and Marco helps solidify that thought.

Then we have type designer Mark Simonson (who designed the Proxima Nova font that I use in the Room 34 logo and branding materials) discussing font anachronisms in The Artist. As much as I enjoyed The Artist, issues with the fonts it used (especially straight quotes, and the fact that it used fonts in a lot of places where hand lettering would have been more appropriate) even distracted me, so I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone like Mark Simonson or Chank Diesel. (Full disclosure: I did development work on Chank’s mobile website.)

And finally… Chicago musician and multi-talent Joshua Wentz has just announced the release of the Side 2 EP by Absinthe and the Dirty Floors, one of the many musical projects with which he’s involved. He’s also made a video for each song on the EP, like this:

Facing the 2012 RPM Challenge

February is just a couple of weeks away, and as I have every year since 2008, I’ll be participating in the RPM Challenge.

What’s that? It’s simple: produce an entire album (10+ songs or 35+ minutes) entirely during the month of February.

My concept this year is a bit different than in the past. This time around, I will not be using any instruments… just my iPhone. I’ve assembled an interesting collection of music creation apps (which I will detail in a future post, but for now will represent with a pair of screenshots, below), and these will be the only tools I will use to generate sounds. I may sample my voice, found sounds and instruments using my iPhone’s microphone, and I’ll do final mixing and post-production on my MacBook Air, but as much as possible this will be an album produced on the iPhone. Given the nature of some of the apps I’ll be using, I also expect this album to be a lot more experimental/avant garde in style than most of my recent solo work.

I am tentatively calling the album i. And I am also considering producing a companion album, called The Way Out Takes, that will consist of unedited versions of the more experimental tracks that end up on i.

Stay tuned for more details as I think them up.


I got up this morning and, like on most mornings, one of the first things I did was brush my teeth. It’s a simple process, just part of the minutiae of daily life. But as with so many of those little things we do every day, it’s a less-than-ideal experience. After fumbling to pull the toothbrush from the cup — where its bulbous, rubberized handle was wedged against the bulbous, rubberized handles of the other toothbrushes necessary for a household of four — and nearly dumping them all into the sink along the way, I took my frustration to Twitter:

It got me thinking about a recent post on Daring Fireball, where John Gruber expressed his frustrations that some people — even Apple Store “geniuses” — were telling iPhone owners that they need to occasionally force-quit all of the apps in their recently-used items tray. He followed up on that post on his podcast, The Talk Show, where he described the experience of operating systems where you are expected to manually monitor and adjust their states as being “fiddly.”

I’ve been thinking about that word, “fiddly,” a lot since then. I think it applies to a lot more than smartphone OSes. I’ve spent a great deal of my life dealing with overwhelming frustration at the clumsiness, the fiddliness, of everyday objects: cheap plastic toys that break easily, things that stick to other things when they shouldn’t or don’t when they should, tools that cannot adequately perform the tasks they are expressly intended for, etc.

As someone who’s not inclined to tinker with objects, much less invent solutions to their shortcomings, that frustration usually just burns off as simmering rage. But as I pondered the nature of fiddliness, and the ideal of the iPhone as a “non-fiddly” object, a couple of thoughts occurred to me:

1. It is the purpose of design to reduce the fiddliness in the world.

2. Very few makers of physical objects today follow #1.

Gary Hustwit’s documentary Objectified is focused on the design of everyday objects, and those who have excelled at creating objects that are, for lack of a better word, as non-fiddly as possible. Two people featured in the documentary are Dieter Rams, the legendary German designer who led Braun’s industrial design team in the 1950s and 1960s, and Jonathan Ive, the head of Apple’s industrial design team today. Both Rams and Ive share a passion for making objects that work. Form not only follows function, form is function. It’s a seamless integration of purpose and style that makes the objects a delight to use.

And that’s a very rare thing today, indeed.

You can’t specialize in everything

It’s been one of those weeks that a freelancer dreads. Lots of fires to put out. You’re trying to swim upstream (as always) but instead you’re treading water in a rapids. Without a team of coworkers to depend on, when a problem arises, there’s no one to pass the buck to, or at least to, uh, share it with.

The problems haven’t really been that bad. Just a few bugs to squash, a few scripts to optimize, a few clients to reassure. But when you feel like you have to be the expert at whatever you do, this kind of week can be a source of anxiety.

It doesn’t help when your main lifeline to the tech world is the expert blogs you follow. Read a few articles on A List Apart and you’ll feel both inspired and a little despondent. There are so many incredibly talented, creative people out there doing amazing things. So why am I banging my head against the wall trying to figure out why all of my form fields suddenly disappeared in IE6? (Turns out it was the position: relative on the #main element, easily fixed by overriding it with position: static in the IE6-specific CSS file I wish I didn’t have to create.)

The point is, as a freelancer, at least one who aspires to be good, if not great, at what you do, you are your own harshest critic and worst enemy. There’s no way any of my clients would ever beat me up the way I beat up myself. I don’t think I’ve ever even had one detectably angry with me. But I am constantly getting frustrated with myself for not being on top of every single technology I put my hands on, and I’m inclined to treat every bug as a personal failure.

The sad fact is, it’s impossible. You can’t specialize in everything. It’s right there in the word. Specialize. As a freelancer, you have to pick a few things to focus on as your greatest strengths, while becoming as well-rounded as you can. But there’s always someone out there who knows more about CSS3 or HTML5 or PHP or jQuery or Whatchamacallit than you do. The great thing about being a freelancer in the age of the Internet, especially if you work on the Internet, is that a lot of those superstar über-geniuses are willing to share that knowledge with you for free. All you have to do is search for it.

The biggest danger in following the superstars of your chosen field, though, is idol worship. You get to know so many facets of their work and their personalities (especially if you follow them on Twitter), that you may be tempted to think you know them personally. You might even have a brief exchange with them about baseball. But that doesn’t mean you know them or know what their lives are really like.

We all make sacrifices to live the lives we choose. It’s inherent in the finite nature of human existence. Chances are, I’ll never be a web development “rock star,” because I’ve made choices that took me on another path. I wanted to be able to work on my terms, and fit my career in as one aspect of my life. I’m not logging the kind of hours I’d need to in order to get rich doing work for hire, or building the next great social networking site. But I have time to spend with my kids and SLP (though probably still not as much as would be ideal). I can make music. I can try to set the world record on my Asteroids cocktail table. (OK, that’ll never happen, but it’s 2 feet from my desk in my home office, if I ever decide to get serious.) I can take an afternoon off to take my son to see Toy Story 3 or head down to Target Field for a Twins game or write on my coffee blog or get some fish tacos at Sea Salt.

Or, I can spend half the morning beating myself up because I’m not Jeffrey Zeldman. But, who is? (OK, he is. But that’s it.)

The point is, I’m me. I’m damn good at what I do, but I can’t do everything. And that’s OK.