Data, capta and astonishment

I’m starting today with a digression about data and a slightly mind-boggling quote.
The quote is from an article by Richard L. Lanigan, “Capta versus data: Method and evidence in
communicology”, Human Studies 17: 109-130, 1994. (If nothing else, doing an MSc teaches you to cite, cite, and cite again.)

“Like most other human practices, research is largely a symbolic activity
in which “evidence” is mediated by converting experience (“observation”)
into consciousness (“measurement”) and calling it “humanistic” or
“naturalistic.” Postmodernity has come to favor this methodology and
names the evidence thus produced as capta (quod erat inveniendum; which
was to be found out). Capta is that which is taken as evidence; it is the
methodology of discovery (Lanigan, 1992:215).”

OK. Have you recovered? Basically, I can summarise his position as data only has meaning once it has been organised, whereupon we call it capta (not a term that has made much headway in the world, as far as I know). Organised data, plus significance, equals knowledge.

So,  a string of numbers is data. An organised string of numbers can identify your bank account.

Letters can be organised into random arrangements, into words, into sentences, into this blog. But they only have meaning if you have the knowledge, the mass of education and culture and abilities and humanity to read them. And they only have value to you if they stimulate some response. Interest, amusement, anger, whatever…

It is your emotional response that matters here. Boop boop a doop
Why did the turkey cross the road? It was the chicken’s day off….
Arise, ye starvelings from your slumber, arise….
My country, tis of thee

And so on and so on and so on. Maybe each one of those organised clumps of data triggered some sort of response in you. And from our shared culture, I might have a pretty good idea about what they might be. Perhaps I’m even toying with you, setting up one expectation to enjoy watching it crash and burn.

And I can hear quote my favourite user experience recommendation (wherever I roam, I get back to UX eventually) by Harold Thimbleby “the principle of least astonishment”.

In normal life, we love being astounded, amazed and delighted. It’s rare that this is a good scheme in user interface design. Much like the rubber chocolate biscuit or the exploding cigar, an user interface that thwarts our expectations makes us feel that the world is a little less to be trusted, that our understanding of how it works is not as reliable as we wished.

I’m not going to say anything more about it.

It’s been a long week

First of all, have I name checked Dekker’s Just Culture book in this blog? “Just”, in this case, doesn’t mean merely culture, or only culture, but a cultural environment that is fair, based on justice. My mind has gone off at a tangent here – it’s Friday and I no longer have to pretend that I am a serious person. I merely cross-referenced to Robert Hughes “The Culture of Complaint” and then to C.P. Snow’s two cultures and then culture vultures and then the culture of herbaceous borders and so it goes on.

Culture appears very much of a buzzword at the moment. There’s a little bit that we covered in the MSc about it, about designing for different cultures, which covered how university websites present different aspects in Greece, China and the US, depending on what is seen as important to students and/or their parents.

That in itself is an amazing question. Is it the student or the parent who chooses the university? Behind that lie a whole set of assumptions and values that are tagged with the word “culture”. Then there is the idea of someone being “cultured” which has a faintly superior air to it. we don’t talk about people being cultured if they talk about Jay-Zee and the chip shop, but if it’s Liszt and Chez Panisse, then that is cultured. But it isn’t culture as in cultured pearls – though in both senses there is an implication of it being created rather than emerging naturally.

Our culture can be summarised as the totality of the external experience which we have internalised and trigger our emotions and inform our values. Some of it will be common – for example, western music conventions are widely recognised across the world, and some will be more particular to our own experience (such as breakfast choice).

When you create an interface, it is informed by your culture. What matters is whether understanding it requires an understanding of the culture or merely of the interface. A famous example of this, is the different meaning of a red light, which can mean a live socket or a problem (or an invitation, or a veto). Just because you know what you mean by it doesn’t mean the user will. But luckily, most of the time they don’t have to.

Oh, and the Dekker book? That basically says, that if you get punished for making for mistakes or discovering errors, you’re going to hide the fact you make them, and this will lead to some very big problems

Gossip, gossip, gossip

Yes, there has been a major excitement at work, and every office is buzzing. Nick has shaved off his beard. It took a little while to percolate, but once people realised, there was a continual stream of people coming to check this, that and the other, and make sure to get a good look at the previously-concealed jawline. Needless to say, it was Jeanette who stepped right out there and asked why he’d done it. And lo and behold, our unremarkable coder has managed to bag himself a starring role in his local village production of The Wizard of Oz.

