What I learned about decisive action and expert systems from electronics class.
I learned my first UX lessons as a teenager. Optimistic science fiction inspired me to work with computers. Authors like Isaac Asimov described a future where computers and software extending the human mind and made the world better.
LESSON 1: DECISIVE ACTION CAN SAVE MORE THAN TIME
Design lessons rarely involve threat to life and limb. OK, maybe it was only blindness, but it was a big deal at the time.
PROBLEM: HOW TO START DESIGNING SOFTWARE
We all have to start somewhere. In my case, to design software, I first had to learn programming. To do that, I had to learn electronics and build a computer. That, my friends, is starting from scratch.
APPROACH: BUILD A COMPUTER SO I COULD DESIGN FOR IT
This was how I came to build an Apple II clone. It was an arduous and error-prone task to solder hundreds of individual connections. It was also tricky. Too much or too little heat and you either fried the board or nothing worked. I enjoyed circuit design and marveled at how Steve Wozniak invented the personal computer, but soldering was just a tedious means to an end.
There are some things you can’t predict. One day, after three hours of soldering with safety glasses, I took off my glasses and put my solder iron away. As it snapped into the wall rack, I felt a sharp pain in my eye. The pain faded after a few seconds so I took the bus home and forgot about it.
NEW PROBLEM: SPOOKY EYE
An hour later, after washing up at home I
discovered freaked out when I looked in the mirror. My left eye was glowing. A bright glow that eclipsed my pupil and yet felt like nothing at all. Just for a moment, it was cool. Sober thoughts intruded. Could this be hot solder from the solder iron “GO SEE THE DOCTOR.” strummed loudly in my head, but I hesitated. He was popular, so seeing my doctor without an appointment involved waiting hours and annoying someone to take me. I considered making an appointment for tomorrow. What’s so bad about a glowing eye?
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?
My intuition won out, so I went to see the doctor. When the long wait was finally over, my doctor broke his stern Austrian manner, actually chuckling as his eyes lit up when he saw the problem. Finally, something interesting! He dismissed my suggestion about waiting until tomorrow. “That solder is fresh. If you came tomorrow, I would damage your eye and still not get it all off. I remove it now or it will corrode and blind you.” Then he casually informed me that I needed to keep my eye open while he slowly and painfully scraped the solder off. The next 20 minutes of scraping were surreal, horrific, but not that painful.
My eye did not corrode and I still enjoy 20/20 vision (so far), but the importance of acting decisively was seared into me that day.
LESSON 1 LEARNED:
When the right action is clear, act now.
Opportunity is a fickle mistress. In a moment of clarity, do not delay. ACT now.
LESSON 2: THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN USELESS & USEFUL SYSTEMS
Having survived building a computer, now I had to figure out “What is a good problem I can solve with this thing?“.
PROBLEM: WHAT IS USEFUL SOFTWARE?
All this tech stuff was prelude to what I wanted: to design solutions to interesting problems. Fortunately, I was handed a good problem. My class had the job of repairing hundreds of old televisions in use at the school, various styles of electron gun behemoths with vacuum tubes. There were always a few that needed fixing and it took time away from designing circuits and gadgets. Diagnosis was what took a long time.
APPROACH: BUILD A TV REPAIR EXPERT SYSTEM
I proposed making software to streamline TV repair. I naively assumed that I knew enough about repairs myself and created a simple menu-based program. For a reported problem, it advised you what to look for and select a choice based on what you observed. Following this pattern of observation, choice and action, it would zero in on the answer in 2-6 steps.
SOLUTION: CROWDSOURCE EXPERT KNOWLEDGE
The problem was that I didn’t know everything about fixing TVs. My classmates dissed it because it was incomplete, so I started again, basing it on the best repairman in my class. It was better, but still didn’t help fix things quicker. Discouraged, I asked the whole class to list things it missed. It turned out everybody knew parts, but nobody knew it all. I wrote it all down and started rewrite #3, shadowing these guys. I updated it every day with new improvements.
Suddenly, the guys stopped deriding it. They now depended on it to guide them because it saved so much time. The striking observation from this was how useless it was when based on one expert and how indispensable it was when it contained everyone’s input.
LESSON 2 LEARNED:
Collaborative expert systems can add tremendous value.
My instructors were surprised that rudimentary programming could yield awesome results, allowing a beginner to fix TVs as quickly as a pro. Today, we’d call it a crowd-sourced expert system.
I learned something about deliver value to users. A valuable design improves what users are already doing, a lesson in authenticity that resonates to this day.