I was a kid once. And, like most boys brought up in the 1950’s, few things held as much pleasure as destroying things!
When winter came to Ohio, sledding was fun. Don’t get me wrong. Especially, when we took the time to go to sled down the Derby Downs track or the toboggan run behind. But a snowball fight? Especially one where you really nailed someone? That was great.
Making a snowman? That felt cool. To use free snow to make a sculpture! And, it was fun to “shape it” and make it resemble a human. But tackling it at full tilt and thus smashing it down? That was great.
Spring flooding led to overflowing gutters which led to wading in the water and deeper is better! I didn’t exactly want to have the water spill over the black rubber and pour down to soak my shoes, socks, and pant legs. No. On the other hand, I would enjoy being able to brag about it to my buddies. “I was on Elm Street & the water was deeper than my boots!” On the other hand, I wouldn’t really enjoy my mom yelling at me for it. But it wasn’t as meaningful as having bragging rights with my buddies.
For many years, I’ve thought it absurd that I lived in the supposed “Temperate Zone.” We had cold, snowy winters, flooding in the spring, thunderstorms and tornados in the summer as well as hazy hot days of summer. And, no school. So — plenty of time to get in trouble. Just to take one example, we loved to break glass. If we found an empty coke bottle or jam jar, we would put it on the ground or better, a large rock or tree stump. Then, we’d typically take turns trying to destroy the glass with a well aimed throw. We did take turns. I mean, after all, we were civilized.
Autumn leaves brought raking and piles, but more importantly, the opportunity to jump into them. (And, to some extend destroy them). And, by the way, I thought my dad was a real killjoy when, after spending an hour raking leaves, he would yell at me not to wreck it up. I thought, “What’s the point of raking up the leaves into a pile except to jump in it!?”
Even to this day, there is a part of me that would positively relish taking a sledge hammer to an abandoned house or a junked car. Or, maybe even my own car! As an adult, however, I realize that actions have consequences. And, that ideas about what to do have alternatives.
If I smashed my car, I wouldn’t be able to use it afterwards. Also, there’s a chance of really injuring myself by embedding a shard of glass or metal or hard plastic in my thigh of eye. If it’s someone else’s car, there’s the added likely consequence of criminal penalties. Besides that, penalties aside, there is karma. Most likely the person whose car is destroyed will be stressed, angry, and possibly even violent. Violence begets violence. I would have sent a wave of negativity into the community. Even if I never got “caught,” I would be contributing to a world worse that the one I was born into. Is it worth a momentary pleasure?
I can get much the same kind of “pleasure of destruction” from hitting a tennis ball hard and winning points, but at this point, it isn’t only superior power as a source of winning a point that I like. I can also experience pleasure through outthinking my opponent; by using feints; by concentrating better; by having a better plan. It feeds into the same pleasure center but it doesn’t destroy things in the process. No shards of glass.
There is only one thing worse than being a destructive little kid. That is being an adult who wants to destroy things that they don’t understand and they can’t replace with something better. Those are not actually adults. They are children in adult bodies. They should never be in a position of power. Not in politics. Not in business.
It’s natural to feel some destructive impulse, at least, if history or personal experience is any guide. It’s also natural to want to relieve yourself. But if you’re an adult, you don’t simply pee your pants because you can’t be bothered to hit the head.
Destroying American democracy because you’re too lazy to win votes, understand problems with all their complexity and try to find potential solutions, build consensus, collaborate and cooperate to improve our country — that’s a lot worse than are smashing glass, wrecking up a pile of leaves, and peeing your pants. If the very best pleasure you have is blowing stuff up, okay — get a job in demolition — not in a Constitutional Democracy.
I’ve been playing a sort of “ball chase” + soccer with our new puppy, Sadie. She’s extremely good at it, IMHO. She instinctively chases a ball & brings it back. I’ve reinforced it but it would be a stretch to say “I trained her to do that.” I sort of expect most dogs to view this as a game not completely unlike chasing a bird or rabbit & bringing it back.
The more interesting part came when I combined it with soccer. She learned (?) to judge carom shots off the baseboard and half closed doors. She tries to stop a ball before it hits the wall but judges that if she can’t stop it directly, she can stop the rebound. That she even tries to stop it is interesting. That also seemed “natural.” I probably reinforced her differentially, but again, it would be giving me far too much credit to say I trained her to “defend” against having the ball go past her.
