It All Started With That First Bite Of Food

If you’ve been following along, you know NextStage is poised to release a set of web-based tools based on its long proven desktop technology. If you’re wondering why it hasn’t happened yet (at least at the consumer level) it’s because we’re rebranding and rebuilding the NextStage store.

A recent discussion between myself, NextStage’s CTO and the VP Technology of a third company was incredibly rewarding (for me, anyway. I learned how Evolution Technology’s neuromathematics is implemented in software). There was one element of that discussion that truly caught my attention.

It dealt with whether or not new tools should require training in order to be successfully and completely utilized. One reason this element caught my attention is because I’m busily writing Chapter 2 of Reading Virtual Minds Volume 2, the chapter entitled “Usability”.

And lest you think everything at NextStage is de facto sympatico, nay nay. The disagreement was between myself and our CTO, Charles.

Readers who follow my postings here, there and everywhere probably know my position on the subject (see Learning to Use New Tools if you don’t). Charles’ position (Charles, please feel free to comment here if I’m incorrect) is that any tool should be so simple no training is needed in its use.

The truth is Charles and I disagree on a reasonable amount of things. My feeling is that while our disagreements make for good conversation they don’t matter much otherwise.

This disagreement, though…

Defining “New”

Things are defined as new in experience when there is no basis for them in prior experience. “Newness” is, therefore, a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma, of a sort. Humans learn by pigeon-holing things. We are designed to like similarities, to prefer metaphors and similes, because they allow us to decide quickly whether or not something is good or bad for us.

Food good. Food go in mouth.This is excellent from an evolutionary neuroanatomy standpoint. We learn that something is good for us and we spend the rest of our lives determining if everything else fits that model. Example: Food goes in our mouths. It could be argued that “food goes in our mouths” is the first lesson babies learn. It goes without argument that babies spend a great deal of their time putting everything else within reach in their mouths, much to the terror of parents, older siblings, so on and so forth.

Food good. Food go in mouth. Therefore anything that go in mouth good.This “food goes in our mouths” can also be argued as humans’ first lesson in applied logic and how not to form an argument. Consider the following:

  1. Food is something that goes in the mouth.
  2. Food is good.
  3. Therefore anything that goes in the mouth is good.

The example most often used in elementary logic classes to teach this is something like “Homer was male. Homer was Greek. Therefore all Greeks are male.” and is called Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent (yes, I’ve taken a few liberties. If you’d like a formal introduction to logic, let me know and I’ll hook you up).

This early lesson makes itself known in English by such phrases as “It left a bad taste in his mouth”, in Italian (translated into English) as “I’d like a small taste”, and the simile and metaphor aspect comes in because these phrases are rarely used to describe foodstuffs. The former most often describes a negative experience and the latter most often describes a request for some small part in a business transaction.

He bit off more than he could chewThus those first life lessons — food goes in the mouth — is used throughout life to symbolize the good and bad of things. How many of us have bitten off more than we could chew? Or had eyes bigger than our stomachs? And while these are all variants of “food goes in the mouth” metaphors, how often are they used strictly for foods and mouths?

What is recognized in all the above is Charles’ being accurate within some semantic considerations; tools should be so simple no training is needed in their use.

I completely agree with Charles’ statement provided that some metaphor or simile — some pigeonhole — exists in our experience in which said tool comfortably fits. Or at least can be hammered into without lots of destruction to either the tool, the pigeonhole or the hammer.

And I’m guessing that the majority of readers of this post understood the previous paragraph. At least the readers who’ve had some experience with hammers, with forcing something to fit into something else (packing suitcases for a trip, for example), with “pigeonholing”, …

We create new rules when old experience failsBut at some point nothing we do will make what’s in front of us fit into our experience. The “food” is not only too big to fit in our mouth, it puts up a fight. Someone may even come along and inform us that what we’re shoving in our mouths isn’t food at all, it’s our sister’s pet.

What occurs now is called confusion and according to Michael Gelb, “Confusion is the welcome mat at the door of creativity.”

