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Eigenquestions: The Art of Framing Problems
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Technique 2: The Power of a Great Diagram

A now trite, but well worn phrase:

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Anyone who has worked closely with me will quickly reflect on my deep love for whiteboards. I love the open blank space and the flexibility to draw and redraw, to frame and reframe.

As Matt and I started building Coda, we spent countless hours on whiteboards and gradually formalized our techniques. In doing so, we developed a shorthand that made the right frame easier to develop and the diagram quicker to digest.


Insight: Using colors as a shorthand

Originally this happened by chance. We had a small box of whiteboard markers with a fixed set of colors and we started rotating through them. We quickly discovered that if we agreed in advance on what each color meant, it was much easier to collaborate. In fact, we often would start with one of us framing a problem, and then switch places where the other one could finish.

Over the years, these color assignments have stuck with us. Here are the colors we arrived at:

QUESTIONS (BLACK)
:
Setting the space. Defining the big questions. From these, one or two will be the eigenquestion(s).

OPTIONS (BLUE):
Used to help think broad -- defining possible answers or options.

TANGIBLE EXAMPLES (GREY or BROWN)
: Used to make an option concrete. What's the visual?

CALLOUTS (PURPLE)
: Highlighting the important concept in a concrete example that demonstrates the blue option. Often used for emphasis or to draw the eye.

A CHOICE (ORANGE)
: Points out a decision or space where we’re leaning among the options.

A BENEFIT (GREEN):
This seems really good -- pointing out potential greatness.

A PROBLEM (RED)
: This has potential issues or could be really tricky. Caution.

That's it, a simple system, but a very useful shorthand. For example, we could look a diagram and say things like:
"Looks like you're still framing, it's still all
blue
."
"Ready for tradeoffs? Let me grab
green
and
red
."
"Decision time? Here's the
orange
pen."
"Perhaps these aren't the right questions? Let's return to
black
pen."


An example (and a template)

While I love physical whiteboards, over the years, as our team became more distributed (see my post on
), I turned more frequently a digital alternative. My digital whiteboard of choice is
(more on that in a separate post).

Here's an example of how this coloring technique works in practice, presented as a Miro embed (click on the hand to see the diagram):





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