Galileo Galilei to no-handoff: using the scientific method to better integrate web development teams

Image credit (moon): Galileo Galilei, illustration from Sidereus Nuncius, Image 23

There is often a tension between development and UX. If you have worked in the web industry for any amount of time you have come up against it at some point. You might be living through it now. It’s so widespead that many of us take it for granted as ‘the way things are’. 

On a functional team the members will amicably find enough common ground to get the job done. But in a worst-case scenario the team fragments while each faction defends the validity of their own work process (spoiler alert: UX loses). 

If you are a developer or work in UX you probably have a storehouse of horror stories. But what if, with some adjustments in project management and process, we can integrate these two workflows? What if development and UX are not only complementary but necessary to each other’s ultimate success?

The scientific method in brief:

The tension between development and UX is old, much older than the web, older even than the scientific method itself. In very broad terms UX is the process through which we quantify the unknown, while development takes quantified data and turns it into a product. One process manages the unknown, the other manages the known, and the tension between them has always been with humanity and gave birth to science itself… a way to tackle the unknown and wrest control back into the realm of what we can comprehend and control.

Galileo Galilei – considered by Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking as the father of the scientific method [1] – thought deeply about process. Scientific inquiry, even the field of science itself, was being rediscovered in Europe during his lifetime and the rules were being written (often by him) as his career progressed. A quote most often attributed to Galileo as it so nimbly sums up his life’s work (though actually by Antoine-Augustin Cournot and Thomas-Henri Martin) exhorts us to “Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.” [2]

Galileo Galilei demonstrating heliocentrism, that the earth revolves around the sun. Image credit: Library of Congress.

Development and UX are essentially two approaches to this process of measurement. Development is built around what has been accurately measured already, while UX exists to try and make measurable what cannot be measured… the unknown. The underlying purpose of Agile is to manage risk, or put another way, to manage the unknown. UX and development each have critical roles to play in successfully navigating the unknown and managing risk.

“Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.”

– Antoine-Augustin Cournot and Thomas-Henri Martin

The scientific process has two basic processes for arriving at conclusions: Inductive and Deductive. Inductive reasoning makes observations, generates hypothesis and theories, and comes to conclusions that will never be 100% certain but only have varying grades of probability. Does this sound like UX to you? Me too. Deductive reasoning on the other hand takes known facts, structures the internal logic of the work to be done around them, and generates something that can be tested and evaluated with certainty. Sound like agile programming? I thought so too.

In today’s world, with the massive amounts of data and information we have to sift through it is not only a question of how to best take our measurements, but also determining what to measure… out of the infinite number of unknowns out there, which to focus on and which to ignore. Thomas Strohmer said about Galileo’s famous (though wrongly attributed) quote: “It is perhaps time to modify this principle to “Measure what should be measured”. Of course the problem is that a priori we often do not know what we should measure and what not. What is important and what can be safely ignored.” [3]. UX is the process we use to dive into the unknown and determine both what to measure and how to measure.

There is often a breakdown when translating between UX and development at critical points of handoff that shifts teams towards fragmentation. I propose we pull a Galileo and get rid of handoff altogether. He didn’t separate the processes of thought and insight, experimentation, testing, and refinement of a theory. They were an integrated whole. Of course he had the double advantage of being just one person as well as literally living in the time of the “Renaissance Man”. However that level of integration is possible within a team as well. With the right foundation and a shared understanding of the scientific method development and UX can become inseparable components of an integrated process.

Just as Galileo blended inductive and deductive processes together in his work and methods so must we in our cross-discipline teams. The false dichotomy between UX/UI and development led me to the no-handoff agile method. In this article I will explore specifics of Galileo’s proceses and useful corollaries in web development that we can bring into no-handoff projects.

An entirely too short and unsatisfactory history of Galileo Galilei

Galileo Galilei, Drawings of the Moon, Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Ms. Gal. 48, f. 28r

Galileo worked fluidly with both inductive and deductive techniques, balanced out with liberal doses of real life testing… the goal of agile teams! I find it heartening to know Im a small part of a great continuum and it’s been humbling and illuminating to recognize that were following in his footsteps.

