Aldrich on educational engagement (and PowerPoint)

inspiration

Simulations are powerful when students need to be engaged more than they are. Clearly, this is an area in which distributed classrooms have suffered, as death by PowerPoint has not just been refined in many programs but almost weaponized to military specifications.

— Clark Aldrich

Venn pie-agram

fun

Love data visualization? Love pies? So do I.

Venn pie-agramPumpkin + pecan + apple pie crumble = Venn pie-agram

Last Tuesday we had a Thanksgiving potluck at work, and at the instigation of a coworker I made a Venn diagram pie. Here’s how I did it, if you want to try it yourself.

What you’ll need

You can use whatever flavors you want, but remember they have to combine into a pleasing flavor profile. The flavors of the three ingredients I used were pumpkin, pecan, and apple crumble.

The recipes were fairly straightforward. Since the undertaking was complex I went simple with the recipes. For pumpkin and pecan filling I adapted About.com’s Southern Food Classic Pumpkin Pecan Pie recipe. For the pumpkin filling I bumped up the ginger and added nutmeg. For the pecan filling I used dark corn syrup, replacing about 1/3 of the dark syrup with maple syrup and a little molasses.

For the apple pie I used Cortland, Gala, and Honey Crisp apples. (I recommend The Apple Works for good information on what apples work best in what contexts.) Once again the About.com Southern Food section provided a good Apple Crumble Pie recipe.

I’d never used it before, but Pillsbury’s rolled up pie crust did pretty well!

So, to make this happen you need the following:

  • Two sets of aluminum cake or pie pans (4-6 pans). Cake may allow you to overlap the three pans and the middle section more easily, but pie works, too. You’ll need three pans for baking, and at least one extra to make the middle crust.
  • Aluminum foil to cover the pie plates and prevent leaks. You’ll also need it to protect the crust while baking.
  • Enough pie crust for the bottom of four pies. This will cover the three-plate section, provide crust for the middle, a base to hold the middle pie crust in place, and a little extra in case you want to add decorations.
  • Pumpkin pie filling to taste.
  • Pecan pie filling to taste.
  • Apple pie filling to taste.
  • Crumble mix (no pecans to start).
  • Pecan halves for topping and to add to crumble mid-way.
  • A cookie sheet to support the pie plates, which will not be structurally sound enough to support the weight of the pie.
  • Two six-packs of graham crust mini-pies (for excess filling).

Making your Venn pie plate

Here’s how the three pans overlapped. Note how corners are folded over. I used an ancient pizza pan for support instead of a cookie sheet (most cookie sheets don’t fit in our tiny oven).

Three overlapping pansMaking the superset framework for a Venn pie-agram.

A detail from the bottom. Cut your flattened sides into sections so they lie flat and don’t warp your pan.

Pans, bottom detailDetail, cut and overlapping sides.

Line your completed pan with aluminum foil to cover the sharp edges you’ve cut and prevent leaks.

Aluminum foil liningAny experience with tin foil hats helps in this step.

Making your crust

Preheat your oven to 350°.

Unroll your pie crust and lay it out. Cut away excess and press edges together so you have a continuous bottom that isn’t too thick.

Pie crust laid outKeep your excess pie dough!

What not to do

The image below, with raw dough and supporting aluminum, does not work. The crust melts and doesn’t hold its shape. Thin metal dividers also do not work: they leak abominably. I learned this making my first “pie chart” pie; metal dividers were much more trouble than the crust below (for one thing, I had to tilt the pie in the oven until the pecan filling set).

Don't try this in the middle diagram area. It doesn't work.Little metal dividers not only leak, but the necessity of removing them before eating would ruin the pie.

What works

Partially bake your pie crust edges and bottom about 10 minutes at 350°. Also bake sections for the middle crust, separately (see below). Note that the middle crust has a slightly tighter curve, to make the overlapping areas slightly egg-shaped instead of pure circles. This will give you more space in the middle sections. Don’t forget to puncture the crust with a fork to avoid bubbles!

Important: reserve extra unbaked pie crust. You’ll need it to make the middle section work properly.

Middle crust sectionThis piece will form part of the crust defining the overlapping sets in our Venn pie-agram.

These are the crust pieces you’ll need to shape the middle of your Venn pie-agram. I used six crust lengths: one long curve, one not-so-long, three short ones, and one tiny one.

