Email is not a fat pipe. We forget this at our peril.

Posted by amy on June 11, 2007

The other day we put a prototype build of a web app up for our clients. Fire away at it, we said. Tell us what is wrong with it! We even had a section in the release notes called “How to be a QA person” (It’s a small project, we don’t have QA, hence our clients are, basically, QA).

Of course, we were pretty proud of our app. Of course, they came back with lists and lists of embarrassing bugs, complaints, features they didn’t understand, etc. The lists were not bracketed by nice polite “we love the app, we’ve just got a couple of teensy little issues with it.” Although the emails they came back in were entitled “Bugs 1, 2, 3, etc.” not everything in the lists were actually bugs. Developers are very defensive about “bugs”. The typical user considers anything that doesn’t work the way he wants/expects it to to be a bug. The typical developer considers bugs to be only things where they, personally, wrote code whose logic was not correct.

So Max comes in to me and says “wow, what do we do about the clients and all their bug reports?!” Our immediate emotional reaction to their emails was that they were irrationally pissed at us and didn’t understand anything about how software development works and were a pain in the ass and were probably going to fire us for giving them such buggy code.

But then we were able to sit back, take a deep breath, and reason together:

First, our clients did exactly what we asked them to do, and they did it well. They gave us fantastic feedback on the app that would help us focus on the most valuable changes we could make for them. When clients don’t give feedback, you’re screwed, because you don’t know how to make them happy. Our first emotional response is normal, and we’ll probably never get rid of it. In fact, we probably shouldn’t get rid of it, because the emotional response is there to kick our asses.

However. (And this is my completely based-on-popular-science-books-by-eminent-yet-readable-professors-theory). When dealing with other humans, we humans expect a fat pipe. We evolved for person-to-person, face-to-face contact. Our faces, bodies, and voices are unbelievably expressive. Compared to the fat pipe of person-to-person contact, words in email are a trickle of information. So when we get an email that elicits any kind of emotional response at all, our brains start flailing around wildly, looking for all the meta-information we expect to come along with it: the expression on the face, the tone of voice, the direction they were looking, and so on. And when we can’t find it, we make stuff up. In no time, we’ve filled up the fat pipe and satisfied our “what do we do now?” programming with _entirely false, absolutely imaginary information_. Those of us who are naturally pessimistic generate false, depressing information. This makes our initial, proper and correct ass-kicking emotional response escalate into a neurotic, counterproductive, self-perpetuating emotional response. Not good for business.

One moral of this story is that developers should not take user complaints personally. This is obvious but easily forgotten. The other moral of this story is the one I’m really interested in: when our brains don’t have the information they expect to have, they just make it up. And it’s really easy not to notice when it happens, because the made up information looks just like all the actual-based-on-fact information our brains have collected. Hence the unreliability of witnesses.

The lesson, then, is that, for stuff that matters, _don’t assume your brain has the facts right_. Take the time to sort out what you can possibly have evidence for from what you just made up because you _didn’t_ have any evidence.

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    1. Audrey Mon, 11 Jun 2007 14:28:29 UTC

      Good things to remind everyone of. I have the same emotional response to those kinds of bugs (what do you mean? It’s doing exactly what I told it to!). But how would the client know that?

    2. Zack Tue, 26 Jun 2007 01:42:50 UTC

      Thanks for the exposition, both in the direct lesson, as well as what was for me at least, a nice jump-off point for musing on the lossy compression algorithms of our human brains (i.e. conjecture/inference). Not too hard to imagine that evolving as a survival tool, a competitive advantage over those slower brains that required more data to discern saber-tooth tiger rustling in the bushes from other forms of rustling.

    3. Ryan J. McDonough Tue, 23 Oct 2007 07:20:40 UTC

      My wife just pointed me to this post as a recent email just elicited the same feelings you just described. So I guess I’ll leave the gun at home then. Thanks!