I begin a few weeks ago to play with two balls at once. This makes it more challenging for me not to break my neck as well as Sadie. What I find interesting is that she immediately tries to hoard or herd; i.e., control, both balls. She has tried picking up two in her mouth at once, but she can’t manage it. So, she holds one ball in her mouth and “corrals” the other between her front paws. When she gets bored, she relents and lets me throw or roll or kick the balls.
I now sometimes use three balls at once. (I’ll let you know which hospital for flowers). Actually, I’m careful, but Sadie is sudden in her movements. Anyway, once I put a ball “in play”, I usually control or kick it with my foot. Sadie imitates (!?) me in this. She “controls” a ball by putting one of her front paws on it and she also pushes the ball with her paw, though she did try “nosing it” once but I think she found it uncomfortable since she shook her head and reverted to using her front paws.
On some occasions, I “grab” a ball with the bottom of my foot and move it slowly back and forth and feign kicking one way and then kick another way which routinely makes Sadie growl as she scampers after the ball. There’s something else. The slow movement followed by quick movement energizers her more in her quest for the ball than if I simply & directly hit it.
These types of patterns are found in human sports around the globe. Did they co-evolve with dog play? I’ve seen videos of many species of mammal playing “soccer.” From the video alone though, I have no idea how spontaneous the play is. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s pretty spontaneous.
Soccer, American Football, hockey, rugby, field hockey, and basketball share this notion of trying to “make a goal” by getting past the defenders. In every one of these games, there is also the notion of “fake” or “feint.” It feels as though Sadie and I, if not reading from the same script exactly, both of us have the same “playbook” of things that are fun in sports.
On a not completely unrelated topic, I am wondering whether any other new dog “owners” have noticed that their own sense of smell has been enhanced since sharing lives with a puppy. Perhaps it is not so much enhanced as that I pay more attention to it than I did a few short months ago. She goes sniffing and I go wondering for the most part, what it is she’s sniffing on about.
To some extent, it’s the same with sounds. I’m typically a pretty visual person and when I walk alone outdoors, I mainly noticed what I see. When walking with Sadie, however, she reacts to many sounds that I would ignore. I know what it is and give it a name and then reassure her that it’s okay; that trucks and cars and airplanes and helicopters are okay, at least in the distance.
Even younger brother Bruce never played Robin to Gary’s Batman.
Gary’s folks prided themselves on being highly religious. While denomination doesn’t really matter so far as Gary’s isolation goes, it does matter that they ignored the “brotherhood of humanity” aspects and focused instead on finding the teeniest excuse that would allow them to condemn others. Those who really met their extensive criteria for “goodness” could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Gary was not one of those fingers.
And the more alone he felt, the more he acted out. The more he acted out, the more his parents meted out punishment. Spankings for untoward behavior may have been a good idea; locking him in the closet, less so. Deciding that he wasn’t worthy of their love — priceless.
Unable to navigate the impossibly contradictory maze of strictures and scriptures of his parents, his church, his school and his peer group, Gary lost himself in the worlds of books. Those worlds had damsels, dragons, and doubts, and in the end, the hero triumphed.
Gary seldom felt triumph in his world. The more he saw himself as a loser, the more he warped his perception. On rare occasions when someone gave him an honest compliment, he discounted it. When kids made overtures to be his friend, he avoided the pain of an inevitable falling out by simply never showing any interest.
Gary struggled through school, and got a job working in a factory where management discouraged interactions with others. He said little but did much. Gary had a knack for diagnosing and fixing issues with the assembly line and the machines that ran it.
Gary was fired anyway.
Low on money, Gary hitchhiked to Washington State.
Alone, surrounded by a rainbow of intense alpine flowers, staring at the clear summit of Rainier, he felt — he knew he did belong. That insight hit him so hard, an observer would have thought Gary had been struck with an invisible bat. One second later, Gary realized that he had always belonged.
Materials and organisms in the natural world such as wood, rock, clouds, reeds, water, animals, and plants exhibit a degree of roughness. By contrast, mass production ideally produces items that are identical and “sharp” or “smooth” at the boundaries.
Think of the difference between a hand-thrown pot and a cup that is mass produced. Think of the difference between a cottage made of stone and a house made of prefabricated walls. Think of a path with flagstones and gravel versus a “sidewalk.”
Perhaps because our ancestors evolved in a natural world for billions of years, we sense that roughness connotes something natural. To me, the property of “roughness” evokes beauty and comfort while perfectly straight lines and rectangles makes me feel as though I am in a purposefully constructed space. Someone who builds a tower of stones or wooden blocks must be mindful of the whole. Tiny to moderate variations in size, angle and texture mean the constructor must pay careful attention. No two constructions are identical. By contrast, if you and I were to build a plastic rectangular lego tower of a specified size out of specified blocks, the results would be indistinguishable. It is much like cursive script versus printing. It is much like making a stew from scratch versus heating up a TV dinner.
