Ben Northrop

Decisions and software development

Code like a Champion Today

December 11th 2013

Ergonomics aside, does a kick-ass work space help us write better code? Or conversely, does working in drab old cubeville sap us of our coding potential? How much does our working environment shape our job performance? Or would we write the same code where-ever we sit?

I've always been fascinated with how subtle, unexpected forces like this shape our behavior. This is the world of pyschological priming, and I think its advocates would proffer the answer is "yes", features in our environment probably do matter. One of the more famous studies of priming goes something like this:

A participant is sent to a room where she reads a series of words. Clean, private, thirsty. She next walks down the hall to another room for the second part of the study. Unbeknownst to her, however, walking down the hall is the study - in particular, what is being measured is exactly how fast she does it. If she's primed with words that conform to an elderly stereotype, she'll walk slower than if primed with neutral words. For example, Florida, wrinkled, bingo. Reading those words subconsciously impels her to slow her gate.

Now there's a bit of a brouhaha over the reliability of some of these priming experiments, but there seems to be too much evidence to discount the phenomenon altogether - there's something to it. External stimuli do impact our behavior in ways that fly beneath our conscious radar.

So it made me curious, are there subtle signals lurking in my physical environment that make me better or worse at my job? Or, maybe, could I plant some that would help my fellow developers (and I)? Riffing off of Notre Dame's famous mantra, I taped this up in our stairwell...

As the football players do, we all religiously hit the sign as we walk in to our office. And to my surprise, I found that the lines of code per developer after being exposed to the sign increased by 27%!

Ok, I'm making this up.

I'm sure it didn't have any discernible effect; it's just a singular token. But what about an environment rife with positive encouragement. Those cheesy motivational posters, perhaps? If I put one up that shouts "Courage" at me, do I unknowingly feel more confident about refactoring some tangled piece of legacy code? Or if I read "Integrity", am I more thorough with my estimates? (It's not that ridiculous, actually. There was a study that found that a motivational poster placed at the bottom of a staircase and escalator doubled the use of the stair case.)

A little more serious, I wonder if perhaps some of the value of displaying our project management artifacts, like a Kanban board, in our common areas is that they serve as positive primes - as we attend to them, our subconscious quietly whispters "stay on task"..."keep moving"..."work".

Or what about just positive symbolism without words? Bold colors. Open space. Live plants. Would we associate any of these with energy (or whatever), and would these positive associations then trickle into our work? Basically, is there a ROI in those flashy, inpsiring Google-style workspaces?

I'm not entirely confident of the power of priming effects, but I would not be surprised that the environment we work in, and in particular the signs, symbols, diagrams, or signals, would have some subtle impact. Recently I've tried to be aware of this - leaving diagrams, etc. around to keep me focused. What do you think? Do features like these in your environment matter? Or would you write the same code anywhere you were?

I believe that software development is fundamentally about making decisions, and so this is what I write about (mostly). I've been building software for about 20 years now, as a developer, tech lead, and architect. I have two degrees from Carnegie Mellon University, most recently one in philosophy (thesis here). I live in Pittsburgh, PA with my wife, 3 energetic boys, and dog. Subscribe here or write me at ben dot northrop at gmail dot com.

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Comments (2)

December 14, 2013
Hello Ben!
I haven't really thought about signs, but I do believe that the work environment has a big impact on work quality.
Think about the opposite: a cramped, unwelcoming and boring office couldn't possibly make someone like what they're doing even more. That means that the the work they perform most probably won't be the best it could be.
Probably signs like motivational posters, or small little accents make people, subconsciously feel better and thus work better.
December 16, 2013
Thanks James! I have the same intuition as well. I've worked in some drab office spaces, and it always seems in those environments that the peoples' attitudes match their physical surroundings. I'm not sure which way the causal arrow points though. :)