Venn pie-agram diagram
Super-sophisticated Venn pie-agram wire frame.

To make the crust stay in place and reduce leaks, use unbaked dough to hold the partly-baked middle sections in place. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Tip: Use a bread knife to gently saw the pie crust sections. Pie crust is crumbly. Try to make them line up naturally with the outside edge.

Middle crust section installedThis is what your middle should look like. It’s not perfect circles, but trust me, you’ll prefer this when creating your overlapping fillings.

Filling and baking

Tip: Start with the firmest filling first. It will fill up any weak spots a more liquid filling might break through, keeping your sections more compartmentalized. Here, the apple pie section has been filled and covered with crumble; apple has been layered in the bottom of its three overlapping sections in the middle. To the right, pumpkin filling (my next step). The pecan filling is in the center; pecans have yet to be added. I used crumbled pecans for a thicker mixture. Pecan filling went in last.

Pie workspace and fillingsUse baking time to clean your workspace! (How else will you have room for photos at the end?)

Here’s how I did the fillings, in order:

  • Apple crumble
  • Apple covered with pumpkin filling with normal crumble (no pecans)
  • Apple covered with pecan filling
  • Center: Apple covered with pumpkin filling with pecan crumble (I added pecans into the food processor with some of the crumble mix)
  • Pumpkin
  • Pumpkin covered with pecan
  • Pecan
  • Cover the pecan area with pecan halves; place pecan halves in the three pecan-containing middle sections

Ready to bake! Note the aluminum foil protecting the edges from over-baking. You can see some of the mini-pies I made using the excess filling.

Ready to bake pieOn its way into the oven!

Results

The pie baked about an hour before a knife came out cleanly from the pumpkin filling. The mini pies, which I baked after the pie, took about 35 minutes without a cookie sheet. Oven heats vary, so check your pie at around 45 minutes, and your mini-pies at 25 minutes.

Venn pie-agram and mini-piesA Venn pie-agram triumph! Or, the mother ship and her fleet. Whichever you prefer.

Have fun!

Narrative taxonomy in UX

design thinking, taxonomy

I’ve submitted a proposal for SXSW 2014! Vote here.

User experience and storytelling go hand in hand. UX professionals consciously apply personas, use case scenarios, underlying narratives, content strategy, and visual elements to provide a stage on which users play. But there is a key element missing in this drama: taxonomy. Much more than mere collections of categories, hierarchies, facets, and navigation elements, taxonomies “narrate the natural relationships between concepts.”

That quote is from a 2011 article in the journal Data & Knowledge Engineering, in which three computer scientists explored narrative taxonomy from the perspective of data algorithms in effective, adaptive content retrieval. This session will discuss the implications of narrative taxonomy for user experience design; specific kinds of taxonomy stories; how to recognize, analyze, and apply narrative taxonomies; and the results of user testing against different narrative taxonomies in different contexts.

Preview presentation.

Questions answered

  1. How does a taxonomy tell a story, and what are the narrative elements of that story? How can a UX professional recognize and analyze them without the help of sophisticated database algorithms?
  2. Why and when is analyzing taxonomy from a narrative perspective helpful to UX design? How does it compare to more typical approaches?
  3. In UX, taxonomy is primarily addressed by information architects and content strategists, but not always by both at the same time. Can narrative taxonomy bridge gaps between these different specialties?
  4. What does narrative taxonomy mean from an interactive perspective? What are concrete examples of this? Can users tell their own stories?
  5. How can narrative taxonomies be tested, and what are the results of such tests?

Intention-focused design (UX Matters article)

design thinking

Pabini Gabriel-Petit approached me for an article in UXmatters in May, 2012, and in July published Intention-Focused Design: Applying Perceptual Control Theory to Discover User Intent. Below is the article as it appeared.


At this point in the development of the field of user experience, I’m assuming that most good UX professionals know how to tailor sites or applications to user profiles, create personas, and tell a compelling story that drives user process flows. But sometimes we encounter a situation that’s a bit more challenging: we’re asked to design one product for very different users—or even users with seemingly conflicting goals.

Without a unifying narrative, such challenges can result in compromised user experiences. A client, or even a UX designer, may find it simpler to either target the most valuable or common user profile or to design very different process flows and interactions for different users. These approaches aren’t necessarily bad, but integrating them gracefully is difficult without a shared context. Intention-focused design is a specific UX strategy that can help you to discover hidden and shared user narratives.