He explained that some years ago someone had heard him sing, and suggested that he would be an asset. So he had joined the chorus, and stood in the back row whenever possible. Being painfully shy, he had never admitted to anyone he was there, but apparently there is photographic evidence that he dressed as a cowboy in Oklahoma. This year, flu and children and university had struck at the available menfolk. He had boldly stepped into the breach and auditioned. (I would have paid good money – or money with no moral qualities whatsoever – to have seen that) and either due to his assets or the company’s liabilities, he had been given the role of the Tin Man. This is a part that demands a certain absence in the facial hair department, so he had ventured into the local Boots and bought one of those cut your own hair devices to remove all the long hair, and a razor with seventeen blades at different angles (I may be exaggerating slightly for effect here) to create the required metallic smoothness.

I think that it probably, all in all, lost the company half a day’s work as the news was passed from room to room and cubicle to cubicle. Dates were put in diaries for people to go and see the show.

Even better than that, of course, was what the company gained. Enthusiasm, interest, and a better understanding of developers. They were cheered by people coming in to see them. They were happy that people wanted to know what they did. Even better, the people who dropped by to see the amazing, never-before-displayed chin also dropped by to see what was going to be happening and signed up on the “I’m willing to test” sheet.

I think that the person who made a comment about whether Nick really was “a friend of Dorothy” was being a little unfair. After all, a liking for musicals is perfectly possible to combine with a liking of lego. It’s just a little unusual.

Anyway, I’m definitely going to be buying my ticket for the team night-out to watch him saunter down the yellow brick road, singing “If I only had a heart”. I’ll even offer to give other people lifts.

Sorry, I seem rather to have omitted any user interface information at all, but this is seriously exciting news. I’ll be back on the Doctors V Accountants front real soon now though.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

I live at the top of a steep hill. The main road up the hill has been gritted, and after the first few hours, was perfectly passable. The side roads have not. The pavements have not, and a series of adults dragging their tots and toddlers up and down the hill on toboggans have compressed them into a sheet of ice. (I need to point out, smugly, that I, of course, have taken a spade to the ice so the pavement outside my house is walkable.)

I became incensed when listening to the radio, when there was the normal interview with a Canadian, or a Swede, or someone from some other northerly environment, saying “We have X metres of snow a year and we cope, so why is Britain brought to a standstill every year”.

OK, all you UX people out here, why does it happen?

Firstly, it doesn’t happen reliably, so it is not worth investing an enormous amount in machinery that may lie idle three years out of four. Secondly, it doesn’t happen reliably, so there isn’t a culture of dealing with it co-operatively. Our local council appointed snow wardens this year, so now the bend that I got stuck on last time it froze like this has been gritted by a public-spirited chap who was willing to take the responsibility, but most people don’t understand the need to contribute. Thirdly, it doesn’t happen reliably, so people don’t know how to drive in it. Fourthly, it doesn’t happen reliably, so the road infrastructure is designed for rain, not snow.

Those are all UX problems. How do you design for something that people only deal with occasionally (possibly never)?

The other problem is also a type of UX problem. Snow in England and Wales is normally at a temperature where the weather switches between freezing and thawing, so we have to deal with ice as much as snow. Many of the solutions used in other countries rely on there being a nice consistent layer of cold snow, rather than one which melts and then freezes. Importing a solution wholesale that is a perfect fit for a different situation is not always the right way to go.

So, who sets the priorities as to whether this problem needs to be solved?

Question one.
Who bears the cost of preparing to solve this occasional problem? In this country, it’s the local councils (funded by grants from central government and the rates).
Question two.
Who gets the benefits of solving this problem? We all do, but especially businesses, because people can travel freely.
Question three.
Who educates people as to how to behave in snow? Teaching them how to drive? Well, you’re not going to put that on the test, because it won’t happen. You can’t even put motorway driving on the test because some test centres are in towns that are too far from a motorway. ||Maybe there should be a special, “Hey, it’s going to snow next week, everyone in the UK sign on for your one-day ‘how to drive in snow’ course.” Somehow, that doesn’t quite work.

