Why soluble problems?

The excitement in life is finding the next interesting problem.

The world is full of problems, ranging from how to stay alive, to whether I want to buy that shirt, to which way up does this piece go.

As human beings, we are excited by problems. We prioritise them by emotion (equivalent to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) but once the urgent physical requirements are dealt with, we then seek out problems to give our life meaning by solving them.

The type of problem we seek out depends on what satisfies our personality. Some problems last longer than others. Some problems require different skills (organising a trip to a sports game versus playing a Haydn concerto). But it is meeting with those problems that we are fully engaged with life, and the art of life is finding the next interesting problem.

Some problems have clear solutions. Some problems don’t have clear solutions but we know that solutions exist (how do I earn some money). Some problems may or may not have solutions. My interest in life is working out what approaches may help transform a problem into a soluble problem. Often this consists of working out what the problem that you are trying to solve is.

People are very tempted to deal with problems is to apply a solution that they know how to carry out, whether or not it is appropriate to that problem. The more difficult and emotion-laden the problem, the more tempting to apply a pre-existing solution rather than look at the problem itself.

The first step in solving a problem is to admit it is there in the first place.

The second step is defining it.

The third step is considering whether there is any part of the problem that has a solution.

If there is, you have achieved the great happiness of having a soluble problem.

The next step if finding out if you have the tools to solve it.

McKnight pinciples (1948) – or why it is important to think

 “As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way.

“Mistakes will be made. But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they must do their jobs.

“Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.”

Bored bored bored bored

The more astute among my gentle readers will have spotted that I have not written much about the company for which I purport to work lately.

There are two reasons for this. One is that it hasn’t been very interesting. Life has carried on, with the dreaded rain of brown envelopes, asking for the normal collections for birth and marriage (though not death). There has been canoeing down the Wye for charity and people’s children running marathons for other people’s children who have (take your pick) need of a mouth-operated wheelchair, a cancer ward, or a memorial charity for drug rehabilitation.

I could discuss the difficulty of making people redundant and the effect it has on company morale, or perhaps whether the privatisation of the NHS is going to bring us in as much money as we hope. But the second reason that I haven’t written about the company is because currently I am totally and utterly bored by it. Everyone is working very hard, and their little foibles are more concealed than usual. It is intriguing to see who is browsing which websites on the run-up to Christmas: is it amazon or ebay? Hunting for a job or trying to move house?

I myself am spending more time researching the latest discussions on the benefits of U/X thinking than is required for working through the tests I have devised for the latest products.

I don’t know whether it is the time of year, the shortage of daylight hours, or just an overwhelming weariness with the futility of life and the avarice and laziness of a vast proportion of the populace.
Perhaps it will improve when the child has its wheelchair, and a few more teenage souls are reclaimed for hard-working family values.

Come cheer me. remind me that applied cognitive psychology is not merely about making it easier for people to do what you would like them to do, but can also be used to, somehow, encourage people in those seasonal pastimes of good will towards mankind.

Net promoter score (NPS) – or how do you think about customers.

First of all, I’ll start with the credits: The Net Promoter Score, or NPS┬« was developed by Fred Reichheld, Bain & Company, and Satmetrix in 2003. (See The One Number you Need to Grow). It assumes that all customers can be divided into three categories: Promoters, Passives, and Detractors.

It seems that the big idea was who you should concentrate your marketing on. There are your loyal recommenders, who will buy your stuff pretty much whatever, there are the people who don’t really care one way or another, and there are the people who had a bad experience with you. Given a limited budget, where should you concentrate your efforts?

You will notice some sympathy with triage. I think the human brain is naturally comfortable dividing things into three groups. Like Gaul. (For anyone who has neither read Asterix or De Bello Gallico, that is a reference to Caesar. Caesar’s title is not a reference to his summer holiday in beautiful Gaul, but to the Gaulish wars. I love faux amis, or in this case, armies.) Back to triage. This used to be the battlefield technique used to decide who to save and who to leave. The ones that you saved were the ones that you could save and who would not survive if you did nothing. How does this relate to customers?

