What we say versus what we do

I’ve been hunting design heuristics for a couple of years. I’ve had conversations with designers in order to draw out their “go to” heuristics. I’ve joined design and programming sessions with experienced designers and captured on-the-fly what we were doing. My goal is to learn ways to effectively find heuristics in the wild, distill them, and then share them broadly.

But lately, I’ve been thinking about how to deal with this puzzle: What people say they do isn’t what they really do.

Let me give you an example. I joined the Cucumber folks last summer for several remote mobbing sessions. One heuristic they shared with me was this:

Heuristic: the person who has the most to learn (or knows the least about how to solve the problem) should take on the role of driver.

In “classic” mob programming as initially described, the person who is the driver and has his or her hands on the keyboard follows guidance of navigators—other mobbers who ostensibly guide the driver on what to do in order to make progress.

“In this “Driver/Navigator” pattern, the Navigator is doing the thinking about the direction we want to go, and then verbally describes and discusses the next steps of what the code must do. The Driver is translating the spoken English into code. In other words, all code written goes from the brain and mouth of the Navigator through the ears and hands of the Driver into the computer.”

What I observed the Cucumber mob doing was somewhat different. Sometimes the driver had an initial design idea and was keen to try it out. In this case, they often actively navigated and drove at the same time. Occasionally others would comment and offer advice. But mostly they just watched the design and implementation unfold. Sometimes that eager driver asked the others, should we try this now? But instead of waiting an uncomfortable length of time for them to chime in, the driver often continued on without any discussion. And I don’t think that driver was asking a rhetorical question. They wanted feedback if someone had any.

At other times the driver would stop to collect their thoughts and force a discussion. In this case the driver became uncomfortable when they didn’t get enough feedback. And sometimes they took themselves out of the driver’s role, asking someone else to fill in. In short, while I observed that driver was often in control of the wheel (and forward progress), at the same time, they didn’t overly dominate. Drivers rotated. Every one got their turn. But how these switches happened was very dynamic.

In all fairness, the mob programming website did touch on drivers and their participation in discussions:

“The main work is Navigators “thinking , describing, discussing, and steering” what we are designing/developing. The coding done by the Driver is simply the mechanics of getting actual code into the computer. The Driver is also often involved in the discussions, but her main job is to translate the ideas into code.”

While the main job of the driver may be “mechanics,” the small fast moving Cucumber team didn’t insist that getting the code into the computer be the driver’s main function. Now mind you, I suspect being remote affected their style of communications. They also knew each other well and knew each others’ common design approaches and preferences.

So why did the Cucumber mob behave this way? Did they believe one way but consciously act in another way? Did they intentionally lie about their heuristics? Or were they deceiving themselves? Are people wired to explain what they do through some kind of distortion field? How often do people believe one thing (and hold it up as an ideal) but then choose alternative heuristics? If so, is this OK?

I’m not sure the team was aware that their ways of driving/navigating deviated from the conventional driver/navigator roles until I shared my observations with them. I suspect that when they first started mobbing they were more rigorous about following the “rules” for these roles. Over time they found their own ways of working. And so the heuristics they collectively use to decide what to do, what design approach to try next, and how they interact with each other are much more fluid and nuanced than the simple descriptions of drivers and navigators on the mob programming website. They don’t exactly go “by the book.” And I suspect their heuristics for how they work together are still evolving.

So how should I as a heuristics hunter reconcile my simple goal of distilling essential heuristics with the messy realities I find on the ground?

Should I plunge into a concerted effort to sort out and formulate more nuanced heuristics? The short answer is, yes. While I want to find and record both general and more particular heuristics, I’m not inclined to want to sort them out into tidy, neat categories. After all, as Billy Vaughn Koen says, there is more than one way to solve any design problem and more than one heuristic that can work. By recording these nuances, I hope to get richer insights into the different conditions and cases and situations that lead to choosing them.

This still leaves me with one nagging question: How can I reconcile what people say they do and believe with what they actually do? My (current) approach is that as I distill heuristics I also describe the context where I find them. Should it bother me that designers don’t do as they say they do all the time? Probably not. After all, we’re wonderfully creative problem solvers. And there are always options.

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