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Podcast Episode 026: Listen like a designer – Mike Rohde unleashes the power of listening to customers and end users

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Designers understand the importance of drawing, but what about note taking to visually capture ideas, experiences, and information? What really matters in a conversation? Mike Rohde shares how sketchnoting has changed his life. Listening is at the heart of what he learned about it. By listening, Mike is able to form an analysis of what he is hearing to visually draw it. He makes an impact beyond words.

Mike is a user experience designer, author, and creator of a listening language called, Sketchnoting. He comes from a long line of listeners, including his father and mother. From them, Mike learned the value of observing, asking questions, awareness of others, and additional listening skills. Also, a few of his teachers and others at college, including jazz radio disc jockey Howard Austin, helped guide his career.

Howard could be tough but understanding. He made Mike strive for quality standards. For example, during college, Mike became passionate about a project for Howard where he researched Leica cameras because he was fascinated by photography. He produced an audio/visual slideshow featuring handmade illustrations. Howard seemed pleased and impressed.

Now, Mike’s work stretches across the whole spectrum from user testing to designing an interface to make things look right and work properly.

In this episode, Mike discusses the process of facilitating a group of people to listen to what users and an organization need. The first step is to create a script to test on the users. What do you want to discover about your application? Users are observed using the application and notes and videos are captured. What are the patterns? The information leads designers to finding solutions.

Tune in to Learn

  • It is beneficial to see people using applications and products to determine what works well and what needs to be improved. Discussions are held to find solutions to issues.
  • Mike leads whiteboarding sessions for his team to spend time discussing an application before user testing.
  • Mike shares examples of when end users or staff members had a transformational impact on an application after discussing or testing it.
  • You don’t want end users to struggle with an application and simply give up on using it. Often, it involves listening to what is unsaid. Testing identifies such issues, and lets a team immediately regroup to solve issues and test again.
  • Mike has authored two books: The Sketchnote Workbook and The Sketchbook Handbook. His books help people to listen properly and simplify what they hear when taking notes.
  • Mike had been frustrated about his own notetaking – he was good at it, but hated doing it. He wrote too many details and in too big of a book. He never wanted to reread his notes or analyze them. He discovered tips and tricks, including using a smaller notebook and writing fewer details. He started to analyze and listen to what was valuable enough to be captured. He started to draw pictures instead of writing, which he began to refer to as sketchnoting.
  • Mike discusses the process of printing his books, from understanding the content, deciding how to lay it out, handling production work, and creating illustrations.
  • He wanted to create a community through his sketchnoting books, where he could spread the concept to others and make it adaptable. The community is warm and encouraging – creating a generous spirit. It is a gift and legacy from Mike


Episode 26: Deep Listening with Mike Rohde


Oscar Trimboli:                   

Deep listening. Impact beyond words.

Mike Rohde:                        

What’s interesting about both books that I’ve written in the focus on listening being at the heart of what I learned. They’re about notetaking. Lots of people sort of have this perspective that it’s about the drawing part of it, and I think that’s important. The sketch-noting, part of it is drawing, but I’ve come to realise pretty quickly that actually listening is the real secret weapon of sketch-noting, and I think that’s what people learn when they start to do it. I’m happy to sort of give you the origin story of how I stumbled onto this sketch-noting thing, gave a name to it and then how it sort of changed my life.

I think I’ve discovered that sort of listening, and because I’m listening well or I feel like I’m listening okay, it allows me to form an analysis of what I’m hearing so that the I can then draw it and do the things I like to do visually, but at the heart of it is this ability to listen and process and then make sense of what I’m hearing, so I can … If I look at it again in a year, I’ve got a reference that I can pull from or that if someone sees it they can make some sense, heads or tails of it.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

In this episode of Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words, we have the opportunity to hear from Mike, a user experience designer and author, and the creator of a fascinating listening language called sketch- noting.

Mike’s created a way to help people listen to the essence of what’s being said. He’s created a global community and movement to help people free themselves from the detail and focus on what really matters in the conversation.

