Tom Chi  

Killer App

August 13th, 2004 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

The bad boys of software are bad for different reasons. But whether its intermittent crashes which promote data paranoia, maddening mazes of dialogs or addictive (habit-forming?) gameplay, they all share the ability to dramatically change our lives for the bad.

Back in 2002, a Korean man died from playing games 86 hours straight. Software has also allowed many to withdraw from regular life. Certainly the software designers did not intend for this type of outcome, but whose responsibility should it be to plan against the larger negative social effects of software?In a sense, even though the software creates the framework in which bad things can happen, many of the bad effects are part of a larger system which includes forces outside of the software itself — thus, it becomes particularly difficult to test for them.

For example, if you are in charge of observing and recording incoming shipments at a busy factory using Excel, little nusiances that are hardly noticed by regular users might be experienced 100 or even 1000 times a day. Over time, such ‘bugs’ could drive you mad, when in reality the usability test gave great results for that dialog since it benefited task completion for inexperienced users significantly.

Similarly, while the designers of the various MMORPGs probably did want to build immersive worlds, they couldn’t predict all the ways that people might end up hurting each other and/or themselves. Over time, these larger system effects become part of the character of the product, in spite of what the designers may have intended.

Very few companies can properly account for this, although a few high-end brands do sort of manage their own character and mythos. Perhaps the solution to combatting emergent negative side effects is to encourage a close and ongoing relationship with the customer. What if a Maxis or a Sony delivered patches to help EQ users break their addiction? What if a Microsoft was able to show that crash reports and user comments really mattered?

The larger system effects will never be caught unless our feedback loop as product designer widens to include the final audience and our development loop has ways of managing negative effects as they emerge.

12 Responses to “Killer App”
uurf wrote:

I’m quite certain game developers would consider addicting users (especially games that charge per month/session/hit/whatever) to the point where “users” play (keep pressing that bar lab rat) the game to the exclusion of hygiene, companionship, or even food or sleep (”man we’re in Maslow’s sweet spot!”) an absolute, out of the park, in the Bay home run. The question I suppose is whether or not they’re ethically obligated to warn you (“Warning: do not operate heavy machinery or be in a relationship when playing ‘Evermore: The Quest for Popularity’ “) or specifically not design a product so appealing to addictive personalities.

Cristian Cheran wrote:

MMORPG have long history of generating addiction- even from text-based versions, so there is nothing special that EverQuest did (aside from being a great MMORPG). MMORPG was a magnet for socially-challenged people since the beginning and it’s the nature of the genere that causes this reaction

No game design team would even consider the ethical perspectives because it apparently contradicts their design goal. Because of their copycat/cargo-cult mindset, some game-designers-wannabes want the user as much as possible using their thing; raising this issue is as good as asking them to work for free.

Bob Salmon wrote:

I’m seemingly addicted to get Notes 5 present my email by date/time descending - each screen refresh presents email by date/time ascending. Oh yes, I’d love to have to scroll down to the bottom of the list each time I want to read my new messages. So I click the date column heading to reverse the order. New message comes in and Notes SPONTANEOUSLY REVERSES MY CHOSEN ORDER!!!! Gah!

Before you ask, I do know that there are better email clients around - I’m forced to use Notes 5 at work.

Marius van Dam wrote:

Revolt! :-)

Rick Cecil wrote:

Managing negative side effects as they emerge has everything to do with how a company manages its customer relationship. Development companies that respond quickly and effectively to customer’s issues–bugs, usability issues (which are really a different form of bug), etc.–will build strong customer loyalty whereas companies who maintain a traditional software development cycle will spend much more on retaining their existing customers and expanding their user-base.

In your post, you use two sub-issues to illustrate your main point:

  • The role of ethics in software development
  • Responsiveness of software developers to their users

The role of ethics in software development
I’m not convinced that game developers have an ethical imperative to ensure that people do not become addicted to their products. People can choose not to play. It is up to the individual to recognize their limits and not exceed those limits.

That’s not to say that MMORPG developers (or any electronic game developer) shouldn’t be more socially responsible and provide players with incentives for not playing 24/7. One MMORPG is doing just that. It will provide diminishing returns on character advancement for players who play more than 4 hours straight.

