Is easy the same as hard?

Posted by Doc
Oct 11 2010

Many, many years ago, when I was actively engaged in writing, designing, and architecting software applications and systems, I established for myself two guiding principles for the user interface*:

  1. Make it as easy as possible for the user to get it right.
  2. Make it as hard as possible for the user to get it wrong.

Are they the same thing? They seem to be on the surface.

They are not the same thing at all.

guide_nbgFrom the UI standpoint, the first means offering hints, guidance, and making it obvious what the user is supposed to do. The second means constraining the user with dropdown lists and radio buttons and wizardy things so that they have fewer choices and fewer paths to choose.

I was thinking about this in terms of adopting new practices. Is it possible to apply these same principles?

At a large organization, as they started the point of the wedge – their first few Agile projects – they created a set of artifacts. They had recommended procedures, examples of documents, photos of card walls and reports, and the like. They also said “new projects will do this particular thing this way”. My first reaction was “that’s too prescriptive!” After all, we talk about Agile being suggestions or recommendations, not a set of prescriptions. And yet, for an organization or a team that is starting something new, where and how do they start?

Certainly, I am comfortable recommending training and coaching. What I’ve experienced in both is that we offer our suggestions and recommendations, right? How many times have you learned something new from someone else and decided that doing just what they showed you was the best way to get started? In fact, isn’t that one of the most basic ways to learn new skills? To imitate your teacher/mentor/guide/master? Certainly when I studied the martial arts, that’s what we did.

So let’s take my two principles and examine them in the context of adopting new practices and learning new skills.

Make it as easy as possible for them to get it right

Training is an example of this. It offers guidance, example artifacts, some tools, and so on. This doesn’t constrain them, but rather provides some boundaries and guidelines that help them find and stay on the right path.

Make it as hard as possible for them to get it “wrong”

Okay, first I have to argue with myself about the word wrong. Let’s change that to “make it as hard as possible for them to go very far down rat holes.”

How prescriptive is it reasonable to be, when working with adoption? Is it okay to say “do a burn-up chart, and do it this way” at the beginning? How about stand-ups? Pairing, automated testing, continuous integration, card walls,…

If we consider this in the context of learning models, maybe it’ll all make sense:


confused-flipped“Shuhari is a Japanese martial art concept, and describes the stages of learning to mastery.”

“During the Shu phase the student should loyally follow the instruction of a single teacher; the student is not yet ready to explore and compare different paths.”

Four Stages of Competence**

“The Four Stages of Learning describe how a person learns, progressing from 1. Unconscious Incompetence (you don’t know that you don’t know something), to 2. Conscious Incompetence (you are now aware that you are incompetent at something), to 3. Conscious Competence (you develop a skill in that area but have to think about it), to the final stage 4. Unconscious Competence (you are good at it and it now comes naturally).”

The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition**

“The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition is a model of how students acquire skills through formal instruction and practicing. Brothers Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus proposed the model in 1980 in an influential, 18-page report on their research at the University of California, Berkeley, Operations Research Center for the United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research. The model proposes that a student passes through five distinct stages: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert.”

“In the novice stage, a person follows rules as given, without context, with no sense of responsibility beyond following the rules exactly. Competence develops when the individual develops organizing principles to quickly access the particular rules that are relevant to the specific task at hand; hence, competence is characterized by active decision making in choosing a course of action. Proficiency is shown by individuals who develop intuition to guide their decisions and devise their own rules to formulate plans. The progression is thus from rigid adherence to rules to an intuitive mode of reasoning based on tacit knowledge.”

[Thanks, Pat Kua, for your thoughtful writing on this topic.]

Where does this all lead me?

In all of these models, and many more that are out there, there is a consistent progression: ignorance, rules/teaching, practice with guidance, achieving some level of mastery.

In being a change agent, coach, master, teacher, or mentor, it’s important to remember that in the beginning it is appropriate to offer more rules and constraints. The student – the person, team, or organization – isn’t ready to really think about things yet. Offering these constraints, however, leaves the student free to think. By reducing their degrees of freedom of choice in the early stages, we also reduce the need to think about what they’re doing and give them the freedom to think about why they’re doing it and what it means to and for them.

So make it easy and make it hard.

* This all predates the exciting work that was to come in the area of User Experience, which all started for me with Alan Cooper’s book “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum”.

** Quotes from Wikipedia

3 Responses

  1. All the examples of the learning environments you’ve mentioned above have one thing in common: guidance. Someone to encourage people to think for themselves as they progress by asking questions to verify understanding.

    What do you do with the organizations that are looking to get started with agile, standing at the point of unconscious incompetence, and failing to perceive their need to involve outside help (i.e. a consultant)? In some office cultures, consultant is a four letter word.

    I think most of the people who say “We tried Agile and it didn’t work,” are the ones who pick up Scrum for about three months without adding any engineering practices to support it (i.e. XP). I’m also assuming that these same people have been to college and would happily pay for their kids to take karate lessons. What’s the disconnect?

    • Doc says:

      The fact that people/organizations refuse to ask for help when they need help is pathological, and there’s nothing you/I can do about it unless they ask for our help.

      Agile Coaches (and yes, I’m deliberately capitalizing the words) exist because they are needed. While there are some, no doubt, who are in it primarily for the money, most of the ones I know are in it because they believe in what they do and how they do it. So organizations who think of Agile Coaches as Consultants, and who think Consultant is a four letter word need to – umm – get their heads into the sunshine.

      There’s just no good/easy answer for these organizations. You just can’t learn this stuff from a book.

      They remind me of the movie Kick-Ass. The kid, with all the best of intentions, gets his butt kicked repeatedly because he’s tried to learn stuff from books and movies.

      Those people who say “we tried Agile and it didn’t work”? They probably bought a book or took a seminar or listened to a friend/colleague. They frustrate me, and also motivate me to do better at helping them to understand the challenges.

  2. […] The idea of a constant progression toward mastery (which takes me back to Shu Ha Ri and my post Is easy the same as hard?). […]

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