Avoidance = 1 / ((Functionality – Cost) ^ Ease of Use)

Some time back I wrote a brief entry regarding the adoption of products. In it, I madethe blaringly obvious observation that many products thatseem to be revolutionary, and that have taken the marketby storm, really just made existing products or technologiesslightly easier to use, or slightly more useful(as amazing and technologically remarkable an iPod is, for mostusers it’s functionally equivalent to a 1980 Walkman).

It’s a better mousetrap model that has driven business, andconsumerism, for decades.

In reverse, making something a little less convenient,and a little less accessible, works effectively at avoidingundesired behaviour in a target audience.

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Anti-piracy efforts, for instance, have never been pursued withexpectations of absolute success, and it really hasn’t broken theirmodel when someone sits in IRC #warez channels all day, and thenputs their PC at risk of spyware/trojans/viruses with cracks andserial gens. It’s the other 99% of the population that’sthe target of low-barrier anti-piracy technologies. Those are thepeople who would rather just pay $49.95 at the computer store thanwaste the time or take the risks.

Authorization, serial numbers, machine keying — all of theseare intended to make it just a little more of a hassle to useunauthorized copies, decreasing the casual piracy of normal people.Of course sometimes it backfires, and the anti-piracy techniquesare more of a pain than the alternative, but that’s anotherstory.

Manipulating “ease of use” can work for self-control aswell. A common bit of wisdom for those looking to pursue healthyeating is “avoid it once at the store, or avoid it countlesstimes at home” — If you can stop yourself from buying abag of cookies or box of ding dongs at the grocery store, the adagegoes, that one exercise of self-control will save from having touse restraint countless times as said treats sit on your shelf,begging to be consumed. Sure, you could just hop in yourcar and go buy a box of ding dongs when the munchies hit, but formany people the desire is low enough that it isn’t worth thetrouble, and you either go without or choose somethinghealthier.

This sort of “front-end self control” came to mind today as Ianalyzed the things that work, and the things that don’t, in myweekly online adventures: Being in software development of coursemeans consuming the news and information in the industry, andconversing (and hopefully debating) with informed, interestingpeople who have an enlightened point of view. The hope is toconsume valuable, worthwhile information, and to engage inconversations that leave me feeling a little moreknowledgeable.

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On my web adventures, the things that work are those that moveme towards goals, help my understanding of industry technologiesand trends, or even just entertain me (all work is a recipe fortrouble, and a funny YouTubevideo or The Onion article every now and then is verybeneficial for productivity).

The things that don’t are basically everythingelse, which is a set usually comprised of sites that I visit almostreflexively: Sites that once had merit for me personally, but nolonger do (perhaps “we’ve grown apart”, and they’re at a technologylevel or scope that I’m not really interested in at this point, orperhaps their content has gone from quality to garbage), but Istill find them sitting in my bookmarks listing, usually withshortcut keys.

I habitually find myself typing their URL without even reallythinking about it. I’m human, and thus a creature of habit. Oncethere I’m invariably sucked into unfulfilling content, or annoying,unfulfilling debates.

Yet, while these sites have limited utility for me now, their”ease of use” is extraordinarily high simply as a function ofacclimation and habit.

So, much like avoiding the bag of cookies at the grocery store,I’ve enacted some simple controls to make it just a littlemore of a hassle to visit them.

  • I’ve “banned” them in Adblock. Thisbasically means that visiting them in Firefox — my browser ofchoice — requires reconfiguring the Adblock rules, marginallydecreasing the ease of use. Sure, I could just jump overto another browser, but losing the enormous functionality andbenefits of Firefox with my select set of Extensions dramaticallylowers the “ease of use” factor, eliminating any marginal interestin visiting these sites.
  • I’ve “banned” them in my router. Most routers nowadays includeL5-L7 filtering, allowing it to inspect and block requests forcertain domains/URLs. I go in this section so infrequently, and theinterface is so terrible, that it smashes ease of use to theground, despite acclimitization and habit.

Of course there are many ways that I can circumvent this, mostdirectly by just turning off the self-imposed “restrictions”, butthat’s missing the point – that’s like hopping in my car anddriving to the grocery store because I feel like a cookie. It isn’tgoing to happen simply because the functionality provided is fartoo low to offset the nuisance of getting there.