Responsiveness of software developers to their users
For software development companies to be responsive to their users’ needs, they will need to release new versions of their software every 3-6 months. Further, two types of upgrades should be offered: bug fixes and feature upgrades. Allow users to purchase only the features they want–not have to pay for a bloated piece of software in which only 10% of the actual features are used.

Just my two cents.

Kirsten wrote:

The Korean man died in one of the underground gaming dens that locals euphemistically refer to as “Internet cafes” in Kwangju in South Korea.

I’ve been in one of these cafes and I can verfiy that the immediate physical environments are deliberately designed to foster (fester?) gaming addiction: no light, no space, no food or liquids, very warm and toasty (when I was in Kwangju it was snowing outside), the door to the street hidden away around the corner and up the stairs.

Perhaps in some cases responsibility also lies with business owners who do not provide adequate water and (call me crazy) a menu for their gamers.

Tom Chi wrote:

I’m not convinced that game developers have an ethical imperative to ensure that people do not become addicted to their products. People can choose not to play. It is up to the individual to recognize their limits and not exceed those limits.

I would agree with you, if all the people being marketed to were adults. In the U.S. there are laws against marketing tabacco and alcohol to minors because such products have damaging effects and the government feels that minors are not able to make fully informed decisions about them.

Video game marketing, on the other hand, obviously targets minors and that puts it into a grayer zone for me.

Bob Salmon wrote:

I’m not saying that computer games are designed to be addictive, but the designers do need to make you want to play the game and keep playing it otherwise you feel you haven’t got your money’s worth and so won’t recommend it to friends or buy the next game from them.

Things like setting the difficulty level to be challenging but not daunting, slowly revealing the game space so it stays fresh, allowing for mods (although it could be argued that this makes it a different game, the engine’s largely the same).

Nico Macdonald wrote:

Designers there days seem to be awfully keen to take responsibility for big issues, from the effects of the marketing messages they shape to the environmental impact of products they design. I am sure this is generally well-intentioned, but it also appears, in some cases, to be an attempt at a professional boost.

In the case of the scenario of a person observing and recording incoming shipments at a busy factory, it is their employer who has chosen the wrong tool, not the designer who has failed to design it correctly. The employer is adapting one tool to an unknown application, and should evaluate it themselves.

And anyway, whatever happened to trade unions? Historically it was their role to prevent health and safety abuses. While they are pretty lame institutions today, the kind of collective action they represent is what is needed to protect workers. Ethical designers might feel good about taking on the troubles of the world, but they are unlikely to be able to resolve them.

Tom Chi wrote:

Those are fair points, Nico. Besides having designers be socially responsible, it would be helpful if marketing managers, product planners and systems engineers were as well. Still, the role of the designer is hard to downplay because they affect the most visible aspects of the product and do so at a point in the chain where much can be changed. It would be a lot more difficult for a tester to look a finished product and tell everyone to go back to the drawing board.

Really it’s the requirements people, product planners and designers who have the most leverage against the final product, while the marketing managers have an important say in how a finished product is presented.

And anyway, whatever happened to trade unions?

As you pointed out, the trade unions have lost a lot of power. The possibility of sourcing work to a global market has taken a lot of wind out of their sails, but this is a trend that I don’t see as reversing. Thus, someone needs to pick up the slack. To your point, it can’t always be the designer. The designer can not predict the misuse of a tool (e.g. factory example), but surely the systems engineer should be able to identify those problems and suggest more appropriate tools.

Dermo wrote:

Here’s an interesting article on the GDP of online gaming communities. E.g. “It found that a worker in the game’s kingdom, Norrath, was just as productive as a worker in Bulgaria”

Bob wrote:

The dialog box example demonstrates why doesigners must keep not only inexperienced users in mind, but also power users. Also, will mass data entry be required?

Case in point: My wife is a school cafeteria manager (read queen lunch lady). The software she uses has a dialog for entering student data. The dialog enforces various data integrity rules and creates an PIN for each student. This may be fine for the occasional transfer student, but at the beginning of each year she must pop up that dialog hundreds of times.

SAP is actually a fairly good example of offering single data entry forms and fast entry grids on many of its functions.

(sorry for the late comment - kinda like watching the Olympics)

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?