You don’t want to spend much effort on your loyal supporters. They don’t need it. You don’t want them to resent you (see the bad publicity that accrues when people realise that new customers are getting better deals than old faithfuls) but you don’t need to woo them either.

The people who hate you hate you. There are those who bad-mouth you, which has a major effect on your business, and those who only chose you because you were the last one left in the playground. Who can you safely sacrifice and who is worth turning around?

This is where one number doesn’t cut it. Bye bye NPS. It’s a fair measure if all the bodies on your battlefield are privates, but we all know that what counts is the power that the body wields. You’re obviously better getting a loyal high-spender than a low-spender, turning round the opinion of someone who whose opinion is listened to than that of a dead end Derek. The thing is, you can never be quite sure who that is. First, you can see who in the middle section has money and is worth investing in. Secondly, you can see what the cost of attempting to fix the problems are. If it’s going to cost more to fix than you’re going to gain in sales or spend in support, then consider leaving the problem as a straightforward problem. People do it all the time. Look at the list of known bugs. Look at that well-known bug category of “won’t be fixed”. So long as it isn’t a deal breaker, you can ignore it.

Finally, be honest to yourself. Remember that everyone likes to think that they’re important. If you can convert someone, they may turn out to be your strongest supporter.

And finally, assignment of blame

I was discussing the natural progression of projects with an experienced friend. Here are the real project stages:

  1. Planning (have an idea)
  2. Estimation – always wildly optimistic
  3. Design – this stage may be done while implementing
  4. Implementation – project starts to overrun
  5. Private discussion with customer introduces a few trivial changes
  6. Design is finally written down – this stage may be omitted if time pressing
  7. Changes are discovered to double the project time and budget
  8. Project starts over-running severely
  9. Features start being cut, but are replaced by new features
  10. Project now massively over-running
  11. Features cut again
  12. Project released in beta
  13. Steady set of bug fixes
  14. Blame assigned
  15. Testing carried out – this stage can be omitted if customers desperate
  16. Innocent punished

Obviously this is different from the Design – evaluate – implement – evaluate – test – evaluate cycle that I learnt during my MSc, but I fear that even that included the two vital stages: assignment of blame and punishment of the innocent.
The easiest technique for blame assignment is, of course, to blame the absent. They are safely out of the way, and it will not harm them. Second is to blame the customer and the boss. This does not damage the team. Finally, blame may be placed on whoever appears most vulnerable to it. This has no relation to responsibility

Costing projects

I’m very aware that I should put keywords in my blog. I’m also aware that I’m not attempting to monetise my blog. Anyone who reads it regularly, leave me a comment and I will be most grateful. Anyone who doesn’t read it regularly: you’re missing out.

I was comparing the fantasy of Agile management to the joys of converting a house.

Firstly, no matter how tightly you plan your project, it won’t work. The tyres get punctures, the render doesn’t go off because it’s cold, the plaster sets too quickly because it’s warm and so on and so on. One of the illusions that computers peddle is that values are fixed and unchangeable. Over years of experience one discovers that an apple this year is not the same as an apple last year: it may be smaller, sweeter, less common and so on and so forth. In the same way, programmers get ill, libraries get updated, life turns out to be a little difficult. It’s fine if you’re building on a greenfield site, but in the real world you may not be.

So we are dealing a non-representative series of events. Estimates are based on normal – that frictionless set of billiard balls or that perfectly rational economic creature… Life is imperfect, unbalanced, frustrating, and driven by chance. People on the top want to believe that it is driven by skill. They wish to confirm that it is their qualities that have given them their privilege, and others’ failures that have denied it. When talking about becoming a premier league footballer, people are willing to admit that some people are born with more talent than others. You rarely hear the fact that given a couple of X chromosomes, you’ll never make it. One sperm over another. Your chances ruled out, just like that.

Given the innate unpredictability of life, you need a reserve fund to cover the likely overruns in time and cost and temper whenever you’re planning a project. You also need a contingency plan.
This is one of the things I find most interesting. What do you do when a project has overrun? At what point are you prepared to say “pull the plug/cut the costs”?

