Kevin Cheng  

Technomasochism: Do Users Like Pain?

October 1st, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

Ever notice when a user seems to enjoy and even revel in the sense of achievement when overcoming a particularly difficult interface? Sometimes it’s a difficult interface because it facilitates a craft like 3-D Modeling or playing a piano (which Tom Chi dubs Mastery Interfaces). Other times, the interface is designed with challenge in mind as computer games are. Worse yet, some were never intentionally hard to use but just about act as the poster child for unusable applications. Are these people Technomasochists? Can something actually be too easy to use?

The instinctive reaction to such a claim is to say it is preposterous. If a person was told they would need hours of training to use a new application, the barrier to entry would be too high. In an ideal world, all users should be able to achieve all their goals with just a thought. However, there are instances where user pain does seem acceptable and even welcome.Consider Sabre, the travel tool used by all commercial and corporate travel agents. The tool is a command line interface with cryptic commands and excludes other customers. Learning to use Sabre is a rite of passage to becoming a professional travel agent. The tool is orders of magnitudes more efficient than popular online booking sites such as Expedia, Orbitz or Opodo.

The distinction is quite clear. Sabre users require a tool that can search through and perform numerous detailed flight booking options numerous times a day or even an hour. This frequency far exceeds that of the typical traveller who is only worrying about his/her own itinerary. Even at the extreme end, the travelling salesperson is likely to travel three or four times a week.

High end manual cameras, 3-D modelling tools and musical instruments are all examples of tools and applications which have a learning curve to accommodate a different use case.

A second example can be found in word processors and text editors. Unix users are familiar with the battle between emacs and vi. In reality, both of these are difficult text editors to learn with a rather steep initial learning curve. The battle wasn’t typically about the merits of one over the other, it was simply a badge of honour. Once one had invested in learning one of the editors, it was necessary to justify that investment.

What is the use case which prevents the users from simply using a more accessible tool like OpenOffice? Several arguments exist. The speed of editors like vi and emacs is unparalleled compared to the bloat of a true word processor application. For quick edits, this is certainly a legitimate use case. Windows users even now sometimes use the light weight notepad application for quick, unformatted text documents.

Others have claimed the power of editors like vi with the ability to create powerful and flexible macros with a few key strokes. While true, the likelihood that most of the users actually required or used this power was low. In fact, the reasoning seems to give a definite impression that users are rationalizing their usage of a more difficult application.

Finally, there are those applications which users are forced to endure such as Lotus Notes. The usability of Notes leaves something to be desired but as many companies enforce the usage of the tool as their e-mail and knowledge base client, users are forced to get a Notes Badge of Honour. Yet it’s rare to find one who wears such a badge with pride.

What are the aspects that separate vi/emacs users from Notes users? All of these applications require some level of “pain” in learning the tool. For vi/emacs, the hurdles overcome seem like achievements. For Notes e-mail, it’s still an unusable application.

Although these applications do not have distinctive expert use cases as Sabre does, they still illustrate one common them: “no pain, no gain”. When one learns to use emacs or vi, there is still a perceived gain in productivity over heavier, richer word processing applications. Lotus Notes doesn’t offer any perceived gain over other e-mail clients other than a headache. This point might be further supported by studying Notes developers - those who develop the internal databases within the companies using Notes. Lotus Notes is far more than an e-mail client - their site markets the application as a platform. Those who work to customize Lotus Notes (and its server side Lotus Domino) are far more likely to see the potential power in the platform and hence, the gain.

Two conclusions can be drawn from these brief case studies. Firstly, users are willing to endure some learning (or pain) to overcome seemingly unusable applications if a perceived benefit (or gain) exists at the end over using a similar but lower barrier application. This benefit may be directly related to their needs or may be one they were not aware of. Thus, it’s important to communicate exactly what the gain is before asking the user to invest time.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, users that have overcome the hurdles of a difficult application may wear their achievements as a badge of honour. Changes to the interface in the future must take this into consideration. Lowering the barrier may cause some negative backlash with the existing community (e.g., AutoCAD’s initial move towards more of a WIMP interface). Laterally changing the interface to a similar difficulty level would equally frustrate the existing user base who have spent the time to learn the original interface.

