Category Archives: Feature deletion

Placebo buttons, false affordances and habit-forming

Elevator graph


This is a great graph
from GraphJam, by ‘Bloobeard’. It raises the question, of course, whether the ‘door close’ buttons on lifts/elevators really do actually do anything, or are simply there to ‘manage expectations‘ or act as a placebo.

The Straight Dope has quite a detailed answer from 1986:

The grim truth is that a significant percentage of the close-door buttons [CDB] in this world, for reasons that we will discuss anon, don’t do anything at all.

In the meantime, having consulted with various elevator repairmen, I would say that apparent CDB nonfunctionality may be explained by one of the following:

(1) The button really does work, it’s just set on time delay.
Suppose the elevator is set so that the doors close automatically after five seconds. The close-door button can be set to close the doors after two or three seconds. The button may be operating properly when you push it, but because there’s still a delay, you don’t realize it.

(2) The button is broken. Since a broken close-door button will not render the elevator inoperable and thus does not necessitate an emergency service call, it may remain unrepaired for weeks.

(3) The button has been disconnected, usually because the building owner received too many complaints from passengers who had somebody slam the doors on them.

(4) The button was never wired up in the first place. One repair type alleges that this accounts for the majority of cases.

Gizmodo, more recently, contends that:

…the Door Close button is there mostly to give passengers the illusion of control. In elevators built since the early ’90s. The button is only enabled in emergency situations with a key held by an authority.

Door close button

This is clearly not always true; I’ve just tested the button in the lift down the corridor here at Brunel (installed around a year ago) and it works fine. So it would seem that enabling the functionality (or not) or modifying it (e.g. time delays) is a decision that can be made for each installation, along the lines of the Straight Dope information.

If there’s a likelihood (e.g. in a busy location) that people running towards a lift will become antagonised by those already inside pressing the button (deliberately or otherwise) and closing the door on them, maybe it’s sensible to disable it, or introduce a delay. If the installation’s in a sparsely populated corner of a building where there’s only likely to be one lift user at a time, it makes sense for the button to be functional. Or maybe for the doors to close more quickly, automatically.

But thinking about this more generally: how often are deceptive buttons/controls/options – deliberate false affordances – used strategically in interaction design? What other examples are there? Can it work when a majority of users ‘know’ that the affordance is false, or don’t believe it any more? Do people just give up believing after a while – the product has “cried Wolf” too many times?

Matt Webb (Mind Hacks, Schulze & Webb) has an extremely interesting discussion of the extinction burst in conditioning, which seems relevant here:

There’s a nice example I read, I don’t recall where, about elevators. Imagine you live on the 10th floor and you take the elevator up there. One day it stops working, but for a couple of weeks you enter the elevator, hit the button, wait a minute, and only then take the stairs. After a while, you’ll stop bothering to check whether the elevator’s working again–you’ll go straight for the stairs. That’s called extinction.

Here’s the thing. Just before you give up entirely, you’ll go through an extinction burst. You’ll walk into the elevator and mash all the buttons, hold them down, press them harder or repeatedly, just anything to see whether it works. If it doesn’t work, hey, you’re not going to try the elevator again.

But if it does work! If it does work then bang, you’re conditioned for life. That behaviour is burnt in.

I think this effect has a lot more importance in everyday interaction with products/systems/environments than we might realise at first – a kind of mild Cargo Cult effect – and designers ought to be aware of it. (There’s a lot more I’d like to investigate about this effect, and how it might be applied intentionally…)

We’ve looked before at the thermostat wars and the illusion of control in this kind of context. It’s related to the illusion of control psychological effect studied by Ellen Langer and others, where people are shown to believe they have some control over things they clearly don’t: in most cases, a button does afford us control, and we would rationally expect it to: an expectation does, presumably, build up that similar buttons will do similar things in all lifts we step into, and if we’re used to it not doing anything, we either no longer bother pressing it, or we still press it every time “on the off-chance that one of these days it’ll work”.