Perceptual Control Theory and User Intentions

You know you’ve got a good piece of software when people use it for purposes for which the designers never intended or designed.
—Clay Shirky

Psychology is the UX designer’s friend. We use it all the time. Our process flows and interfaces apply learning, perception, and cognition theory. Decision-making research, gamification, and emotional appeals evoke the appropriate response to the stimuli we provide. But the most useful framework for understanding users that I’ve encountered is a little-known system called Perceptual Control Theory (PCT). The invention of William Powers, an engineer with degrees in physics and psychology, PCT is based equally in cybernetics and psychology. It has recently been gaining ground as a useful framework in areas such as education and psychotherapy.

The basic premise of PCT is that human behavior is not about the behavior itself, but about reinforcing desired perception. William James said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” William Powers suggests that behavior is not just about agreement, but about constantly refining our experience to achieve an agreeable level of perception.

For example, a bagger at a grocery store who packs items carefully—cold with cold, fragile on top—may be reinforcing a self-perception as a caring, careful person. An executive who signs the order for a layoff may be reinforcing a self-perception as a strong, dominant person. A voter voting against his own interests may be reinforcing a perception of himself as a moral person. A programmer who writes elegant code may be reinforcing a self-perception as being a particularly rational human.

PCT suggests that a person starts off with a desired reference point for her experience. (This may change over time.) She compares her environment to that reference point and takes action to bring it closer to her desired perception. She compares the result to her reference point and acts accordingly. If something external, called a disturbance, interacts with her environment, the same comparison of input and reference point recurs, resulting in the appropriate output, or behavior. This feedback loop is the core of PCT. As Powers wrote, “Control is a process by which a person can maintain some controlled variable near a reference condition by varying actions that oppose the effects of disturbances.”

In UX terms, users actively work to optimize their own experience as much as possible. Let’s take a look at how a user-focused PCT feedback loop works, as shown in Figure 1.

A UX-style PCT user feedback loop

Figure 1. A UX-style PCT user feedback loop

PCT goes further: it reminds us that what we think a person is doing and what they think they’re doing can sometimes be very different. Powers demonstrated this very simply at a presentation to the American Education Research Association in the 1990’s.

Using a large, knotted rubber band, a chalk board, and a piece of chalk, he asked a volunteer to maintain the knot over a dot, while also holding a piece of chalk there. Powers then pulled the other end of the rubber band around in a large circle. Although Powers took care to move deliberately and not too fast, the volunteer’s chalk described a smaller circle on the board. Powers then asked the audience what the volunteer had done, and they replied that he had drawn a circle. But when Powers asked the volunteer what he’d done, he said he had held the knot over the dot.

The volunteer neither expected nor intended to draw a circle, but worked to maintain the knot’s placement. However, despite hearing the instructions and watching the demonstration, the audience had seen the visible evidence of the volunteer’s behavior, the circle, as the primary object. An analyst looking at the behavior without having heard the instructions might easily take the circle to be the purpose of the exercise.

PCT is valuable to UX designers because it helps them discover what users actually think rather than what we think they think.

Transformative Design

Several design challenges benefit directly from intention-focused design. Next, I’ll discuss how to apply intention-focused design when we’re asked to transform a site or application.

Occasionally, a UX designer or creative team receives a request to completely re-envision a site or application. Perhaps the company’s business value is changing, or the site has to adapt to the mobile world. Yet the site may have a strong following of users who are content with the site as it is, so resist change. Often UX designers offer users a more usable interaction, then are surprised by a vehement negative response. It’s a truism that users resist change. The PCT insight that people desire equilibrium at their personal reference point goes to the heart of this.

A person’s desired reference states operate in a hierarchy of importance and awareness. People work to maintain equilibrium at different levels of being. I’ve adapted this hierarchy for a compassionate animal lover from a 1982 diagram from psychologists Charles Carver and Michael Scheier:

  • System concept: Be a compassionate person.
  • Principle: Be kind to animals.
  • Program: Walk the dog.
  • Relationship: “Dog walkingness” sequence: Keep the dog from running into traffic by pulling on his leash, tightening his choke collar. (I know, I know. Wait for it.)
  • Transition: Pull on the leash.
  • Configuration: Fingers around the leash.
  • Sensation: Friction of the fabric against your fingers.
  • Intensity: Muscle tension.