An old house is prone to crumbling, leaks, misalignments, idiosyncrasies, and cracks. If we allow the house to go completely to ruin, it becomes impractical or at least quite inconvenient to live in. On the other hand, a little bit of roughness gives the abode more character. Since glass is actually a fluid, old windows begin to “flow” slightly introducing irregularities in the glass and therefore in what is seen through the glass. A new window, on the other hand, it typically “perfect” and therefore somewhat boring.
As a driveway ages, the effect of nearby life and natural forces begins to produce small cracks. These make the surface more interesting visually. It also requires someone walking to pay more attention to where they are stepping; that is, to be more in the moment. Such cracks encourage further incursions by living forms.
Flowers often exhibit beautiful symmetry. The symmetry, to me, is made more beautiful because of slight variations in the size, angle and color of the individual petals. If instead, you imagine a mathematically perfect flower in which there is zero perceptible difference in the size, angle and color of the petals, do you feel that is more beautiful? Does it make you feel more comfortable?
I don’t mind that your keyboard may be identical to mine. I use the computer as a tool. Sometimes, it is used to produce art of one sort or another. But if the art that everyone produced were as much the same as the keyboards, it would seem sterile, non-living, mechanical. A brand new chair will hopefully be evenly painted and the upholstery will be unworn. Over time, the paint will begin to chip and the upholstery will be threadbare and potentially stained in places.
We have been taught to see such things as flaws, defects, and imperfections. But are they? At some point, the “ravages of time” (or, more accurately, perhaps, the “ravages of entropy”) can make things less than ideally functional. For instance, your tires wear over time and, while they may look more interesting, worn tires are a safety hazard for you, for your passengers, and for everyone else on the road.
Similarly, if you must undergo surgery, there’s a good reason for your surgeon to use a machine-tooled scalpel with a “perfect” edge. Railroad cars and railroad tracks that were too diverse from each other might look more interesting, but they would be less safe.
In many cases, however, roughness does not negatively impact functionality. It looks better without negatively impacting functionality. A chair, baseball glove, or pair of shoes that is slightly worn still works. Perhaps it even works better.
Roughness in the body of a living things often allows local adaptation. The muscles in your body, for example, are not of a “pre-specified” and precise size. If you exercise a muscle, it will get stronger and grow larger. That allows you to adapt to your circumstances. Your skin is also capable of growing stronger in places where it needs to be. Your bones grow stronger if they are required to bear a greater load.
Roughness also exists across individuals within a species. Unlike items that come off the assembly line, items that come from life have slight variations from each other. Some seeds are smaller; some are larger; some are stickier; some are smoother. In some cases, these differences will have no impact on the viability of the seed. But sometimes they might. Life is always trying little “experiments” of small variations to see whether one might be better than another. And, by the way, that is not some minor feature of life: in many ways, that is life: the balance between repetition and variation.
It’s ironic that our minds, which sprung from this balance, often strive for imbalance. To make things “simpler” we like to over-regularize and over-specify. Sometimes, you can go a rather long ways in one particular direction if you take such a drastic step. But if you’ve miscalculated in any way, or if your data were inaccurate, or if conditions changed after your data were collected, you’ll be stuck speeding down a railroad track toward what is now obvious disaster. Trying to impose an absolute pre-specification of action for every set of circumstances is impossible. To achieve something like it, people sometimes ignore the complexities (the roughness) in real life, and throw things into a small number of buckets. Making decisions on the basis of what bucket something is in, is a lot like judging a book by its cover. Such a process takes things which are, in fact, rough and treats them as though they were mathematically perfect.
Because of the “roughness” of circumstances, many societies have found that putting in place the human judgement of many with countervailing interests often works best. In America, for instance, there are three branches of federal government. The judge conducts a trial, with different people advocating for the two sides. In many cases, a jury of twelve decides guilt or innocence.
Living systems are robust to various changes in circumstances. A conventional car engine, for instance, is designed to use gasoline or diesel. Put in the wrong fuel and you might ruin the engine. But what about a human being? You can use a tremendous number of different kinds of fuel in the form of food. Once actually working inside your body, it’s actually one of a much smaller number of types of fuels: carbohydrates, sugars, proteins, fats. This is just one of the many millions of ways that various life forms show resilience and robustness. Because life endlessly plays; because it exhibits roughness; because it is diverse; because of this, it adapts and it evolves.