Galileo’s work proceeded at a completely different pace than today’s typical application build, however if we watch his life in fast forward we can recognize the same outline as today’s fast-paced processes.

Galileo’s work proceeded at a very different pace than a typical application build, however if we watch his life in fast forward we can recognize the same outline as today’s fast-paced builds.

First, its important to understand his work as a single quest: finding a unified theory of matter [4]. In this way his body of work can be very loosely compared to a single project build.

He has this overarching goal in mind very early in his career though his final theory didnt appear towards the close of his life in 1638. In truth he couldnt have written his final theory earlier. He had thought about the nature of matter very deeply, he had observed areas where previous theories didnt add up, but he didnt have the evidence, the measurements, or in some cases even the instruments for gathering data to support his hypothesis. Setting aside the dacades-long timeline, it sound like a familiar start for a complex development project!

His notebooks from the early part of the 17th century show Galileo trying over and over — and failing over and over — to bring all matter under one model of measurement. He conducts experiments with balances and inclined planes but it eludes him. He begins work with the pendula and gets closer. But it wasn’t until he got ahold of a new instrument, the telescope, that he suddenly had new measurements to illuminate his ideas. He sees without any doubt the similarities between the matter of the “heavens” and that of “earth”. Per Peter Machamer: “The abandonment of the heaven/earth dichotomy implied that all matter is of the same kind, whether celestial or terrestrial.” [4].

To take his theories further and prove that celestial and earthly matter behaved the same way as well as looked the same he dusted off several principles that had already been discovered by others but found a new purpose in them in exploring the inter-relatedness of time, motion, and acceleration.

When Galileo published Discourses of the Two New Sciences he goes back to his earliest writings again, but this time he knows he is getting it right. He has gathered, theorized, tested and ultimately proved mathematically that there are universal rules governing the behavior of matter – on earth as it is in heaven.

The Galileo effect: lessons to be learned for UX and web development.

Courage: As unpalatable as they were to a Europe still climbing out of the middle ages Galileo published his findings in 1638. He is so sure of his views by this time that, unlike in 1590 when he chose not to publish despite the low risk to himself, this time he chooses to publish despite the fact he is already in the cross-hairs of the inquisition and suffering immensely. Publishing was a severe tragedy for Galileo personally, but ultimately a great victory for science. Not only are his theories on matter now a factual underpinning of modern science, the implications of Galileo’s methods of measurement and discovery are far reaching and continue to form the basis of our processes today, including in the development of web applications. Fortunately we wont be called to to sacrifice our liberty in the path of good web development, but courage is still needed every day to advocate for good ideas.

Testing: During the decades he was working on his unified theory Galileo kept up a correspondence with fellow scientific minds who tested, confirmed, or disproved one another’s theories. Testing was done regularly and not relegated to 1637, right before publishing his final work. Instead testing took place consistently across the scientific community and was an integral part of the scientific process. How often do web projects put off testing until the last minute to avoid the embarassment and expense of facing our own imperfect selves? We can adopt Galileo’s method and seek validation of the theory, not personal validation.

Data gathering: Galileo utilized various methods for gathering data including direct observation and measurement. When new tools were invented he used them and found implications for his work. He helped refine and develop the telescope which was instrumental to his most far reaching theories. Similarly UX can, and often does, embrace new methods of gathering data and testing. But I believe we can take this a step further and like Galileo extrapolate from our observation of one set of human beings to another in similar circumstances, bringing sociology into our analysis more. This reduces our need to constantly barrage end users to answer questions directly and in sometimes become quality control.

Hypothesizing: In addition to relying on measurable results Galileo used insight and inspiration to drive his research forward. He naturally and organically incorporated thought experiments into this work. He was not afraid of the unknown and developing hypothesis far ahead of a full set of facts to support them. He didn’t separate these types of thinking or activities from one another, they were part of the cohesive whole of his life. In web development UX should champion the process of inspiration and foster opportunities for insight from all team members. It’s usually a flash of inspiration that kicks off the inductive reasoning process, which leads to everything else. Inspiration and insight are our entree into the scientific process. Respect and embrace their potential.

