TITLE: Empiricism, Bias, and Confidence AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 06, 2010 12:45 PM DESC: ----- BODY: This morning, Mike Feathers tweeted a link to an old article by Donald Norman, Simplicity Is Highly Overrated and mentioned that he disagrees with Norman. Many software folks disagreed with Norman when he first wrote the piece, too. We in software, often being both designers and users, have learned to appreciate simplicity, both functionally and aesthetically. And, as Kent Beck suggested, products such as the iPod are evidence contrary to the claim that people prefer the appearance of complexity. Norman offered examples in support of his position, too, of course, and claimed that he has observed them over many years and in many cultures. This seems like a really interesting area for study. Do people really prefer the appearance of complexity as a proxy for functionality? Is the iPod an exception, and if so why? Are software developers different from the more general population when it comes to matters of function, simplicity, and use? When answering these questions, I am leery of relying on self-inspection and anecdote. Norman said it nicely in the addendum to his article:
Logic and reason, I have to keep explaining, are wonderful virtues, but they are irrelevant in describing human behavior.
He calls this the Engineer's Fallacy. I'm glad Norman also mentions economists, because much of the economic theory that drives our world was creating from deep analytic thought, often well-intentioned but usually without much evidence to support it, if any at all. Many economists themselves recognize this problem, as in this familiar quote:
If economists wished to study the horse, they wouldn't go and look at horses. They'd sit in their studies and say to themselves, "What would I do if I were a horse?"
This is a human affliction, not just a weakness of engineers and economists. Many academics accepted the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which conjectures that our language restricts how we think, despite little empirical support for a claim so strong. The hypothesis affected in disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, and education, as well as linguistics itself. Fortunately, others subjected the hypothesis to study and found it lacking. For a while, it was fashionable to dismiss Sapir-Whorf. Now, as a recent New York Times article reports, researchers have begun to demonstrate subtler and more interesting ways in which the language we speaks shapes how we think. The new theories follow from empirical data. I feel a lot more confident in believing the new theories, because we have derived them from more reliable data than we ever had for the older, stronger claim. (If you read the Times article, you will see that Whorf was an engineer, so maybe the tendency to develop theories from logical analysis and sparse data really is more prominent in those of us trained in the creation of artifacts to solve problems...) We see the same tendencies in software design. One of the things I find attractive about the agile world is its predisposition toward empiricism. Just yesterday Jason Gorman posted a great example, Reused Abstractions Principle. For me, software abstractions that we discover empirically have a head-start toward confident believability on the ones we design aforethought. We have seen them instantiated in actual code. Even more, we have seen them twice, so they have already been reused -- in advance of creating the abstraction. Given how frequently even domain experts are wrong in their forecasts of the future and their theorizing about the world, how frequently we are all betrayed by our biases and other subconscious tendencies, I prefer when we have reliable data to support claims about human preferences and human behavior. A flip but too often true way to say "design aforethought" is "make up". -----