The animal lover simultaneously compares all of these perceptions to an expected, desired reference point, but those that are lower in the hierarchy can change in response to new information—provided they match the deeper expectations of system and principle. But I know that choke collar is bothering you, so let’s provide our dog owner with new information: choke collars are painful to dogs. The animal lover’s self-perception as a compassionate person and the principle of kindness to animals trumps maintaining equilibrium in the “Walk the dog” program or “dog walkingness” relationship. A new program appears: Buy a walking harness.

You have to address not just the level of environmental equilibrium, but the deeper levels of purpose and self-perception. Not doing this can result in debacles like the Netflix separation of streaming and DVD viewing. Had anyone at an empowered level said, “Customers don’t want DVDs or streaming video, they want movies and entertainment,” they might have averted the loss of customers. Great design actively engages purpose and self-perception to change the user’s environmental expectations, effectively resetting their equilibrium to a new state.

The Hidden User

Sometimes a site’s users are not the only participants in its narrative. For example, the medical software company I work for provides software for quite a few highly specific user personas: nurses, therapists, schedulers, billers, marketers, and more. Some of these are not only very different, but initially seem to have conflicting interests.

I struggled with this when I first began—looking for the underlying hook that would tie a good, user-centered design together; chunking out different user activities; getting data from customers and coworkers who knew them deeply. But it was a PCT analysis of their intentions that exposed their shared narrative. Part of every persona’s internal script was a hidden user the persona focused on every day: the patient. From then on, patient first became the design mantra, and I’ve set aside all design that doesn’t center on that hidden, absent user.

A retail site offering educational toys and tools for children offers another example of a hidden user. Parents, educators, and others are on the site, but the purpose they all have in common is a better-educated child who enjoys learning. That child is the absent user, providing the context for a taxonomy based on age, special needs, specific curricula, and other factors driving customer intention.

User-Empowering Design

When designing solutions for user activities, it is very easy to fall into the common-sense trap. Anyone trained in experimental methodology knows that common-sense assumptions are often proven wrong. For example, in a study of the likelihood that drivers would call 911 or otherwise act in a dangerous situation, the results were surprising.

Someone looking like a small child walked beside a rural road, a suburban road, and a busy highway. Common sense might make people expect more 911 calls from the busy road, because more people were there. But the opposite occurred: the more people were present, the fewer calls or offers of help they made. Analysis revealed that drivers on the little-used road figured there might not be anyone else to help, so they took action. Drivers on the busy highway figured someone else must’ve already called, so took no action. The response on the suburban road fell in between.

My favorite example of a common-sense design mistake is the typical business mental model for sharing user-generated content. Viewing users as single units in a much larger pool of users, who touch only some of that pool, businesses place a user at the center of an ever-expanding circle of sharing: user, friends, site members, public, as shown in Figure 2.

But users don’t perceive themselves that way. They experience themselves as the horizon between their self and their world, and they adjust how they share according to a greatly varying series of needs. With a friend, they might share dreams and romantic details, but not the physical details of a medical problem. With a doctor, the opposite holds true. Both kinds of data are intimate details, but shared intimacy is not the same across the board. Different groups of people receive different kinds and levels of information.

Typical behavior-focused business concept of a user’s mental model versus an intention-focused model

Figure 2. Typical behavior-focused business concept of a user’s mental model versus an intention-focused model.

Here, the user’s system concept might be a desire to be likable to as many people as possible. As a result, the user might share only information that is appropriate, to avoid putting people off by sharing too much. Of course, people vary, and context should always drive analysis of user intentions. LiveJournal got this years ago, offering highly customizable, user-created groups years before other social networks—but the social circles of Google+ are hands-down the best design implementation of it.

Recap

Intention-focused design deliberately empowers users as active, goal-driven participants in shaping their experience. In this article, my goal was to introduce the concept of Perceptual Control Theory at a high level, showing why it redefines our basic understanding of user analysis beyond site interactions and immediate goals to deeper levels of intent. As examples, I showed three strategic uses of intention-focused design: getting a handle on site transformation, discovering hidden users, and empowering users through design.

References

Carver, Charles S., and Michael F. Scheier. “Control Theory: A Useful Conceptual Framework for Personality—Social, Clinical, and Health Psychology.” APA Psychological Bulletin, 1982, Volume 92, Number 1.1.

Powers, William T. Behavior: The Control of Perception. 2nd ed. Montclair, NJ: Benchmark Publications, Inc., 2005.