Perhaps the motto for the interface designers should be “No Gain, No Pain”.

12 Responses to “Technomasochism: Do Users Like Pain?”
Phlash wrote:

Interesting stuff Kevin.. having been a member of the ‘vi’ school (ie: an emacs hater :) for many years, and then more recently a user of editing tools which leverage the CPU to help you (such as folding, auto completion and dynamic syntax checking in code editors), I have to agree that no gain, no pain is very apt - I love these newer tools, particularly when they allow me to work without breaking my train of thought to deal with peripheral issues.

Ron Zeno wrote:

There’s some classic psychology and sociology that explains it pretty well:

Emotional reactions are relative. The positive reaction to a stimulus (reaching the food, figuring out how to use vi, etc) can be increased by making it more difficult to achieve the stimulus. This can backfire though if the negative reactions outway the positive.

Emotional responses are reinforced (and at least partially defined) socially.

People become more committed to a decision/behavior/etc if they think they made it of their own choice.

Tim Wright wrote:

Oddly enough, painful features of an interface can actually help people learn tasks. As an example, people learning an air-traffic control task with a crappy interface learn the concepts of air-traffic control far better than users trained on a very good interface.

David Gilmore has done experiments and discusses this at length:’95.html

(the article is called: “Interface Design: Have we got it wrong?”)

Lada Gorlenko wrote:

emacs and vi vs. OpenOffice do not prove the point. For a long time there was no alternative to the power of both with a better interface. Taking into account that an average Unix user is still not a lay person, you have it - everyone who joins the Unix community now joins the established culture with a very specific aura of coolness around it. Newcomers will die (learn vi and emacs) to be full members of the culture.

It’s all psychology indeed. Once youíve mastered the tough end of the interfaces, you care less about ease of use. The opposite is not true, however. To me, the day that proves the “no pain, no gain” point will come when 51% of users spending 5+ hours a day using MS Word will voluntarily abandon it in favour of LaTeX. Itís worth the pain, but I bet a life-time supply of London Pride for Kevin that it wonít happen in the next decade.

dave wrote:

LaTex vs. Word?
Maybe LaTex vs. InDesign, but this is an apples and oranges comparison.

But more to the point … Don’t you think its a “cultural flaw” that you have to be indoctrinated through the use of unreasonably hard to use tools? I’m sorry, but even OpenOffice is hard to use compared to Word.

My point is though, that if any OS that wants to become mainstream does not address user experience, it won’t–end of story.

As for the point of the article … my comment on the comic itself addresses that it is more about aging out and feeling worthless as one becomes older and less about the realities of what is good.


BTW, my Dad is visiting me this weekend, and we had our usually Tech talk, and he started out like the comic. I think he quoted it unknowingly, but then as we continued the conversation he moved more and more away from his fears and towards what he knew to be useful and usable for him. My point is that listening, patience and just being a nice person break down all these previous generation sterotypes.

cdash wrote:

I agree with the psychology standpoint; there is a certain degree of pleasure gained when ovecoming somthing difficult. I think the real question that needs to be asked is: “Who Are The Users?” Designers who know all the ins and outs of Photoshop probably would consider this knowledge and expertise a badge of honor; they are able to show off what they can do with Photoshop that probably many others cannot. Here, the usability of the interface is not so key, in fact, the harder the program the more respectable the “badge of honor” (No Pain No Gain). However, the occasional photograph enthusiast who uses Photoshop Elements is probably most proud that he/she can take the red eye out and enhance the overall image quality of his/her picture from their last vacation. Here, the badge of honor is in the end product (i.e. the pictures) which is achieved by a user-friendly, easy to use interface. (No Pain, but Gain). For the Photoshop expert to use Elements would not be rewarding, and likewise for the casual photographer to use Photoshop.

