This article seeks to convey three ideas. It is no coincidence visuals are important in the process of binding people together. Musical performances can be a blueprint for group work. And employing representations ‚sells’ abstract or novel ideas efficiently. Do they seem a little distant? Perhaps, at first glance.
Have you ever had that feeling of being at a loss for words when attempting to explain your idea on a conf call? This is the moment when, in a face-to-face setting, you would reach for a napkin to doodle your point out on. And it’s not just the conf call. There’s a variety of situations where visuals are crucial for understanding. With their help, some things just don’t need to be verbalized. Utilizing drawings is one of the most powerful ways of integrating information, making it more concise, convenient, comprehensive, and accessible. Let’s take a look at three great characteristics of visuals that are relevant across different contexts and situations.
A single picture can summarize a tremendous amount of information in an accessible way and transfer that information instantaneously, just as road signs do. Just imagine the mayhem if signs were suddenly replaced with 2-3 line-long descriptors! Starting with a symbol as the simplest form of a visual, the range of possibilities extends all the way to images capturing very complex thoughts, perhaps spanned across wall-size whiteboards during group thinking sessions.
In such circumstances, images become so important that their status becomes elevated. Visuals summing up a strategy or the solution to a problem are starting to be referred to as real-estate.
But it’s not only their content that makes them valuable, as the content represents solely the end goal of a process that a group of people participated in. The spirit of mutual endeavor is also encapsulated in the picture. A visual has the capacity to convey emotions easier than one would using language, unless of course endowed with a poet’s gift for words. The unifying aspect of depictions is as ancient as rock art, with its many authors over time adding new paintings to scenes of hunters and their prey. These are not the work of individual artists; rather, they are art created by many authors adding animal figures to the decorations over time, and the result somewhat resembles a cohort-organized bulletin board. These works were not designed as wholes, but were simply a way of depicting, and comprehending the world by subsequent groups that ended up united by time. Fast forward 40,000 years, and here we are — on a Zoom call with perfect strangers. Only now, we are using slides or whiteboard canvases with the same purposes in mind — bonding, achieving understanding, and getting things done. Visuals work to unite us around these goals.
We perceive our world by abstractions of the things we see. A single image may have several characteristics, but only some of them are necessary for us to recognize the symbol or item and connect it to data in our memory. Due to differences in perception, however, the set of attributes that works on me might be very different from the one that works on you, even if we were to gaze upon the exact same image* 1.
Each of us owns an experience in our own way, because what we make of what we see is, to some degree, a result of our past experiences. That is how a visual not only rings a bell, but actually rings different bells in different heads, allowing for multiple interpretations. This freedom of result is a binding force in and of itself.
Aligning for the harmony
Now let’s look at how visuals can be put to work during a joint session. The construction of visual representations in a dialogue can be regarded as a performance from the perspective of a spectator. Think of the process of conquering the demons of chaos in order to achieve clarity and understanding. Depending on the desired level of control, collaborative group whiteboarding can resemble either a jam session or a carefully orchestrated performance. In a jam session, a high degree of freedom is provided to participants so they have the ability to spontaneously build on each other’s input. Tinkering with sketches, drafts and ad-hoc created visuals are all encouraged, with little or no effort made to hinder the flow of creative juices. The result can vary from a brilliantly improvised result or, on occasion, to a magnificently chaotic cacophony. On the other end of the spectrum, the collaboration process is structured to such detail that contributors can indeed feel their input adding up to a performance of the same underlying score. It’s the facilitation process that directs the ensemble’s contributions toward a preconceived goal. Individual parts — drawings or visuals used in the process — usually reflect coherence on the macro level. Just as no musician would risk disturbing the harmony of an orchestra, so should collaboration contributors honor agree-upon conventions. Depending on the scenario, your group collaboration can become one or the other of the above. Alternately, a session can also rest somewhere in the middle of the axis of structure and freedom.
