Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Human’s are so funny (and odd and not like web applications in any way)

We have a kitchen area where I work.  It has a few refrigerator's, a stove, some free coffee, Tylenol, a bunch of empty cabinets and a sink.  It's pretty nice though, as our building is only a few years old.  There are 2 cylindrical receptacles in the countertop next to the sink, and there's a small note between the 2 of them that reads "Recyclable's Only", and underneath that text there are 2 arrows, one for aluminum and the other for plastic.  Wouldn't you know it, no matter how many gripes people may have, people in the building still use those receptacles to throw away normal trash, out of convenience.  The typical garbage thrown in there are empty coffee creamer containers, some napkins, or a Styrofoam cup (ironically in a recyclable container, as Styrofoam cups and cockroaches will undoubtedly live to the end of time).  There are also some trash bins against the wall, no more than 3 feet away from a person at the sink, but those are "behind" them.

In an experiment recently, I took a small trashcan and placed it under the sink (there is no cabinetry underneath, so it was visible).  No signs were posted, nothing was said, the trashcan was just placed there.  Wouldn't you know it, people started using the recycling and trash receptacles properly?  Oddly enough, someone else stole (yes, I'm accusing someone of theft!) the small trashcan about 2 months later, and the all-purpose recycling and garbage dumping started once again, with people just using the receptacles for whatever their refuse needs were at the moment.

This goes to show 3 things.  1, my fellow employees apparently don't care about the environment, 2, I enjoy using co-workers for pointless experimentation, and 3, human's are funny and fickle creatures who tend to take the path of least resistance.

I read a book recently by Dan Ariely (, a behavioral economist who studies people, and the more he learns about people the more he realizes how little he knows about people.  In a talk once, he told the audience that asking a person to opt-out of something occurs much less frequently than having people opt-in.  The example he provides is the amount of organ donor's in certain European countries.  The difference between the high and low rate of organ donor's has little to do with morality, upbringing, subsidies or any other influences.  It's only because the countries with the larger\largest organ donation have a form with a box stating "check this box if you do NOT want to donate your organ's after you meet your untimely demise" (yes, I paraphrased).  But do you understand the difference here?  Asking user's on a web form to opt-in to an email campaign is much different than asking them to opt-out.  Furthermore, the implication of the result is HUGE!  A person who has to opt-in for an email message is probably much more interested in your monthly email discussing widgets, rather than the person who happened to sign up for it "by default".

Whenever I'm teaching programming to software developer trainee's, I always tell them "the computer does what you tell it to".  When a trainee creates a loop in their program, or if a font color changes "randomly", I remind them of that phrase, and tell them that it's a bug.  They may not have intended for something to happen (hence it being a bug), but the computer does what it is TOLD to do.  It doesn't ask any questions (unless you tell it to ;), it just runs the code and that's that.  Human beings are so much more complex than that, it's always an interesting world to be between, programming a web application one minute and deigning a user interface where I'm guessing a user will or won't check a checkbox the next.  Such is life...

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