Build It Badly—And They Will Still Come

Finally getting a piece of software to work had an almost addictive effect.

People ask me why we accept complexities and defects in software that we would never tolerate in any other product or tool. From time to time, Ive shared in these columns a number of possible explanations: Read on for two old and one new.

"The illusion of control" was named by researchers observing spreadsheet users. Experimental subjects who had access to more elaborate forecasting features believed that they produced better results, but their work was not measurably better—despite taking more time to produce.

Significantly, those users even believed that they did better than other participants whom they thought to be using identical tools. In short: The more things we get to control, the more we tend to believe that well do those things better than others. More complexity makes us feel more powerful.

Perhaps this explains the effect of advertising slogans like "The Ultimate Driving Machine."

Another study compared software users with experimental animals that had been taught to acquire food rewards in return for certain behaviors. When those rewards became inconsistent—even infrequent—the behaviors persisted nonetheless.

Researchers suggested that the thrill of finally getting a piece of software to work, either by finding an obscure menu option or devising an elaborate workaround, had a similar and almost addictive effect. "Like a rat in a maze, the path before me lies," as the song by Simon and Garfunkel so cheerfully tells us—but unlike the rat, we have the choice of climbing over the wall.

Most recently, Ive found research on the nature of persuasion that may relate to user acceptance of badly flawed software design.

Students, posing as beggars, asked people for "small change" and got something 44 percent of the time; they asked for a specific single-coin amount, like a quarter, and got it 64 percent of the time; they asked for arbitrary amounts, like 37 cents, and got what they asked for 75 percent of the time. "The more precise and unusual the request, the less people were able to resist it," summarized a report last month by The Economist.

Well, that explains a lot.

Tell me how users can regain control at