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ETech: Joel on Misattribution

I attended Joel Spolsky's talk this afternoon, which was supposed to be on community building. Having become bored with the subject since he submitted his proposal to the O'Reilly folks several months ago, Spolsky decided to instead focus on trying to figure out what differentiates products that lead their industry (like, say, the iPod) versus products that are also-rans (like Creative's offering).

Before I continue, let me say that Spolsky is a hell of a speaker. He speaks as he writes, using things like Brad and Jen's breakup, Abercrombie & Fitch's website, anthropologist Clotaire Rapaille, Sweet Home Alabama and a hilarious send-up of installing a digital camera in Windows 2000 to drive home his point. He was cracking jokes throughout the presentation, wandering into areas that were seemingly completely unrelated, only to tie things together a slide or two later. Highly enjoyable.

Anyways, what's Spolsky's formula for differentiating a #1 product from a #2 product?

1. Make people happy. Never underestimate the value of having Things Just Work (he used the Windows digicam installation example here). Spolsky spoke about learned helplessness, which can contribute to depression because those afflicted have learned that anything they do is futile. Treatment for learned helplessness consists of small victories--for example, giving patients a pile of napkins to fold.

Extending the theory of learned helplessness to product development, Spolsky compared Amazon's checkout process to Abercrombie's. Amazon's is non-directed, and the user can complete the checkout steps (billing info, shipping info, etc.) steps in whatever order they like. In Abercrombie's, however, users are constrained to the process that Abercrombie has determined is appropriate and so users learn to feel helpless.

I think Spolsky's larger point abut learned helplessness is applicable, but I don't know that I agree with this specific example. In my experience, users function much better in a directed environment (like a process with four steps) than in a non-directed environment.

2. Think about emotions. Why do customers feel safer driving a Ford Explorer (88 deaths per million Explorers on the road) than in a Camry (41 deaths per million)? Spolsky borrows a line of thinking from Rapaille here:

at the reptilian level they think that if I am bigger and taller I'm safer. You feel secure because you are higher and dominate and look down. That you can look down is psychologically a very powerful notion.
This intuitively makes sense, but is speculation from the same man who said:
And what was the key element of safety when you were a child? It was that your mother fed you, and there was warm liquid. That's why cupholders are absolutely crucial for safety. If there is a car that has no cupholder, it is not safe. If I can put my coffee there, if I can have my food, if everything is round, if it's soft, and if I'm high, then I feel safe. It's amazing that intelligent, educated women will look at a car and the first thing they will look at is how many cupholders it has.

3. Obsess over aesthetics. Spolsky used three examples here. He's convinced that you have to send your iPod back to Apple to get the battery replaced because they did not want to put latches on the iPod because doing so would have sullied the iPod aesthetic.

Second, he showed pictures of a French apartment building, which had no fire escapes. The reason? The French think they're ugly, and got the apartment building classified as a historical site so the fire inspectors wouldn't require the installation of fire escapes.

Third, he made the point that the interface is the software. It does not matter what is under the hood; all that matters to the user is what he interacts with on the screen.

The bottom line, Mr. Spolsky? "The world is really really superficial."

The one takeaway he wanted us to have from his highly entertaining presentation was to understand the concept of misattribution.

Misattribution occurs when someone's emotions are affected while they are experiencing a situation or making a decision. When you ask them about the situation, their answer is based on their elicited emotional response that you brought on, and not the reality of the situation. Spolsky used the example of having to pee really badly during the last half of a movie. When you get out of the movie, you're more likely to tell your friends that the movie wasn't very good, but that's not because the movie wasn't actually very good--it's because you were extremely uncomfortable because you had to go pee, and were attributing the notion that the movie was not very good to the quality of the movie.

In other words, the takehome is to make your product pretty, and people will misattribute all the happiness they feel about your product to its functionality. I'm not sure I agree with this, again, because I think the iPod's interface is genius. It looks pretty, sure, but Jobs and company innovated with regard to the interface as much as they did to the aesthetic.