dave wrote:

I also think there is an aspect of learnability. Yes, Photoshop CS has a “badge” of honor if you know how to change pointers w/o the mouse, etc. but it was incredibly easy to learn. The same cannot be said for most of the “expert” Unix based tools out there. — dave

cdash wrote:

Agreed on the issue of learnability, but I think you might have missed my point. I was just trying to illustrate the difference that some users will welcome pain for the reward of a badge, while others will not welcome it at all. It just depends on the user. You might think that Photoshop was easy to use and may have acquired a “Photoshop Badge of Honor”, but I’m sure the users who welcomed Elements as a breath of fresh air didn’t think Photoshop was very user-friendly.

dave wrote:

I guess I don’t see the difference between Elements and Photoshop to be a usability/learnability issue. To me they are marketing issues and audience issues. I find that the audience motivation sets a stage for a different level of usability. Usability is not “ability” to “use”. We are all equally intelligent. This idea of the novice user being “stupid” is not really what audience separation is really about. The psycho-social dynamics are a lot more complex than that.

I was however stating that the motivation to learn more, the goals presented require more to learn are important here to understand. What I have found from users is that if they REALLY want to learn something b/c they need to they’ll learn it. This notion of “badge” to me is not really the point.

Emacs is beyond unintuitive, lets not even talk about VI … Why is that? Well, someone had to learn it, and now they are grandpa and there are too many grandpas to want to make them better. Its like becoming a dr. Everyone knows that residential shifts of 36 hours is unsafe to patients, but they won’t change it because the previous generation of doctors feel “gypped” that they had to go through a right of passage that the next won’t. Please … these excuses for product legacy is a tad absurd.

There is no reason why we shouldn’t have a usable, learnable, robust open source document tool. And yes, OpenOffice ain’t it.

— dave

Pizar wrote:

I think Dave said it well. It’s part of human nature for the previous generation to be a bit indignant or resentful that the newcomers doesn’t have to go through the “right of passage” challenges they did. Accessibility takes an arena that used to be exclusive territory and gives it to other people who didn’t have to earn it. It strips away the elitist badge of accomplishment, and what old pros want that?

It’s that feeling you get when you run ito these young punks thinking they’re web designers because they have a cracked copy of photoshop. What ever happened to art school? Blood, sweat, and tears on illustration board? The experienced folks will always long for the days of the rapidograph. Not because they would prefer to go back to the “hard way”, but because they know things that come too easy can be harder to appreciate.

-Nathan Pizar

Robby Slaughter wrote:

I think “technomasochism” is an unfortunate artifact of the development of information technology, rather than a true emergent phenomenon of human behavior.

Here’s why: I can’t find analogies in other areas of innovation. Look how silly these things sound: “In my day, we had to rewind our movies!” “You kids are lucky you don’t have rotary dial telephones!” “Swiffer makes cleaning too easy!” “Real men use analog clocks!”

So, while there certainly is a great deal of “technomasochism” regarding tools like Sabre, vi and Linux, I think it can be dismissed as a side-effect rather than a symptom. Once the interface becomes easier without a decrease in cabilities, everyone will prosper. Let’s get back to that!

Devdas Bhagat wrote:

vi vs emacs isn’t an editor war. It’s a culture war.

vi is the classic system administrators editor. It’s guaranteed to be there on all Unix systems, and behave the same way. Try using any GUI editor over a slow remote connection (think GPRS or slower). You need the editor to be light, fast and programmable. Minimise the keystrokes.

Emacs is an infinitely extensible editor, and ideally suited for programmers. Think of emacs as the proto IDE, and you will see why a lot of Unix programmers love it (mouse, what mouse?).

Neither of these is truly an “end-user” editor.

What the “expert” unix tools offer is programmability and extensibility. Usability isn’t very good if the application just doesn’t do what you need it to do.

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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) ?