Clear your pavements? Well, how to change the culture of a country so that clearing pavements becomes the norm? Do those snow wardens need to go round knocking on people’s doors saying “I see that your pavement is not in a walkable condition”. Hey, I could go for that. Lets make all pavements walkable. No parking on them. No heaps of rubbish blocking them. No enormous bins and signs and…. I’m ranting. Calm down. After all, one of the fabulous and wonderful things about snow is that people get out of their cars and walk. They greet each other and smile and walk in the road because the pavements are slippery but the roads have been gritted. They co-operate.

Maybe it’s worth having a day like that, just occasionally, where people are forced to drop out of normal life. Maybe UX designers should consider, just occasionally, putting a glitch in the UX that says “This isn’t working today, why not go and enjoy yourself instead, talk to someone who you don’t usually say hello to, bake bread, spend time with your children, see if you can stop the leak round the windows.”

Oh, they exist. It’s called a bug (or possibly a feature). And everyone gets very cross when they find them. Next time you meet a bug, email the guys so they know about it (otherwise it won’t get fixed) and enjoy your brief minute of snow day.

And I’ve just looked out the window and seen someone taken their cello down hill on a sledge. How lovely is that? Happy snow day, everyone.

The joys of communicating the wrong idea

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I got an interface totally wrong. Let’s say that there was a complicated VAT procedure that surgeries only needed to use if they had a pharmacy attached that sold old-style bottles of kaolin and the moon was pink. So it’s not done very often, and you need to know about adding the kaolin and the moon to the references.

I looked at the dialogs and went, why do you have pharmacy on this page and clay on that page and gibbous on that page? It’s just totally ridiculous. And I hacked up a new version of the dialog and scrawled red bits all over it and said it would make much more sense if it was like THIS!
And because I am the user interface designer and everyone thinks I’m lovely, they re-designed the interfaces to match what I thought it would be.
I’m going to digress for a bit (partly because I adore digressions). The most important thing you can do with any idea is record it. Keep a sketchbook handy, or an ipad or whatever you find a quick and easy method. Your phone will do. I like paper best because you never need to switch it on, the response time is minimal, and you have the best haptics. Yes, I could go on for quite some time about the tactile experience of pencil meeting paper. It’s also utterly flexible, you can sketch, write, explore. And then take photos of it to record it electronically. And when you’re recording a visual idea, record it visually. The big problem I find with people commenting on designs is that they write out their comments in an email, without pictures, and it is not obvious what they mean. When they say, put the checkbox together with the associated field, there is no clarity as to how you put them together, where they’re laid out and so on. Sketch it in front of them. At the low end of the scale scribble over a screen grab in Paint or draw boxes on a bit of paper. At the high end mock-up the work flow in a wire-framing tool. Just make sure that you have agreement what the idea is, before you decide whether or not it’s a good idea.
That leads me back to where I started. I’d communicated my idea on the mock-up. They’d implemented it. And the next time I worked through, I still didn’t understand it. You know why? It was the wrong idea.
I had totally misunderstood the functionality. I thought that they were developing an add-on contraceptive planner requiring the use of the moon and kaolin that was VAT-free, rather than a VAT calculator for kaolin sold during a gibbous moon. So obviously I’d put the wrong bits together in the wrong order.
And I’d made things much worse. 
So today’s top tip is remember the difference between efficiency, effectiveness, and efficacy. Sometimes you can go through all the right steps, exhibiting enormous skill, but you’re still going in the wrong direction.

Ethics and personal responsibility

Sir Peter Rubin, head of the GMC (General Medical Council), was invited to give evidence to the parliamentary commission on banking practices about the requirements of a regulatory body.

He pointed out that the GMC had considerable control over medical education, and therefore doctors educated in Britain had been required to learn a standard of ethical behaviour. He also pointed out that doctors bear personal responsibility for their actions, whereas bankers do not. (Parliament TV of the evidence).

My education has included little practical ethics (a philosophy module at York covered Kant’s categorical imperative, which offers useful advice about behaviour about speaking truthfully to men carrying axes). My MSc discussed organisational behaviour, risk management and research ethics. In the module on ergonomics, we were told that bad design can cause accidents, and told that in future we might bear personal responsibility for accidents that were due to poor design. For example, is the person who decided on the position of the signal passed at danger at Ladbroke Grove (wikipedia details here) personally responsible for the deaths of passengers caused by the signal being difficult to see? Geoffrey Counsell organised a fireworks display near a motorway. He is being prosecuted for manslaughter, because it is possible that smoke from the display obscured visibility and caused drivers to crash. They can’t be prosecuted, because nobody really knows whether they were driving dangerously or not.

