Guide to diagrams

My most recent OpenLearn project was a guide to using diagrams to solve complex problems. Working with a team of Open University academic colleagues, we made a series of videos and a quick scenario-based quiz.

Shall I draw you a picture

At the outset, I had very little awareness or understanding of diagrams, at least in a technical or academic sense. Sure, I’d heard of and had occasionally used mindmaps, but wasn’t sure what else there was.

A quick telephone call with OU academic Simon Bell was enough to both open my eyes and scare the living bejesus out of me. Here was a seemingly sane man talking to me about Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the role of rich pictures in historical human storytelling, the Book of the Dead, modern hieroglyphs, and fighting a fight against the ‘gravity of dullness that permeates diagramming and systems thinking in academia’. All in the same sentence.

I had to work with him to make something about diagrams that the general public would be interested in and want to learn from. He wanted something that would make people want to “draw the picture or die”. At this stage, I wasn’t not totally sure what I was in for. Weren’t we supposed to be talking about Tony Buzan?

What the hell is a systems map anyway

Fast-forward a few weeks and I’d had further chats with Simon and his colleagues and I’d seen examples of other, different diagram types. A rich picture about flood management looked bonkers: seemingly childlike in its simplicity, somehow this collection of stick men, doodles, symbols and landscapes helped me understand the set of problems faced by a variety of people in a single situation. Systems diagrams were a sort of huge Venn showing what was part of what (and, importantly, what wasn’t). Multiple cause diagrams helped you see how different factors produced different effects. It was quite overwhelming, but I could see there was something there that could be useful and interesting to people other than university professors.

We quickly settled on video as the ideal medium to demonstrate how these diagrams could be created and why they should be used. Finding a narrative to hang it together was more of a challenge—I was working with a group of academics that used these diagrams to model complex environmental problems. Would this hold the interest of people brand new to diagramming, let along environmental decision making?

The final product

We took the view that people could use different diagram types depending on the amount of understanding they have of a situation. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but I quickly learned that it can be a useful approach. For example, when your understanding is a mess, and there are multiple viewpoints to consider, a rich picture can help get everything down in one place. A spray diagram helps organise and group these components. As understanding grows, systems maps and influence diagrams help define the boundaries and relationships within the context. Once this understanding is in place, multiple cause diagrams help you form causal chains that can explain why a particular event has happened.

Simon picked a suitable topic and we filmed him drawing these diagrams in sequence, beginning with a mess of understanding and, while not arriving at an answer per se, ending up with a thorough understanding of the main context and its associated factors. A complex problem now had two or three key areas that needed focused attention to bring about resolution.

The final product is a video player that takes one long YouTube video and breaks it into 7 smaller pieces. We’ve got two introductory animations, one that explains why we use diagrams in the first place, and one that sets the scene for Simon’s chosen topic. Then, for each of the 5 diagram types, there are speeded-up videos of Simon drawing each diagram with a voiceover (recorded later) where he explains what he’s doing. There is an extra example of each diagram type at the end of the 5 videos, explained by Simon’s colleague Kevin Collins.

This is followed up by a quick quiz—the viewer is given 5 different scenarios (including supermarkets, game developers, and a hospital A&E department), each with a different problem facing them. He or she is then asked to suggest a suitable diagram to help approach the problem.

Here’s the final thing. Please don’t be one of the people who wonders how Simon learned to write backwards so well.

Yes, but is it any good

This was a tough project. We took a subject that the Open University teaches at postgraduate level, and tried to make it accessible for the interested layperson. I think we succeeded. I’d have liked to develop the quiz functionality into something slightly richer and more personal, possibly allowing the user to try different diagramming types out. But time and money only go so far.

Still, I’m happy, and the videos have been popular so far. I’ve used a couple of the techniques when faced with complicated problems at work, and I hope that others get something useful out of it.

Author: Matthew Culnane

Sometime social and UX person working in education. Interested in food, books, music, others. Working out how it all works.