Hardest-to-find problems – intuition & the web

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Having just read Nielsen I was truck by his words: “some of the hardest-to-find usability problems are found by evaluators who do not otherwise find many usability problems”. Reason being is that I seem to have a knack of spotting usability/system problems, (while sometimes missing the easier ones!) To be good at this I feel you need to have worked at the bottom of organisations as well as at the top in order to see problems the top-down mentality misses.

It also reminds me of the concept of  ‘wicked problems’ which I came across recently on Johnnie Moore’s Weblog: “A wicked problem is an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints. A linear approach to solving a wicked problem simply will not work.” What complicates the issue is that simple linear problems are not so easily divisible from ‘wicked problems’ and vice versa (and here an understanding of complexity can be helpful).

Secondy, that on Johnnie Moore’s posting there is a comment basically saying ‘hey, that’s what agile software development is for’. My contention is that by their nature, such ‘techniques’ are at root just that – techniques. And the problem with techniques is that they all share the same ‘fat fingered’ weakness – the division between the system and the user. And it itself is ultimately inherently limiting. Going beyond technique is the ultimate goal to discover ‘hardest-to-find problems’.

And that in turn involves a challenge to the individual usability guru which forces him or her to move beyond that traditional technique way of thinking/acting, based on emotional intelligence (or what I called – seeing as I had the idea to present at Berkeley – the ‘non-linear science of empowerment’) not simply traditional IQ-based capability. Full 1999 Chaos Society Berkeley paper here. They’ve got a nice swimming pool at Berkley, btw.

Anyhow, technique is not without its profound uses. At a deeper level it’s also useful for a tester to understand the concept of a system’s ‘dynamical key’:

“An attempt to control a complex system, perhaps through natural selection or an organizational or political policy by operating on only one feature of the system, will not eradicate or otherwise nullify the system. The system will mutate and evolve to compensate for the environmental assault. The secret of real system change is to locate the dynamical key that supports or unravels the entire system. The next policy would be to guide the reorganization of the entire system around a new dynamical key (Hubler, 1992).”

So a very brief light-hearted example. Six years ago while working for an award-winning ski holiday company I was presented with a problem. Twin sisters I thought I had booked into a twin room were now told that they would have to share a double bed, as no twin was left. The sisters were not happy at this prospect. So I asked the operator I had booked the holiday with to stand by the confirmation of the twin bed booking. They refused, they said as I had made the booking on the phone rather by the preferred electronic online system (which was down at the time) that they would not honour it.

I asked the company directors for guidance and they were also baffled, suggesting that I might throw human rights at the holiday company to get them to budge. After sleeping on the issue I came back the next morning – and drafted a fax to the company. I asked simply if they therefore regarded the telephone booking and the online booking as two separate distinct systems. A few hours later, they had a ‘surprise’ change of mind, and the twin sisters got their twin hotel room.

PS: I guess it just comes down to recognising the value of intuition in hard usability problems. Which could explain why “some of the hardest-to-find usability problems are found by evaluators who do not otherwise find many usability problems”. [Update, Dec 2012: I now understand this uncommon ability as #thinslicing]

Funny, I was at a BBQ in Berkeley, CA back in 1999 and got chatting to a woman who said she’d just written a book on intuition. But that’s a whole other story about how to develop intuition in the first place, referenced in recent UCL research.