Don’t Ask Me about UI/UX

Readers with up-to-date Twitter skills will recognize the classic Willem Defoe meme.  I have been doing web apps for a long time, and it seems everybody is an expert in UI and UX – both!  They have, as Jamie puts it, a “flair” for web design.  Genius-level stuff, like green CTA buttons because green means go.

What will it look like? I don’t care.

On a recent gig, the first thing I did was replace hi-fi mockups with Balsamiq.  The product team had been killing themselves to do mocks in Figma, and failing, and then wrangling with the UI developers well into each sprint.  There’s a good reason why Balsamiq uses scratchy lines and a comic font, which the crew understood instantly.

Is this what it’s going to look like?  No!  What will it look like?  I don’t care!  Well, I do care, but I studiously avoid having an opinion about web design because I respect the professional competence of my UI/UX team.  I have a habit of saying “I don’t care,” when what I really mean is: I don’t want to interfere in a decision better made by actual experts.

We know exactly what the page will do, from business analysis and functional design.  We also know roughly what it will look like, from the style guide.  But, what will it look like, exactly?  I am content to wait and see, and BTW we’re agile and we’re AB testing – so it will change, anyway.

Brah, where’s your queuing service?

Everybody thinks they’re an expert because UI/UX is the presentation layer.  It’s (seemingly) just visual.  People think, hey, my socks match my pants, so I can play too.  Oddly, no one ever offers advice on how to do the data layer, or what message bus to use.

Cost Accounting with Scrum

Here is another in my occasional series on the finer points of scrum.  See also Sprint Planning with Time Separation.  Cost accounting seems inimical to scrum, philosophically, and also infeasible.  We use story points for a reason, and then we let the team discover its velocity through experience.  Neither of these numbers is readily convertible into dollars, but that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

If the latest sprint delivered 70 story points, those points are worth $402 each.

Our goal is to calculate how much was spent to develop a certain feature.  This can be to support a cost-benefit analysis, to track development as a capital investment, or to claim an R&D tax credit.

The team’s velocity is the number of story points it can complete in one sprint, typically two weeks.  Velocity changes from one sprint to the next, but the key is – we know the velocity of the most-recent sprint, and that’s the one we need to account for.

We also know how much it costs to run a sprint.  Let’s say that we have a seven-person scrum team with an aggregate base salary of $677,500.  Adding an 8% burden rate and dividing by 26, we calculate that the cost per sprint is $28,142.

So, if the latest sprint delivered 70 story points, those points are worth $402 each.  Now, let’s say that two capital projects absorbed 65 of the 70 points, plus a stray five-point story that fixed a bug or something.  It was a regular expense.  Here is the cost allocation:

It’s easy enough for the scrum master to load these figures into an accounting system at the end of each sprint, but it does require each user story to be tagged with the project it represents.  If you’re using Jira, it’s best to group the stories into epics, which represent new features, and include the capital project identifier (i.e., an account number) on the epic.

Rethinking Electric Cars

While battery-electric (BEV) vehicles may help reduce atmospheric greenhouse (GHG) gases, their production damages the environment in other ways, including water pollution.  Furthermore, BEV production is so energy-intensive that, on a lifecycle basis, they produce almost as much carbon emissions as traditional internal combustion (ICE) vehicles.

The lithium-ion battery in an Audi e-Tron weighs 1,500 pounds, making this “green” vehicle heavier than a Dodge Ram pickup truck.  The same goes for Tesla.  Upscale electric cars are monstrously heavy, with minimum 1,000-pound battery packs.  It’s easy to see how this extra weight must entail extra mining, milling, and manufacturing.

More plebeian vehicles, like the Chevy Bolt, still carry 400 pounds of battery.  Depending on the battery type, this might include 10-15 pounds of lithium, similar amounts of cobalt and manganese, and maybe 100 pounds of aluminum.  These elements all come from nasty, toxic, open-pit mines in places like Mongolia, Chile, and the Congo.

“In Chile’s Atacama salt flats, mining consumes, contaminates and diverts scarce water resources away from local communities”

Sixty percent of the world’s cobalt comes from “artisanal” mines in the Congo.  That’s a fancy way of saying that African children dig for it in the mud.  If you don’t believe me, believe the photos from Amnesty and the UN.  The Katanga region has been named one of the world’s ten most polluted areas.  As one Twitter wag put it, “electric cars transfer pollution to poor communities and sanctimony to rich ones.”

Lithium is produced either by mining or from brine evaporation.  The latter process is cheap and effective, but uses roughly 500,000 gallons of water per ton of lithium.  This has been a problem for local farmers in Chile.  Apart from direct water consumption, both processes have the potential to leak toxic chemicals into the water supply.

Lithium production has been growing rapidly to meet the demand for electric vehicles, and now stands at 100,000 tons per year.  Demand forecasts to 2030 range from 2 to 3 million tons – that is, 20 to 30 times current production capacity.

The mine at Thacker Pass in Nevada sheds some light on the economics.  Lithium recently hit a record $71,000 per ton.  Producing one ton of lithium entails strip mining 500 tons of earth, and Thacker Pass has the potential to produce 60,000 tons of lithium per year.

You may think that we have no choice but to despoil the planet in search of battery metals, because climate change is the greater threat.  Consider, though, how much diesel fuel is burned by all of these mining operations.  On a lifecycle basis, electric vehicles barely improve upon the GHG emissions of a traditional ICE vehicle.

“We estimate the GWP from EV production to be 87 to 95 grams carbon dioxide equivalent per kilometer (g CO2-eq/km), which is roughly twice the 43 g CO2-eq/km associated with ICEV production”

An electric vehicle begins its service life with roughly double the carbon footprint of an ICE vehicle.  Thereafter, it will produce less GHG depending on the local power source.  As of this writing, 60% of electricity in the U.S. is generated from fossil fuels.