Meanwhile, as we look at things, we feel intuitively that “Roughness” is conducive to life and is also one of the quintessential aspects of life.
“One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” — Robert Frost, Birches
If you have ever swung on birches, or tried to climb any other kind of tree, you know that each is shaped and branched a little differently. From the ground, it’s easy to glance at a tree and think the branches are all basically the same. They are not. And if you are a kid who actually spends a lot of time climbing trees, you pay attention to the peculiarities of specific trees and specific branches on those trees. Why? So as not to kill yourself, or worse, hear your parents say “I told you so!” after you break your arm swinging from a tree, say. But the miracle is that, although you are not immortal, you can heal your broken arm. In order for that to happen, obviously, some parts of your body have to do things differently than they have been doing. The “Roughness” of life isn’t only a visual characteristic. It’s also a characteristic of the processes of life. It’s also characteristic of a the processes of a healthy organization.
When it comes to the elements of a User Interface, in most cases, the elements are modeled after machines, not natural phenomena or living things. Is that necessary? Perhaps designs that project “Roughness” would be harder to program, harder to maintain, and may be even confusing to users? What do you think?
In physical objects, usage often creates or exacerbates “Roughness.” Could it be advantageous for this to happen with UI elements as well? Would window edges that looked “handmade” or “rough hewn” be more beautiful? More comforting? More usable? Less usable? Right now, conventional systems would make it harder to “calculate” the edges of a rough window than a conventional, straight-edged window. Must it be so? Or, could different architectures make roughness easier to calculate and require fewer resources?
Complex organizations typically have many levels of organizations. In life, there are cells which often have symmetry. The human body has large-scale bilateral symmetry (two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, two sides to the brain, etc.). If we look at our hands, we see a thumb and four fingers. Each finger, and the thumb, each have roughly bilateral symmetry. Symmetries such as these are visible.
There are also often functional symmetries in living systems as well. We breathe in. We breath out. Our nervous system has excitatory circuits and inhibitory circuits. Most complex organisms reproduce via two sexes. Many animals have cycles of sleep and wakefulness. Often birds, and other animals have migrations tied to the cycle of the seasons. Trees are able to draw water up and move water down.
The structural symmetries and the functional symmetries are often connected. When a person runs, for example, they use one leg and then the other. In fact, as your left leg goes forward, typically so does your right arm. As you move your right leg forward, you move you left arm forward. As you breathe in, your rib cage expands on both sides symmetrically. As you breathe out, your rib cage contracts on both sides symmetrically.
Human organizations often have functional symmetries as well as structural symmetries. For example, most organizations have an “onboarding process” as well as a “termination process.” Our physical artifacts often exhibit local symmetries and these are often related to our physical and behavioral symmetries. A long boat, for instance, allows for multiple rowers to row in unison. The boat and oars are symmetrical and so is the rowing of the boat.
Human artifacts of many scales may exhibit local symmetries for two reasons. First, since most natural living things exhibit local symmetries, copying that may strike us a more beautiful. In addition, if one learns the skills necessary to make the left half of a canoe, one already knows a lot about how to make the right half, provided the canoe has bilateral symmetry. The same is true of an oar, a cane, a bowl, etc. It also makes it easier for the user of the artifact.
As a user of an artifact such a chair, for example, you come to expect that the right arm rest and the left arm rest will be at the same height and be equally hard. If the arm rests are at different heights, you will, I believe, be more likely to bang your elbow when shifting position or reaching for something.
One could, no doubt, adapt fairly quickly to a chair which had two different kinds of arm rests, but imagine a keyboard for your computer in which every key was a different size and shape. Or, imagine a piano keyboard in which all the keys were at different spacings, and sizes.
Local symmetries also offer another advantage. Systems with local symmetries are easier to repair or maintain. Imagine how much more expensive it would be to maintain a piano, for example, if a repair shop had to keep 88 different sizes of keys! In a similar fashion, imagine a programmer decided it would be fun to program every pull-down menu with completely different algorithms. When the next release of the application required changes or additions, it would make understanding and modifying the code much more difficult.
Why does local symmetry, as opposed to merely, symmetry, make sense? Let’s go back to the chair example. It might make sense for a family to have three chairs for three different sized people; e.g., a papa bear chair, a mama bear chair, and a baby bear chair. Or, think of tee-shirts that come in Small, Medium, Large, and Extra Large. It makes no sense to make every tee-shirt the same size. People differ a lot in their size. But for mass manufacturing, it does make sense that the left and right sleeves match for any particular size. Similarly, it doesn’t matter that the arms on papa bear’s chair are of a different size than the arms on baby bear’s chair. It doesn’t matter if the teeth on my comb are different from the teeth on your comb. It doesn’t matter if the tires on my Saab match the tires on your Range Rover. And, generally, this is true for most artifacts, organizational structures, architectural features, and anatomical features. Local symmetry almost always has four advantages: 1) it adds to beauty. 2) it’s easier to create 3) it’s easier for the user and 4) it’s easier to maintain or repair.
