In the Valley of the Unknown Gnomes

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Gnome Ungnome

I’ve been trying to get my head around this buzz-phrase since I first heard it, but unfortunately I keep coming back to the concept of Unknown Gnomes (thanks Miss Wohl!). I just can’t stop thinking about those little men in pointy hats, friendless and alone in the Gnome world. Rumsfeld and Peter Sawyer have a lot to answer for (though the latter once lent me a craft knife so I could make a box into a conference video for CHI).

Really? Ok so this has more to do with software development and user experience than I’ve let on. I think it has a lot more to do with philosophy than I’d like to attempt to begin to let on. But it DOES have a lot to do with psychology. Which is something I used to think I knew about, and don’t mind trying to let on. It’s probably an Known Unknown, or is it an Unknown Known?

There are some great studies on anterograde amnesia that I remember from my 4 year foray into good old fashioned brain science. Clive Wearing suffered a brain infection and was left with one of the most severe cases of amnesia recorded. He had about 10 seconds in which to make sense of the world, before everything started again. He had his memory prior to the accident, but was unable to form new long term memory traces. However: he could still play the piano. His musical memory was intact.

This kind of memory is usually classified as procedural – i.e. we can ride a bicycle or swim but can’t really explain how. It is based in muscle movements and brain processes somehow distinct from the plotline of Starship Troopers. So how does this relate to Rumsfeld and software development? Well this kind of memory could be described as tacit, that is, it is something that the individual knows [how to do], but not how to articulate. Tacit knowledge is an Unknown Known – that we know but cannot express. I like to think that if I suffered a brain injury I’d still be able to draw (though not as compulsively as this man).

The Unknown Known concept can also find its feet in Luft and Ingham’s Johari Window. In fact, Rumsfeld’s Knowns map onto this pretty well, as does the Unknown Known, except in this case it is being used to describe interpersonal relationships. If you think about concealed knowledge (another Unknown Known) then this would be that which you know but that is not known to others. (This is getting a wee bit confusing: Peter Piper Picked a Peck…).

SO… you’re building some software and you want to know what the user wants, you want to know what the client wants, but both either can’t tell you, won’t tell you or don’t realize that you even want to know. Ready to give up? Why not enjoy some action research – put yourself in the place of the person you are trying to elicit requirements from, eat the same breakfast, read the same newspaper (or webcomic). Then go home and write and draw what you think you know. Have some structured interviews. Draw some pictures – yes, do it. If someone sees what they think you’re going to be building they are sure as hell going to comment if they don’t like it (they’ll maybe also tell you if they DO like it, but complaints are more forthcoming). This is also in support of Agile – lots of quick builds and prototypes – get your feedback as soon as possible. Turn That Frown Upside Known.

What I’m trying to say is that when it comes to requirements, both the user and the client can help you find the Unknown Knowns, but only if you are willing to put in a little creative effort to find out. Even knowing about Unknown Knowns means you are on the right track. Ask your person what they take for granted that you already know, if there’s anything they might be hiding, if there’s anything they want but can’t tell you (if this is the case get out the pencil and start drawing, you might see a glimmer of recognition on their face).