Saturday, August 11, 2012

Recognizing Pure Id For What it Is

If you're the author of popular software, prepare for hell. Here's how it goes down:

Users demand some new feature (some complaining that the software is utterly useless to them without this function), and you work on adding it. At some point, you find yourself pressured to offer a guestimate for when it will be done.

If you're foolish enough to publicly name a date, and then you miss it (as you will, because it's notoriously hard to estimate programming completion time), you're dead meat. A number of your users will flip into Huffy Insurrectionist mode, declaring development to have dead-ended, labeling your software "abandonware", and vowing to take their business elsewhere. Your online forums will erupt with discussions of competing applications to use as alternatives. Generally, people will hate you. I mean, literally, hate you.

Your impulse will be to announce how wrong this all is, and how hard you're working. But you can never say so often enough to satisfy people; and, besides, time spent defending yourself on message boards is more logically spent working on the damned software.

If, on the other hand, you hold tough and refuse to estimate a time frame - and simply put your nose down and work - that makes you arrogant and non-communicative. And that's even worse. We like your software, but, given your non-responsive service and the lack of this critical feature, we vow to take our business elsewhere!

This progression is a certainty - a foregone conclusion. If you've been around for a while and take any interest in the development of software you use, you've seen this repeat ad infinitum. The same things are said, often word-for-word.

It's worst for developers of much-loved software, because their users have more at stake, being emotionally involved. Plus, such software is crafted by perfectionists who take time to get things just right. God help software developers unlucky enough to produce great software with a large, emotionally-attached user base.

But the human dynamic at play here is actually way broader. For example, the managers of every moderated online discussion will inevitably be derided as censorious Nazis with nefarious agendas, regardless of how kindly and fair-minded they may be.

When new Chowhound moderators would ask me why some users seethe when their postings are expunged for reasonable reasons (and all our reasons are reasonable), my explanation would sound disconcertingly flat:

"They want to post something. And you're not letting them. That's really all there is to it, regardless of what they're saying."

"But," the new moderator would protest, "reasonable people should understand the extenuating circumstances involved!" I'd be forced to unveil the murky depths:

"If your toddler screams to be fed, you can explain why dinner's late, but it won't matter. The toddler is hungry. He wants, period. And many seemingly reasonable people are, under the hood, stunted toddlers. They want, period."

I want the software update, and you're not giving it to me. I want to post about skeet shooting in the Chowhound Baked Ziti forum, and you're not letting me. I will pressure you with every tactic at my disposal, however ridiculously disproportional, until my will is indulged and my need is met.

"I want" is a force to be reckoned with. Or would be, if there were any possibility of reckoning with the unbridled ids of a lot of the American public. Anyone who ever faces the public in any capacity - commercially or not, and regardless of how high-principled, generous, and reasonable you may be - must go in fully recognizing that a substantial segment of the population has the emotional wiring of a toddler. Regardless of how articulately such people may express themselves (many are virtuoso button pressers, just as toddlers learn to tailor their tantrums for maximal manipulation), their underlying drive is simplicity itself: they want. Nothing more, nothing less.

If you ever find yourself facing the public, even if they seem to love you, it's incredibly important to be aware of this dynamic, so you 1. don't take it personally and 2. don't waste time trying to engage reasonably with toddlers. And, just as importantly, that you don't allow yourself to be so desensitized by it all that you start disregarding reasonable criticism!

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