Don’t fix that, I’m using it!

Today, a coworker and I were in the restroom washing up after lunch. We were irritated to find that the roll of paper towels was not in the usual place on the shelf. To our chagrin, we discovered that the roll was missing from its familiar place on the shelf because the dispenser was fixed.

People quickly adapt to the situation as it exists. In many cases, we come to prefer the existing, “wrong” state of affairs to the “right” state if the “right” state requires a change in our habits. In religion, we prefer darkness to light (John 3:19-22). Psychology and cultural anthropology students learn about Stockholm Syndrome, and the power of habit. In politics, we continue to elect the same leaders despite our incessant complaints about those same leaders.

The tyranny of the familiar also plays a role in software development and in the paradigm conflict between Open Source Software (OSS) and Commercial Off-The-Shelf Software (COTS).

As Rich Kulawiec said, “Any sufficiently advanced bug is indistinguishable from a feature.” It is not uncommon for the alpha-geek to fix a long-standing bug only to have customers frustrated and annoyed because their business processes had to change or their mission-critical custom feature no longer works.

OSS projects introduce another dynamic. In addition to the up-front impact of implementing a new software package, the very nature of OSS tends to make the software more volatile. As geeks tweak OSS solutions, we break the products’ perceived affordances.The new and improved version may indeed be better, but it is also different. The hallmarks of a successful OSS project, ongoing development and wide-spread adoption, compete against one another. The same buzz of activity that makes the project attractive to geeks can make it unpalatable to the average user.

Product teams without a good understanding of the end-user, a clear vision, and good leadership will be particularly prone to forgetting (or deliberately ignoring) that old and familiar trumps new and different for many users. A good product manager or customer advocate helps to balance “better” against “familiar”, but, ultimately, geeks must become more active participants in this process.

One of the hallmarks of a geek is a love of things that are new and different, but we also display a counterintuitive love of things old and arcane. We find pleasure in the familiar tools, toys, and technologies of yesteryear. We like command-line interfaces, classic arcade game emulators, and stories half a century old. Perhaps we are more like “them” than we would like to think; perhaps there is hope that we may yet learn to relate to our users.

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