The Common Sense Trap

Lindsay Lohan’s third best movie of all time.

I recently started reading Duncan Watts’s book Everything Is Obvious. (Watts was an academic sociologist who recently took up research positions at Yahoo! and then Microsoft.) One core theme of the book is the failure of common sense:

The same difficulty of reconciling what, individually, appear to be self-evident beliefs shows up even more clearly in the aphorisms that we invoke to make sense of the world. As sociologists are fond of pointing out, many of these aphorisms appear to be direct contradictions of each other. Birds of a feather flock together, but opposites attract. Absence indeed makes the heart grow fonder, but out of sight is out of mind. Leap before you leap, but he who hesitates is lost. Of course, it is not necessarily the case that these beliefs are contradictory–because we invoke different aphorisms in different circumstances. But because we never specify the conditions under which one aphorism applies versus another, we have no way of describing what it is that we really think or why we think it. Common sense, in other words, is not so much a worldview as a grab bag of logically inconsistent, often contradictory beliefs, each of which seems right at the time but carries no guarantee of being right any other time.

The same kind of aphorisms are found in tech commentary. For a fun exercise, I came up with two aphorisms. To make this more interactive, try to come up with some examples that go with each.

1. A good product does one thing and do it well.

Dropbox. Instapaper. 1Password. These apps and services succeed because they focus on a core feature and implement that feature better than anyone else.

Indeed, all the recent positive reviews of the note-taking app Vesper repeatedly emphasize the fact that, despite lacking many features present in comparable apps, it does what it does so exceedingly well. (See, for a small sample, reviews from beta-testers Marco Arment, Shawn Blanc, and Federico Viticci.)

It sure seems that the one-thing-well philosophy encapsulates what it takes to be successful in the increasingly competitive app space.

Take a break.

Ready?

Let’s go to the next aphorism.

2. A good product is adaptive and versatile.

Think about the products that Apple sherlocked. No one needs an HDR or a panorama photo app once Apple built those features in. No one needs a notification manager app any longer either.

Most recently, Harry Marks dismissed the death of all the flashlight apps beautifully: “The implication that Apple is hurting developers by implementing similar features into its OS means the writer has no concept of history, nor understands the difference between a feature and an application. Versatile apps survive. One-trick ponies don’t.”

It sure seems that the versatility philosophy encapsulates what it takes to be successful in the increasingly competitive app space.

Wait a minute.

Didn’t Dropbox get sherlocked by iCloud? Didn’t Instapaper get sherlocked by Reading List? And, with the iOS 7 announcement, didn’t 1Password get sherlocked by iCloud Keychain? Do these products survive because they do one thing well, or because they’re versatile?

Of course there are grains of truth in both aphorisms. Some products succeed because they do one thing well. Some products succeed because they are versatile. Some, such as Dropbox, succeed because they have both. Neither truism, though, encapsulates what it takes to be successful. They are at most partial explanations.

The problem is that, since both aphorisms sound so good, it’s hard to not hear them as complete explanations. It’s obvious that flashlight apps got sherlocked because they’re not versatile. It’s obvious that Vesper succeeded because it does one thing well. Nothing more needs to be said. Nothing more can be said.

In each case, we reach for whichever aphorism that is most convenient to us, pronounce it as the beautiful truth, and forget about its contradictory twin. We fall into the common sense trap.

How can we escape? For one, we can stop repeating and relying on such aphorisms. Even today, people are still constantly reiterating variations of if you’re not the consumer, you’re the product. Stop! For another, we can be more cognizant of our own fallibility. Have we got the whole story? Probably not. What are the other similar cases? Does the same aphorism apply there? If not, why not? Asking follow-up questions is a good way to not settle with aphorisms as be all end alls.

Common sense aphorisms are the bread and butter of lazy parochial tech commentary. If that’s not the kind of tech commentary you want to read or write, try to avoid the common sense trap.

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