When visualizing together, contributing new elements to a virtual space must take into consideration existing elements to build upon them. The relation between existing and new elements binds their creators. Verbal exchanges are quite different. In an extreme case of an exchange between opposing parties, their discussion or indeed argument can be reduced to conflicting statements with nothing in common. Both sides’ arguments can resonate without them having to have anything in common. This is not the case with visuals. A conflicted visual would not be seen as a new contribution but an act of obscuring or damaging existing representations. Much often it is the case that ideas start to co-exist side by side in an attempt at collective improvisation during a visual jam, inviting participants to outdo others with their ad-hoc sketched ideas. The vigor of unmoderated sessions might be, by this comparison, a little similar to Bing Crosby jammin’ the beat.
What subjectively is useful and makes sense to you needs to be understood by others. Crossing this bridge is a third problem to tackle — once bound and aligned, we need to find a way to understand each other. This essentially comes down to others understanding the contents of our thoughts to ‘get you’ or ‘get your idea’. Suffice to say that mere fiddling with this idea has been the inspiration for countless books and movies. But as fun as said fiddling may be, in the realm of business communication, it is crucial to have a solution, because without the group understanding one’s thinking, no cooperation can take place.
Here’s a thought experiment: you’ve landed on Mars, and to your surprise you’ve also stumbled upon Martians. Amazed at their existence, you’d need some help from your team on Earth to get in terms of understanding their metabolism, as you’re likely not an expert in extraterrestrial life forms. But any type of communication between you and the team on Earth would hit two barriers — the Earth team would need to be able to understand what you meant when you spoke of these Mars inhabitants, and, similarly, you would need to make sense of what they explained on the science of metabolisms in order to make practical use of that knowledge.
If the discussion were to take place on a whiteboard in such circumstances, it would be impossible to have a conversation without long, reflection-stimulating pauses due to the time it takes for messages to travel between Earth and Mars. Thus, your visual conversation would look like comic book page building done in turns: you add your content, the Earth team receives it, makes sense of it, and sends responses back with their comments and questions.
The first thing you would need to do is introduce a Martian. A picture would likely be the best way to do that as it is a material representation of a real object, so the team back home would be able to go through the same cognitive processing you did when meeting the Martian in person. We call this “first-order representation”. To discuss the Martian’s metabolism, you would probably annotate the picture to point to the location of, say, its nostrils. However, since the notion of breathing is familiar to both you and the team at home, you could describe the body parts using regular language with arrows pointing to the exact locations. These descriptions would constitute “second-order representations” that build on preexisting (and shared) meanings of words and symbols. Your annotations would not make sense to the Martian at first glance, but they are perfectly clear on Earth given that your team speaks English. It is therefore easy for you to communicate the question “How can this extraterrestrial live inhaling carbon dioxide?
This silly, exaggerated example illustrates how our existing, structured knowledge of language, symbols and phenomena can be intertwined to discuss entirely new and abstract issues — with an annotated picture. In a real-life, first and second-order representations are combined much more subtly. In my example, the Earth science team would probably provide the astronaut on Mars with information combined in a way that would best build on his preexisting knowledge. The difference between less and more abstract representations would not be so striking. The point is that clarity can only be obtained if one is aware of a recipient’s starting point in order to “meet them where they are”. Bridging the gap between what you know and what the group knows is essential for getting on the same page. Regardless of methods of bridging that gap, one needs to start with a recognition of the difference between the individual’s and the group’s understanding. If it is stark — as with the martian example — first-order representations might be a good starting point. You can later begin to call the alien “Marty”, once your team becomes familiar with who Marty is. The name would then constitute a higher-order representation built on the knowledge you helped them to acquire.
To sum it all
In the act of communication, representing something using a likeness is different than calling a thing by its name. Words are arbitrary signs, visuals are “meant to be thing-like” to express what they stand for in a more „fluid” way. These visuals can be interpreted in a range of ways, and sometimes, not at all. This fluid state of the visuals is possible because of the multitude of ways they can be received. Drawings, sketches or resemblances are by nature generalized, displaying some characteristics of the item in question and, at the same time, missing others. Deciphering the meaning must involve empathy. What elements of the representation are of importance to other people? What meaning do those characteristics convey? This, ladies and gentlemen, is the binding power of visuals.
