Bad Software Design. Splitting the blame between Malice, Stupidity and Difficulty.


Last week’s post on freemium resulted in some clarifying back and forth about manipulative game design using in-app-purchases (IAP). As it happens MG Siegler and John Gruber talked more generally about software design in a recent podcast, discussing Windows 8 and Facebook’s new Paper app. It’s worth tying these two together, using a design lens to see where gaming IAP may be going.

First Windows 8. Not surprisingly, with their eye for design both MG Siegler and John Gruber correctly predicted the failure of Windows 8 prior to release. Siegler in Oct 2012: “Apparently tip-toeing around it isn’t enough so I’ll just come out and say it: Windows 8 is going to be a shitshow.” In less colorful language, Gruber in June 2011“Why Windows 8 Is Fundamentally Flawed as a Response to the iPad.” And heavily influenced by them, from my Sep 2012 post: “Microsoft’s plans for Windows 8 show they believe at some level that touchscreen interfaces are a bolt on, not a new new thing….. Since the thrust of this entire post is about the disruptive nature of the tablet interface, it doesn’t bode well for Microsoft that they’ll ship a compromised hybrid UI.” Windows 8 came out a month later in October 2012. The rest is history.

What’s amazing to me is how few tech analysts correctly called out Windows 8’s terrible design at release. Siegler is unusual precisely because he had an actual design opinion and kept calling Windows 8 a turd. Contrast this to the iPad, a market defining product, whose announcement resulted in an Apple stock price drop. On release many critics panned it as just a big iPod touch. In fact my favorite test of a tech analyst’s design sense is searching for what they said about the iPad and Windows 8 on release. Now of course this test picks up Apple fanboys, so I also check Windows Phone/Metro as well. Stellar design, though too late to market. The real question here of course is how did Microsoft spend years building Windows 8? And I say this as a sincere fan of Microsoft. It’s a tragedy.

Reflecting on the Windows 8 debacle during their podcast, Gruber quoted Hanlon’s razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

But there’s far more here than meets the eye. Gruber and Siegler go on to discuss Facebook’s new Paper app, which they agree has brilliant design. For example the photo feature where you tilt your phone to pan instead of swiping, plus the bottom screen preview navigation using pull up/down to go full screen. First rate! Though the tutorial movie that forces itself upon you on first launch made me tap so hard trying to make it stop I nearly dropped my phone. Back to the point. What their discussion made clear is brilliance in engineering is far more common than brilliance in user experience design. There are more people like Bill Gates than Steve Jobs. Hence we can split the blame for bad software design three ways: 1) Malice, 2) Stupidity, 3) Difficulty. While it’s always a mix, I’m firmly in camp #3 Difficulty. Let’s pair the first saying with a second:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. And never attribute to stupidity that which is adequately explained by difficulty.

Good usability in particular suffers from appearing obvious in retrospect while being exceptionally difficult. Windows 8 and the initial misguided pundit reaction to it are proof, if you needed it. Let’s cover one more topic before getting to gaming. Gruber also recently discussed Real Networks, which if you were around a decade ago, was filled with spyware and crapware. It turns out that Real Networks tried running their business without it, and their revenue plummeted. So they put the crapware back in as an alternative to mass layoffs. As Gruber says: “Once you’re backed into a corner like this, where your users’ happiness and satisfaction are no longer aligned with your revenue, you’ve already lost. It’s like the dark side of the Force — you should never even start down that path, or you’ll be corrupted.

So on to games and in-app-purchases. 

Thomas Baekdal’s article I linked to last week had an excellent follow up: “What I am saying is that the current trend of in-app purchasing, and how it is being distorted to be a form of deception and social engineered ransomware, is a terrible thing… and it should be stopped. What EA, for instance, did to Dungeon Keeper borders on criminal behavior (which you will see why below). But the concept of in-app purchases is quite brilliant. When done right, it enhances an already good game by extending its base value. And for the point of the gamer, it functions as a show of support and appreciation for giving them even more awesomeness.” He then cites Assassins Creed IV as in app purchasing done right. Exactly. You can do IAP well or manipulatively.

Don’t forget that free to play with in-app-purchase in its current mobile/app store/touch screen form is still relatively new. So while Baekdal makes a good case for Electronic Arts (EA) being like Real Networks, I think in this particular case stupidity and difficulty played a bigger role. Hiring inexperienced game developers and allowing them to arbitrarily insert in-app-purchases into a legacy game they didn’t understand could explain a lot. The result was so over the top awful. So do companies go over to the dark side? And use (stolen) brilliant design with malice? Sure. Consider Candy Crush Saga. It’s a rip off of Albert Ransom’s game Candy Swipe. Indie game developer Ransom recently gave up fighting Candy Crush Saga in a letter that starts: “Congratulations! You win! I created my game CandySwipe in memory of my late mother who passed away at an early age of 62 of leukemia.” Heartbreaking story.