Design always carries messages. Design which solves our problem or beautifies our world or resonates and echoes the properties of natural beauty carries the messages: “I care. I am a bit like you. I am making this for you and others like it. It shows the beauty that I see is a lot like the beauty (and usefulness) that you see. You are not alone. We are in this together. You and I both belong to “Team Humanity.”
In my early days at IBM Research (1970’s), we were focused on trying to develop, test, or conceive of ways that a larger proportion of people would be able to use computers. One of the major ways of thinking about this was to use natural language communication as a model. After all, it was reasoned, people were able to communicate with each other using natural language. This meant that it was possible, at least in principle. Moreover, most people had considerable practice communicating using natural language.
One popular way of looking at natural language (especially among engineers & computer scientists) was essentially an “Encoding – Decoding” model. I have something in my head that I wish to communicate to you. So, I “encode” my mental model, procedure, fact, etc. into language. I transmit that language to you. Then, you “decode” what I said into your internal language and — voila! — if all goes well, you construct something in your head that is much like what is in my head. Problem solved.
Of course, people who wrote about communication from this standpoint acknowledged that it didn’t always work. For instance, as speaker, I might do a bad job of “encoding” my knowledge. Or, I might do a good job of encoding, but the “transmission” was bad; e.g., static, gaps, noise, etc. might distort the signal. And, you might do a bad job of decoding. It’s an appealing model and helped engineers and computer scientists make advances in “communication theory” and helped make practical improvements in coding and so on.
As a general theory of how humans communicate, however, it’s vastly over-simplified. I argued that a better way of looking at human communication was as a design-interpretation process, not as an encoding-decoding process. One of the examples that pointed this out was a simple observation by Don Norman. Suppose someone comes up to you and asks, “Where is the Empire State Building?” You will normally give a quite different answer depending on whether they are in Rome, Long Island, or Manhattan. In Rome, you might say, “It’s in America.” Or, you might say, “It’s in New York City.” If you are on Long Island, you might well say, “It’s in Manhattan.” If you are already in Manhattan, you might say, “Fifth Avenue, between 33rd and 34th.”
Building on Don Norman’s original example, but based on your own experience, you can easily see that it isn’t only the geographical relationships that influence your answer. If you were originally from Boston, now on your own in Rome, struggling with Italian and homesick and someone came up to you and asked that question in American English with a Boston Accent, your response might be: “Are you joking? But how did you know I was an American. My name’s … “
On the other hand, if you’re a 13-year old boy in Manhattan — one with a mean streak — and someone asks you this question in broken English and they’re looking around like they are totally lost, you might say, “Oh, no problem. Just follow 8th Avenue, all the way north up to 133rd. It’s right there. You can’t miss it.” (Note to potential foreign visitors, most kids in Manhattan would not intentionally mislead you. But they point is, someone could. They are not engaging some automatic encoding process that takes their knowledge and translates into English. Absurd!
You design every communication. I think that’s a much more useful way to conceive of communicating. Yes, of course, there are occasions when your “design” behavior is extremely rudimentary and seems almost automatic. It isn’t though. It just seems that way. Let’s go back to our question-asking example. Suppose you work at an information booth in New York City. People ask you this question day after day, year after year. You’re seemingly giving the answer without any attention whatsoever. Suppose someone asks you the question, but with a preface. “Look here, chap! I’ve got a gun! And if you give me the same stupid answer you’ve given me every time before, I’ll shoot your bloody brains out!” You are going to modify your answer. It only seemed as though it was automatic.
When you design your answer you take into account at least these things: some knowledge that you communication about, the current context (which itself has hundreds of potentially important variables), a model of the person you’re creating this communication for, a set of goals that you are trying to achieve (e.g., get them safely to their goal, mislead them, entertain them, entertain yourself, entertain the people around you, demonstrate your expertise, practice your diction, etc.). The process is inherently creative. In many circumstances (writing, playing, exploring, discovering, partying), you can choose how creative you want to make it. In other cases, circumstances constrain you more (though likely not so much as you think they do).
Many readers think this is a classic example of a straw man argument. “No-one believes communication is a coding-decoding process.”
