[thechat] Re: biting the hand ... (way long, and ranting)

martin.p.burns at uk.pwcglobal.com martin.p.burns at uk.pwcglobal.com
Mon Jun 25 09:46:55 CDT 2001

Memo from Martin P Burns of PricewaterhouseCoopers

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Forwarded from finestkind usability list, CHI-WEB.

Most of us will recognise this situation...


---------------------- Forwarded by Martin P Burns/UK/MCS/PwC on 25/06/2001
12:04 ---------------------------

Please respond to mike stone <webgeek at YAWP.COM>

Sent by:  "ACM SIGCHI WWW Human Factors (Open Discussion)"
      <CHI-WEB at ACM.ORG>


Subject:  Re: biting the hand ... (way long, and ranting)

> Not only does their entire body of their training indicate complete
> and complex layout control, their clients expect the same. Can you
> blame them?

yes, i'm afraid i can.

one of the most fundamental concepts in economics is that we always want
more than we can afford, whether the limiting factor is money, effort,
or the laws of physics.   people would love to have gravity cut them a
break when they have to carry a heavy suitcase up three flights of
stairs, for instance, but gravity doesn't care.

the word 'expect', as you used it, is just a fancy way of saying that
people want something, and are willing to throw a tantrum if they don't
get it.   but the simple fact of the matter is that i don't control the
users, any more than a physicist controls gravity.

if you want to work with a medium, you have to understand it.
the limits of the medium because they're inconvenient is foolish, and
doomed to failure.   you don't get an airborne by flapping your arms and
'expecting' to fly.   you study physics until you discover a way to
arrange forces so they counterbalance the pull of gravity.

the same thing is true of graphic designers and clients who 'expect'
the web to be just like print.   their expectation is wrong, and all
the money and effort they invest supporting that expectation will,
ultimately, be wasted.

> We all expect the media we use regularly to behave in a consistent,
> predictable manner, and I can't think of a good reason why the web
> shouldn't behave similarly.

the web does behave in a consistent and predictable manner.   it
just doesn't behave in the consistent and predictable manner that
print does.

trying to make the web be like print is an enormously bad idea.
it's like rejecting the internal-combustion engine because people
'expect' horse-drawn carriages.

the web is a semantic medium, not a display medium.   the HTML that
actually works, and which makes the web so all-fired popular, is
the stuff that tells you what a chunk of information *is*:  a
heading, a link, an item in a list, etc.   the markup that breaks
the most often, causes the greatest number of compatability
problems, and generally wastes the most effort, is the stuff that
gets obsessive about how information "should look".

if designers and clients want absolute control over the way a page
looks, let them use PDF.   it's certainly no more intrusive than
Flash, Javascript, or all the other crap people talk themselves
into using, and it's a real display medium.   it actually works,
and has good cross-platform support.   if there's really that much
demand for appearance over content, PDF will eventually become the
dominant medium for online communication.

conversely, if everyone sticks with HTML, it might be a sign that
users want a semantic medium more than they want a display medium.

>> executives
>> their whole training is based on the assumption of heirarchical
>> authority
> There are cases when this is just what is needed. No matter that the
> medium has all of this other power; people shouldn't have to use all
> the web has to offer to be considered legitimate, right?

uh, no..

two-way communication isn't optional, it's mandatory.   the web is a
marketplace for information, and markets are the antithesis of top-down

sure, you can use the web for things like a corporate intranet, or for
dissemination of information among members of a heirarchically
organized team.   experience shows that even in controlled environments
like those, the heirarchy tends to flatten, though.

on the web as a whole, though, forget it.   executives have heirarchical
authority because, at some basic level, the people lower on the org
chart accept it.   in most cases, that acceptance is based on a mixture
of salaries paid and respect earned, neither of which applies to a user
hitting your company's website for the first time.   most sites don't
pay their users, so their only choice is to earn respect.

usability is about earning a user's respect.   but the earning comes
first, respect comes second, and authority comes later, if at all.

>> people take it as dogma that the company logo *WILL* be
>> rendered in Pantone 225-3 Process blue
> Trouble is, they're not wrong; it should.

i didn't say 'should'.   i said 'will'.

'should' accepts the possibility of alternatives, even if those
alternatives are not desirable.   'will' rejects the possibility of
alternatives, period.

'should' is workable.   'will' is simply wrong.