How those habits form can have a large effect on how the products are, ultimately, used, since they often shake out into something binary (you either do something or you don’t): if you got a bad result the first time you used the 30 degree ‘eco’ mode on your washing machine, you may not bother ever trying it again, on that machine or on any others. If pressing the door close button seems to work, that behaviour gets transferred to all lifts you use (and it takes some conscious ‘extinction’ to change it).

There’s no real conclusion to this post, other than that it’s worth investigating this subject further.

Biting Apple

BBC News headline, 28 September 2007

Interesting to see the BBC’s summary of the current iPhone update story: “Apple issues an update which damages iPhones that have been hacked by users”. I’m not sure that’s quite how Apple’s PR people would have put it, but it’s interesting to see that whoever writes those little summaries for the BBC website found it easiest to sum up the story in this way. This is being portrayed as Apple deliberately, strategically damaging the phones, rather than an update unintentionally causing problems with unlocked or modified phones.

Regardless of what the specific issue is here, and whether unmodified iPhones have also lost functionality because of some problem with the update, can’t we just strip out all this nonsense? How many people who wanted an iPhone also wanted to be locked in to AT&T or whatever the local carrier will be in each market? Anyone? Who wants to be locked in to anything? What a waste of technical effort, sweat and customer goodwill: it’s utterly pathetic.

This is exactly what Fred Reichheld‘s ‘Bad profits’ idea calls out so neatly:

Whenever a customer feels misled, mistreated, ignored, or coerced, then profits from that customer are bad. Bad profits come from unfair or misleading pricing. Bad profits arise when companies save money by delivering a lousy customer experience. Bad profits are about extracting value from customers, not creating value.

If bad profits are earned at the expense of customers, good profits are earned with customers’ enthusiastic cooperation. A company earns good profits when it so delights its customers that they willingly come back for more—and not only that, they tell their friends and colleagues to do business with the company.

What is the question that can tell good profits from bad? Simplicity itself: How likely is it that you would recommend this company to a friend or colleague?

If your iPhone’s just turned into the most stylish paperweight in the office, are you likely to recommend it to a colleague?

More to the point, if Apple had moved – in the first place – into offering telecom services to go with the hardware, with high levels of user experience and a transparent pricing system, how many iPhone users and Mac evangelists wouldn’t have at least considered changing?

In default, defiance

‘Choice of default’ is a theme which has come up a few times on the blog: in general, many people accept the options/settings presented to them, and do not question or attempt to alter them. The possibilities for controlling or shaping users’ behaviour in this way are, clearly, enormous; two interesting examples have recently been brought to my attention (thanks to Chris Weightman and Patrick Kalaher):

Send to FedEx Kinko's button in Adobe Reader

Recent versions of Adobe’s PDF creation and viewing software, Acrobat Professional and Adobe Reader (screenshot above) have ‘featured’ a button on the toolbar (and a link in the File menu) entitled “Send to FedEx Kinko’s” which upload the document to FedEx Kinko’s online printing service. As Gavin Clarke reports in The Register, this choice of default (the result of a tie-in between Adobe and FedEx) has irritated other printing companies and trade bodies sufficiently for Adobe to agree to remove the element from the software:

Adobe Systems has scrapped the “send to FedEx Kinkos” print button in iAdobe Reader and Acrobat Professional, in the face of overwhelming opposition from America’s printing companies.

Adobe said today it would release an update to its software in 10 weeks that will remove the ability to send PDFs to FedEx Kinkos for printing at the touch of a button.

No doubt the idea of linking to a service that’s often the only choice presented to consumers in the track towns of Silicon Valley made eminent sense to Adobe, itself based in San Jose, California. But the company quickly incurred the wrath of printers outside the Valley for including a button to their biggest competitor, in software used widely by the design and print industry.