Confusion occurs in humans (all self-aware, cognitive species, actually) when there is no past experience — no pigeonhole — that is a comfortable or even hammerable fit for present experience. What literally happens is a trans-derivational search, the brain can’t provide the mind with an acceptable fit so the mind tells the brain to go look again and again and again and again. Each “and again” request is sent with an increasing sense of urgency (regardless if there is any need for urgency) and eventually panic sets in.

Unless the mind accepts the brain’s “this is beyond my experience” information and sends a different request; “This is something new. Make room for it.”

Children are constantly making room for new things. They have to. For one, their brains and minds haven’t differentiated much so there’s lots less confusion because everything is new to them. Second, they don’t have a whole lot of experience to go on so again, everything is new.

It’s that different request, that “This is something new. Make room for it” that leads to creativity.

Dear God Don’t Make Me Think! If I Think, Things Might Change

New also occurs when we use old things in new waysCreativity…that spark that ignites from within the mind and expresses the heart…

The ape in 2001: A Space Odyssey that stopped seeing the tapir’s femur as the remains of a meal and started seeing it as a hammer was — dare I write it? — evolving to the — I’m going to do it again — next stage along the path to becoming human. Us. This happened because the ape saw something that conflicted with its previous experience; when the femur struck other bones they shattered and flew apart. It had seen bones shatter and fly apart countless times, no doubt.

The newness was recognizing that the bones were shattering and flying apart because of something he was doing.

Instead of running away from the wildly flying bones — the panic reaction that kept us safe in the wilds for ever so long…well, long enough to become us — this ape made new space in its brain for the new experience.

And by doing so it created a tool unlike any that had ever been known before.

Then the ape showed its new tool to some friends. Many of them scattered. Some the first ape was able to train, not necessarily in how to create new tools, but at least in how to use this tool.

An interesting part of this is that most humans don’t like change. There’s no way to avoid it because everything changes, so humans spend lots of time and money minimizing what changes in their lives or at least controlling what changes and how so things don’t change unless they’re prepared for it.

So again, tools that require no training, that can be operated and understood based entirely on past experience, are ideal.

But again, there’s a catch here.

Who’s experience should a new tool be based on? There comes a point where people’s experiences are going to diverge due to culture, language, regionality, … If this wasn’t the case, you could ask for some soda anywhere in the USA and be assured of getting some kind of caramel-colored, carbonated concoction. Charles and I have highly divergent backgrounds. Tools that are completely understandable to me are (so he tells me) a mystery to him and vice versa.

What is it?I remember going to a microbiology lab party at Dartmouth. The hostess held up what’s shown on the right. Before reading further, any ideas what it is?

Well, she held it up to the 25-30 extremely bright, highly intelligent, PhD candidates, post docs and professors assembled and asked, “Who knows what this is?”

And I stopped chatting with Cathy Lukaize and Susan, looked up, offhandedly said, “It’s a molinillo, you use it to stir hot chocolate in Mexico,” and went back to my conversation.

The hostess shook her head. “I should have known you’d know what it was, Joseph.”

But nobody else did and the reason was simple. It was not a tool they had been trained to recognize, they had no experience of it and there was no survival-based requirement that they make a new place for it in their brain so aside from being an interesting party gadget…

It’s also worth noting that I wouldn’t know what to do in their labs if I had to. Such microbiology work was completely out of my experience. I had no place in my brain for the tools they routinely used.

So tools should be obvious and require no training providing they are completely based on your past experience. It must be completely based, it can’t even be fundamentally based on past experience. Fundamentally based means your back to hammering something into the pigeonhole to make it fit, which is a metaphor for either taking a class or training yourself in the tool’s use.

Once you get past that, you either have to be creative, intuitive (something that neuroscience indicates only comes with lots of highly divergent experiences) or trained.

I mean, I know Charles is one heck of a CTO. I don’t think it happened in some moment in time when he said, “Ah, from this point forward, I am going to be one heck of a CTO!” But I do know he was able to take something I’d written that took ten or so minutes of processing time and make it produce reports in less than ten seconds. Does he understand the math? He says no. Do I understand his code? Not really.

I know it took me a heck of a time to get my knowledge in the fields in which people now hire me. And (stating this purely for example purposes only) I didn’t create “a whole new field of technology” (according to the USPTO, those aren’t my words) by running away from splintered bones and tapir’s femurs.

