The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures


HTH A blog posting I’m sure

Synopsis Dan Roam write about solving problems and selling ideas iwth pictures.

Thoughts A(n?) useful book that I might purchase for my library.

The best way to delve into Roam’s book is to start at the end, Chapter 16, where he summarises his material:

  1. The basic visual thinking tools: “our eyes, our mind’s eye, and our hand-eye coordination”
  2. “the four steps of the visual thinking process: look, see, imagine, show”
  3. SQVID: “five questions to open our mind’s eye: simple or elaborate, qualitative or quantitative, vision or execution, individual or comparison, change or status quo”
  4. “the six ways we see/show: who/what, how much, where, when, how, why”

The six ways we see map to the “problem clumps” that can be solved through visual thinking (page 15). Roam’s thesis is that by using basic tools — a pen, paper, and simple shapes — we can more easily break down these problems, and understand and solve them. You don’t have to be particularly creative to be able to master these tools.

The first step in the process is to look: What is and isn’t there, collecting and screening for information, find the edges. Orientation, position, identification, direction. “Collect everything you can, lay it out so you can look at it, establish coordinates, practice triage”. (Page 72 has a table of common visual attributes.)

The next step is to see: select information, find patterns, what stands out, the interactions. Whereas looking is the collection phase, seeing is is making sense of the collection: the who and what (objects), how much and how many (quantities), the where (position in space), the when, and the how (cause and effect; a combination of snapshots). Roam posits that “When we see problems according to the 6 W’s, we’re taking advantage of the way our eyes and mind naturally view the world.” He then uses this to examine the nature of training at a chocolate company. (It occurs to me that one reason Sinofsky was brought in to Windows org was specifically because he was an outsider to the org, yet an insider to Microsoft; this allowed him to dissect the existing processes, and put something else in place.)

Then imagine: seeing what’s not there. Where have you seen this before, how can it be rearranged and manipulated. Here’s where you conjure up ideas and solutions, and SQVID comes into play — it helps you generate ten views of your idea. By laying out the SQVID questions (simple or elaborate, qualitative or quantitative, vision or execution, individual or comparison, change or status quo) across a paper, you can use it as an equalizer to to determine what’s appropriate for your audience, to clarify the details to present.

Finally, show: what’s the best way of conveying the idea, does it make sense, is it clear? It turns out that for ever way of seeing, there’s a corresponding way of showing. Thus:

Who/what        Portrait
How much        Chart
Where            Map
When            Timeline
How                Flow chart
Why                Multi-variable plot

All of this ties together in the Visual Thinking Codex on page 141, also found here, which combines with SQVID to form a guide to picking the appropriate picture.

The third part of the book applies the various techniques to a case study of a software company — what’s going on, what to do about it, and persuading others to buy off on the plan. While I found some of the intermediate conclusions questionable, I thought that it was a well-thought out way of presenting how to use the toolkit.

Selling a picture isn’t simply a matter of presenting a picture and hoping the audience gets it; sometimes, a picture will need explanation. This is particularly true in the case of multi-variable plots, which encompass a great deal of complexity in a single page. In this case, rather than presenting the final result, it’s better to layer insight upon insight.

One insight Back of the Napkin led me to is the importance of having an outline when writing a paper: An outline is simply a plan of what you’re going to write. Thus, rather than just dive in: Visualize, make notes, push back. I will try to work this in with my protegee.