Team discussion and visual contributions on a whiteboard canvas are often facilitated to some degree, yet it’s possible for the control to be loosened so the encounter becomes less directed and much more open for improvisation. Even in unrestricted brainstorming sessions with visual improvisation, a set of ad-hoc rules is usually spontaneously instituted for participants to remain collective. Keeping the goal in sight is possible since visuals are great for reducing essential ideas to their bare skeletons. By compressing large amount of information into a compact items without losing too much information in the process visuals are crucial for the alignment.
Deeper understanding is possible if the act of spawning and using representations continues as a dialogue. In such an exchange, what you know is represented on the canvas and validated with different perspectives brought in by other participants. The whiteboard can become a space to share concepts and agree on their meanings. The end result, built by similarities, creates understanding. And understanding founded on differences is, in the end, the most precious kind that can be attained.
This is what is called “Structural Differentiation” in pioneer works on this phenomena by Albert Korzybski, but the identification of external representations has itself a long history and includes the works of philosophers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Georg Simmel, and Ernst Cassirer. The debate on whether any universal way of perceiving actually continues until this day in the realm of neural sciences.↩
The world held its breath awaiting the arrival of the new paper computer that is thinner than 49 sheets of paper 1. The buzz a small Norwegian company managed to generate around their electronic notebook-replacement device called reMarkable 2 seems bizarre — why should we get so excited about yet another e-paper reader? The device’s arrival was also postponed several times, though some pre-production units were reviewed by 20 independent journalists whose opinions were, shall we say, mixed.
In short, despite the device being great on the outside, there are some significant shortcomings inside. reMarkable 2 is actually a very limited reader that is surprisingly slower than the previous generation 2.
A lot has been said about the reason for this — why would a device that so many have put their heart and trust in have so many shortcomings? And what can be done about it? As one of the frustrated customers, I tried to contact the producer unsuccessfully (as many of you did as well), and I almost ended up canceling my order. However, being a startup owner myself, I perceive the shortcomings of reMarkable 2 from the perspective of how a young company needs to strategize to stay afloat. Here are my insights on why, from the vantage point of a startup founder working in the paper replacement space as reMarkable does.
reMarkable eReader flaws are the hidden cost of their survival
Every startup needs to prioritize where to use its resources. reMarkable would not survive in the crowded ebook reader space merely by bringing yet another device into it. Their idea is to stand out by taking the paper experience digital — a territory yet unclaimed by anyone to date. In other words, their strategy makes much more sense if you consider what it takes to grab any meaningful market share. Paper experience innovation requires both hardware and software. When it comes to reader experience, the hardware game is all but over, as readers will ultimately simply continue to use existing e-paper technology. And that’s why the only way to differentiate is either with a less important form factor or software experience. From early reviews, we see that reMarkable indeed nailed the form factor with their new revisions. Good! Fixing a tablet that’s already been shipped is not an option, but this logic doesn’t apply to software features — here, features that are lacking may already be on programmers’ and designers’ to-do lists to be dealt with during future updates. Don’t be fooled by marketing language plays, think strategy. Phrases like “carefully selected features to help you avoid distraction” basically translate to “limited resources that need to be invested in the right order”, lest the company fly too close to the sun and come crashing down. Software is easy to update. Things would be much worse if they gave you a flawed device with great ebook features.
reMarkable’s awkward connectivity is justified from an investment perspective
ReMarkable as a company received $24M total investments in two rounds over the last 7 years. Having spent a similar amount of money on a software-only startup, I can relate, and I can tell you two more things, too. Firstly: that’s not much for even a software-focused startup, yet they are in the consumer electronics business. Secondly: investments come with obligations. The business model built on an assumption of a one-off ebook would not have looked very attractive back in 2015 when reMarkable got their seed round. Clues about what their long-term strategy is can be found in their cloud functionalities and related parts of the user agreement. The exchange of files using their cloud is marketed as a way to provide simplicity (which it does), but at the same, it time binds you to the service with terms clearly articulating reMarkable’s right to upsell you on storage, or even put a price tag on existing features. I presume this was a crucial part of their monetization strategy, and I think it worked just fine to get investment done. Regardless of whether you like the idea or not, their success in clinching the investment got you a device that would simply not exist without the support of venture capitalists. This also explains why reMarkable doesn’t work as a drive to easily put files on. They want you as a cloud user because they need to report your activity in order to build a base to upsell to. Personally, I think we’re lucky to have so-called “beta cable access”, which though limited, works and can be used by anyone that is at war with subscription services of any kind.