Well, I beg to differ. I worked for relatively well-managed companies. I’ve talked to many other people who have worked in different well-managed companies. We’ve all seen or heard requests like this: “I need a paragraph (or a slide or a foil) on speech recognition. Thanks.”
Who’s the audience? Are they scientists, investors, customers, our management? How much do they already know? What are your goals? What other things are you going to talk about with them? The people who have left me such messages were all smart people. And, providing the necessary info only took a minute or two. But it critically improved the outcome. It’s not a straw man argument.
Sit-com plots often hinge on the characters doing poorly at designing and/or interpreting communications. A show based on encoding-decoding? No. What could be funny — indeed what often is shown in comedy — are people failing to do good design and in the extreme case, that can arise by having an actual robot as a character or someone who behaves like one.
People also interpret what was said in terms of their goals, the context, what they believe about your goals and capacity, what they already know, and so on. And, even though this may seem obvious, millions of people believe what advertisers or politicians say without questioning their motives, double-checking with other sources, or even looking for internal inconsistencies in what is being touted as true. In other cases though, the same people will not believe anything the “other side” says no matter what. Just as one can do faulty design, one can also do faulty interpretation.
In any case, I decided that it would be good to “show” in a controlled laboratory setting that the Encoding-Decoding model was woefully inadequate. So, I brought in “subjects” to work in pairs at a simple task about communicating Venn diagram relationships. The “designer” had a Venn diagram in front of them. “The “interpreter” was supposed to draw a Venn diagram. The “designer” was constrained to say something true and relevant. In addition to a “base” pay, the “interpreter” subjects would be given a bonus according to how many relationships matched those of the “designer.” The designer’s bonus depended on condition. In the “cooperation” condition, their payoff would also, like the interpreter’s, be determined by the agreement in the diagrams. In the “competition” condition, the designer’s bonus depended on how different the two diagrams were.
I ran about half the number of subjects I had planned to run when the experiment was ended by corporate lawyers.
IBM had no unions at that time. And, they didn’t want any unions. One of their policies, which they believed, would help them prevent the formation of unions was that they never paid their workers for piece-work. Apparently, somehow, IBM CHQ had gotten wind of my experiment. People were being paid different amounts, based (partly) on their performance. They couldn’t have this! People might think were paying people for piece-work!
It hardly needs to said, I suppose, that IBM definitely tried to pay for performance. This was true in sales, research, development, HR, management, and so on. No-one in IBM would argue that your pay shouldn’t be related to your performance. That was exactly — in one way of describing it — was going on here. By the way, these were not IBM employees and each subject only “worked” for about an hour.
Basically, regardless of how irrelevant this experimental set-up might have been to the genuine concern of unions not to pay people in an insanely aggressive and ever-changing piece-work scheme, the lawyers were concerned that it would be somehow misrepresented to workers or in the press and used as evidence that IBM should unionize. In a way, the lawyers were proving the point of the experiment in their own real-life behavior even as they insisted the experiment be shut down.
Lessons Learned: #1 Corporate lawyers are not only concerned about what you actually do or how you represent your work; they are also worried about how someone might misrepresent your work.
Lessons Learned: #2 Even when constrained to say something true and relevant, ordinary people are quite capable of misleading someone else when it’s to their benefit and considered okay to do.
It is this second aspect of the experiment that I myself felt to be “edgy” at the time. Sure, people can mislead, but I was providing a context in which they were being encouraged to mislead. Was that ethical? Obviously, I thought it was at the time. On reflection, I still think it’s okay, but I’m glad that there are now review boards to look at “studies” and give a less biased opinion than the person who designed the study would do.
I view the overall context of doing the study as positive. As adults, these people all already knew how to mislead. I was letting them, and many other people, know that we know you know how to mislead and we’ll be on the lookout for it.
What do other people think about studies wherein the experimenter encourages one person to deceive another?
References published literature that describes some of the research that was done around that time.
Malhotra, A., Thomas, J.C. and Miller, L. (1980). Cognitive processes in design. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 12, pp. 119-140.
Carroll, J., Thomas, J.C. and Malhotra, A. (1980). Presentation and representation in design problem solving. British Journal of Psychology/,71 (1), pp. 143-155.
Carroll, J., Thomas, J.C. and Malhotra, A. (1979). A clinical-experimental analysis of design problem solving. Design Studies, 1 (2), pp. 84-92.
Thomas, J.C. (1978). A design-interpretation analysis of natural English. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 10, pp. 651-668.
Thomas, J.C. and Carroll, J. (1978). The psychological study of design. Design Studies,1 (1), pp. 5-11.
