indi in front of golden gate bridge with red coat on and SF in the background


Indi is a freelance researcher who coaches, writes, and speaks about inclusive software strategy, bringing depth and breadth of knowledge about people’s purposes via the painstaking detail of listening sessions and synthesis. When paired with big data trends, solution space research, design thinking, JTBD, and agile methods, her mental model diagrams, opportunity maps, and thinking-style segments let you organize and activate better support for far many more people.

In 2008, her book Mental Models, introducing the problem space research method, was published. Her second book, Practical Empathy, was released in 2015, and she narrated it for Audible in 2016. Her next book is due out in 2019. She has spoken at many 40+ conferences globally. She runs a series of advanced online training about listening skills, synthesis, creating mental model diagrams & thinking-style segments, and the importance of pushing the boundaries of your perspective.

She began her career as a software engineer, moved into interaction design, worked with early tablets, and in 2001 was a founding partner of Adaptive Path, the pioneering UX agency responsible for knowledge sharing via many channels. She got her degree in Computer Science from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, started her masters in Computer science at CSU Fort Collins, then quit because she wanted to push interaction design forward. (This was before any UX programs existed!) You can follow her on Twitter @indiyoung and access many resources on Medium and here on her website, including articles, podcasts, and presentations.

In my early projects, I realized that there was a gap between what my team knew, as engineers and creators, and what people were trying to ultimately accomplish. My career has been dedicated to closing this gap.

Photo credit: LaurieB Photography, 2015; Logo credit: Rachel Joy Rodas, 2014

creation story: mental model diagrams

I started out as a programmer, and developed my specialty in interaction design. As I gained skill, I decided to become an independent software designer in 1991. This work involved defining software flow, interaction design, information architecture, and rollout strategy, as well as testing and pre-design research. This last item was important to me because I was not a domain expert in any of the projects I worked on. I was always interested in reaching out to the people I was coding or designing for.

I would regularly provide clients with a summary of the patterns I’d found when listening to people pre-design. I organized these patterns in tables within Word documents. Then one day in 2000 I took the extra step of showing one of my clients how their features matched (or didn’t match) with the patterns, via a fishbone diagram with the patterns on one side and the features on the other. The stakeholders around the conference table uttered a collective “Huh!” We spent the rest of our time together discussing the implications of the mismatches and the weak matches.

original mental model diagram for satellite imagery resellers

The very first mental model diagram … somewhat terse, but eye-opening in the gaps that appear.

In the taxi ride back to the airport, my teammate couldn’t stop talking about how useful that discussion was. He turned to me and declared, “You’ve got to patent that diagram!”

image of a mental model diagram rolled out on a table, unisdr

A more recent example of a mental model diagram from the United Nations Disaster Prevention team.

I ended up spending the next decade and a half evolving the mental model alignment diagram, clarifying the reasons for it, and sharing it with the global software community. Hundreds have adopted my approach and work to further expand it’s value. I encourage practitioners to share their stories so that everyone can benefit. Top performing organizations such as United Airlines, McDonald’s, and Qualcomm have gained lasting insights from my research with them. And I have gladly collaborated with startups, higher education, agencies, and international organizations to bring this kind of research to teams who don’t have Fortune 100 budgets.