It is my belief that life is much simpler if you have a hard deadline, chosen in advance, such that when you go over it, the project is pulled automatically. I would be curious to see how many things would get sacrificed if you knew that at fifty per cent above the original estimate, or at twenty per cent above the original time, consequences dropped in.

When I was in a partnersip, I rekember bidding for a contract. We honestly told the buyers “It’s not possible to do y in the time, but we can do x”. We didn’t get the contract. We were correct, of course, but people want to hear that they can do y in time t. Anyone who says “No” will lose out to anyone who says “yes”. You therefore need heavy penalties for misleading on contracts.

There is less temptation to gain a contract bby being over-optimistic if you know there is an automatic penalty for getting it wrong. But how may customers prefer illusions to truth?

Project management and priorities

As detailed before, I have the hardback book (it’s green – anyone else remember the Porridge quote). It has pages and pages of lists, all neatly sorted into four sections, interspersed with scribbles, diagrams of flues, back of the list calculations and so forth.

Approximately once a day we have the discussion.

The discussion consists of:

1. What can we cross off yesterday’s/this morning’s to do list?
2. Oh, what did you do then?
3. Oh

Long pause

4. Well, I’ll add them to the list and cross them off.
5. Where are they in the list of prioritites?
6. OK, these are my priorities
7. What do we absolutely have to get done before we move in.
8. OK, we can survive without a shower.

Heated drawing up of two lists: one of things that must be done and one of things that are nice to have
We end up with three things crossing the line (insulation, decoration and chimney cowls if you must know).

9. So when you say do floor, what exactly does that involve?

Calmer and much longer list of all the components of the “things that must be done” list. During the discussion, we discover other things that must be added to said list.

What user interface design point am I demonstrating (or any other point)? I would say that it’s a technique that is a refinement of Bill Buxton’s Sketching User experience.

It is only when you have your ideas out there in some form that you can discuss them. I cannot stress this enough.

What I have in my head is non-negotiable because nobody knows about it.
What I say is somewhat negotiable, but it is often not clear what I mean.
What I sketch or model or put on paper is utterly negotiable because there is something to negotiate over.

Here is a mock-up of the stairs to the basement. It’s a starting-point.
They’re not on the priority list though.

Solidified thought and an Inkscape review

Life has been busy lately. I’ve been revising the test schedules; not my absolutely favourite thing but better than a poke in the eye with a blunt fish. After the first desperate loops round the build, build broken, build buggy cycle, we have reached the stage of catch-up that we should have been in to start with, where features are being cleaned and polished, and software updates are being released every couple of days.

Apart from work, I have bought a house, and have been using Inkscape to plan the structural changes. It’s a nice tool. I started using Autocad Architect, because I can get it free as a student, but it isn’t merely using a sledgehammer to crack a nut; it’s using a Boeing Dreamliner to commute down the road to work. Yes it’s possible, and no doubt once it’s all set up it would be quicker than walking, but the learning curve is so steep and time-absorbing that I’ll just slip my shoes on for now.

OK, why do I like Inkscape?
It’s pretty basic, but it’s a proper vector graphics program, and it has all the things that I like using, in terms of converting objects to paths, grouping, layering etc. It lays things out properly with co-ordinates, and gives you accurate measurements.

There are some things that I’m pissy about – such as the way it seems to scale things proportionately when you don’t want it to, and I look forward to discovering about using 3-D stuff.

You can import bitmaps, and export bitmaps, so I’ve done some beautiful scale drawings of walls and windows so I can do accurate sketches of the planned mural.

All right, I admit it. The whole Inkscape exercise was a procrastination. It enabled me to spend a whole evening doing scale drawings. Possibly even two, and I haven’t done a single sketch on them. I have, however, borrowed a nice large book of tree photographs from the library. Get me!

Naming names at the Cheltenham Science Festival

I didn’t get the grant to attend the Cheltenham Science Festival (though I was runner-up, thanks UCL). As a result, everything I currently write is entirely unbiased and paid for by myself.

