People continually ask me what I do, and I rarely have a satisfactory answer for them—and not for a lack of trying. It's difficult to pin down because I work with information, which means what I do changes radically with the context. What I know is method and structure. It's the people I work with that ultimately provide the content. Showing is better than telling anyway, and it's a rare opportunity to do so, since the aforementioned content is more often than not an organization's private business. I can, however, show you a nice, shrunken, grainy picture of this:

What you're looking at is the result of an exercise I designed. Its purpose is to aid in the construction of a model of my client's business ecosystem, the network of entities and types thereof that interact with the organization and one another. The model will later be used to inform the design of a new website, much like my work at the IA Institute. The two columns are identical lists of entities present in that ecosystem. The task was, in a collaborative session, to draw and annotate lines between them representing their interrelationships. Exercises like this constitute a sizable part of what I do for a living.

Why Paper?

When I tell people I work with information, I get blank stares. But when I tell them I work with computers, they get the wrong idea. Whether I use computers or not is incidental to the information I'm working with. A computer is appropriate for manipulating large volumes of well-defined objects in a coherent structure. The terms on the page, and even the preparation of the page itself, were amenable to the use of a computer. In situations of low volume and indefinite structure, however, it is my firm belief that paper and similar low-tech, tactile media, yield inexpensive and ultimately superior results which can later be given stricter form and definition, and thus be made subject to the power of a computer.

The Goal is to Understand

A medium is just that: a medium. Or more specifically a representational medium because it mediates representations. A representation is just a symbol, a shape that is meaningful. In order to be shared and discussed, this shape has to be teased out of our minds and into a physical form which everybody concerned can perceive. It is enormously important that the cost of working with the medium not overwhelm the process of achieving this form. It is likewise important to eschew media which overspecify ideas which are not clearly defined. In the formative stages of a representation, we intentionally want to communicate its nebulosity.

Specificity in a representation is also by no means uniform. It may reveal itself in different regions and at different scales. When writing a book, for instance, we may have a very good idea for an extremely clever sentence. We may be dead sure about a particular chapter or even the entire outline, but our certitude quickly erodes around the edges. This is how we trick ourselves into thinking we have a more complete idea than we do—we can see parts of the state we want to achieve, but the desired result will not manifest until every last detail is in place.

The Asset Isn't

When the goal of an excursion is to make a thing for its use as a thing, it's usually more prudent to preserve it and repair mistakes than start anew. In fact, it is often unthinkable to throw the object away. When an object is nothing but a vessel for a representation, it is inherently disposable, since once achieved, the representation can be transferred to another object for no more than what it costs to work with the target medium. This concept is counterintuitive.

A representation is essential, but a particular representation is not. It follows then at any time to use the cheapest medium that matches the level of clarity in the representation. In the development of software and information systems, code is surprisingly infrequently the most appropriate medium.