Nerds don’t know what they want; or, why I almost shot someone today with a tennis ball

By Alex Hamilton on in Nerd Culture. Permalink.

I work in the IT department (NERD!) for a large financial institution and do what most would consider some pretty boring work. I take information from one server and put it on another, and then when people ask for some of that data I give it back to them in a prettier format. The broader the audience or the bigger the title, the prettier it gets.

I once surrounded the data with sparkles before delivering it to a vice president.

I’m not kidding – there were sparkles. I didn’t get fired.

In any case, I’ve been with this company for quite a while and have worked in many different departments so I generally have a pretty good idea of what data goes well with other data. I guess you could say I’m something of a sommelier (look it up) of data, so when people come to me asking for information, sometimes I provide more than what was asked for, give them something entirely different, or wrap it with a different bow than what they asked for. In short, I take what the user says they want, and then I give them what they actually want or need.

I do this because users don’t know what they want. Even when they try reeeaaally hard to know, they usually just spend a lot of effort at failing. That’s okay. That’s part of why I have the job that I do, and I do it happily.


Today was different. Today I had three users come back to me with additional details they wanted included in their information requests. Requests that were submitted last week. Requests that had already been completed and delivered with my customary value-added sprinkles. Requests that had already been expanded before, and in one case twice before. And now they were requesting further enhancements which essentially negated an entire working day of my life.

We call this scope creep in our IT world, and the scope – and my frustration level – crept so high and created so many wasted development hours that I imagined myself giving someone Shaken Adult Syndrome. That seemed a bit extreme, though, so after I calmed down a bit, my thoughts switched to getting that tennis ball cannon from the original American Gladiators and declaring open season on stupid users.

*thomp*thomp*thomp* GET SOME!!! *thomp*thomp* HAAAHAHA!!!!!!


Then it occurred to me that we, as nerds, aren’t much different in that we frequently don’t know what we want. Oh, we THINK we do. In fact, we tend to be a most passionate lot of fans, loudly and emphatically declaring how game, comic, and general media development should proceed, sometimes under threat of death. Don’t think so? Rewind back to the rage that was expressed after Affleck was tapped to be the next Batman. Worse yet, something as simple and retro as Flappy Bird generated at least one murder threat when the owner said he would delete the original app. Fortunately not every fan is as…passionate? disturbed? psychotic?…as our bird-tapping death dealer, but for every death threat there are a million other nerds hurling their less murderous ire with reckless abandon over Twitter, Facebook, fan sites, and official forums everywhere over their beloved topic du jour.

Companies such as Blizzard have gone on the record on numerous occasions saying they are thankful for the more boisterous members of their fan base, without whom they might not know how a game is being received, or how annoying a particular bug is, or how a given imbalance is wrecking the play experience for every other non-exploiter out there. Surely there is some measure of truth in the company’s sentiment, however these same folks are also part of the reason that community managers and forum moderators have to be paid (unless they’re volunteers, of course, which brings other questions about the game company), thereby siphoning resources away that could potentially be used on bettering the product itself. Furthermore, the vast majority of the consumers of any given product do *not* post on a game’s official forums, and many don’t even read them, all of which means that the vocal minority that *does* make hate-filled-but-suggestion-riddled posts  is not necessarily representative of the sentiments of the consumer base as a whole.

They are also not the creatives and developers making the game in the first place. We can’t forget them in this discussion. With all the vitriol out there amongst the huddled, unwashed fan masses (If you don’t think y’all are unwashed, go into just about any game or comic book store and take a deep breath. That’s not ink you’re smelling. It’s multiple failings of personal hygiene.), it takes a near herculean effort for the dev teams of our precious games, books, and movies to create a product that will sell early, sell often, and resonate with fans well after the product’s release. The signal-to-noise ratio in fan venues is so disproportionate that it’s almost pointless for dev teams to wade into them. In fact, I’ve had one developer tell me specifically that forums for fan suggestions were created to help keep as much drivel out of the other forums, and that the dev team was specifically directed to ignore any ideas presented there/not to peruse that section of the forums whatsoever. I have no idea of those sentiments are widespread or not, but it does provide at least one perspective on the perceived quality of fan ideas vs. those that were hired to develop a product and bring it to market.

Product developers and other designers and creatives are hired and paid to do that specific job. There are reasons they were hired for the job and you were not. Some are mundane and obvious – you usually have to apply for a job to actually get it, right? I’m also told that industry experience helps. Others are slightly less obvious, but no less relevant, particularly to this discussion. Those great ideas you think you have for the product? Often times, they’re not that great, and if they’re implemented, either the product or the company fails. As in just about any area in life, passion and emotion trump reason. If we didn’t care so much about the game, or the movie, or whatever, then we might realize that Super Awesome Plot Twisting Idea is actually Self-Inflicted Mortal Wound Idea in disguise. After all, it’s my personal belief that most nerds are more intelligent than the average bear under normal circumstances, but we become blinded by love and dumb with passion for our vice of choice.

In a sense, we’re all Cyrus from The Matrix. We think we know what we want, but then when we get it, it’s less “YAY!” and more “SUNUVA…!!!”

So, my fellow nerds, let the directors direct and the developers develop and you just sit back and relax and wait for your beloved product, basking in the realization that talented folk are putting their reputations and careers on the line to bring you a product you will continue to love. The alternative is that J.J. Abrams gets a tennis ball cannon and goes Nitro on your ass.

Alex Hamilton

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