I attended several events today:
1. The Web and Us
2. Conversation without Words
3. Stand-up maths
It should have been four events, because there was a follow-up to Conversation Without Words of a tango lesson (as an exemplar of conversation without words) but we were fortunate enough to find a buyer for a tickets.
Right, report back. My name is now on this blog, so I have to be willing to stand by what I say.
The Science of the Web didn’t say much that I didn’t know, but it reframed my knowledge. This is never a bad thing. My quote of the week (and possibly the month) was provided by Aleks Krotoski quoting Melvin’s Kranzberg’s first law of technology “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”.This was in response to a question of mine (self-aggrandisement is not good, nor is it bad, nor is it neutral) about the fact that the web was designed and created by a specific sub-section of the human population and how does the virtual society it supports mirror that social group. The panel for this discussion (the aforementioned Aleks, Uta Frith, Nigel Shadbolt, Bill Thompson and facilitated by Wendy Hall) was extremely (a) intelligent and (b) optimistic. Having read “The Social Life of Information” I’m not sure that I’m as optimistic as they were. I would like to name-check Bonnie Nardi, but I have a horrible feeling that many of my concerns are based on family experience, and after listening to Aleks Krotoski talking about the identifiable behaviours of your online anonymous persona, I don’t want to admit to anything. Any where.
The sceond talk I went to was on conversation without words. This talk embarrassed me so much that I emailed one of the headlined participants with my criticisms. It was so bad that I’m not even going to say who that was – you can look it up if you really want to know.
The final session of the night was Matt Parker’s Stand-Up Maths. I’ve seen him before, and he was just as entertaining this time as he was the previous times (which for sad, geeky people like me, quite a lot). My only regret is that I’m not quite sure if I learnt anything from the experience, and let’s face it, people like me only fully value experience if they can come back and wow you with what they’ve learnt. anyway, it’s late, and having not gone to Botany of Gin lecture, I have been doing my best to make up the shortfall here. I think that I now need to turn my main (and tastebuds) to Bombay sapphire and leave the blog for another day.

The value of big data versus confirmaton bias

The first thing is a massive Yaaayyyy! And possibly Hurrah, hurray, hurrah. We have released. Doctor’s surgeries all across the land are getting their beautifully designed boxes, or their download invitations, and installing OUR software on their systems. Ian and Mr Grumpy are busy de-bugging as fast as they can, ready to release an update straight away, but marketing and sales are hap hap happy. Gavin and David are cheerful for the first time in weeks.

Obviously one of the things that sells the software is the way you can analyse your data. So you can see hours of work and rotas in pretty little patterns. In theory it will even calculate the nurses and doctors rotas for you. You can connect it to your appointments system and see who works hardest and spends the most of prescriptions and so on and so forth et cetera et cetera et cetera. GandD’s cunning plan is to allow people to register their data (anonymously) and see how it compares with other people’s data

The question is then what do you do with the data. As I’ve mentioned earlier, quite frequently, there are people who change their mind because of information, and people who don’t. This may be for two reasons. One is that well-known problem (or achievement) of human psychology; that we prefer information that backs up the position that we hold. We look for facts that support our viewpoint, rather than facts that will disprove it. This is why the null hypothesis is such a fabulous idea and is more common in myth than in reality.

The other problem is that the data may be useless. Firstly, it may be data rather than information. Information is data which has been judged, and it takes a human to judge (or, of course, an omniscient deity). Given humanity’s penchant for partial information and prejudice, we would often prefer to pass our judgement elsewhere. Secondly, it may be useless if one can take no action based upon it. What is the use of information that cannot be used?

So maybe, it’s best to hide data. Leave it in its data buckets in the garage, unmined and ignored. After all, all that unused data will only clutter up the minds and computers of the people who have to look at it. It will distract them from the decisions that they wish to take.

Perhaps I should introduce the concept of small data. Instead of “just-in-time” information, “just enough” information. Let the rest of it sit around if people want to go fossicking through it because they have an idea, but otherwise, don’t encourage them to mess about with it. Concentrate on the things they want to do, such as where to go for lunch and how many times you can read the same detective story with a different title.