I love listening to Mike and the way he described how he created this community by himself, and now has passed the community on to others who are leading it.

Our interview with Mike was quite playful. You’ll hear lots of background noise. He’s a big family man and we wanted to make sure you heard from his dog as well as his children and his family there too. It wasn’t too distracting for me and I’m sure it won’t be too distracting for you. Let’s take some time to listen to Mike talk about sketch noting.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

Mike, growing up, who was the best listener that you experienced?

Mike Rohde:                        

I think it actually was my father, and this surprises me to say this because my initial reaction was my mother and she was a good listener as well, but I think my father was much more perceptive about the details. He would listen to details that you would speak and sort of parse them in a sense, and as teenager maybe that wasn’t always a good thing. He would find things that you hadn’t intended to say but in your speaking he would pick them up, right?

I would also say that he was a good listener because he was a very observer. He tended to be a good trouble-shooter because of his business. He was in electronics and trouble-shooted electronic devices, and so the way his mind worked was to observe things before he ever would speak to someone. He would sort of start forming an opinion by observing and then part of his observation was asking questions and letting you sort of explain what you were thinking, what your perspective was, and often you wouldn’t really realise how much you were revealing to him by simply asking these questions.

That would be, sort of as I reflect on it, why I would say my father was really good at listening because he thought of it in the broader context of overall observation.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

What gift do you think he shared with you that you take forward as a listener?

Mike Rohde:                        

I think actually that perspective is also something that I’ve picked up from him, that he’s passed on to me is sort of an awareness of others. I tend to notice things that a lot of people don’t notice, or I’ll bring things up that people are surprised that I’ve observed in them.

As a designer as well, one of the most powerful tools that I have is this ability to observe, and sort of look for incongruities, so things that don’t match up and wonder why they don’t and then sort of go deeper to solve that problem, or actually congruences, things that seem like they should fit together but no one’s seeing that connection, and then I have the opportunity to make that connection.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

Thinking about school and college, is there a teacher who you looked up to and went, “Wow, they really listened to me”?

Mike Rohde:                        

There were a few in my college years, specifically, and I would say that’s probably the most formative in some ways because it really set the direction of my whole career and the life that I’ve had since those days.

There’s one person in particular who I felt like listened more. In this technical college there was a belief that cross-training was really valuable, so having knowledge about photography as well as printing was valuable for a designer but not in just one direction. Printers needed to understand what photographers and designers went through and so forth, so each of them would go through each other’s programme, to a limited degree, so they would understand.

I was doing that, I was in the Design programme for these one or two courses and really took to it. I didn’t even see it myself. Some of my other friends actually were recommending that I should become a designer, and when I got to the programme I discovered this Howard [Austin 00:06:27]. He was a deejay at night on the public radio station playing jazz, so he was really cool. He drove a Corvette. He just had impeccable taste, but what I found was actually under this cool exterior of this cool guy was actually a very aware person.

In a lot of ways, now that I’ve made this connection with my father like this ability to observe, it didn’t take him much to observe when we were faking it or when we were really doing good work and he would call us out on it and challenge us to do it. I remember that some, I think my final project in his design course was something that I stumbled into and became very passionate about and did really well in, and it was I started researching Leica cameras. I had been fascinated with photography, I think because I did this crossover, and just was really fascinated with Leica. I knew I could never afford one, especially as a student in a technical college, but there was no reason why I couldn’t be fascinated by this topic.

I ended up doing research and producing a slide show, an audio-visual slide show at the time, and it was all handmade illustrations and collage that I produced the slides with, and I just remember that he was really pleased with all the level of efforts that I did. I could definitely tell that I was trying to please him and sort of reach his level. I sort of saw him as if I make it through this school, which I felt good about, he would be the level of quality, minimum level of quality I would try to impress on the outside. He sort of represented for me an art director in an agency where I might apply for a job. He was in a way a proxy.