> That the current breadth of technologies available makes this
> temporarily impossible is unfortunate, but the urge to control
> color, or anything else, is there for good reasons and must be
> honored.

when you get right down to it, the urge to use the web is based on
the desire to take advantage of billions of dollars worth of technology
that someone else has paid to purchase and maintain.   it's the desire
to ride for free on someone else's dime.

we must never forget this.

users have power because they give us free access to a volume of
resources we couldn't begin to afford in our wildest dreams.

we are guests.   and we will remain guests until we cough up the bucks
to buy the latest hardware and software for everyone who comes to our

if we lose sight of these facts, we become *bad* guests.

the fact that computers don't display Pantone 225-3 Process blue is
not a regrettable, but temporary, inconvenience.   it's a fact of
life.   it will remain a fact of life until someone shells out the
money to buy everyone in the world high-quality monitors, and then
pays to have them calibrated on a regular basis.

these are the realities, and throwing tantrums won't make them go
away.   clients who want Pantone 255-3 Process blue must make a
simple economic decision:  is getting that color worth the expense?
if not, they get another choice:  is getting a free ride on billions
of dollars worth of hardware that other people have paid for valuable
enough to compensate them for not getting Pantone 225-3 Process blue?

complaining because you can't get a free ride *and* Pantone 225-3
Process blue just wastes time.   and in business, time is money.

> These are wonderful things to be teaching. Still, I sense in your
> overall complaint a lack of empathy with your constituents

yes, i lack empathy.  gravity lacks empathy for someone carrying a
heavy load, and users lack empathy for most of the things clients

seriously.. when was the last time you calibrated your monitor out of
empathy for the brand images of companies who put their logos online?
when was the last time you loaded an extra banner ad out of empathy for
the financial motives of the content provider?   when was the last
time you gave a website ten seconds of attention more than you wanted
to out of empathy for the agenda its creators?

encouraging clients to want things they can't have is lying.

one of the most common things that clients want is a better free ride.
they want everyone in the world to adopt an agenda that's good for the
client.   they want it to happen right now, and they want it to
happen for free.

it's not going to happen.   no matter how much the client uses the word
'expect', or how much i use the word 'empathy', it's not going
to happen.
and the longer we spend playing that game, the more money the client
will waste.

> (along with very natural frustration, which is totally OK).


this ain't frustration.   frustration is when i say, "i've just shut
down your webserver and deleted the httpd.conf file.   i've taken
the batteries out of my cell phone and pager, and i won't be at home
tonight.   i'll be back tomorrow, and we can discuss your priorities

it's important to remember that things like that are not 'unthinkable'.
people can 'expect' 100% uptime and all the bandwidth they can eat,
but that's just another brick in the wall of fantasy.

> I assert that not only are all of their desires valid, we must
> empathize with them, seek the crux of their motivations to help craft
> a web experience that meets the fundamental needs behind their
> attitudes.

the version of that which works is the Theory W (win-win) approach to
software management and requirements determination developed by Barry
Boehm while working for the US Department of Defense.

the version that doesn't work is called 'being a codependent enabler'.

it's important not to confuse them.

> perhaps we all have to have a bit more of the social worker in us
> that we'd like to.

i see it differently.   IMO, we have a choice of occupations:  we can
run an ambulance service at the foot of the cliff, or we can put guard
rails up at the top.   running an ambulance service is long on empathy,
but short on results.   putting up guard rails is more effective, but
it lacks lack empathy for clients who want to flap their arms and fly.

usability is not driven by 'expectations'.   it's driven by hard
realities.   we don't say that drop-down menus are evil because the
idea came to us while contemplating our navels.   we ran tests with
an approved methodology, and that's what the results told us.   if
the numbers had come out the other way, we'd tell people that
drop-down menus are a good idea.

clients, OTOH, would love to hear us say that their expectations are
more important than our realities.

<pure rant>

personally, it infuriates me to see experts who can quote good,
carefully crafted and impartial studies being stymied by arguments
whose whole justification is "i think this looks cool."   why do
we waste time running tests if we don't grant the results any more
respect than the momentary whims of someone who admittedly knows
nothing about the subject or the medium?   when did empirical
evidence stop being worthy of respect?

and why, for heaven's sake, are we worried about hurting people's
feelings in an environment that's FAMOUS for priding itself on
its blunt, hard-nosed, cut-the-shit-and-show-me-the-bottom-line
attitude?   since when have captains of industry become fainting
violets with delicate sensibilities, and who probably need a hug?

show me the empathy in a contract negotiation.   show me the empathy
in a job interview.   show me the empathy when a company lays off
workers to demonstrate fiscal responsibility in preparation for its
IPO.   there's a managerial consultant called "Chainsaw Al", for
fuck's sake, and the guy was worshipped for his brutality-and-results
until someone actually looked at the books and discovered that his
'results' were mostly creative accounting.

*these* are the people we don't dare upset?   even when the message
that will upset them is "you'll make more (or waste less) money this

wake up people.. we're just saving them the effort of flogging us
by flogging ourselves.

</pure rant>

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