Learning to use tools that aren’t based on your experience also means the tools are new to you. You can get past this newness tolerance break if you’re willing to go further and further back in someone’s experiential matrix until you find the point where their experience diverged from yours, then bring them along on your path.

This means the question becomes “How far back do you want to go?” Somethings, believe it or not, may require teaching people that oddly colored, cold, sticky substances go right good in the mouth.

Othertimes, me thinks, it’s simply easier to start with “This is a new tool and you’re going to require some training in its use.”

Don’t you think?

NextStage’s CTO, Charles, Responds…

Frankly, I don’t recall the exact words I used, but if I used “…is that any tool should be so simple no training is needed in its use.” I would say that I stated it poorly. I don’t believe this formulation anyway.

We were speaking, at the time, about software tools. And, based on long experience (;-)) working with both software and users extensively, I long ago reached the conclusion that this is true for software tools. I don’t believe that this conclusion is different from your own, I just come at the same issues with different ends in mind, and this formulation is specific to software.

Pretend for a moment that ET doesn’t exist. Never did.

Virtually all end user software tools have been created to do something (or do something faster) that people were already doing or trying to do. Almost by definition, there is a certain level of familiarity going into it for most of the people who have laid out cash to purchase software. The most straightforward example is accounting software. People have been tallying possessions for centuries, and by the time computers came along, they had come up with some fairly universal rules for how it should be done. The first accounting software was simply a translation of those rules and activities. The people who bought it usually knew the rules and were looking for the part of the tool that performed the familiar task and trying to discern how to make this tool perform this task. They knew how to do it with a calculator and pencil and were seeking the specific procedure needed to repeat it here.

Take someone with no understanding of accounting, and, sure enough, they will be lost. They’ll be trying to learn two things at once (three if they’re new to computers, as well) and the task will be overwhelming because all aspects of it are out of their understanding and experience. Normally, in a business setting, this is not the case. You don’t take someone off the warehouse floor and plop them in front of an accounts receivable package and expect output. If you did, you’d be an idiot to expect your balance sheet to be correct the next day.

But if you take someone who’s been doing the accounting for a company, put them in front of a package and they aren’t able to even recognize the major functions they expect to be able to do, then the problem is with the tool. (The essential point here is that they’re not trying to do something new, they’re trying to do something old in a new way. More on this later).

The problem is akin to the issue of simplicity. I noticed in college that asking a grad student a simple question about a complex subject would usually result in a mish mash of an answer. Ask the same question of a good professor with long years experience in the subject, and you’d get a clear, concise answer that elucidated the subject and resulted in “AHA” understanding. Not a newly sprouted expertise, mind you, but understanding. I realized that until you really understand something, you can’t state it simply. And if you can state it simply, it’s because you really understand the subject.

(Remember, we’re still pretending ET doesn’t exist).

The same bears true in software tools, I believe. Until you can set it up so that it can be used simply, either you haven’t really gotten the point of having software in the first place, or you don’t understand the task the software is supposed to perform well enough. And people who have created software that lacks that simple interface generally make software that has other failings, as well, usually because they didn’t really understand what they were about. I’ve seen this often enough that whenever I see a company that emphasizes that it provides training in its software to handle standard business functions, alarm bells go off.

(In particular because in many years of asking how computer classes went, the response has invariably been that the teacher was either good or bad, but the material studied didn’t have much to do with what the user was going to be using the software for).

(Did you remember we’re still pretending ET doesn’t exist? Hang in there. It can spontaneously generate soon.)

In what may seem like an off-subject ramble: Accountants love spreadsheets. (I knew a banker, once, who wrote all his business letters in Lotus123). Pages of columns and rows and formulas. And it all recalculates automagically. What else could you ask for in life? Few accountants/bookkeepers I’ve known really like databases much. And only the smart ones really understand that some things work better in spreadsheets and others work better in databases. Most think in terms of putting everything new into their favorite hammer, a spreadsheet. And I’ve seen some of them do amazing things. And I’ve seen other devote hundreds of hours of labor to making spreadsheets do a task that would have taken half an hour to create using a database.