Powers, William T. “The Nature of PCT. Control Systems Group. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, April 1995. Retrieved June 1, 2012.

Originally posted on UXmatters and cross-posted on former personal blog UXtraordinary.com.

Content strategy: nouns and verbs

design, writing

One of the first things I did for Kinnser Software was begin to establish content strategy guidelines, and this was the first one. It was published in the Kinnser UX blog I started and maintained, as well as the living (coded) style guide I created.


When writing for headers, buttons, navigation links, and similar items, the guidelines are simple:

  • Use nouns for things.
  • Use verbs for actions.
  • Avoid generic terms like “Submit,” as the action may not be interpreted correctly. Instead, describe exactly what the action will do. This is particularly important for our users, since the term “submit” can have multiple meanings. For example, Medicare claims are submitted. An example of good button text can now be seen in the Approve Claims area of Billing Manager [a key Kinnser feature]. Instead of “Submit,” the button helpfully says “Approve Claims for Submission.”
  • Avoid gerunds: verbs functioning as nouns by adding “-ing” to the end of the word. For people for whom English is a second language, this form can be confusing.

Habitual creativity: Turn around

design thinking, inspiration

For a little over two years, I left work and went to a particular bus stop on Elliott & Western in Seattle. So I spent a little time every day looking at this building, near the base of a hill leading up to the Queen Anne Hill area.

Building facing bus stop

One day, for whatever reason, I turned around and looked behind me. Due to an accident of unusual angles (hills, buildings, streets), suddenly I could see everything the building was hiding from me, including the Space Needle!

building-behind-busstop

The beauty of turning around is that it changes your perspective. Sometimes it even shows you the forest for the trees—or in this case, the neighborhood for the buildings.

So how do you turn around, metaphorically speaking? Here are some straightforward and a couple less obvious methods:

  • Try the other person’s perspective on for size. You may not end up agreeing with it, but you’ll understand it better, and this process frequently provides insight into design challenges. You UX people are used to this one. 
  • Are you looking from the outside in, or UI first? Try flipping it. Do the mental exercise of imagining your web application from the back end out – network to content buckets to databases to identifying the right content to surfacing, navigating, and consuming it. Getting a better understanding of the building blocks will let you do more with your Lego.
  • Set yourself challenges that push you beyond your normal boundaries to see the point of view inside someone else’s. For example, find a song you like in all the music genres you can think of.
  • Like sitting alone? Join a group. Like groups? Try taking some time away from them.
  • Reverse the flow. (No, not that flow.) Does your taxonomy go from broad to specific? Why not try specific to broad? Or, put everything on the same level and make it flat. The meaningful concepts will float to the top.

Simplicity is not a goal, but a tool

design, design thinking

Simplicity in design is not a goal by itself, but a tool for better experience. The goal is the need of the moment: to sell a product, to express an opinion, to teach a concept, to entertain. While elegance and optimal function in design frequently overlaps with simplicity, there are times that simplicity is not only not possible but hurts usability. Yet many designers do not understand this, and over the years, I’ve seen the desire to “keep it simple, stupid,” lead to poor UX.

I was therefore glad to see Francisco Inchauste’s well-thought, longer version of Einstein’s “as simple as possible, but no simpler” remark.

From the column:

As an interactive designer, my first instinct is to simplify things. There is beauty in a clean and functional interface. But through experience I’ve found that sometimes I can’t remove every piece of complexity in an application. The complexity may be unavoidably inherent to the workflow and tasks that need to be performed, or in the density of the information that needs to present. By balancing complexity and what the user needs, I have been able to continue to create successful user experiences.

Plus, as I’ve commented before, messy is fun!


Originally posted on former personal blog UXtraordinary.com.

Fun is fundamental

design thinking, game elements, psychology

Fun is a seriously undervalued part of user experience (perhaps of any experience). In fact, a sense of play may be a required characteristic of good UX interaction. But too often, I hear comments like the following, seen on ReadWriteWeb:

When you think of virtual worlds, the first one that probably pops into your head is Second Life, but in reality, there are a number of different virtual worlds out there. There are worlds for socializing, worlds for gaming, even worlds for e-learning. But one thing that most virtual worlds have in common is that they are places for play, not practicality. (Yes, even the e-learning worlds are designed with elements of “fun” in mind).