I wonder how many users of Acrobat/Reader actually used the service? Did its inclusion change any users’ printing habits (i.e. they stopped using their current printer and used Kinko’s instead)? And was this due to pure convenience/laziness? Presumably Kinko’s could identify which of their customers originated from clicking the button – were they charged exactly the same as any other customer, or was this an opportunity for price discrimination?

As some of the comments – both on the Register story and on Adobe’s John Loiacono’s bloghave noted, the idea of a built-in facility to send documents to an external printing service is not bad in itself, but allowing the user to configure this, or allowing printing companies to offer their own one-click buttons to users, would be much more desirable from a user’s point of view.

In a sense, ‘choice of default’ could be the other side of process friction as a design strategy. By making some options deliberately easier – much easier – than the alternatives (which might actually be more beneficial to the user), the other options appear harder in comparison, which is effectively the same as making some options or methods harder in the first place. The new-PCs-pre-installed-with-Windows example is probably the most obvious modern instance of choice of default having a major effect on consumer behaviour, as an anonymous commenter noted here last year:

Ultimately, though, you can sum up the free-software tug-of-war political control this way: it’s easiest to get a Windows computer and use it as such. Next easiest to get a MacOS one and use it as such. Commercial interests and anti-free software political agenda. Next easiest is a Linux computer, where the large barrier of having to install and configure an operating system yourself must be leapt. Also, it’s likely you don’t actually save any money upfront, because you probably end up buying a Windows box and wiping it to install Linux. Microsoft exacts their tax even if you won’t use the copy of Windows you’re supposedly paying them for.

Starbucks Mug; photo by Veryfotos
Photo by veryfotos.

Sometimes ‘choice of default’ can mean actually hiding the options which it’s undesirable for customers to choose:

Here’s a little secret that Starbucks doesn’t want you to know: They will serve you a better, stronger cappuccino if you want one, and they will charge you less for it. Ask for it in any Starbucks and the barista will comply without batting an eye. The puzzle is to work out why. The drink in question is the elusive “short cappuccino”—at 8 ounces, a third smaller than the smallest size on the official menu, the “tall,” and dwarfed by what Starbucks calls the “customer-preferred” size, the “Venti,” which weighs in at 20 ounces and more than 200 calories before you add the sugar.

The short cappuccino has the same amount of espresso as the 12-ounce tall, meaning a bolder coffee taste, and also a better one. The World Barista Championship rules, for example, define a traditional cappuccino as a “five- to six-ounce beverage.” This is also the size of cappuccino served by many continental cafés. Within reason, the shorter the cappuccino, the better.

This secret cappuccino is cheaper, too—at my local Starbucks, $2.35 instead of $2.65. But why does this cheaper, better drink—along with its sisters, the short latte and the short coffee—languish unadvertised? The official line from Starbucks is that there is no room on the menu board, although this doesn’t explain why the short cappuccino is also unmentioned on the comprehensive Starbucks Web site, nor why the baristas will serve you in a whisper rather than the usual practice of singing your order to the heavens.

The rest of this Slate article* from 2006, by Tim Harford, advances the idea that this kind of tactic is designed specifically to allow price discrimination:

This is the Starbucks way of sidestepping a painful dilemma over how high to set prices. Price too low and the margins disappear; too high and the customers do. Any business that is able to charge one price to price-sensitive customers and a higher price to the rest will avoid some of that awkward trade-off… Offer the cheaper product but make sure that it is available only to those customers who face the uncertainty and embarrassment of having to request it specifically.

Initially, one might think it a bit odd that the lower-priced item has survived at all as an option, given that it can only be a very small percentage of customers who are ‘in the know’ about it. But unlike a shop or company carrying a ‘secret product line’, which requires storage and so on, the short cappuccino can be made without needing any different ingredients, so it presumably makes sense to contnue offering it.

Thinking about other similarly hidden options (especially ‘delete’ options when buying equipment) reveals how common this sort of practice has become. I’m forever unticking (extra-cost) options for insurance or faster delivery when ordering products online; even when in-store, the practice of staff presenting extended warranties and insurance as if they’re the default choice on new products is extremely widespread.

