My guest today is Rachel Price. Rachel works as a Senior Information Architect at Microsoft and teaches Information Architecture at the School of Visual Concepts in Seattle. Her background is in music, and in this episode we talk about how structures can serve as a foundation for improvisation.Listen to the full conversation
Jorge: Rachel, welcome to the show.
Rachel: Thank you for having me.
Jorge: Well, it’s really great having you here. For folks who don’t know who you are, would you introduce yourself, please?
Rachel: Sure. So I’m Rachel Price. I am a senior information architect at Microsoft out here in Seattle.
I’m also an instructor at the School of Visual Concepts here in Seattle. And then on top of that all I’m a musician. I’m actually a Jazz saxophonist.
Jorge: Wow, that’s awesome. What are you teaching?
Rachel: So right now I teach information architecture at SVC, which is part of a UX certificate program. So I’m teaching really introductory students the world of IA in about six weeks, one night a week. It’s a whirlwind.
Jorge: That’s fantastic. I’m very curious to know what you tell them. Like, how do you introduce information architecture?
Rachel: Oh, man. I try to really focus on one really huge concept in many many different ways over the weeks, and that concept is teaching them how to see the world as an information environment and kind of see past that surface level of how many beginning students think of UX or design as just kind of the visual level.
So the very first thing we start with is breaking experiences down into information objects. Admittedly, I use a lot of your quotes and I put your head in a tiny little bubble on a lot of screens to help kind of contextualize a lot of the stuff we’re doing. But we practice just breaking places and things down into kind of information objects that make them up and the metaphor I use that whole time is like those… Do you remember those Mind’s Eye puzzles, where you kind of have to cross your eyes or like look past the puzzle to see the 3D image pop out?
Jorge: Yes, I do.
Rachel: Yeah. So what I tell my students who are trusting me that all it will all make sense at some point is that we’re learning how to kind of look past the surface of things like websites and apps and most of the things we end up building as UX designers and see kind of what’s under that service and see those objects really start to pop out.
So we do a lot of exercises around developing that vision. And if by the end of six weeks that were the only thing I accomplished with them is their ability to see information objects in the wild, then I’m super happy about that.
Jorge: I had not thought of this metaphor with those puzzles. I’m curious. I haven’t seen those in a long time, that was… If my memory serves, that was around the early to mid-90s, no?
Rachel: I think so. I remember… I feel like I was about, yeah, 10 or 12 when I was playing with them. So far, I haven’t had anyone look at me completely confused about what I mean by that but I imagine as I keep teaching I might find a generational gap there.
Jorge: So are we talking… Are these like college level students?
Rachel: Students who are trying to switch careers. So maybe they finished an undergraduate degree a year or two or five ago and have decided they really want to get into UX design. The School of Visual Concepts has a lot of different programs to help people get into different types of careers.
I think it actually started as a way to help people get into artistic careers. I’m not quite sure if that’s where they started, I should have reviewed that before starting this sentence. But really it’s for people who are interested in exploring different avenues of creative expression. And then also I know they have this UX certificate.
Because as you know in Seattle, we have a glut of UX jobs open and there is just a lot of room for new people to enter the field. And so SVC is one of the schools that’s trying to kind of do right by students and help them get prepared for that.
Jorge: I can easily see how this subject that you’re teaching there connects to your job. Just judging from your title, senior information architect. But I’m wondering, you also mentioned that you’re a musician, and I was wondering how, if any, that connects.
Rachel: That’s such a good question and it’s frankly one I’ve been trying to answer for several years now. So I graduated — my undergrad, the music degree — playing jazz saxophone. And like many others in my generation, I graduated right into the recession so… And even not in a recession, you know, being a musician doesn’t always pay bills unless you’re one of the elite, right? And so, I ended up to kind of help pay my rent, I ended up working in SEO for digital marketing agencies and from there I decided I wanted to pursue my Masters in Library Sciences.
So I moved out to Seattle to get my Masters in Library and Information Sciences and discovered IA and became an IA. So the question is really where’s the connection? And I’ve been trying to answer that for quite some time and I think in the last year I’ve started seeing this pattern where I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about improvisation and how the ways we learn improvisation as Jazz musicians, there’s a framework to it. There are ways to learn improvisation, you know people tend to think it’s just this free-for-all or you’re either really good at it or you’re not and it’s just this unpredictable kind of chaos, and the reality is that’s not actually true. Improvisation is patterns unfolding over time. And when I started to think about improvisation as this pattern unfolding, seeing patterns everywhere, making connections, developing skill sets so that you can make decisions on the fly, it started to become really clear to me that there’s a pretty strong relationship between that kind of thinking and the kind of thinking that we do in IA or UX. I don’t think it’s any coincidence a lot of people in this field are also musicians.
