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The physics of reviewers

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2001. The physics of reviewers. Intercom February:44.

Subject-matter experts, managers, and other reviewers tenaciously resist our nagging to review documents properly, often delaying reviews until it’s too late to do a good job. It’s not that they inherently oppose quality control; rather, the problem’s in the amount of work required to review something thoroughly, and “work” is a physics concept. Conveniently, reviewers—like falling objects—follow the same laws of physics as the rest of the universe, and understanding those laws helps you predict reviewer behavior and take appropriate countermeasures.

Law 1: Conservation of energy

Reviewers have finite amounts of mental energy they can devote to reviews. The more material to review, the more diluted that energy becomes and the lower the review quality (expressed in concentrons, the metric unit for mental energy—expressed in Joules of thought per word). Mental energy regenerates naturally overnight and over the weekend, becoming available again for use in reviewing documents. Physicists believe the best reviews get done on Mondays, with reviewers restored by the weekend but not yet ready to face their regular work.

Law 2: Entropy

Life’s many distractions consume energy better spent reviewing documents. In the absence of external energy inputs (such as deadlines or micromanaging supervisors), these distractions dilute a reviewer’s energy among the competing tasks until insufficient energy remains to accomplish any one task. Minimizing distractions (the “sealed room” technique) and supplying external energy to the system (“managers with big sticks”) can gently refocus the reviewer’s energy on the review.

Law 3: Gravitation

Deadlines are the documentation equivalent of black holes: the closer the deadline approaches, the harder it becomes to escape its pull, and the faster events accelerate in their rush towards the deadline; at the technical communication equivalent of an “event horizon”, nothing escapes that pull, including information (see Stephen Hawking's work). And the closer you approach a deadline, the faster things move and the less time people have to react appropriately.

Law 4: Leverage

Reviewers, who are often immersed in the details of their subject, may need to step back to get some perspective when reviewing a document. Just like using a lever, they can only be effective if they have some distance.

Law 5: Inertia (initiating motion)

As Newton observed, large objects are harder to get moving than smaller objects (they have more inertia), and make a louder noise when they hit the ground. Similarly, reviews of large documents start more slowly because the size of the task causes reviewers seek any alternative work that could reasonably justify postponing the review.

Law 6: Inertia (resisting course changes)

As in physics, objects in motion tend to stay in motion unless perturbed by an external force. Without judicious application of external force, reviewers keep doing what they’re already doing and hope that the review will just go away.

Law 7: Friction

Poorly edited documents generate frictional forces (nitpicks, expressed in nits per page) that drag upon reviewers and cause them to spend more time demonstrating their proofreading skills than actually verifying technical content.

Law 8: Random preferences

Reviewers prefer to review documents in different ways: some want printed copies, others want word processor files, and others want different formats at different times. Similarly, they may want questions in a separate document, embedded in the review document, or transmitted telepathically while you hold their hands and gaze meaningfully into their eyes. Choosing the wrong format is like trying to push together the north ends of two magnets: futile.

Law 9: Diminishing returns

Jakob Nielsen notes that zero reviewers means zero reviews. The more reviewers you add, the more comments you’ll receive, but at some point, adding more reviewers only increases the number of contradictions that you’ll have to resolve.

Law 10: GIGO

GIGO means “garbage in, garbage out”, and if you don’t verify your facts while you write, any errors will reappear in the review documents. Unconfirmed “facts” accumulate faster than the temporary files on your hard disk until they become significant problems near the deadline. (This corollary of Einstein’s law of relativistic mass increase is a side-effect of the gravitational acceleration described in Law 3.)

Break the law!

You can’t break the physical laws of the universe, but you can certainly minimize their effects. In quality control, as in physics, the key lies in understanding the laws well enough that you can engineer your way around them.


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