To cap it off, Spolsky finished by saying that maybe we misattributed the quality of the presentation to the fact that he was cracking lots of jokes and played Sweet Home Alabama... and then proceeded to crank the song, to a thunderous ovation.

In the end, I'm not sure what to think. His presentation was super entertaining, but a bit fluffy, even though I don't disagree with his formula. In the end, it was the most enjoyable presentation I've seen yet at ETech, and it made me think, so I guess I'm happy. :)

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Comments (Post | Latest)

1. Ian Landsman said on Mar 18 2005:

It seems a bit odd that he would make such a big deal out of how things look when his own product (fogbuz) is not a very good looker. It's certainly clean and from what I hear works increadabley well, but one look at the UI tells you that programmers built it not designers. I'm a programmer and I think that's great! I think his UI choices in terms of user experience are correct in Fogbugz, which makes his iPod example very odd indeed.

2. kareem said on Mar 18 2005:

Ian, that exact thought was going through my mind during Joel's presentation.

We use Fogbugz (haven't upgraded to 4.0 yet) and functionally it's fantastic, but it certainly isn't the prettiest web app in the room.

3. Sencer said on Mar 19 2005:

> I'm a programmer and I think that's great

Shows that he made the right choice. ;) The main point is, I guess, to not sell to the customer with what _you_ think is important, but what the customer feels important. If you are selling to developers, pretty graphics is not on their top priority list - maybe he chose the ipod example to set off potential competitors to Fogbugz... ;)

4. Roger K. said on Mar 19 2005:

When I first trialed Joel's City Desk product, within two minutes I'd hit two frustrating moments caused by obvious and poor design decisions.

I found it hard to believe that the guy who wrote a book on good UI design had allowed such obvious flaws in his own products.

5. kareem said on Mar 19 2005:

Sencer, you make a good point, knowing your audience is key. But, Joel must recognize the value of good design--how else to explain Fog Creek's redesign (which is a significant upgrade), which was done by Dave Shea?

Roger, I wonder if Joel does any user testing beyond "hallway usability testing" that he talks about in his UI book. One difficulty in UI design is that your software will never be intuitive to 100% of users; the goal is to make it intuitive for as many as you can by fixing the obvious problems exposed by patterns that come up when testing the user experience.


6. Alex Murphy said on Mar 19 2005:

OK, Dave Shea must have hired for a budget because:

a) The Fogcreek site is incredibly dull (blue and grey? What an innovative combo!)

b) Shea also contributed to the design of FogBugz - yes the same software you think is not that pretty to look at.

Shea's other work has quite a different story to tell. You begin to wonder... did Joel tell him not to make it terribly exciting?

7. Ian Landsman said on Mar 19 2005:

Good point, selling to your market is important. The question then is wheather Joel is really that deep to give a talk with such "hidden" meaning? :-)

8. kareem said on Mar 20 2005:

Alex, I mentioned above that I hadn't upgraded to the new version of Fogbugz yet, so I have no opinion on Dave Shea's work there. And, did you see the Fog Creek design before Shea redid it? The new site is much nicer.

Ian, Spolsky does seem to be a few steps ahead, but I bet we're over-analyzing ;)

9. JOn said on Apr 11 2005:

Considering fogbugz and his other works they are very bad when it comes to UI. I laughed reading this, how can you preach something you yourself dont work on? Come on fogbugz and whats the other title called (the supposed web page developer) that thing was and still is hideous!


Hi, I'm Kareem Mayan. I co-founded eduFire, an online video tutoring company.

I've done time at ESPN and FIM.

I advise WorldBlu, helping them build democratic companies.

I moderated a council for Creative Good.

And, I helped bring Barcamp, a technology un-conference, to LA, which is where I live. I am now living and working in cool cities around the world.

More about me.

Opinions stated here are mine alone.

Contact: blog -at- reemer


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