Jorge: Yes, I’ve had a previous guest on the show — Lisa Welchman — who is also a musician and funny enough, this subject of improvisation within a framework came up as well there. So there is something there. Now, hearing you talk about it, it reminded me when I was a student, I was… I studied architecture, and one of the very first things that I learned, the very first semester I was in school, and which kind of blew my mind, was the notion that creativity thrives on constraints.
Jorge: I’m wondering if you can elaborate on this theme of improvisation within a framework as it relates to music.
Rachel: Yeah, so, I mean there’s all flavors of improvisation, you know. Performing musicians prefer different kinds. There is totally free improv, which is completely… Well, mostly outside of a framework beyond call and response, and it’s like having a totally open conversation with no goal or theme in mind. But there are more traditional forms of improvisation, when you play over like a set of chord changes, right? The chord changes are the heart of a song. Song has a melody, which is the string of notes that is kind of the core theme of the song, like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, you know, you’ve got this melody going on.
And then under the melody, you’ve got chord changes, which is just a progression a series of chords that the pianist is playing or the guitar player is playing that set the context for the boundaries of the song and how the song feels and generally how it sounds. When you improvise, you’re playing over those chord changes. And what that means is that there’s this framework that you’re playing inside of, of notes that’ll go really well, notes that will be really crazy and dissonant, you’ve got guide tones in the chords, which are like these little milestones and landmarks for you to land on that really set the context for the notes that you’re choosing, you’ve got song forms, which tell you where you are in a song and how many times it’s repeating and that sort of thing.
So the improvisation is really making a series of choices about what note to play at a given time, but it’s in reaction to a bunch of other input. There’s a theory of improvisation in terms of the cognitive aspects of improvisation, I believe was developed by Jeff Pressing in the 80s. That is pretty straightforward. It’s improvisation is some sort of sensory input goes into the central nervous system at that point if the player uses all these connections in their head, schemas that they know really well, patterns that they know really well, kind of tools or tricks that they know really well, they make connections. They make a snap decision about what to play. Then they actually play it and then the whole loop starts over again. So now they’ve created sensory input for someone else or for themselves, and it’s just this recruitment repeating cycle of iteration. And so I think that that way of thinking about — it’s not necessarily like constraints, things you can’t do — but it’s this framework of things that are guiding you and giving you context around maybe what makes the most sense or what would sound really cool or what sounds really bizarre if that’s what you’re trying to do.
And so it’s this idea that improvisation is not happening in a vacuum, right? There’s all sorts of input going into it. Beyond just the notes are choosing to play.
Jorge: How does that play out with information architecture work?
Rachel: I think this can apply in a lot of different ways. The way I’m currently focusing on it, to me, a really direct parallel is how we talk to people and how in IA a lot of that boils down to user research. Right? It became pretty clear to me when I start thinking about this that when we do user research and were interviewing people, it’s this kind of abstract situation or… Not abstract, but kind of ambiguous, right? We don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen when we talk to people. We don’t really know what their mental models are going to be. We don’t know how they’re going to answer questions, if they’re going to understand us. It can be this challenging experience. But so much rides on it because so much of the decisions we make as IAs needs to be based on what people need for my structures and how they understand the world that we’re building for them. And so what I’m working on now without giving the whole thing away is actually this is a talk I’ll be giving at EuroIA is, how we can use improvisation techniques that jazz musicians use — because they have all these tools and tricks of the trade — and actually employ those to become better research facilitators. I think a lot of what we know about research facilitation today kind of relies on you have this palette of question types, you can ask which is really helpful you’ve got all these things you can do to prepare for the research, but it’s really really hard to practice being comfortable in a conversation with a total stranger which is itself an act of improvisation. You know, I think we’re all improvisers when we talk to people and then when you’re in a research setting and you’re interviewing people, you’re improvising with a lot of pressure on you to get the right information and ask the right questions and that can be really heavy feeling.
So I think using improvisation, this improvisation framework is a way to think about how we interview people whether that’s users. It could be interviewing stakeholders. It could be working through a tough meeting with your team. I think these are all really applicable things.
Jorge: When you mentioned user research and this notion of improvisation… I’ve been in user research sessions where the researchers go in with a script for what they want to ask folks, and some researchers want to be very by the book and stick to the script. Right? And that would be, in my mind, using this analogy, it would be something like playing a piece of classical music where it’s all written out for you. Whereas you could also use the script as kind of tent poles or points that you want to hit if you get the time. Like it’s a theme that you want to focus on but but that opens up… I guess it’s a style where it opens up to more kind of freeform conversation.
