Learning useful stuff from the Human cognition chapter of my book

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

What useful, practical things might professional software developers learn from the Human cognition chapter in my evidence-based software engineering book (an updated beta was release this week)?

Last week I checked the human cognition chapter; what useful things did I learn (combined with everything I learned during all the other weeks spent working on this chapter)?

I had spent a lot of time of learning about cognition when writing my C book; for this chapter I was catching up on what had happened in the last 10 years, which included: building executable models has become more popular, sample size has gotten larger (mostly thanks to Mechanical Turk), more researchers are making their data available on the web, and a few new theories (but mostly refinements of existing ideas).

Software is created by people, and it always seemed obvious to me that human cognition was a major topic in software engineering. But most researchers in computing departments joined the field because of their interest in maths, computers or software. The lack of interested in the human element means that the topic is rarely a research topic. There is a psychology of programming interest group, but most of those involved don’t appear to have read any psychology text books (I went to a couple of their annual workshops, and while writing the C book I was active on their mailing list for a few years).

What might readers learn from the chapter?

Visual processing: the rationale given for many code layout recommendations is plain daft; people need to learn something about how the brain processes images.

Models of reading. Existing readability claims are a joke (or bad marketing, take your pick). Researchers have been using eye trackers, since the 1960s, to figure out what actually happens when people read text, and various models have been built. Market researchers have been using eye trackers for decades to work out where best to place products on shelves, to maximise sales. In the last 10 years software researchers have started using eye trackers to study how people read code; next they need to learn about some of the existing models of how people read text. This chapter contains some handy discussion and references.

Learning and forgetting: it takes time to become proficient; going on a course is the start of the learning process, not the end.

One practical take away for readers of this chapter is being able to give good reasons how other people’s proposals, that are claimed to be based on how the brain operates, won’t work as claimed because that is not how the brain works. Actually, most of the time it is not possible to figure out whether something will work as advertised (this is why user interface testing is such a prolonged, and expensive, process), but the speaker with the most convincing techno-babble often wins the argument :-)

Readers might have a completely different learning experience from reading the human cognition chapter. What useful things did you learn from the human cognition chapter?