I always appreciate his observation. He could be tough at the right times but also very understanding as well and sort of encouraging. He had that full breadth of ability. What’s really great is later, in the later years after I’d graduated and gone to the profession, I was invited to be part of a … I was invited to be a board member on the group that actually advises the school in making their curriculum stay current, and I got to know him as an adult, as a peer, and that’s later on is when I actually found out that he was really impressed with my work and very proud that I’d come through his programme and-

Oscar Trimboli:                   

Mike, zoom us in to your office and your work and facilitating a group of people to listen to what the users actually need as well as the organisation. Take us through the process.

Mike Rohde:

I think anything like that would first begin with creating some kind of script that we would actually test the users with. In user centred design, which is sort of the space I inhabit, I cross over some boundaries so I go all the way from the user testing all the way to designing the interface and actually helping produce it. I’ll work with developers to make things look right and work properly, so that whole spectrum of design is sort of the space where I work.

Often in the case of user testing we’ll lay out a script of the things, what things do we want to discover about our application, and we’ll set some goals out. Then we’ll work with the researchers that actually run the event to formalise that script and then gather people. We’ll run a test with, I don’t know, 8 to 10 people, and they will actually use the application and talk through the things that they’re observing, and so there’s someone writing notes and we’ll record them as well so we can actually stitch together videos for the team later.

We’ll go through this for 5 to 10 people, typically. We’ll gather information and we’ll sort of look at what are the patterns, what are the things that we found that were surprising to us, either in a good way or a bad way, that hopefully lead us to finding solutions.

By the time we get to a meeting like this where we’re showing the results, we may have taken the video and cut it down into maybe an hour or half an hour video that we can show the team so they can actually see people struggling with the software that they built. We find that’s really valuable to have the people developing the software actually watch people doing well or struggling with the software because then they have this empathy, they have this connection with the person that’s actually the end user of their tool.

So often it can be such a nebulous thing. We can imagine this person doing this or doing that when maybe they don’t do this or do that at all. It’s good to actually see the reactions of people, and especially when it’s repeated. If it’s, say, something we thought was great but the users found not working right, to see it repeated that way is valuable.

Often, we’ll show a video and then we’ll have a discussion. We’ll talk through what are maybe some of the problems that we saw and how could we maybe start to solve those things and have a discussion around that. That would be a session like that that we might have with maybe the whole team. Often with the whole team we’ve done those types of events.

I would say the other thing I’ll mention is I facilitate what we call a white boarding session, and what that is is it’s sort of the action that we do before we do that testing, so maybe on the front end of the whole design process.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

Mike, listening to what’s unsaid it’s really powerful and quite often transformational. Can you talk us through a situation where one of your end users or employees just noticed something really different that had a transformational impact in that design process around the software?

Mike Rohde:                        

I certainly can. I think specifically of a test that we ran. We’ve run three or four tests on the software. In this particular test we wanted to see how the interface was working. Did people understand it? Were they able to figure things out? This is one of the first tests that we ran. We had certain specific goals that we wanted to find out about.

As the users started going through this, they were remote, so we could hear them and in a few cases we could see them, but we had a few that were also in person, so we’ve got a mix of both. We had certain tasks that we set out for them to do.

I was listening in for the most part. I didn’t speak very much. Occasionally I would answer a question, so I was just observing. The thing that actually surprised us was the closing of panel. In this particular software product, we have sort of a form in which you fill out the information that you want for the insurance product you want, and once you fill it out sufficiently you press a button and then it reveals what the product will look like. The costs, it gives you a ledger of information. It can even do charts and so on. The way we would present that is we actually thought wouldn’t it be nice if it was just a single page application with panels that would come over and show information as needed. If you press a button, an action would bring a panel over and show you something, or if you went backwards it would actually show you something with these panels. We had I think three or four panels that would come in from either one side or the other.

At the time, when we built this, we had this idea that people would pay attention to which side the panels would come in from, either from the right or from the left. Therefore, we thought based on that we would use a symbol, a chevron symbol, sort of like two sides of a triangle, to sort of indicate which way the panel would go back into the software, right?

We had built this intricate, nuanced directional indicator for people so when the panel would come out you would see a chevron going one direction or the opposite direction, sort of suggesting that it was going back in the same way.