Rachel: Yeah, I think that thinking of it as a… Like, I think of script as kind of chord changes, right? They’re landmarks you’re going for and you need to get there eventually, but feeling confident enough to improvise the path between those landmarks is what leads to a more productive, natural, fun conversation for both the researcher and the participant. And I think that’s where… I’m not going to remember this quote perfectly, but there’s a really great book called Free Play and in it they talk about how improvising with others creates these moments where this other thing gets treated in this third place that neither one of you would have done individually. And that third place, If I’m really going to stretch the metaphor, I don’t think it’s that far of a stretch, like that third place in music is really equivalent to that deeper level of understanding while talking to others, while doing a user research interview or whatever interview you’re doing. So being able to improvise comfortably so you can get to that third place of creation, I think it’s really the goal.
Jorge: I love this idea of thinking about these conversations as an opportunity to create something new rather than go down some kind of prescribed path.
Rachel: Yeah. Because even in classical music, right? The most wonderful classical performers are not just reading off the page, you know? There’s a lot of embellishments that happen, a lot of phrasing that they choose to do in their own unique way that really brings a piece to life. And so even if you’ve got this pretty well scripted script, or set of objectives that you’re being really strict about, that’s fine. It’s the path getting through those, I think that really is what brings research alive.
Jorge: One of the reasons that I wanted to talk with you is precisely because I think you’re a very thoughtful on these issues, and I’m wondering how if any this way of thinking about it has affected the way that you manage your own information.
Rachel: It totally has. This coincides pretty directly with another kind of principle I’ve been working under for about the last year or so, which is that of radical simplification of the structures I put in place. Right? And so there’s a big parallel between this idea of having this super scripted thing that you need to get through versus having landmarks that you need to hit. And I don’t know necessarily how I’m gonna get through those, to how I manage the information in my life. I’d say until about a year ago, I really architected how I managed information and how I organized everything both in my personal life and in my projects and at work and all this other stuff. And I realized that by structuring everything to the nth degree, I actually wasn’t helping myself anymore. It was really a reaction to stress and anxiety and this idea of like, “If I can just control every little thing, then everything will be fine.” And I realized it was actually backfiring, having that really intense amount of structure was just making the burden heavier.
And so I started experimenting with this idea of simplifying, really really simplifying my structures, so that there is more room for creativity and improvisation in almost everything I was doing. I really realized that by structuring things so heavily, It just wasn’t giving me any space to do good work or just be and relax and exist in this beautiful world.
Jorge: I’m wondering if you can give us an example of how loosening up the structures can has led you to opening space for improvisation and creativity.
Rachel: Yeah. So one concrete example is one that I’ve actually heard from a lot of people, where I used to make these really long, structured to-do lists because I just wanted to monitor my progress on everything, I wanted to feel like I was making progress on stuff and really keep track of every little thing that was going on.
What I realized was having those long to-do list was actually just stressing me out even more. I felt like I always had so much to do. When I started shortening my to-do lists, I realized it’s not because I suddenly had less to do, It’s that I was really forcing a prioritization of what it was I needed to do. So, that’s a pretty common one that we hear a lot, is this shortening that to do list.
The other thing that I’ve tried to do is really just… I think I’ve been calling it like throttling my intake, and just be very selective about the type of information and the channels of information that I’m willing to take in. Because when you create space… You have a finite finite amount of brain space, at least I do. And when you just let anybody or anything fill that space then they’ll fill it and it’ll be max to capacity. And I realized what I was doing as I wasn’t saving any space for myself, which means quiet time, time to be bored, time to sit quietly and just think about something. And so by really throttling my intake what I mean is, I have been practicing checking my email less frequently. I’ve turned off all notifications on my phone. My phone shuts down all my access to my apps at like 8 o’clock every night.
So to help me throttle my intake. I do those short to-do lists. I don’t check the news as frequently, and I really get curious when I am trying to pick up some information, if I’m doing it by habit or if I’m doing it intentionally. And if I’m doing it my habit I ask you know, what what am I hoping to get out of taking in this information at this moment? Like why am I doing this? Why am I checking New York Times app for the fifth time? What am I hoping to get out of this? And so that’s been a really big part of this kind of experiment and just opening up space for other things that are not about digesting information.
Jorge: You mentioned turning off the… I think you said the phone’s ability to check email after a certain time. Are you first of all, are you an iPhone or an Android User?
Rachel: Yeah, iPhone.
Jorge: So are you using like Apple’s native…
Rachel: Yeah. Yeah, whatever they’re calling it. I don’t think it’s the Do Not Disturb, but it basically… Oh, Screen Time. So I have my down time. There’s a there’s a part of that called Downtime and then there’s a part called app limits and so I’ve got my Downtime set to start It looks like at nine o’clock at night. So it just shuts all my apps… It like grays out all of my apps and if I try to open one, it asks me. It says hey, “You’re supposed to be in down time right now. Like, are you sure you want to do this?” And then usually I say, “You know, what? No, I actually don’t really need to look at this right now.” This was an anxious reflex to some thought I had. Now I’m not going to open this because I know I really need to. Or the app limits, you know, I set some limits on social media because I get really sucked in and I waste a lot of time that way and it generates a lot of bad feelings for me. So I have my phone kind of helping me throttle some of that. Be my buddy. It’s my buddy and reminding me that, “At one point, you said you didn’t want to do this. I’ll totally let you do this, but I’m just going to check first. ”
Jorge: Yeah, it’s somehow you have to opt yourself back into something that you said that you’d committed to not do, right?