I was surprised to see the concept of play set in tension with practicality, as if they were incompatible, and to read that “even the e-learning worlds” employed fun. Game elements have been used to promote online learning for well over a decade, and used in offline educational design for much longer.

I certainly don’t mean to imply that every web site can be made fun. But it can employ the techniques of play in order to be more fun. As Clark Aldrich observes, discussing learning environments (emphasis his),

You cannot make most content fun for most people in a formal learning program… At best what you can do is make it more fun for the greatest percentage of the target audience. Using a nice font and a good layout doesn’t make reading a dry text engaging, but it may make it more engaging

The driving focus, the criteria against which we measure success, should be on making content richer, more engaging, more visual, with better feedback, and more relevant. And of course more fun for most students.

It was while developing an educational site for Nortel Networks that I first discovered the value of game elements in design. Deliberately incorporating mini games, an ongoing “quest” hidden in the process, rewards (including surprise Easter eggs), levels, triggers, and scores (with a printable certificate) made the tedious process of learning how to effectively make use of an intranet database much more fun. We also offered different learning techniques, so users could learn by text, video, or audio, as they preferred.

This can apply to non-learning environments as well. Think about it: online games have already done all the heavy lifting in figuring out the basics of user engagement. Some techniques I’ve found valuable in retail, informational, and social media include:

  • Levels. These provide a sense of achievement for exploration, UGC (user-generated content) or accomplishment. Levels can reduce any possible sense of frustration at the unending quest.
  • Unending quest. There should always be a next step for users. This doesn’t mean the user needs to be told that they’ll never be through with the site. Instead, it should always provide something engaging, that leads them on to a next step, and a next, and so forth.
  • Surprise rewards/triggers. These include Easter egg links, short-term access to previously inaccessible documents, etc.
  • Mini games, which can result in recognition or rewards for the user and can provide research data and UGC for the site.
  • Scores, which can encourage competitiveness and a sense of accomplishment.
  • Avatars and other forms of personalization.
  • User-driven help and feedback. Users (particularly engineers, in my experience) love to be experts. Leverage this to support your help forums if you need them.

Online, offline, crunching numbers at work, immersed in a game, sitting in a classroom, or building a barn, a sense of fun doesn’t just add surface emotional value, it frequently improves the quality of the work and adds pleasant associations, making us more likely to retrieve useful data for later application. Perhaps this is why so many artists and scientists have been known for a sense of play. And for most of us, it’s during childhood – the time we are learning the most at the fastest rate – that we are typically our most playful.

All websites are to some extent educational. Even a straightforward retail site wants you to learn what they offer, how to choose an item, and how to pay for it. Perhaps we can take a tip from our childhood and incorporate more fun into the user experience. Then we can learn how best to learn.

Originally posted on former personal blog UXtraordinary.com.

Messy is fun: challenging Occam’s razor

design thinking, psychology, taxonomy

The scientific method is the most popular form of scientific inquiry, because it provides measurable testing of a given hypothesis. This means that once an experiment is performed, whether the results were negative or positive, the foundation on which you are building your understanding is a little more solid, and your perspective a little broader. The only failed experiment is a poorly designed one.

So, how to design a good experiment? The nuts and bolts of a given test will vary according to the need at hand, but before you even go about determining what variable to study, take a step back and look at the context. The context in which you are placing your experiment will determine what you’re looking for and what variables you choose. The more limited the system you’re operating in, the easier your test choices will be, but the more likely you are to miss something useful. Think big. Think complicated. Then narrow things down.

But, some say, simple is good! What about Occam’s razor and the law of parsimony (entities should not be unnecessarily multiplied)?

Occam’s razor is a much-loved approach that helps make judgment calls when no other options are available. It’s an excellent rule of thumb for interpreting uncertain results. Applying Occam’s razor, you can act “as if” and move on to the next question, and go back if it doesn’t work out.

Still, too many people tend to use it to set up the context of the question, unconsciously limiting the kind of question they can ask and limiting the data they can study. It’s okay to do this consciously, by focusing on a simple portion of a larger whole, but not in a knee-jerk fashion because “simple is better.” Precisely because of this, several scientists and mathematicians have suggested anti-razors. These do not necessarily undermine Occam’s razor. Instead, they phrase things in a manner that helps keep you focused on the big picture.

Some responses to Occam’s concept include these:

Einstein: Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.

Leibniz: The variety of beings should not rashly be diminished.

