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


I am the wonder twin to data scientists. I bring the depth and breadth of qualitative research to explain big data trends via the painstaking detail of listening sessions with real people. I specialize in the problem space side of software design research. Together with quantitative trends, user research, and usability insights, my mental model diagrams and thinking-style segments let your organization activate better support for far many more people.

I am a freelance researcher. I have written two books and many widely-read articles which are loved by thousands of practitioners and referenced by many curriculums. I have spoken at many podcasts and 40+ conferences globally. In 2001 I was a founder of the UX agency Adaptive Path. I got my start as a software engineer, with a Computer Science B.S. from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1987.

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.