How I remember names

I did a workshop for a client about a week ago. 21 people came. After 20 minutes I knew everyone’s name. A few people commented on it, asking me what my trick was or saying that they could never do that.

If don’t have a lot of time, my short answer to “how do you remember names” is always “there’s no trick to it; it’s just a simple trick”.

If I have time, I give my long answer, which is can seem like a non-answer.

When I was in 3rd year undergrad, I had a lecturer, Helen, who knew everyone’s names in an 80 person class before the mid-semester break. When I was in 4th year undergrad, I tutored for Helen and I asked her what the trick was. She said that the trick to remembering people’s names is using people’s names.

In practice it can work a few different ways. Basically, you ask someone their name, repeat it back to them and then use it every subsequent time you interact with them. In a lecture it can sound a bit like this:

Ben: Who can tell me how Don Norman defines affordances?
…hands go up…
Ben: yes, you. Can you tell me your name?
Kim: Kim.
Ben: Thank you, Kim. How does Norman define affordances?
Kim: some generally correct answer
Ben: Great! Thanks, Kim. Now, Kim’s answer is correct but is only half of Norman’s definition. What’s the other half? Yes, you. Can you tell me your name?

In a brief back and forth, I’ve said Kim’s name four times.

You also need to give the person you’re speaking to a level of almost-too-much undivided attention as you’re speaking with them. As they’re talking you’re noticing their distinguishing features, who they’re sitting next to, and so on. The name, the interaction and the attention you give the person lets you build enough associations that you have more than one way to match name to face. The next time you see Kim, you have more than one way to get back to “Kim”. When I’m trying to remember someone’s name, my thought process goes like this:

That is the person who gave the first half of the answer about affordances and they were sitting next to that guy with the good hair last week and that person is…Kim!

The point is to create a story about each person. The real answer is there’s no trick. It’s practice and effort. You need to practice the back and forth enough to make it seem natural.

There’s also a large amount of being unafraid of asking people their name again. When you need to do that, you say, “I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten your name. Can you remind me?” You need to be even more unafraid of getting someone’s name wrong at least once. When that happens, you say, “oh, I’m so sorry. Can you please tell me your name?” And then you work really hard to never forget that person’s name ever again.

In yesterday’s workshop, I picked up about half of the names as people came in to the room. As each subsequent person came in, I went back over the names of everyone else I had just met. I had a colleague with me and so I also made a point of introducing him to each new person, which gave me more opportunities to use people’s names. Because I’d seen the invitation list, which had people’s job titles, I could ask them for that piece of information and use that to create a story about them even before they sat down:

that’s Xavier who is a master plumber and he’s talking with Tom who is an art dealer.

Then, because I’d pre-assigned groups for the workshop activities, and I had some recollection of who was in which group, I had even more information to use to remember, or deduce, people’s names. For example, if I knew that this group was Andrew, Bob, Clare, David and Edward and I could put faces to Andrew, Bob, Clare and Edward then I could be pretty sure that the last person was David.

And that’s how I remember names.

Moving past design as a service

Julie Zhou’s post looking back on what she learned in 2016 was widely shared in my social media designery bubble. I thought this was a good insight:

you will always be treated as a service if you assume your role is to wait around for others to come to you with some specific problem to solve. The path to getting out of being a service is to have an opinion about which problems are worth solving and convincing other people of that.

This was good too:

Being a designer is like having a superpower that allows you to show other people the future.

With great power comes great responsibility, of course.


Scientific concepts you should know about

Every year asks a bunch of smart people a question. This year they asked “what scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?”. This year there were 206 responses; these are my favourites.

The Premortem, suggested by Richard Thaler

Assume we are at some time in the future when the plan has been implemented, and the outcome was a disaster. Write a brief history of that disaster.

Affordances, suggested by Daniel Dennett

The concept of Affordances was developed by JJ Gibson in the 1970s and popularised in design by Donald Norman in the late 80s. Dennett says:

The basic idea is that the perceptual systems of any organism are designed to “pick up” the information that is relevant to its survival and ignore the rest. The relevant information is about opportunities  “afforded” by the furnishings of the world: holes afford hiding in, cups afford drinking out of, trees afford climbing (if you’re a child or a monkey or a bear, but not a lion or a rabbit), and so forth.

But Dennet goes further, suggesting that the concept of Affordances helps us try to figure out what consciousness is. I’m still thinking about this one.

The Law of Small Numbers, suggested by Adam Alter

Alter tells a good story about what happens when you try to think about outcomes based on limited information.

The solution is to pay attention not just to the pattern of data, but also to how much data you have. Small samples aren’t just limited in value; they can be counterproductive because the stories they tell are often misleading.

Case-Based Reasoning, suggested by Roger Schank

Reminding, based on the examination of a internal library of cases, is what enables learning and is the basis of intelligence. In order to get reminded of relevant prior cases, we create those cases subconsciously by thinking about them and telling someone about them. Then, again subconsciously, we label the previously experienced cases in some way.

The task for the motivated reader is obviously to find a way to have a single coherent concept that encompasses both cased-based reasoning and the need for a lot of data presupposed by the law of small numbers.

Embodied Thinking, suggested by Barbara Tversky

We are bodies moving in space. You approach a circle of friends, the circle widens to embrace you. I smile or wince and you feel my joy or my pain, perhaps smiling or wincing with me. Our most noble aspirations and emotions, and our most base, crave embodiment, actions of bodies in space, close or distant.

Decentering, suggested by Gary Klein

Decentering is not about empathy—intuiting how others might be feeling. Rather, it is about intuiting what others are thinking. It is about imagining what is going through another person’s mind. It is about getting inside someone else’s head.

Class Breaks, suggested by Bruce Schneier

Something about Class Breaks seems relevant to both case-based reasoning and the law of small numbers. But I haven’t figured it out yet.

Picking a mechanical door lock requires both skill and time. Each lock is a new job, and success at one lock doesn’t guarantee success with another of the same design. Electronic door locks, like the ones you now find in hotel rooms, have different vulnerabilities. An attacker can find a flaw in the design that allows him to create a key card that opens every door. If he publishes his attack software, not just the attacker, but anyone can now open every lock. And if those locks are connected to the Internet, attackers could potentially open door locks remotely—they could open every door lock remotely at the same time. That’s a class break.


My pick is “epistemology”, which tends to get defined as “theory of knowledge”. But I would tend to use it more to think about what counts as knowlege. For example, if your epistemology favours lots of data you probably wouldn’t be persuaded by an example based on case-based reasoning.

You should be reading-it-later on your Kindle

Do you use a read-it-later service like Instapaper or Pocket? Do you have a Kindle? You should dig into how to set up an automated push of saved articles to your Kindle.

Instapaper has native support for sending articles to a Kindle. Here’s two good articles on how to set up Instapaper to push new saved articles to your Kindle periodically.

If you use Pocket you have a a variety of choices. P2K seems to be a good option.