You may or may not have heard of the so-called “bystander effect.” It refers to the observation that, in some circumstances, any particular person is less likely to help someone else when there are many others who could help. It’s also of some interest that most people believe that they will make their own decision independently of what others do.
In some ways, the feeling that, after all, you are only one person, and so what you do cannot possibly impact climate change much, might be a close cousin. It’s true that if everything else in the world stays the same and you stop driving your car 10 miles to work every day and instead decide to ride your bike, it won’t have a huge impact on global climate change, but it will have some. Your actions may not save a million lives, but they could save one.
More importantly, why did your mind skip right by that premise I snuck in there? “If everything else in the world stays the same…” Why would it stay the same? When you think about it, it’s fairly well impossible that everything else would stay the same. For one thing, you would be fitter because of riding the bike. For another thing, you’d likely be in a better mood. People at work would notice that you’re riding a bike and you would end up in conversations about it. These conversations could lead to others. You’d be having people wonder why you did that. Some of them might try too.
Those are just a few of the predictable consequences. Of course, you’d be impacting the world differently all the time. There’s no way to predict all the “Butterfly Effects” you’d be causing without your knowledge. In general, however, if your actions are kinder to the ecosystem, the ecosystem will be nicer to you.
When I was transitioning from 4th to 5th grade, our family moved to an area of new development and our little neighborhood was surrounded by acres of woods and fields. In the woods immediately behind our house, mayapples blanketed the rich forest floor beneath the tall canopy of oaks, ashes, and cherry trees, all overhung by wild grape vines. I loved the forest! But as an eleven-year old, it also seemed that my friend Wilbur and I would be required to destroy our “enemies” (i.e., the Mayapples) with our wooden “swords” (i.e., broken branches with the bark stripped off). And destroy them we did.
The next year, the mayapples were “replaced” with thorn bushes — mainly blackberry and black raspberry but there were some wild roses and cat briers in the mix. Coincidence? Perhaps. We continued to fight these hardier “enemy warriors” and every year, unlike the mayapples, they kept coming back for more, though these berry bushes never bore any fruit.
Consider “The Golden Rule” — “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” It’s the right thing to do. But it’s also a very practical thing to do. If you are nice to people, then by and large, they are more likely to be nice back to you. Why wouldn’t it be the same with other species on the whole? I’m not suggesting that it’s true in every case. No matter how nice you are to the mosquitoes that bite you, they are unlikely to throw a party for you even if you let them suck you dry!
I’m happy to say that I soon outgrew that pre-teen phase of cutting down vegetation for the sheer “joy” of it. So, I don’t have many stories that illustrate how being intentionally unkind to nature came back to bite me.
However, I do know that when it comes to honeybees, if one of them stings you, crushing the offender could well get you in worse trouble as could flailing about swatting at them. Decades after the mayapple episode described above, I went on a hike on “Turkey Mountain” with my son-in-law and some of my grandchildren when one of the boys stepped in a bee’s nest. I was holding my grand-daughter and didn’t have the option of trying to run or trying to flail at them. I just stood still. I didn’t get stung nor did my grand-daughter. But everyone else who was swatting at the bees, did get stung.
In general, it makes sense to me that if you are kind to nature, you will generally experience more pleasure yourself. Since humans are social animals, your kindness to nature will typically not go unnoticed by others. Though there might be some few perverse folks who will do the opposite of what you do, most will follow your lead. Humans are social animals. Except for pre-teen boys and a few spoiled sociopaths, most people are predisposed to be nice to other forms of life. Life competes with other Life. But Life also collaborates and cooperates with Life. Big time. And, one of the many examples is that people collaborate and cooperate. That is the natural tendency and they must be manipulated to instead be needlessly belligerent. A more natural stance is to see what others are doing that has a good result and join in.
For several years, my wife & I attended the Newport Folk Festival. Like most people, I love music, but I especially love outdoor concerts because I can dance to the music. Most of our ferryboat trips to Fort Adams State Park were accompanied by spectacular summer sunshine. Hot sunny weather meant a great time to dance to the music and occasionally take a short dip in the water to cool off.
One summer day, however, our lucky streak of sunny weather came to an end. Everyone at the festival, including our little group, huddled and shivered under their umbrellas and leaky raincoats. You think a raincoat is pretty effective at keeping the water out. But that’s because you’re judging its effectiveness on not getting wet when you walk from your home to your car and your car to your workplace or the drug store. Under those circumstances, they work well. But when you sit for hours in a downpour, you’ll get wet, raincoat or no raincoat.