How is responsibility shared out? When something goes wrong, we look for an individual to blame. It is as if we imagine that there is a single chain of cause and effect, that we can follow, and find the original person who didn’t spot the missing horseshoe nail, or who put the shoe on badly, and then blame them for the consequences. While it’s never that simple (I’ll talk about organisational cultures another time), there’s still a question for any interface designer. Does what you do make it more likely that someone else will make a mistake, and possibly destroy their own or someone else’s life?

Another moment of fury

Back at work. This time my fury was inspired by Jack. He has been occasionally closeted with GandD over the last couple of months, and today he was demonstrating his cool new stuff.

Cool it may have been, but only in the sense of an approaching iceberg. We (in theory) have until the end of January to finish and test the latest release. Three weeks, loads of time isn’t it? That could be my new nickname for Jack “Loadsatime”.

For reasons best known to himself and GandD, they didn’t want, well, anyone with experience of users, such as myself, training or support, to comment (or even know about) the new features until they were properly implemented. So this was the gleaming remove the drapery moment; cut the red ribbon and reveal the glorious finished product.

Except, is there a way of putting this tactfully? Except there is no point in asking for feedback on a finished product unless the only feedback you want is “Isn’t it mahvellous dahling”.

What is that there for? Oh, I thought it might be a good idea. Do users need it? I don’t know. Is that very important bit that users might actually want to use easy to find? Well, it’s obviously really easy, you just open this dialog and find that button and then set this option…. You can imagine the rest. And, given the fact that there is three weeks left, they aren’t going to change anything at this stage, are they?

Admittedly, he did have three cast-iron and valid excuses
1. Gavin wanted it like that
2. David wanted it like that
3. It would have taken months to implement in a sensible way.

Well, maybe excuse no. 3 isn’t that valid, because it hinges on that big elephant in the sitting room, well, not merely an elephant in the sitting-room, there’s a volcano in the bathtub, a hyena in the kitchen, and fourteen zombies locked into the attic bedroom.

And they’re all asking the big question?
How are priorities set?

Loadsatime Jack can’t set them, because he does what GandD ask him to do. They have a difficult call to make.

First, they have limited development resource.
Second, they need to use it in a way that brings in returns

Some things, such as re-writing the whole thing from scratch, just ain’t going to happen. Not unless we get a massive injection of cash from some venture capitalists. And GandD wouldn’t sell their company unless it was sinking.

How can I persuade them that a project that is easier to use may be more worth having than one with more features?
How can I demand that a lot of that limited development resource is spent on making existing stuff better, rather than adding new stuff. At the moment I can’t think.
But perhaps I could persuade them that involving the idea of the user earlier in the process would be a good plan. Before they decide which features go in, even. At the moment though, I think I’ll just go out for a long walk and avoid the undead for tonight.

Hawthorne and placebo and real benefit

The Hawthorne effect (here’s the wikipedia link: describes how any intervention has a positive effect. By paying people attention, you change their behaviour. Were I a Deepak Chopra or a dancing Wu Li master, I would probably relate that to the idea of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle or Schrodinger’s cat because everybody thinks they know what those mean and they sound as if you’re wise because there’s deep maths in there somewhere.

Instead, I’m going to relate it to the placebo effect. This is much more straightforward, and is obviously used in medical trials. People are given a placebo treatment, which resembles the active treatment with the active ingredient removed, and the effects of the placebo and the active treatment are compared. In a double-blind trial, neither the experimenter nor the subject knows who has received the placebo and who has received the active treatment.

The reason this is important is because people want to believe that interventions work. One of the subjects I studied at UCL was affective interaction: how humans, computers and other devices affect each other emotionally. One of the theories expressed was the idea that humans are attempting to achieve homeostasis. You have an input of one sort or another, and you change your behaviour to achieve stability. One of the ways you do that is to tell yourself a story in which things have meaning and value. And one of the ways that things achieve meaning and value is how they fit into a culture. Tall people (on average) earn more money than shorter people. Good-looking people are more likely to get jobs, etc., than ugly people. We live in a world of admiration of beauty, where beauty is equated to goodness.

