The Bikeshed Effect

Although discussion can meander in any topic, the probability of meandering goes up as the technical difficulty of the topic goes down. After all, the greater the technical difficulty, the fewer participants can really follow what’s going on. Those who can are likely to be the most experienced developers, who have already taken part in such discussions thousands of times before, and know what sort of behavior is likely to lead to a consensus everyone can live with.

The principle that the amount of discussion is inversely proportional to the complexity of the topic has been around for a long time, and is known informally as the Bikeshed Effect.

– Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software

One thought on “The Bikeshed Effect

  1. It’s also inversely proportional to how much it actually matters. Everybody wants to chime in and with his two cents about what color to paint the bike shed — or, for a web browser, everybody wants to express an opinion on what the new back and forward buttons should look like. Nobody wants to find the source of the memory leak.

    When a piece of software is not yet sufficiently feature-complete to attract a lot of non-technical users, this problem can mostly be kept at bay. As the project matures, however, the signal-to-noise ratio and the rate of actual improvement to the codebase both asymptotically approach zero. Inherently technical components (like, in a web browser, the rendering engine) and inherently tech-oriented software (like compilers) can often evade this issue. Things that non-technical users interact with on a daily basis (like, the browser UI) are plagued by it.