Maximising Tolerable Irritation

(Meta: I wrote this quite a while ago and for some reason never published it. I'm not sure exactly when it was written though - it was just after the first series of Netflix’s version of House of Cards came out, so that would probably put it around the second quarter of 2013.)

We all know companies don't have our best interests at heart, and the bigger the company, it seems, the less they care at all. I’ve grown used to this, but I’ve started to see a more worrying trend among companies’ approaches.

Everyone is told that the way for a company to succeed is to put the customer first, provide the absolute best customer experience, and that untold riches await for the companies that do it right.

Turns out that’s bunkum.

Companies these days have latched on to ‘Maximising Tolerable Irritation’ instead of delighting customers. They don’t want to provide the absolute best customer experience, they want to provide the one that suits their goals that is just good enough so that most customers can barely tolerate it.

Take Netflix as an example. They allow users to maintain a ‘List’, where users can add titles they want to watch in future, to make them easy to find. Great. Nice usability feature.

In the previous version of their Android app, the first thing you saw on the screen was the recent things you watched (allowing you to pick up where you left off). Next was your own List, giving you easy access to things you'd cued up to watch. After that were various auto-recommendation lists and other nonsense.

With the latest version they've taken to Maximising Tolerable Irritation and moved the List - the things you've decided you want easy access to - much further down and the very first thing you see is a very big advert for something Netflix wants you to watch. Not something you want to watch, something they want you to watch.

The first time it appeared for me, it dedicated 25% of the screen to an advert for the first series of House of Cards - a Netflix-only show that Netflix knows I've seen because I watched it on Netflix.

Now my List is appearing down after the ‘Random picks for Geoff’ list! Yes, they think it’s better to give me easy access to random picks for me rather than things I’ve tried to set for easy access.

This is, in many respects, trivial. I know this. But it kinda shows contempt for the user, saying ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know you want this, but tough luck, we're going to push this on you instead’. It’s not user-focused, it’s Netflix-focused and it's designed to be both annoying and interruptive enough that you notice their advert and have more difficulty getting to what you actually want, while at the same time not being a big enough deal that you switch to something else.

So, no-one will switch away because of this irritation because it’s tolerable, but they're really trying to maximise the irritation for their own benefit.

I’m not just saying Netflix do this - it’s just one example. There are plenty of non-Netflix examples. It's like all companies have taken the wrong message from Nudge. It’s not accidental bad usability or an anti-pattern of usability, it’s an actually user-hostile dark pattern that seeks to make things deliberately unpleasant for the user, just not so unpleasant that the user doesn’t use the service.

Like call handling systems that never seem to have the option you actually need, even though you've explored several levels deep. It’s terrible, but is it enough to make you switch bank (or whatever the company is)?

Or Amazon - try buying MP3s without using your gift card balance. Workarounds include - buy yourself a gift card and send it to yourself, redeem it after you've made your purchase. Or ‘pre-order’ (urgh) a ridiculously expensive book and cancel it when you’ve made your purchase. All just to try to get you to fit in with Amazon’s desires. It’s possible to work around them, they’re just irritating enough that you probably won’t take your business elsewhere.

Another example - we would regularly get letters addressed to The Occupier about overhead power lines. These didn’t really seem to come from a reputable company (at the very least on the grounds that we’d used the Mail Preference Service to make sure we wouldn’t receive junk mail) so we ignored them for the first few years. They kept coming. And they provided a form to allow you to stop receiving them. The options on the form were:

  • I have already received a large compensation...
  • I am aware that compensation was paid to a previous owner...
  • I have instructed another company to act...
  • I do not have pylons or high voltage lines near...
  • I am not the registered owner...

No option that says ‘would you just fuck off and stop bothering me’. It’s like they figure if they don’t give me the option of just choosing not to do business with them, I’ll suddenly start doing business with them.

OK, that last one doesn't really fit with the notion of Maximising Tolerable Irritation but it’s still pretty fucking irritating. It’s the same people who think it’s oh so clever to have ‘Rate This App’ or ‘Later’ as the only options on a dialog, instead of a ‘Never, Ever, Ever - Now Stop Begging’ button. (Or better still - a button that allows you to punish the app developer for putting such a bad dialog in front of the user in the first place.)

Signing up for Windows Azure is a better example. Microsoft require (and check) a mobile phone number, and say they’re going to text your number with drivel like ‘information for new subscribers’ - information that:

  1. I don’t want,
  2. I certainly don’t want on my phone - I use that for stuff I think is important or urgent, not drivel spam from Microsoft,
  3. I have no way of opting out of - the Privacy Statement says ‘You will not be able to unsubscribe from these communications.'

In fact, Microsoft’s approach to spam emails generally is an example of maximising tolerable irritation. They don’t have unsubscribe options on their emails (at least, not the ones I get), they have a link saying ‘Review our privacy statement’ or some such. If you sign up for something from Microsoft, they take it as you being contractually obliged to receive their emails. Maximising tolerable irritation - it’s irritating, but is it irritating enough?

Is it irritating enough to get you to stop using Microsoft? Or Amazon? Or Netflix? Or...?

Tags: Clueless Idiocy
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