If someone tells us they are doing something to help us, we want to believe them (unless we are cussed and cynical creatures).

The vast number of self-help books, business-help books and teach-yourself books are sold to us by people who have persuaded us that they can help. We want to believe them. We listen to their advice. And the more we pay for it, the more highly we value it (just as the more we pay for wine or pain-killers, the better we think they are).

So if we are told that someone is coming in to tell us how to redesign a control room, and that person is being paid $5000 a day, then we react to it. And when the control room is redesigned, we react to that. But until the change is seen in practice, over time, we don’t know if we are reacting to what we think is a valuable intervention, or to an intervention because it’s a change and we have been paid intention to, or because it has actually improved things.

With any luck, that highly-paid consultant has listened and observed the people doing the work, and added their insights and experiences to the redesign. So when they complain that they knew this all along, and they could have told management how to do things better, they will have done so. And management will have listened because this time it comes with a high price tag that conveys its worth,

Preparing to return to work

It has been a long break for me, and I have mixed feelings about what awaits me on my return to work. Most of the other staff also took the week off between Christmas and New Year (though Jiri did not). I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I always feel that I should invite Jiri round for Christmas lunch and never do. He is probably perfectly happy on his own.

There is the standard stuff that always appears when you have had a break. The stack of problems that people discover because they’re not really working but are exploring the software to have something to do. The new features that Gavin has invented while going on a long walk after an all-night party. The new contacts that David has made while playing golf on Boxing Day, and their suggestions for what is needed to penetrate new markets. The stale issues that people couldn’t deal with just before Christmas so they put on the pile to be dealt with after Christmas when they would feel more inspired and less jaded.

All the tinsel that draped the stairs and monitors has been put away. Jiri is very happy because he managed to get an enormous amount done while the office was empty. The cleaners haven’t been in over the new year so his desk is festooned with crumbs and empty packets of Czech festive items. Jack isn’t back yet – he’s gone ski-ing with his girlfriend. Mr Grumpy is in, and he is delighted to be back at work. For someone who complains so much, he seems to enjoy life far more than most of the people I know.

I promised that I would provide a systems analysis of the company and I am just considering how to do it. Like most small companies, it consists of a series of departments, each run by a manager. Departments contain some specialised staff and some people who have ended up there and learnt on the job. In a good company, the departments will be work-shaped. That is, a department has a function to perform and its staff and systems enable it to carry out the function within the department. That’s easy if it’s a closed function, but speaking from experience, every function will require (at the very least) information from the rest of the company.

For example, marketing has a big marketing push to carry out in the new year – get customers before the end of the tax year in April, when they’re likely to have some extra budget to spend. Marketing need to know all the stuff about customers patterns of purchase (which is their own skill) and they need to feed that back into the company. They also need to know what the company is producing that they can sell in the new year. How do they do that? Do they get the over-optimistic views of GandD, or do they get the more realistic views of Ian? Do they have to come and chase and check whether what they have been told is true, or will the right information be passed on at the regular meetings? Have they got the experience to discount GandD’s over-optimism, and if so, how do they know which bits to discount? This is not something that can be codified, because the (say) 30% of stuff to discount will change each time? This is skill, but to be able to learn the skill, you have to know what goes in and what goes out. You have to know at what point the product starts to stabilise and you have real information to deal with. And from that, you have to find out what customers want and feed that back into development.

So marketing has several roles:
1. To sell stuff to customers (this is how it’s seen within the company, anyway)
2. To understand what the company produces and when it will be ready
2. To understand what customers need and when they buy it (that’s their own skill that enables them to do their job)
3. To tell the company what customers need and when they buy it
4. To create a trustworthy competent public image for the company

Now Jeanette is fabulous at selling. She’s pretty good at knowing what the company produces and how much of GandD to ignore. And when to ask them what is actually happening. And when to tell them stuff is a waste of time. But I’m not sure how much all of her knowledge about customers – why they buy, and even more importantly, why they don’t buy, filters back into the company. Should it? Can Jeanette’s sense of what people want be as important as what David picks up on the golf course?