Menger: Entities must not be reduced to the point of inadequacy.

My point is not that Occam’s razor is not a good choice in making many decisions, but that one must be aware that there are alternative views. Like choosing the correct taxonomy in systematics, choosing different, equally valid analytic approaches to understand any given question can radically change the dialogue. In fact, one can think of anti-razors as alternative taxonomies for thought: ones that let you freely think about the messy things, the variables you can’t measure, the different perspectives that change the very language of your studies. You’ll understand your question better, because you’ll think about it more than one way. And while you’ll need to pick simple situations to test your ideas, the variety and kind of situations you can look at will be greatly expanded.

Plus, messy is fun.

Originally posted on former personal blog UXtraordinary.com.

Zombie ideas

psychology

In 1974 Robert Kirk wrote about the “zombie idea,” describing the concept that the universe, the circle of life, humanity, and our moment-to-moment existence could all have developed, identically with “particle-for-particle counterparts,” and yet lack feeling and consciousness. The idea is that evolutionally speaking, it is not essential that creatures evolved consciousness or raw feels in order to evolve rules promoting survival and adaptation. Such a world would be a zombie world, acting and reasoning but just not getting it (whatever “it” is).

I am not writing about Kirk’s idea. (At least, not yet.)

Rather, I’m describing the term in the way it was used in 1998, by four University of Texas Health Science Center doctors, in a paper titled, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Health Care Zombies: Discredited Ideas That Will not Die
(pdf). Here the relevant aspect of the term “zombie” is refusal to die, despite being killed in a reasonable manner. Zombie ideas are discredited concepts that nonetheless continue to be propagated in the culture.

While they (and just today, Paul Krugman) use the term, they don’t explicate it in great detail. I thought it might be fun to explore the extent to which a persistent false concept is similar to a zombie.

  • A zombie idea is dead.
    For the vast majority of the world, the “world is flat” is a dead idea. For a few, though, the “world is flat” virus has caught hold, and this idea persists even in technologically advanced cultures.
  • A zombie idea is contagious.
    Some economists are fond of the concept of “binary herd behavior.” The idea is that when most people don’t know about a subject, they tend to accept the view of the person who tells them about it; and they tend to do that in an all-or-nothing manner. Then they pass that ignorant acceptance on to the next person, who accepts it just as strongly. (More about the tyranny of the dichotomy later.) So, when we’re children and our parents belong to Political Party X, we may be for Political Party X all the way, even though we may barely know what a political party actually is.
  • A zombie idea is hard to kill.
    Some zombie viruses are very persistent. For example, most people still believe that height and weight is a good calculator to determine your appropriate calorie intake. Studies, however, repeatedly show that height and weight being equal, other factors can change the body’s response.Poor gut flora, certain bacteria, and even having been slightly overweight in the past can mean that of two people of the same height and weight, one will eat the daily recommended calories and keep their weight steady, and one will need to consume 15% less in order to maintain the status quo. Yet doctors and nutritionists continue to counsel people to use the national guidelines to determine how much to eat.
  • A zombie idea eats your brain.
    Zombie ideas, being contagious and false, are probably spreading through binary thinking. A part of the brain takes in the data, marks it as correct, and because it works in that all-or-nothing manner, contradictory or different data has a harder time getting the brain’s attention. It eats up a part of brain’s memory, and by requiring more processing power to correct it, eats up your mental processing time as well.It also steals all the useful information you missed because your brain just routed the data right past your awareness, thinking it knew the answer.
  • Zombies are sometimes controlled by a sorcerer, or voodoo bokor.
    Being prey to zombie ideas leaves you vulnerable. If you have the wrong information, you are more easily manipulated by the more knowledgeable. Knowledge, says Mr. Bacon, is power.
  • Zombies have no higher purpose than to make other zombies.
    Closely related to the previous point. Even if you are not being manipulated, your decision-making suffers greatly when you are wrongly informed. You are also passing on your wrong information to everyone you talk to about it. Not being able to fulfill your own purposes, you are simply spreading poor data.

So we see that the tendency to irony is not just useful in and of itself, but useful in helping prevent zombie brain infections. As lunchtime is nearly over, and I can’t think of more similarities, I’m stopping here to get something to eat.

[Exit Alex stage right, slouching, mumbling, “Must…eat…brains.”]

Originally posted on former personal blog UXtraordinary.com.