Hi, I'm Nick. This is my blog. I'm a life-long unschooler living in New York. You can find more about me here.

I help run the Recurse Center (YC'S10).

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The importance of environmental design (why whiteboards are awesome)

May 29, 2007

By environmental design, I do not mean environmental engineering or anything related with environmentalism. Rather, I want to talk about designing our environment -- that is, the physical world in which we live -- to make our lives better.

I have not traditionally put much thought into designing my living space. Sure, I set up my room nicely (both functionally and to a lesser extent aesthetically), but prior to the last year, I had never thought about how much my environment impacts my productivity and happiness.

For example, last fall, a suitemate and I came up with the idea of purchasing a whiteboard for our suite's common area. We thought it would be a fun and useful way to collaborate on our many problem sets.[1] The idea percolated in our minds until one day we broke down, went to Staples, and purchased a whiteboard and the necessary accoutrements.

To say that the board was a success would be an understatement. It worked out so well, in fact, that we shortly thereafter purchased a second board, and then a third.[2]

What did we use the boards for?

First and foremost, they performed even better than expected at helping us with our original goal of collaborating on problem sets. The boards enabled us to offload our thinking into a shared space -- a commons -- which meant quite literally that multiple people could work on a given problem simultaneously. It also meant problems could be put on the board, ignored (or at least not actively worked on) for a bit, and then resumed.

Compare this to doing problem sets alone, on a piece of graph paper. With graph paper, when you're not working on your problem set, the problems are not in view -- they're in your backpack, desk drawer or, most likely, on your floor. In any case, you're unlikely to glance at them when you're eating or chatting with friends. But if the problem exists on a whiteboard just next to your breakfast/lunch/dinner table, in the room where you and your friends spend 75% of your time at home, you're bound to gaze upon it from time to time. Chances are also that at some point you -- or one of your friends -- will have a breakthrough. And when you do, there will be no delay before you can start working again.

That last point is key: Whiteboards operate in realtime and thus have no "startup time" -- i.e., there's no pause between when you want to start working and when you can actually start working. The few things that might actually slow you down, like not being able to find a marker, can be eliminated with a little thoughtful design.[3]

The boards didn’t just give us a way to do our homework together, though. They actually helped us learn the material more thoroughly, by keeping our work visually in front of us, and by facilitating the social connections that helped cement our new knowledge. They also served as a mechanism for my friends and me to share information that was not directly related to our course work: My friend Spencer taught me some of the basic mathematics behind Western music, and the boards have been used more than once to parse Arabic and Latin sentences.

But the boards' usefulness did not end there. Over the past months, they have, among other things, served as an oversized message board (I'm at the library. Want to grab dinner at 7:30?); an ad hoc grocery list; and aided in the development of a theory of how best to pick up strangers.

As the above examples suggest, the dry-erase boards became wholly integrated into our daily lives.[4] Here's why I think they worked so well -- and were adopted so quickly.

First, as I hope I have illustrated above, the boards were genuinely useful. This may seem painfully obvious but I still think it's worth stating: Things that are useful will get used.

Second, they were right there, so we didn't have to go out of our way to use them. How many times have you found a new website or downloaded a cool new program, only to find that a week later you've forgotten that it even exists?

I think there are two primary lessons to be learned here.

The first lesson is that our environments facilitate our thinking much more than we tend to think they do.[5]

The second lesson I will sum up in the form of a new law:

Nicholas's law of technological adoption:

The rate of adoption of a new technology is directly related to its utility and inversely related to how much effort it takes to incorporate it into your established workflow.[6]

I'm curious to hear what people think of all this.

  1. Keep in mind that I am, along with all of the people with whom I live, presently in engineering school. We don't write response papers or essays; we do problem sets. For better or worse, we live and breathe problem sets. I should also note that for the majority of our classes, collaboration is not only permitted but actively encouraged by our professors.
  2. In the interest of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that the acquisition of the third board was driven as much out of my near obsessive desire for symmetry as it was out of actual need.
  3. Early this semester, with the purchase of the third whiteboard, I got an extra set of markers that were magnetized. A friend noticed that they stuck rather well to our rooms' metal doorframes. Ever since, I have kept a marker or two on my doorframe. Now, when I have a thought in my room and want to work it out on the dry-erase board, I mindlessly grab a marker on my way out to the lounge and I'm ready to go.
  4. This has become something of a problem. I now frequently find myself looking for the nearest whiteboard (or reaching into my pocket for an erasable marker) when I want to explain something to someone. The problem is that this happens even when I'm places that rarely have publicly accessible whiteboards, like a restaurant or train station.
  5. Variations on this theme have been studied for some time. The American psychologist J. J. Gibson wrote about the importance of environmental factors in shaping our thinking decades ago. I guess I'm more than a little late to the party.
  6. As an example of this on a large scale, think about how quickly Facebook went from being non-existent to utterly pervasive. In a matter of months, it became part of the daily routine of millions of people and the sixth-most-visited site in the US. Imagine the possibilities if we could build a grassroots activist network with the same rapidity.