The Human Touch

If you are given a problem to solve, how much does the presentation of that problem matter to your ability to solve it? Imagine that it’s a simple problem… imagine that it is presented in two different ways, both of them simple. It turns out that presentation differences can still make a huge difference. In fact, there is a way to present problems that makes them substantially easiers to solve: make them people problems.


In The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell, we are given a very concrete and suprising example of this. Here it is quoted in its entirety:

Consider the following brain teaser. Suppose I give you four cards labeled with the letters A and D and the numberals 3 and 6. The rule of the game is that a card with a vowel on it always has an even number on the other side. Which of the cards would you have to turn over to prove this rule to be true?

Go ahead and take a few moments to figure that out before continuing on to the answer, and keep track of how long you work on it…

The answer is two: the A card and the three card. The overwhelming majority of people given this test, though, don’t get it right. They tend to answer just the A card, or the A and the six. It’s a hard question. But now let me pose another question. Suppose four people are drinking in a bar. One is drinking Coke. One is sixteen. One is drinking beer and one is twenty-five. Given the rule that no one under twenty -one is allowed to drink beer, which of those people’s IDs do we have to check to make sure the law is being observed?

How long does it take you to figure that out?

Now the answer is easy. In fact, I’m sure that almost everyone will get it right: the beer drinker and the sixteen-year-old. But, as the psychologist Leda Cosmides (who dreamt up this example) points out, it is exactly the same puzzle as the A, D, 3, and 6 puzzle. The difference is that it is framed in a way that makes it about people, instead of about numbers, and as human beings we are a lot more sophisticated about each other than we are about the abstract world.

Now unless you had heard about this before, I suspect you were pretty suprised. I know I was! I always considered myself to be a very good abstract thinker/problem solver. In fact, I considered myself to be well above average in that regard for a number of reasons: I was always very good at math without every memorizing a single formula (I always made them up as I went along as long as I remembered the _idea_ of the formula), I was an excellent programmer in a number of different computer languages including assembler, Miranda, Java, Prolog, Pascal, and Objective-C, and finally, I’m always solving problems by moving the problem to a new level of abstraction – solving the meta-problem first.

So what does all this have to do with agile work methods? Quite a few things actually:

1. Obviously, if you can frame a problem as a people problem, it will be easier to solve… and most problems start out this way!

We tend to try to abstract problems, make them more generic or general purpose in the hopes that they can be communicated more precisely and can be solved in a way that will accomodate contingencies we haven’t thought of yet. But all the effort we put into abstracting the statement of the problem ends up costing us doubly: in the initial abstraction and in the difficulty of solution that results. So if you have a team that is solving a people problem, make sure to keep it a people problem when you give it to the team!

2. If you have a problem that is given to you in an abstract form, try to convert it to a people problem before trying to solve it.

In all likelihood, the moment you do the conversion, you will quickly see the solution. It may even feel like the process of de-abstraction is a problem-solving process. You may have to make really odd connections to make the problem a people problem but it will likely be worthwhile.

3. Dealing with people rather than abstractions on a day-to-day basis will always result in a more effective interaction.

Sending printed documents, writing emails, manipulating symbols are all interesting ways to communicate, but fundamentally, you are communicating with other people. If you can make that communication as direct as possible – phone, video conference, in-person – then there will be far less effort involved in understanding the communication, and far more effort can be allocated to high-bandwidth communication. This obviously has special relevence for teams: get people in the same room as much of the time as possible.


In the software world, there is one technique that I give teams and that is the use of Personas to assist in solving a software problem. The place I first encountered Personas is in the excellent book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper. This book presents some of the basics of the Interaction Design discipline.The bare essense of the Persona is to create a fictional person who represents a user or actor or stakeholder or customer of whatever it is you are building. This fictional person should have a name and all conversation about the thing being built should be couched in the personal language of these Persona’s names. A Persona should also have a short history, a photo and some description of their needs, goals or desires. All of this helps to frame everything about a software project as a people problem… and thus makes it much easier to discuss and solve.


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