It’s not laziness, it’s strategy
Any missing feature that you’re familiar with from other products and would expect is easier than doing things anew, just as copying and pasting is faster than writing your own lines. reMarkable took a bold stand by tackling the hard parts both first and by themselves, and leaving the easy stuff for later. Reading the many frustrated comments accusing the company of laziness, I see that this can be somewhat hard to grasp. Having walked in reMarkable’s shoes, however, I actually appreciate their approach.
Once upon a time, my own company grappled with the challenge of making pen strokes look and feel natural. Eventually, we worked out the problems of latency, precision and natural-feeling pen strokes in our software product — Explain Everything Interactive Whiteboard. For the first 2-3 years, we opted for existing frameworks for digitizing handwriting. Despite this approach being quick to implement, the results were…unsatisfying. In the end, we had to take the long road and write our own framework. Thanks to this experience, I know what reMarkable is going through. It takes PhDs in math and computer graphics to get things like this right. Don’t believe me? Consider this: to reduce lags, points that are captured by a device’s screen need to be “guessed” so your strokes can be displayed right under the tip of the pen. For fast strokes, the code needs to actually predict the curves in each situation where the digitizer wasn’t able to provide you with enough data points because your hand moved too quickly. Add to this pressure sensitivity, texturing to make vectors looks like different degrees of pencil tip softness…I think you get the picture. As you can see, all this is hard, damn hard even, yet reMarkable actually managed to do it on hardware inferior to iOS and Android tablets. They deserve a world of credit for their willingness to tackle a challenge as big as handwriting, there’s no two ways about it.
They’ve already succeeded (to some degree at least)
Changing habits and adopting new routing in handling notes is no trivial thing. Yet reMarkable does an amazingly good job at it. Even my mother, who is 70 years old, successfully onboarded their product in 2 days. What they offer is a well thought-out process of hand-holding the users to adopt new habits. The quality of their onboarding precedes the quality of software, which is a different take on the problem. At our company, Explain Everything, we worked first on creating an amazing whiteboard experience, only addressing onboarding later on. Broad functionality makes the learning curve steeper which in result makes preparation of a great onboarding experience harder for an existing sophisticated product. It is easier to do it order way around and from that perspective, I truly believe that reMarkable’s call to do the onboarding first is a good choice.
Yes, reMarkable is not ideal, but I believe they have the potential to be if we just give them the chance. Yes, the shipments are delayed, but regardless of the reason, I urge you to not cancel your order — I’m more than certain their team would appreciate just a bit more of your patience. I’ve been seeing many voices blaming reMarkable for their unresponsiveness, and I can relate here, too. At Explain Everything, we’ve always valued responding to incoming inquiries in a timely manner. But with Covid-19, the sudden surge in demand for collaborative whiteboards flooded our system to the point that some emails waited 12 days for a response. Our team of 4 support agents needed to be supported by an additional 8 members to stay afloat! At reMarkable, that would account for their entire team, if the numbers Techcrunch numbers are correct. We’ve learned valuable lessons about what suddenly finding yourself in the spotlight means, and I can only assume reMarkable are now learning theirs. Going easy on them and not withdrawing your order can be a token of respect for their team and an expression of our faith in the product. Their paid in full pre-orders indicate that it is your money that is being used to put the final touches on the product. Supporting them in this crucial stage is easy — vote with your money and respect the risks they had to take and the bets they had to make along the way. Starting a company is hard. It takes a lot of courage, there are countless pitfalls along the way. The reMarkable paper tablet is indeed far from perfect. But as the problems are software-related and therefore patchable, a bit of respect and support from early adopters might be all the company needs for reMarkable to become what we all want it to be.
Yes, I checked using 80 g/m2↩
For those interested in the details, I recommend a series of video reviews from Voja of My Deep Guide on YouTube. Voja is so detail-oriented that some viewers comment asking him to review their life!↩