Iteration: Just as Galileo went through iterative phases of generating ideas, testing them, surveying for outside opinions, retooling his theories, and finding (or sometime inventing) new tools to test them further, so our process of iterative application development strives to be a fluid and integrated whole. An increased dialogue between UX and development is a start. Each represents a body of knowledge and mode of contribution that in a no-handoff project are entirely complementary. But our ultimate goals is the recognition that these two processes are inseparable. In a truly integrated team the total reliance of each discipline on the other would not be in dispute.

“One of the chief causes of poverty in science is imaginary wealth. The aim of science is not to open a door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error.”

Bertolt Brecht, Life of Galileo

In UX we generate theories, test, and bring back measurements. In development we take those measurements and create a product that can be tested further. Iterating back and forth between these processes helps teams manage risk and avoid what Bertolt Brecht calls “infinite error” [7], clearly anticipating the horrors of poorly field-tested application roll-outs!

Thought without limits: Galileo’s ability to catch hold of reality, to escape the firmly planted dogma of the aristotalean and ptolomean views that permeated scientific thought, is the stuff of wonder. We need the same determination to seek truth if we want our work, our final applications, to have an impact. Unfortunately, per Franz Messerli, “Dogma often continues to trump evidence”[8]. A commitment to truly seeing the end-user experience is as necessary to a good development process as it was for Galileo to truly see through the telescope untainted by prevailing beliefs. His ultimate truth were the laws of physics. Ours must be the infinitely more confounding laws of human behavior!

“Dogma often continues to trump evidence”

Franz H. Messerli, MD

Creativity: The wealth of imagination and ideas that Brecht refers to in Life of Galileo are in high demand… but who’s job is it? Galileo shows us the way here too: creativity and idea generation is part of the whole and in everyone’s domain, not confined to a Phase 0 or just the UX team. In a no-handoff project UX is not in fact a stand-alone team. It is not a task or a function or a phase. It is a shared goal — the shared goal — of the entire project team. Improved user experience is the uniting thread between all disciplines and the clarifying lens that helps us determine how to measure, what to measure, and successfully build to those measurements. An incrementally growing understanding of the end user illuminates our path.

Web applications are ultimately a development task. They are clearly not pure thought or a collection of user surveys. But development needs requirements, things already measured correctly, truthful conclusions already drawn, to be at all efficient of effective. In the quest to measure what can be measured — and determining what should be measured in the first place — UX is the process we turn to for finding answers as a team.

Further Reading:

Learn more about no-handoff and how it can help overcome barriers to integrated teams.
The Galileo Project at Rice University is a great resource on the life and work of Galileo Galilei.
A perspective on how UX can integrate design more deeply into a web project by never using the word “design” again.

References:

1) Stephen Hawking (2009). “A Brief History Of Time: From Big Bang To Black Holes”, p.155, Random House
2) Antoine-Augustin Cournot and Thomas-Henri Martin, quoted in “Der messende Luchs: Zwei verbreitete Fehler in der Galilei-Literatur” by Andreas Kleinert in “NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin” May 2009, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp 199–206.
3) Strohmer, Thomas , “Measure What Should be Measured:Progress and Challenges in Compressive Sensing.” 2012. PDF. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.6730.pdf
4) Machamer, Peter, “Galileo Galilei”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2017, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/galileo/.
5) Bodnar, Istvan, “Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2018/entries/aristotle-natphil/.
6) Copernicus, Nicholas, “On the Revolutions of the Heavens”, Website, https://math.dartmouth.edu/~matc/Readers/renaissance.astro/1.1.Revol.html
7) Brecht, Bertolt, Richard Foreman, Norman Roessler, John Willett, and Ralph Manheim, “Life of Galileo”, 2008, Penguin Books
8) Messerli, Franz H., Website, https://www.uj.edu.pl/image/image_gallery?uuid=3618ec6e-9088-4247-a92f-bc9482dc5604&groupId=10172