What we found was it was actually very confusing for users, and it was not something that they specifically pointed out; they would just simply get lost, like, “I don’t know how to close this panel, Mike. I don’t know. What should I do next?” We would say, “Well, what do you think would be the next thing that you do?”

The trick of user centred design testing is you sort of can’t give them the answers, you have to let them struggle. That’s where the gold is. When they struggle, that’s when you start to see revelations, especially if it repeats over many people.

Every single one of the people got confused. In many cases, they simply gave up. They got to the point where we had to tell them how to get out of the situation because it was so unclear to them which way the chevron went, or that the chevron was even something you could click to return. It was such not a universal symbol.

We regrouped after getting this feedback from all of the users, basically, that we have a real problem. We have these panels coming out and people don’t know how to close them; that’s a serious problem in an application. We immediately sat down and reviewed it, and what we realised was we could have gone much simpler. We simply switched all those chevron symbols to X’s, close X’s, just like on every Windows or Mac or many other applications. It’s a universal symbol.

We don’t know why we didn’t think of this. We were so focused on this intricate, nuanced thing showing directional but no one was really paying that much attention and it was not a universal enough symbol for them to recognise. Once we placed the close symbol, the ability for people to recognise it, on the very next test no one complained about it. It was very clear. Everyone was able to close those panels. No one ever had a problem. No one ever got stuck.

It was just shocking how much one little icon on a page could really make that much difference, and it was all through unsaid things. No one said specifically, “Hey, that chevron is confusing me.” It was, “I don’t know what to do next.” It was even more basic than that. It was simply unknowing that made it clear like they don’t know what’s going on.

Obviously as we asked them what do you think would close that window and they couldn’t find it, it made it very clear that we had the wrong icon.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

A powerful example of listening to what’s unsaid for user experience.

I sense there’s decades and decades of wisdom in your work. You’ve brought that together over two books so far and I’m sure you’re working on number three, if I get a good sense of you already.

Talk us through how you came about, listened to what the communities around you were saying to bring this book together.

Mike Rohde:                        

That’s an interesting perspective to ask me from. I had been frustrated of my note-taking, about my note-taking for several years before, and it came to a head around the end of 2006 when I sort of faced the challenge. I was a very good note-taker but I hated taking notes. It’s a really bad place to be, right? I took these giant notebooks. I wrote in pencil so I could fix my mistakes. I wrote everything down. I felt like I had to be almost like a court reporter or something and document everything, but the problem was when I got done I didn’t want to look at my notes. It was just too much information. I didn’t want to analyse it.

I had this idea that maybe what I should do is actually the opposite of what I had been doing; instead of a big book, maybe I’d use a pocket book, so I literally can’t write everything down. It sort of takes me out of that conversation.

What if I switch from a pencil to a pen, which puts me in a place of committing to the things I put on paper?

That combination of those two things led me to a third thing when I actually started to put those ideas in practise. I went to a conference to test the theory, which has sort of been my approach to things. I’ll have an idea and I’ll test it.

I took a small notebook and a gel pen and I went to a design conference, just to see what would happen if I approached it this way. What I found was because I couldn’t write everything down and I had to commit, I was much more careful about what I put on the paper. It sort of moved me into this different type of listening. In the past I would listen for every detail, but I wasn’t doing any analysis. In this new approach, because I had all this freedom and space and time, I actually had time to actually analyse the things that were being said and make decisions about which ones are worth me capturing, right? Because I’m going to a conference, I want to take something professional out of it that I can apply, and by actually analysing in the moment, I only capture the things that I find valuable, and then I don’t waste any paper on the things I don’t find valuable.

Even after that, even after that ability to listen and analyse, I had additional free time where I could start to embellish. I could start doing lettering. I can start drawing pictures. If I had, as I was listening, images would pop into my head and I could draw them on the pages, and that’s what I discovered happened. That was sort of the start of all this stuff. The most natural name I had for it was sketch-noting, and that name just sort of stuck and has taken off ever since.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

The book creates a syntax. It creates a language. It creates an iconography to help people to listen while they’re note taking. Just take us though how you’ve created this just most beautiful artefact to help people listen and simplify what they hear to what means the most, equally allowing them to come back in years later and understand and place themselves exactly in that moment with extraordinary memories of that time.