Perhaps a post would be in order rounding up ways to save money (or get a better product) by requesting hidden options, or requesting the deletion of unnecessary options – please feel free to leave any tips or examples in the comments. Remember, all progress depends on the unreasonable man (or woman).

*There is another tactic raised in the article, pertinent to our recent look at casino carpets, which I will get around to examining further in due course.

Another charging opportunity?

A knife blade cutting the cable of a generic charger/adaptor

Last month, an Apple patent application was published describing a method of “Protecting electronic devices from extended unauthorized use” – effectively a ‘charging rights management’ system.

New Scientist and OhGizmo have stories explaining the system; while the stated intention is to make stolen devices less useful/valuable (by preventing a thief charging them with unauthorised chargers), readers’ comments on both stories are as cynical as one would expect: depending on how the system is implemented, it could also prevent the owner of a device from buying a non-Apple-authorised replacement (or spare) charger, or from borrowing a friend’s charger, and in this sense it could simply be another way of creating a proprietary lock-in, another way to ‘charge’ the customer, as it were.

It also looks as though it would play havoc with clever homebrew charging systems such as Limor Fried‘s Minty Boost (incidentally the subject of a recent airline security débâcle) and similar commercial alternatives such as Mayhem‘s Anycharge, although these are already defeated by a few devices which require special drivers to allow charging.

Reading Apple’s patent application, what is claimed is fairly broad with regard to the criteria for deciding whether or not re-charging should be allowed – in addition to charger-identification-based methods (i.e. the device queries the charger for a unique ID, or the charger provides it, perhaps modulated with the charging waveform) there are methods involving authentication based on a code provided to the original purchaser (when you plug in a charger the device has never ‘seen’ before, it asks you for a security code to prove that you are a legitimate user), remote disabling via connection to a server, or even geographically-based disabling (using GPS: if the device goes outside of a certain area, the charging function will be disabled).

All in all, this seems an odd patent. Apple’s (patent attorneys’) rather hyperbolic statement (Description, 0018) that:

These devices (e.g., portable electronic devices, mechanical toys) are generally valuable and/or may contain valuable data. Unfortunately, theft of more popular electronic devices such as the Apple iPod music-player has become a serious problem. In a few reported cases, owners of the Apple iPod themselves have been seriously injured or even murdered.

…is no doubt true to some extent, but if the desire is really to make a stolen iPod worthless, then I would have expected Apple to lock each device in total to a single user – not even allowing it to be powered up without authentication. Just applying the authentication to the charging method seems rather arbitrary. (It’s also interesting to see the description of “valuable data”: surely in the case that Apple is aware that a device has been stolen, it could provide the legitimate owner of the device with all his or her iTunes music again, since the marginal copying cost is zero. And if the stolen device no longer functions, the RIAA need not panic about ‘unauthorised’ copies existing! But I doubt that’s even entered into any of the thinking around this.)

Whether or not the motives of discouraging theft are honourable or worthwhile, there is the potential for this sort of measure to cause signficant inconvenience and frustration for users (and second-hand buyers, for example – if the device doesn’t come with the original charger or the authentication code) along with incurring extra costs, for little real ‘theft deterrent’ benefit. How long before the ‘security’ system is cracked? A couple of months after the device is released? At that point it will be worth stealing new iPods again.

(Many thanks to Michael O’Donnell of PDD for letting me know about this!)

Previously on the blog: Friend or foe? Battery authentication ICs

UPDATE: Freedom to Tinker has now picked up this story too, with some interesting commentary.

