Guest Blog: Words Matter

This morning my colleague Rob Hanz wrote an interesting email that went viral in my corner of Microsoft. He graciously allowed me to share it with you here. I hope you enjoy it too.

Blink and subconscious messaging
Robert Hanz

I was reading Blink last night, and one of the things it mentioned is how subconscious signals can significantly impact conscious activity. For instance, one experiment took jumbled, semi-random words and had the subjects arrange them into sentences. After they finished these, they would need to go down to the hall and speak to a person at an office to sign out of the test.

But the test wasn’t the actual sentences – mixed in with the words to form sentences were one of two sets of words. One set had a lot of words regarding patience and cooperation, while the other had words regarding belligerence and impatience. The test was to see the behavior of the student when the person they needed to talk to was engaged in a conversation and was unable to help them.

The group that had the belligerent words waited, on average, about 5 minutes before interrupting the conversation. The group with the patient wordset waited indefinitely. The test was designed to end after I believe 10 minutes of waiting – not a single “patient” subject ever interrupted the conversation.

Reading this, one of the things that came to mind was some of the different messaging used by waterfall projects vs. agile projects, and how often we hear them.

“Bug” (used for just about anything that needs to be done by a developer)
“Priority one”
“Due by”
(this in addition to the frequently long list of “bugs” that confronts developers every day)

“User story”
“Customer value”
(in addition, the list of work to be done is usually scoped to be possible within a single week)

When I thought about the differences in words, I was really struck by how different the messaging was. In the waterfall case, the message was overwhelmingly negative – it focused on failures, urgency, and almost a sense of distrust. It seemed that the language seemed to be geared around ways that individuals messed up, and how everything is an emergency that must be dealt with immediately. And, if you think about it, in a waterfall culture there is typically no frequent reward or messaging of success – the best you can typically hope for (for much of the cycle) is to avoid failure. And the idea that you’re actually producing value is very much removed from the language.

On the other hand, the agile language itself focuses on results, not failures. Stories are typically “done” or “not done,” and while bugs are certainly tracked, at a high level that’s usually just a statement that the story is “not done.” Combine this with sprint reviews (where the team shows what they’ve accomplished), and the overall message becomes very much focused on the successes of the team, rather than the failures. Progress is measured by value added, not by failures avoided. Even something as low-level as TDD consistently gives its practitioners a frequent message of success with the “green bar.”

While I certainly believe that agile development has many advantages in terms of reducing iteration time and tightening feedback loops, among other things, is it possible that something as simple as the shift in language is also a significant part of the effectiveness? That by priming individuals with messages of success and value, rather than messages of failure, that morale and productivity can be boosted?

Truth In Spam

This afternoon I was just finishing up my next Effective Concurrency article (it’ll be up in a few days), when some spam email arrived. Just as my fingers’ auto-delete macro was about to fire, I noticed something odd about the name of the attachment and did a double-take:


Cool! There must be some kind of new truth-in-advertising laws for spammers.

Yes, I know that as programmers we could argue about naming all day long. We could point out that maybe “virusLoader.gif” or “exploit_exploit_muhaha.gif” would be a little better, and argue about the relative merits of camel case and underscores. But there’s no need; I think “runnable.gif” is short, clear, and definitely good enough. (Evidently someone else thought so too, and just shipped it.)

You Know When Your UI Needs Help When…

Seen at a gas station:


You know your UI has usability issues when people tape multiple signs on your gas pump to help people get through the intricate and error-prone process of purchasing fuel.

Why does the upper note exist? The trouble is that there’s a Debit button but not a Credit button, and so since Credit is the default, users need to remember to override the default before swiping the card. People will sometimes naturally forget the special step because there was originally no reminder that this needed to be done, and because most other pumps don’t work that way. One solution would be to print the information prominently near the card reader, thus standardizing the note and making it more visible. A better and simpler solution would be to do what most pumps do: Avoid the opportunity for forgetting to specify the right thing by having both buttons, Debit and Credit, and simply prompting the user to press one or the other after they swipe their card.

But the trouble behind the lower note is even more blatant and, frankly, inexcusable: Is there any good reason not to conditionally print “ENTER PIN” or “ENTER ZIP,” instead of just always printing “ENTER DATA” which is not only unclear but also one of the classic geeky words to avoid in a consumer-oriented UI?

Then again, I’m amazed that in this day and age I still see output like “1 item(s) purchased.” Apparently it’s still more important to write the programmer-friendly printf( “%d item(s)”, count ) than the user-friendly printf( “%d item%s”, count, (count==1 ? “” : “s”) ).

A Wryly Repurposed Quotation

In my travels, I recently came across this empty store with an almost-empty box beside the front door. As seen in Monterey, CA:


Evidently some character had also noticed the empty store with its empty box, and decided to do a little walk-by wry economic commentary via repurposed quotation. Zooming on the once-empty box:

IMG_0223 IMG_0224

Income in Perspective: 2 Bppl @ $3/day

I just saw a CNN headline that read: “Young workers scrimp to live on $15/wk.” Before reading further, what do you think: Is that stunning and shocking? Or shockingly typical?

The story turned out to be a piece about white-collar workers in China trying to live frugally, spending only 100 Yuan on travel and food during the workweek to conserve funds. Of course, the workers’ actual total expenses and income are higher, because that $15/week figure doesn’t include weekend expenses and other major costs like rent. Even so, the story is considered newsworthy here, and is probably a shock to a number of readers in the western world.

But the headline wouldn’t surprise readers who are familiar with the approximate distribution of income/GDP/wealth in the world.

To illustrate, here are two personal data points from 2006, when my wife and I traveled to Kenya and Zambia to visit friends:

  • Income: In Kenya, we were told that being a staff worker at a safari lodge is considered a good job. What does it pay? About $2 per day, for long hours and six-day weeks. This isn’t unusual; in about 30 countries, including Kenya, more than half of the population earns under $2 per day. An estimated two billion people – 30% of the world’s population – live on an income of less than $3 per day. And $3 per day is about what the attention-grabbing CNN headline implies, though the actual story behind that headline is much less bad.
  • Cost of living: But what happens when we consider, not just dollar-for-dollar comparisons, but purchasing power? Isn’t it less expensive to live in less-developed countries? Yes, it usually is, especially for shelter and services – there’s been some talk lately on the U.S. news about retiring in Mexico as a way for older people to save money in this economy – but the difference for the same quality goods is often less than one might think. In Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, we found there were only three grocery stores [*] having similar goods to what we would expect to find in a U.S.-style Safeway, although of course the Zambian stores were much smaller than U.S. stores (more the size of a medium Trader Joe’s) and offered far less selection diversity (something like a factor of 20 fewer varieties or brands). When we visited one of the stores, I picked up a few Western-style items, totaled the price and converted to U.S. dollars in my head, and found that those comparable products in Lusaka cost nearly the same as we would have paid for the same items in Seattle. Our local friend replied: “Right, nobody who lives here would ever think of buying a can of soda pop.” Certainly not when a can of Coke costs a day’s wage for many people, and doesn’t confer any significant nutritional benefit.

The gulf between the western- and world-median standards of living is, simply put, vast – and growing. The standard of living that’s normal for most of the planet’s population is well nigh unimaginable to many of us in the western world, and even for those of us who’ve been there, it’s one thing to see it and quite another to really understand what such a life would be like. I don’t claim to.


[*] They might well be the only such stores in the country, not just the capital.