Mike Rohde:                        

In my process, I started by writing the text first. Because I’m very much a word person, we wrote the whole manuscript, had it checked, and then once the manuscript was finished, I actually sat down and did pencil sketches of the whole book from front to back based on the manuscript. As an old print designer, that’s the way I would approach a print project: understand the content and then figure out how to lay it out. Then, within that, the sketches were rough so not every detail was in place, so when I got to the actual building of it then I had a little bit more freedom to tweak and adjust.

Actually, I’ve looked at the pencil sketches and they’re quite similar to the actual final book in many ways. Not every detail but generally speaking every page was accounted for and lots of the structure was already in place way back in the beginning of just laying out the pages.

Then it was a matter of doing the illustrations, doing the production work, which I did. As a print designer I had that advantage, and then coordinating samples of other people’s work that I could feature in the book.

It was really important to me at this very first book establish a community. I felt like community was really where it was at based on what I was seeing. Seeing other people take this idea and take it in ways I couldn’t imagine, it was very, very exciting for me. It still is. Every time I see someone do something new that I didn’t think of, I get excited. I think it’s amazing to see the spread of the concept but that it’s actually adapting to people and not being so rigid that it can only be done in a certain way.

I think the aspect of the community that we’ve created, I’ll say it that way, is that we are going back to the very first part of our interview. We’re welcoming. We’re encouraging and we’re warm. If someone comes in, no one is going to be attacked for their drawing skills. In fact, they’ll probably be encouraged that they made the step.

People are very welcoming and giving. They reach out and they give when they don’t need to, so there’s really sort of a generous spirit around that community which I intended to do when I started it, and I’m really pleased to see it continuing. I think sort of as you establish sort of a mindset, it sort of gets picked up by those in the community and repeated. Hopefully that’s something, as a part of a gift that I could give to them was this idea of being generous and welcoming and caring and wanting to make other people’s lives better by the work that they’re doing. That would be an amazing legacy to leave behind.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

The most extraordinary thing about it, Mike, is I can hear your father in that community, and I can hear Howard, your college teacher.

Mike Rohde:                        

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

In warm and welcoming and encouraging, all those things that you talked about earlier on.     


By careful listening, we have multigenerational impacts and you can see the role that your father’s played and also the role of the very cool Howard from your technical college as well. Thanks for sharing that with us, and more importantly, with our listeners.

Mike Rohde:                        

You’re so welcome. Thanks, Oscar. It’s been just a pleasure to be on and think about things in a way that I haven’t thought of, and different angles and perspectives. I can definitely see your skill in listening is quite high and you challenged me to be the same.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

Like me, I hope you felt the energy coming across. I had the opportunity to watch Mike as well as listen to him. The congruency between what he was saying in his body and yet he was so symmetrical, it was beautifully aligned because he’s talking on a topic he’s so passionate about. It was just lovely to see the smile come from his face, particularly when he talked about his college lecturer who pushed him a little bit more than he expected, the ever-cool Howard.

Mike’s capability to create powerful artefacts and help people hear what they’re not saying was beautifully demonstrated when he talked about listening deeply to the way they designed a set of user interfaces for the computer system in the insurance company, but they’d got it completely wrong and it was only in hearing the fact that people were struggling and not giving them a solution that created a really simply way and design for them to make it easy for the users to use the software.


Then I loved at the end where Mike realised that throughout the whole conversation with him I’d brought together the fact that his dad and Howard, his lecturer, had all presented gifts to the community of sketch noting as he’s now started to take this movement globally. I just wish you could have seen how the state of Mike’s face changed when I explained the connection between his father and his curiosity, and Howard and his encouragement, and all those things being beautifully role modelled by Mike as he curates this global movement of sketch-noters that are helping people to listen beyond the words. Thanks for listening.


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