Truth be told, spreadsheets and databases share some essential basics, and each can do most of what the other can do, if you know what you’re doing and spend enough time tweaking them. The proper choice depends on which kind of task you need to do most efficiently. Knowing the proper choice has a direct impact on how easy it is for others to use the tool you create.

And when I first dove into this discussion with Joseph, I pointed out that I had seen people use Dremel Mototools to do amazing carvings that were incredibly beyond my capabilities, but that I have often used Dremel Mototools to take the heads off screws. Same tool. Different purpose.

His response (if I’m remembering it correctly, can’t seem to find it) was that the artist could take the head off the screw much better and more skillfully.

Well, that’s probably true, but I doubt I could get him to come to my messy garage to take the head off of a screw for the amount I’m willing to pay him.

(OK, the time has come. Abra-cadabra, POOF! ET has just sprung back into existence).

“Whoa! What is that?!?”

“It’s something new. It lets you do an amazing number of things we could never do before.” (Here follows a long list).

Cool. Can it do. . .” (Here follows another long list, almost all of which are answered by either “yes” or “yes, but. . .”). “Wow. That’s amazing. But I don’t understand all of these things. How does it work? I’m getting a headache. Hey, is this blood coming out of my ears?”

“I know. It’s a new thing. Almost nobody understands it. But I can teach you how to use it.”

“OK. So that means there’s a manual I have to read?”

(Sorry, couldn’t resist poking a little fun).

I see now that I really used the wrong tool in my analogy. I should have used the computer itself. With more than a couple of decades worth of experience, I dug down deep into half a dozen different software tools to create a new tool that did something fairly straightforward with another tool I don’t completely understand, but can relate to things that I do understand. Did all of this on my desktop computer, then uploaded it to another computer that served web pages. I was using old tools and new tools to make another complex new tool to do a complex new thing.

Meanwhile, my 76-year-old mother-in-law is using her computer to check her email and avoid a trip to the drug store by creating birthday cards. A complex new tool to do simple old things efficiently and conveniently. The tools she’s using are complex beneath the surface, but the interface is — trust me — necessarily simple. She can use them because she’s known a long time how to communicate with the written word, and she understands the concept of the birthday card — and the interface is simple.

The interface for the NSSA tool is pretty simple. Little if any training is necessary, and that can be provided in a few lines of text on the page. The output, on the other hand, is some extraordinarily complex stuff. The software requires virtually no training. Understanding and effectively using the output requires a fair amount. But let’s go back to the warehouse guy that somebody plopped down in front of the accounts receivable package. His problem is not that the software is too complex, but that he doesn’t know what a chart of accounts is. The same package can be quite simple and obvious to the bookkeeper because it’s designed for him/her. It is possible, however, using the same package to train the same warehouse worker to fill out a bill of lading. I’ve done it. Took ten minutes. He’d filled out lots of bills of lading before.

I don’t believe any of this challenges the babies putting things into their mouths blog entry. Never had a moment’s disagreement with any of that. I just think it limits ET too much.

My position is not that ET should only be used if it’s dumbed down enough that anybody can use it. My position is that ET is a tool of such versatility and power that it — like computers — can be used to 1) do things that are new and complex and need at least a modicum of training in the disciplines behind them and 2) also do familiar old things in new, improved ways that make those things faster and more convenient, and 3) several variations along a continuum between the two.

In many of these instances, it should not be necessary to understand accounting if all you want to do is fill out a bill of lading. (One of the things I’ve also learned is that, while it might be useful to have your warehouse guy understand accounting, it simply ain’t gonna happen). But it is kind of important for the screen to have elements that are recognizable as bill of lading items.

So there.

Joseph Responds

Well, stated, Charles. Thank you.

The only thing I could possibly add to this is (once again, Serendipity doing it’s job in my life) today’s quote, Never forget that it is a waste of time to do the same thing twice, and that if you know precisely what is to be done, you need not do it personally at all. Forces are faster than human hands, they are tireless and they neither slip nor make mistakes. (Rovol), because it seems so fitting.

Other thoughts/comments, anyone?