Lifecycle emissions for the BEV break even with the ICE vehicle around 80,000 miles of use.  Here is a recent research note placing the breakeven point at 124,000 miles, and here is an ambitious study which calculates the total global warming potential (GWP) along with other forms of ecological damage.

Below is the chart from the study.  You can see that the various electric vehicles improve slightly on ICE vehicles for GWP, but look at those other metrics!

In case you don’t have the legend in front of you, those four metrics where the electric vehicles far exceed ICE vehicles are:

  • Human toxicity
  • Freshwater eco-toxicity
  • Freshwater eutrophication
  • Mineral resource depletion

It’s the water pollution that bothers me.  Water scarcity is one of the principal threats from global warming, already a clear and present danger, and yet here we are polluting tons of it to make batteries.

The great hope here is recycling.  To the extent that minerals can be reclaimed from batteries at the end of their service life, this could reduce demand for new mining.  Unfortunately, current capabilities for recycling are not great.  They have low yields, and they’re energy-intensive.

So, it’s that catch-22 again, where we burn a load of fossil fuel to recycle our “green” batteries.  If car makers really had faith in recycling, they would not be pressing the government to relax environmental protections around lithium, cobalt, and nickel mining.

The tragedy is that ICE vehicles were making good progress toward the fabled circular economy.  When I worked for BMW, there was a goal to make cars 95% recyclable.  Our engineers designed everything to be removed, refurbished, and recycled into new cars.  If someone ever figures out “net zero” recycling, I’m sure it will be BMW, but meanwhile we are facing a growing pile of battery waste.

I have kept this post short by focusing only on the ecological dangers of battery-electric vehicles, and overlooking other challenges, like grid capacity.  Nor have I discussed alternatives, of which there are many.  There are social solutions, like mass transit and remote work, as well as engineering solutions.

“Electrification is a technology chosen by politicians, not by industry.”

In this interview, Carlos Tavares alludes to EV hybrids.  Other solutions, like fuel cells and hydrogen combustion, have received a fraction of the attention and investment given to electric vehicles.  As Tavares says, this is a result of politicians’ need to be seen taking action, even if that action is ill-advised.

With mandates in one hand, and billions of incentive money in the other, politicians are stampeding the industry toward their chosen technology.  This is not the right way to stimulate innovation.  Regulators should specify a carbon-emissions target, taking the full lifecycle into account, and then allow industry R&D to find the best solution.

The Power of Experience

I have been rereading Gary Klein’s landmark book on decision-making, Sources of Power.  Klein’s genius was something other sciences take for granted: field work.  Klein and his team spent years studying how experts make high-stakes decisions in real life.  This is truly “what they don’t teach you in business school.”

The short version is that formal methods for decision making are rarely used in real-life conditions.  Indeed, the people studied by Klein were not even conscious of making decisions.  They just knew what to do.  When a surgeon must make a snap decision, with someone’s life on the line, there’s no time for a weighted-factor analysis.

Most research on decision-making bleaches out the importance of prior experience

Klein points out that most psychology research, in an effort to produce controlled conditions, bleaches out the importance of prior experience.  If you do all your research in a laboratory, then you will only learn how people make decisions in a laboratory – not in combat, say, or a forest fire.

Like his better-known colleagues Kahneman and Tversky, much of Klein’s research was funded by military organizations.  They would like their gunners and squadron leaders not to make fatal blunders under fire.  Also included are doctors, firefighters, and nuclear power plant operators.

The power of experience seems obvious enough, but Klein figured out exactly how it works, in a framework called the Recognition-Primed Decision Model.  This consists of using imagination plus experience to generate possible courses of action, and then conducting mental simulations to predict the likely results.

Sources of Power

Various “sources of power” follow from the model:

  • Expert Intuition
  • Mental Simulation
  • Finding Leverage Points
  • Detecting Anomalies
  • Reasoning by Analogy
  • Anticipating Intentions

What we think of as intuition is really expert recognition.  One firefighter recounted a narrow escape because he’d had a “premonition” the building he was working in was about to collapse.  This might have been a warning from God – or it might have been the million subtle cues he was unconsciously observing.

This may seem like a different realm from business, where we have ample time to make decision trees, compute expected values, perform cost-benefit analyses, and – there’s always time for one more Big Four consulting study.  This is an illusion, however.  Whether they know it or not, managers are under constant pressure to make decisions and take action faster than their competitors.

A good plan, executed right now, beats a perfect plan executed next week.

My mentor at AutoNation, Kevin Westfall, had a plaque in his office with this quote from General George S. Patton, “a good plan, executed right now, is far better than a perfect plan executed next week.”  Kevin and I had both arrived from our previous employer with some impatience over their decision protocols.

Recognition-Primed Decision Making

In an area that could easily devolve into pop psychology, I was impressed by Klein’s scientific rigor.  Every study is cross-checked, blind, double-blind, sanitized, etc.  Every result is turned into a training program, and then the trainees are tested.  In one project, his team redesigned the user interface for a computerized weapons system, making its operators 20% more effective.

Since experience is so powerful, Klein takes up the question of how best to gain it.  That is, what are the key lessons from the old-timers in various domains?  In the infantry, this might mean knowing how fast your squad can move over terrain, what their best range is for engagement, and being able to gauge those distances by eye.

The cornerstone of the book is the RPD framework, and then Klein spends a chapter on each “source of power,” plus his research methods and training programs.  If that sounds like too much psychology for you, skip the text and just read the case studies.  They’re amazing.