Rachel: Yeah, or even if you think of it, the way my screen is laid out… I love working. I get in a state of flow, I really enjoy it and that’s great. It’s a sign that I love my field, I love my job. The problem is that I’m not really great at managing that love of flow when I really do actually want to be doing other things, like at night. Right?
I’ve been really lucky that I’ve never been in situations with any job I’ve had where people are pressuring me to work at night or on the weekends or anything like that, but I have a personal tendency to do it because I really enjoy it. So the thing that I’m trying to do is maintain that delicate balance of doing what I love but also I need a little help retaining space for other things that I love that maybe are not so pleasant in my life. You know, like sometimes I need help being reminded to play my instrument or to just sit quietly and not open my email and see if anyone needs my help.
Jorge: I don’t know too much about jazz, but one of the one of the things that I understand about improvisational jazz — and I think you hinted at this earlier — is a notion that when you’re playing your instrument along with a group of other players, with a band say, and all of you have achieved a certain level of mastery over the instruments, you can get into these states of flow where you can improvise over certain structures. In hearing you talk about how you’re setting up your personal information environments to wall off your personal time, I’m wondering how, if any, you’ve found ways of opening up those spaces for you to play along with others to collaborate with other people.
Rachel: Yeah, that’s a really great question. So if you think of a combo, a group of jazz musicians who are playing something together. They’ve all agreed at some point on the scenario, right? Like are we playing this particular song are we just free improvising in some particular style? You know, what other kind of the boundaries of what we’re trying to do together? And then they move forward and play together. And I think that that really makes a lot of sense. And how I approach collaborating with teammates or with students or with co-presenters at workshops and all this thing is like, what’s our shared goal here? What’s this scenario we’re in? What’s the framework? And are there constraints we are working in? And now let’s dive in, play together. And you’ll you know, if you are an avid jazz listener and you go to live shows, there are definitely moments when some jazz musicians are… They really want to be the star, you know, and you can totally tell they’re not really playing by the rules. They’re not collaborating super well, and it totally happens because we’re all human beings. And so there’s also a little in how we collaborate in our work too; there are times when you’ve got different levels of people who are and are not playing along. And so you learn how to just keep communicating the goal, right? And keep just trying to contribute to that shared improvisation and and you keep iterating and you keep getting feedback from others about how that’s going and then at some point you reach the end of the song and and whatever happens happened and you kind of move on from there.
Jorge: I remember reading something about the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue.
Jorge: Where… And I might be totally off on this, but I think I read this somewhere, that when that album was recorded they basically did all songs in one take, or what you hear on the album is the first take, and there was no music written out. It’s just Miles Davis came in with the chord progressions, and he just gave them to the players and said, “This is what we’re doing.” And that album essentially captures their improvisations and that’s what comes to mind when you’re describing this.
Rachel: Yeah, totally that idea that chord changes are enough is so cool. Right? It’s this idea that this pretty spare framework is just enough context to allow people to communicate with each other meaningfully with some shared intention, but with enough freedom for these incredible unpredictable moments to happen as well.
Jorge: Just to bring it all back back together because we are kind of nearing the end of our time together here, I feel like our conversation today has been a little bit of an improvisation like that.
Jorge: In that we had a little bit of a structure. Like I told you well, you know, we’re going to be talking for about around 30 minutes, and these are more or less the themes we’re going to be touching on. But really the the conversation itself has been emergent and I’ve learned a lot just from our brief time together, so I wanted to thank you for that.
Rachel: Oh, absolutely. You’re welcome. It’s been really fun talking about this and seeing if the idea falls flat or not. Quite transparently, you know, this is the thing I’ve been thinking about for a couple months now and I think it has some legs and it’s not just me. So it’s been really fun to show some of these ideas the light of day and see how well they fare.
Jorge: You were mentioning that you’re going to be presenting this later this year. Where would be the best place for folks to follow up with you, see what you’re up to look into your presentations and such?
Rachel: Yeah. So my LinkedIn and Twitter are where I plan to post everything once it’s ready. And those are really the only two channels I keep an eye on. And you’ll notice, not surprisingly I don’t tend to speak much on this. I do a lot of listening. But I’ll be publishing decks and an extra materials there when they’re ready.
Jorge:I’m going to include those in the in the show notes. So thank you for your time, Rachel. This has been great.
Rachel: Yeah. Thank you so much.