Digital control round-up

Digital architectures of control

Some developments in – and commentary on – digital architectures of control to end 2006:

  • Peter Gutmann’s ‘A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection’ (via Bruce Schneier) looks very lucidly at the effects that Vista’s DRM and measures to ‘protect’ content will have – on users themselves, and knock-on effects elsewhere. The more one reads, the more astonishing this whole affair is:

    Possibly for the first time ever, computer design is being dictated not by electronic design rules, physical layout requirements, and thermal issues, but by the wishes of the content industry.

    Vista appears to be just about the worst consumer product of all time. However, unlike other discretionary purchases, consumers will have less of a choice: Vista will come with any PC you buy from a major store, and all the hardware manufacturers will have to pass on the extra costs and complexity required to customers, whether or not they intend to use that hardware with Vista. When critical military and healthcare systems start to be run on Vista, we’ll all end up paying.

    As Peter puts it:

    The Vista Content Protection specification could very well constitute the longest suicide note in history

  • In a similar vein, the ‘format wars’ over high-definition video appear to have descended into a farce:

    Basically, what we have is a series of anti-consumer DRM infections masquerading as nothing in particular. They bring only net negatives to anyone dumb enough to pay money for them, and everything is better than these offerings. They sell in spite of the features they tout, not because of them.

    And, of course, HD-DVD encryption has already been “(partially) cracked” as Uninnovate puts it, with that decryption effort being triggered directly as a result of consumer frustration with incompatibility:

    I just bought a HD-DVD drive to plug on my PC, and a HD movie, cool! But when I realized the 2 software players on Windows don’t allowed me to play the movie at all, because my video card is not HDCP compliant and because I have a HD monitor plugged with DVI interface, I started to get mad… This is not what we can call “fair use”! So I decide to decrypt that movie.

  • “Consumers buy only 23 songs per iPod” – clearly, the vast majority of music on iPods and other portable music players has been acquired through CD-ripping or file-sharing, something which we all know, but which has been an elephant in the room for a long time when the industry is discussed (and remember that the Gowers’ Review has only just recommended that ripping CDs be legalised in the UK).

    Of course, Bill Gates also recommends ripping CDs (see also some great commentary from LilBambi on this).

    Andrew Kantor in USA Today has some pragmatic analysis of the situation:

    People want their music without restrictions, and too many legal downloads, like those from iTunes, come with restrictions. You can’t copy them to another player, or you’re limited to how often you can do it, or you have to jump through the hoops of burning your iTunes tracks to CD and re-ripping them to a more useful format… as cellphones with built-in MP3 players gain popularity, users will find themselves up against an entirely new set of usage restrictions. Some subscription services will delete the music from your player when you cancel your subscription.

    Buy a CD or use a program like eMule… and you have no restrictions. And that’s what people want.

    They don’t want to have to match their music store with their music player any more than they want to have to match their brands of gasoline with their brands of car. They want, in short, to be able to use today’s music the same ways they used yesterday’s: Any way they want.

    In fact, the industry’s been down this road before and hit a similar wall. In the first decades of the 20th century, the wax cylinders (and, later, 78rpm disks) on which music was recorded worked only with specific players. Industry attempts to monopolize the technology led only to poor sales.

  • Finally, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer tells us that in 2007 the consumer will be “back in control”. It doesn’t mean much out of context, nor in the context he used it in fact, but it looks like Doublespeak is alive and well.
  • Disaffordances and engineering obedience

    Based on Don Norman's famous teapot

    Image based on Don Norman‘s famous teapot, and the Obey Giant face

    Last month I asked, in response to some criticism, whether there was a better term than ‘architectures of control’ for the loose category of stuff discussed on this site. The response was great – thanks to all who got in touch or commented.

    James Young, an artist & designer from Oregon, thoughtfully suggested obedience engineering (along with ‘restrictive’, ‘regulatory’ and ‘supervisory’ engineering – as extensions to the term ‘functional engineering’, which I understand but have always thought was something of a tautology!). Obedience engineering has a neat ring to it – implying external authority – and describes most of the examples on this site pretty well, both politically- and economically-motivated control.