What the history of Real Networks teaches us is companies misaligned with their customer’s interest tend to fail in the long run. It’s hard to make a living if your customers hate you. Comcast excepted of course. Unfortunately designing for malice is especially tempting during the transition period we’re in now, when norms for free-to-play with in-app-purchase are being sorted out. Which the structural temptations of the IAP model unfortunately make worse. Nonetheless, most of the problems around gaming and IAP can be explained by simply recognizing that brilliant design is just really really hard. As designers painstakingly innovate versions of IAP that are fair and enjoyable, Candy Crush Saga will lose its luster. Can’t wait.


By Nathan Taylor

I blog at on tech trends and the near future. I'm on twitter as @ntaylor963.


  1. I don’t appreciate you dissing my fav. game Candy Crush Saga. I’m on level 29 and play it 18 hours per day and it has made my life very fulfilling. 😉 You never know which candy you get next and that makes it really special.

    More seriously, never played it but from what I understand the innovative thing about that game is how they charge players for not becoming a spammer to their friends in order to get to the next level, and how there’s a time lock of 30 minutes for each new life. I don’t think that was ripped off. The core game idea is extremely old, probably going back to the tetris era.

    You wrote, “What’s amazing to me is how few tech analysts correctly called out Windows 8′s terrible design at release.”

    I’m glad you are aware of this. That’s step #1. But come on, there’s nothing amazing about it. Puff pieces pay the bills in the blogosphere, while whistleblowers are usually slammed by paid minions and blacklisted, I know first hand. It’s all just a racket. Most pundits are usually wrong about most things, it’s just that it isn’t in their interest to keep score and tell you how much they suck, so not taking the time or effort you, as I’ve stated before, falsely assume they are usually right and lap up their biased tweaks of company-written press releases edited into stories, never becoming aware that most of it is worse than junk.

  2. In speculating why some software sucks, you wrote, ” I’m firmly in camp #3 Difficulty,” but then go on to give an example which seems to contradict this. The malware in realplayer was inserted strategically, intentionally, and, IMO, maliciously. It was done for monetary reasons. I don’t think it is right to say it was inserted because of stupidity, unless you also say, e.g., you think the strategy backfired so was stupid, etc.

    1. I don’t think there is a contradiction. I think another way to state the axiom would be that a lot of bad decisions are made in business. Only some are due to malice, more are due to stupidity, but the greatest share are due to the inherent difficulty of coming up with the right solution. If the problems were easier, there would be no need for people to try the wrong thing (stupidity) or to cheat the system (malice). The fact that RealPlayer acted maliciously, which itself is a long-term losing move (stupidity) only strengthens the argument that difficulty is the largest burden to be overcome.

      1. Daniel, thanks for your comment on my comment.

        Perhaps your comment might have made more sense to me or been less confusing if you had started talking about the versions of Realplayer before the crapware/malware was added into it. But even in that hypothetical case, realplayer didn’t add the malware because of difficulty. It added it to make more money. The consumer edition of the software was free, so it wasn’t making any money. Even if the earlier editions of Realplayer were 100% perfect, the developers would have still done the same thing as far as I can tell. Anyway, that’s another universe, as Nathan didn’t discuss RealPlayer before it got malware/crapware installed into it. On the contrary, he talks only about the editions with malware/crapware, and for that purpose, even though it apparently goes against his position, which is my “complaint” to which you are disagreeing with.

        I was just whining about an apparent unresolved problem with Nathan’s example. To that effect, the questions aren’t what burdens need to be overcome generically. My comment isn’t really about the “real” problem. For my comment, which you are commenting about, they are only, “Why did *RealPlayer* suck?” and is this inconsistent with, “I’m firmly in the difficulty camp?”

        Daniel, you agree with me that “…RealPlayer acted maliciously….” It had malware. No this does not mean that difficulty is the main problem. It means that intent is the main problem. And the hyperlink Nathan linked to states,

        It’s like the dark side of the Force — you should never even start down that path, or you’ll be corrupted.

        Those editions really sucked. Yet that was one of Nathan’s examples!

        Daniel, there’s a hole in your reasoning, and you are apparently directly contradicting yourself to say that shows that the real problem is difficulty, because you failed to indicate *why* difficulty led to the malware or it was a more fundamental issue. Again, Realplayer was free. Again, from what I know and what was written here thus far, although it might change if you reply to this comment, even had Realplayer been 100% perfect, it would still have gotten the malware added BECAUSE THE DEVELOPERS WENT TO THE MALICIOUS DARK SIDE.

        P.S. Axioms are already assumed to be true, as a starting point, so there would be no point in your post, since it becomes a tautology with circular reasoning using that word, not an argument.


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