Hard and soft information

Sometimes when I draw a Rich Picture, I will use the term “soft information”.

“Hard information” includes verifiable data and knowledge.

So, soft information includes feelings, perceptions, opinions, values—which are often the key to project success or failure. For example, with a project I am currently working on, four information architects are working together in a team, with their manager. Here’s some soft information about our project:

  • Our manager seems to value getting some concept wireframes done fast.
  • It seems like all the team members value understanding the nuances of the big picture, doing a competitive analysis, a gap analysis, etc. etc., before creating concept wireframes.
  • One of the team members has feelings around the fact that he’s going skiing for a week right in the middle of this project.
  • For my part, I’m excited about the work but I perceive that our stakeholders may be a shifting group, so I’m a little apprehensive about which direction to take with my work.
  • The company values the Agile method.
  • One of our stakeholders is of the opinion that we should be conservative in our concepts.

You get the idea.  These feelings, perceptions, opinions and values are pretty important to the project. Yet typically, when putting together a list of project parameters, these kinds of soft information are disregarded, or not even noticed in the first place.

It’s the mix of the hard and soft information that puts the “rich” in Rich Picture.

In case you missed my recent post on the subject, a Rich Picture is a cartoon-like diagram which you can draw in order to:

  • find out about the problem situation
  • create a preliminary mental model of the situation.

Usually, when I draw a Rich Picture, I’m the only one who ever sees it — because they are messy and too hard to explain. Occasionally I’ll show my Rich Picture to other team members, if I’ve cleaned it up enough for public consumption. Once in awhile I’ve drawn a Rich Picture on the whiteboard in a team meeting, to walk a team through my mental processes as a begin a new project.

I use the menomic “COW TEA” to help myself remember the elements of a Rich Picture.

C: Customers or users: the people who will use the system you are making

O: Owner(s), the person(s) with the power to make approvals or cancel actions

W: World view, or some kind of overall perspective on the project

T: Transformation of inputs into outputs, the core activity, or the primary change to be brought about. In other words, “We are going to build a system to <x>”

E: Environment, or factors which impact the project, such as time and resources

A: Actors, or performers of tasks on the project

Peter Checkland introduced the concept of the Rich Picture in 1981 in his book Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, the textbook on his soft systems approach to creating solutions to human problems.

How to make a Rich Picture and why

You’re tasked with architecting or designing the user experience for a new project.

But what do you do if you don’t have a good set of requirements or acceptance criteria? You can work from raw interview notes, whiteboard sketches and assumptions, and draw a Rich Picture.

Drawing a Rich Picture is a way to find out about any problem situation and express it through cartoon-like diagrams which are a preliminary mental model of the situation. The mnemonic “COW TEA” is used to help people remember the elements of the Rich Picture: customers, actors, transformation, worldview, owner, and environment. The Rich Picture is typically drawn before the analysis phase.

After you’ve drawn your Rich Picture, you can go on to engage in more research and other cognitive calisthenics, in order to create more robust mental models.

Below is an example of a hand-drawn Rich Picture, showing COW TEA elements for the process of making coffee!

Rich Picture - coffee making

The Rich Picture depicts things like:

  • the structure of user interactions
  • the functions of the new feature and how they integrate with existing functions
  • basic elements of the process flow
  • environmental factors, such a legal, ethical or economic considerations
  • “hard” or “soft” information relevant to the project
  • types of requirements that will have to be developed
  • primary tasks involved in understanding each requirement type.

After you’ve drawn a Rich Picture, you will be ready to write a short (10-word) summary: “We are building a system to transform X into Y.”

Peter Checkland introduced the concept of the Rich Picture in 1981 in his book Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, the textbook on his soft systems approach to creating solutions to human problems. Checkland’s examples are all hand-drawn.  But what if you want to revise your drawing? Share it with others? So sometimes I use Visio or Omnigraffle to draw my Rich Picture. Below is an example of a more complex Rich Picture which I drew a few years ago, for a project to integrate a third party event and meeting registration site with a web site used by corporations for managed business travel.

Example Rich Picture