    In most cases the ‘obedience’ is to serve a higher power’s strategy in some way, whether that’s forcing customers to buy razor blades more often or stopping the homeless sleeping in a park. In some cases, though, the obedience serves the user him or herself (usually in addition to a higher power in one way or another), such as various forcing functions and mistake-proofing aimed at ensuring safe operation of products or machines – it’s a similar kind of obedience to obeying your parents’ instructions not to put those fireworks in your pocket: for your own safety as well as their peace of mind. I’m aware that most of the examples I use come across as rather negative (and usually paranoid), so it’s important to remember that a lot of ‘control’ can have beneficial intentions (at least) for the user or society as a whole.

    Reversing the phrase, ‘engineering/ed obedience’ and ‘designing/ed obedience’ also have a lot of merit, either as titles themselves or as explanatory subtitles/taglines. Architectures of control: engineered obedience?

    (I don’t necessarily want to get into the design-or-engineering debate here. Both terms mean many different things to different people, and the use of either could immediately put off or attract people who would find something of interest here. There are readers here from a fair variety of fields; I know people whose eyes go blank when engineering is mentioned, and others who would assume that a site about design must be dealing purely with aesthetics or artisan furniture. Personally I see all design and engineering (and art and programming – as Paul Graham recognised) as pretty much the same subject, and indeed, perhaps the intersection of the physical and cognitive sciences with the environment, history and culture, but that’s something for another day…)

    Jim Lipsey, a project engineer from Chicago, suggests disaffordances as a synonym for architectures of control – again, a neat and clever suggestion which also has the benefit of immediately conveying some understanding of the concept to product design and usability professionals and academics.

    Nevertheless, it’s worth running over briefly what ‘affordances’ are in the first place, to explain why ‘disaffordances’ might be a good term. In its original definition, an affordance is a possible function of, or interaction with, a device. A chair gives me the affordance of sitting on it, but also standing on it, or hitting someone with it. This is a simplification of psychologist James J. Gibson‘s definition of affordances. Donald Norman – author of the legendary The Design of Everyday Things – extended the concept to what he later called perceived affordances: while I might use a chair to hit someone, my cultural conditioning, together with the form of the chair, suggest that I should sit on it. Norman’s affordances are thus what people think they can do (or should) with objects, which may be different to what they actually can do with them:

    Usefulness and usability
    From ‘Affordances‘ by Mads Soegaard: ‘Separating affordances from the perceptual information that specifies affordances. Adapted from Gaver (1991).’

    This Interaction-Design.org encyclopaedia article (from which the above diagram comes) is a very clear treatment fo the subject, as are Don Norman’s own ‘Affordances and design‘, and indeed Wikipedia’s entry.

    Disaffordances, then, would imply either products with functionality deliberately removed (which fits many architectures of control example well – most obviously ‘feature deletion‘) or with the functionality deliberately hidden or obscured to reduce users’ ability to use the product in certain ways, or a combination of the two. That does take care of most of the examples I’ve looked at on this site, though I worry a bit about having to concatenate the two definitions. I also feel that quite a lot of architectures of control are actively attempting to force users to change their behaviour, whilst disaffordance implies a more passive state of affairs.

    I think it may be best to use the term ‘disaffordance’ specifically to describe the practice of ‘disenfranchising’ users from the functions their products, systems or environments might otherwise provide (or have previously provided). This covers a lot of the things we discuss here (though it’s important to remember that architectures of control are deliberate, intentional, often strategic disaffordances, rather than something that’s difficult to use or hides its features through incompetent design); the the term doesn’t have much currency (yet), but I’ve done as Jim suggests and registered disaffordances.com and disaffordances.co.uk.

    This blog is still maturing, and evolving, as is the field of thinking and practice which it charts. I’m sure plenty of new terminology (and jargon) will become commonplace in the years ahead. And the site will continue, in the words of the fantastic Gossip, ‘standing in the way of control‘ [mp3 link].