So, after about an hour and a half, the thought came into my head: “Hey! I came here to dance. I’m soaking wet anyway. I’m going to dance!” I stripped off to my bathing trunks and do what I came there to do: dance. Why let the rain stop me?
I enjoyed myself. After about a half hour, a few others began to dance. Performers on the stage commented favorably on the spirit of the dancers. More joined us. Within a few hours, hundreds of people had joined in the joy. At some point, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see a microphone in my face and a large TV camera. At that time, I had the exulted title of “Executive Director” so my first thought was to wonder whether my management chain would see this interview with me in my bathing trunks, and if so, what they would think of it. In moments like that, it seems to me, the best thing to do is simply continue to embrace the moment. So, I simply told the truth about what I was doing and why; that I came to dance and I was enjoying it; that there was no point *wishing* it wasn’t pouring down rain, and that instead, it was more enjoyable to embrace the rain and make it part of the dance along with the music.
If scores of people pile on to crazy and easily disprovable conspiracy theories, wouldn’t many more people pile on to something that is positive and joyous and life-affirming?
If you make some small change that is pro-planet, wouldn’t that tend to induce others to do the same? And, if they did, wouldn’t that tend to induce still others to do the same?
You may or may not be on the nightly news and induce still more people to change their attitude or behavior, but you’ll certainly have a positive influence on those in your immediate vicinity.
If denial of reality can spread like a pandemic, why not small life-affirming changes in the behavior of your fellow human beings?
Nearly everyone in the field of Human-Computer Interaction (related fields are known as Human Factors, and User Experience) has heard of A/B testing. How should we lay out our web pages? Should we have a tool bar? Should it be always visible or only visible on rollover? What type fonts and color schemes should we use?
Clearly A/B testing is useful. However — there are at least two fundamental limitations to A/B testing.
First, for almost any real application, there are way too many choices for each of them to be tested. This is where the experience of the practitioner and/or the knowledge of the field and of human psychology can be very helpful. Your experience and theory can help you make an educated guess about how to prioritize the questions to be studied. Some questions may have an obvious answer. Others might not make much difference. Some questions are more fundamental than others. For instance, if you decided not to use any text at all on your site, it wouldn’t matter which “font” your users prefer.
Second, some decisions interact with others. For instance, you may test a font size in the laboratory with your friends. Just as you suspected, it’s perfectly legible. Then, it turns out that your users are mainly elderly people who use your app while going on cruises or bus tours. In general, the elderly have less acute vision that the friends you studied in the lab. Not only that, you were showing the font on a stable display under steady conditions of illumination. The bus riders are subject to vibration (which also makes reading more difficult) and frequent changes in illumination due to the sun or artificial light being intermittently filtered by trees, buildings, etc. Age, Vibration, and Illumination changes are variables that interact by being positively correlated. In other cases, variables interact in other and more complex ways. For example, increasing stress/motivation at first increases performance. But beyond a certain point, increasing stress or motivation actually decreases performance. This is sometimes known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes–Dodson_law)
The story doesn’t stop there though. How much stress is optimal partly depends on the novelty and complexity of the task. If it’s a simple or extremely practiced task, quite a bit of stress is the optimal point. Imagine how long you might hang on to a bar for one dollar, for a thousand dollars, or to save yourself from falling to the bottom of a 1000 foot ravine. For a moderately complex task, a moderate level of motivation is optimal. For something completely novel and creative, however, a low level of stress is often optimal.
The real point isn’t about these particular interactions. The more general point is that testing many variables independently will not necessarily result in an optimal overall solution. Experience — your own — and the experiences of others — can help dissect a design problem into those decisions that are likely to be relatively independent of each other and those that must be considered together.
Life itself has apparently “figured out” an interesting way to deal with the issue of the interaction of variables. Genes that work well together end up close together on the chromosome. That means that they are more likely to stay together and not end up on different chromosomes because of cross-over. By contrast, genes that are independent or even have a negative impact, when taken together, tend to end up far apart so that they are likely to be put on different chromosomes.
So, for example, one might expect that a gene for more “feather-like skin” and more “wing-like front legs” might be close to each other while a gene for thicker, heavier bones would be far away.
Clearly, the tricky way variables interact isn’t limited to “User Experience Design” of course. Think of learning a sport such as tennis or golf. You can’t really learn and practice each component of a stroke separately. That’s not the way the body works. If you are turning your hips, for example, as you swing, your arm and hand will feel differently than if you tried to keep them still while you swung.
Do you have any good tips for dealing with interactions of variables? In User Experience or any other domain?