Thursday, April 1, 2010

Use the targetting computer... that's what it's there for

Allow me to begin with an anecdote.

I own a fancy blender.  The kind with demo videos on Youtube.  The kind whose commercial line can be found in your local smoothie shop.  The kind with a warranty.  Like Walter's dog in Big Lebowski, this blender has fucking papers, Dude.

So the blender breaks.  The digital readout (yes, it has one) suggests that the motor is "overloaded."  My wife reports that she wasn't doing anything out of the ordinary at the time.  We try the easy stuff.  Turn it on and off.  Unplug it and plug it in at another outlet.  No love.

After some sad and smoothie-less days, we obtain permission from our housemate to use his blender while I go through the process of finding my paperwork and putting a request in to support.  We get by on his (inferior) machine for a few weeks. 

A few weeks later, I call support, running a few simple diagnostics, and the nice lady decides that I should ship my unit in for repair or replacement.  I recount the discussion for my wife and I pick up the base unit during that discussion.  

It rattles.  The sort of rattle you get when loose metal bangs upon loose metal.  We investigate.  A screwdriver removes the bottom of the unit, revealing to us four easily understood parts: a threaded mounting, a fan, a washer, and a nut.  This isn't rocket science.  The fan goes on the mounting, and is secured by the washer and nut.  After a few weeks out of commission, our blender is returned to service following less than 5 minutes of diagnosis and repair.

The Problem of the Broken Blender wasn't a technical issue.  My wife and I were both technically capable of resolving the matter in minutes.  The issue was one of attention.  Neither of us had taken it upon ourselves to go beyond the level of cycling power to the next logical step: examining the unit.

Now for some folks, examination wouldn't have been enough.  If one had never seen a nut or heard of a screw driver, the cues we used wouldn't work.  For most of us though, the thing that keeps the problems in our lives around isn't a scarcity of ability or aptitude.  It's a scarcity of attention or agency.

One way to think of the relationship between ability and agency is that the multiply.  Say that fixing the blender required a technical capability of 2 out of 10, where 1 is "never seen a man-made device" and 10 is "building a working C3PO in your basement."  My wife and I are probably up in the 3-5 range technically, but our lack of attention to the problem was making the applied "problem solving force" nearly zero (not exactly zero - we did at least make sure that the thing was plugged in).

A metaphor that I'm beginning to prefer is a vector.  Ability is the scale of the vector, but attention is the direction.  When your vector is pointed at a problem, the likelihood of the problem being resolved increases.  The probability of solving the problem and the relative speed with which the problem is solved depends on ability.  If you're really capable, paying any attention at all to a problem is likely to solve it.  Your vector is big enough.  You might solve it faster.  Your vector doesn't need to be pointed in that direction as long.  You might even have enough ability that you can guess the issue without thorough examination.  Your vector might not even have to be pointed in exactly the right direction - even a small component might be enough.

If you don't like the vector model, consider the pinball model.

A recurring pattern in my life is the degree to which folks (myself included) continue to by stymied by problems that they have the ability to solve.  I "tried" to lose weight for years with little success.  Then I sat down, read some books, focused on selecting a possible solution, implemented my selection, and lost 30 pounds.  Then I ran a half marathon.  Then I ran a marathon.  Agency is a powerful drug.  I went from "trying" to trying.  There's a difference.

As a developer, I see the affects of inattention all the time.  It's a well known fact that users read almost nothing that is presented to them when using software.  They don't read error messages.  They don't check the preferences.  Even when you watch a user getting visibly frustrated at the inability to do something that they want to do, they won't resort to actually looking around the menus for a solution.  They won't pick up the unit and find the rattle.

We might implicate multi-tasking or over-booking, but I think this problem is more fundamental than that.  Problem solving, when approached as a serious pursuit, depends upon a leap of faith on the part of the problem solver.  Namely, if
  1. I quit flailing about in an unfocused manner,
  2. I calm down,
  3. I think for a second about what, exactly, I'm trying to accomplish, and
  4. I focus on accomplishing that thing,
  5. I will have the ability to find and execute a solution.
Most of the problems confronting most of us are because we haven't gotten to (1) yet.  We're just randomly flailing. 

Reboot the unit then call support.  Buy a few low-cal snacks at the store and hope that will cause weight loss.  Click on a bunch of things for a bit without focused search or actually reading dialog boxes and hope that we'll stumble upon a solution.  A prominent UI researcher wrote a book called "Don't Make Me Think."  It's like that.

It's pretty easy to spot this behavior in others.  I think it's much harder to spot it in ourselves.

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