atheorist (atheorist) wrote,

heft and customer experience

As you probably know, people frequently pay more for a product that they can hold, that they enjoy holding, than for a more "virtual" product. For example, Apple makes a lot of money selling physical objects such as iPads and iPhones and pays a lot of attention to the "feel" of the interaction - the swiping and so on. By contrast, products produced by Apple ecosystem developers, apps and eBooks, are remarkably difficult to make money on - some of this is of course, Apple extracting money from the ecosystem, but there's also something about customer's purchasing behavior and what they perceive as worth paying money for.

Another similar (in my mind) example is teleportation in massively multiplayer online games - it is a comparatively easy feature to develop or add to a game, and the existing playerbase would certainly ask for it and use it, but many games do not have teleportation. I believe this is because they believe that teleportation would damage the "feel" of the virtual world, making it more similar to experiences such as browsing the web or instant messaging, which (though compelling) are not easy to monetize. Fewer people would join or become committed to the game, and existing players would more quickly leave to other activities.

Let's call this quality with those two examples "heft". You might prefer a tool that has a nice solid 'snick' when it opens or operates; that's an example of heft. My question is - to what extent is pursuing heft virtuous? Is it reasonable to justify pursuing heft as 'This is one of many things that people enjoy and I am providing a good customer experience.'? Or is heft a kind of cognitive bias, like hyperbolic discounting? I certainly think that taking money from someone who is cognitively disabled is reprehensible, and we are all cognitively disabled by comparison to big well-funded organizations composed of professionals who work closely with computers.

People nowadays have relationships with software-as-service businesses, businesses comprised of relatively few humans, and relatively many computers (in big datacenters which may or may not be owned and operated by the customer-facing business). When I say 'relatively few humans' I mean the number of customers is so much higher than the number of employees that it would be infeasible for the customer to have even the extremely mild facial-recorgnition-and-slight-body-language relationship that you have with the person who usually bags your groceries. That person who bags your groceries can probably sustain that sort of extremely mild relationship with hundreds of customers, so we're talking about businesses that have something like a factor of 1000 more customers than they have employees.

That relationship is a prototype of a 'low-heft' good. Some actions by companies might increase heft. For example, GOG (a.k.a. "Good Old Games") prices their service as if you were purchasing physical goods, and when you log in shows an image of a shelf of boxed games. Both of those actions seem to me to be trying to increase heft, to convince you that your relationship with GOG ought to be considered analogous to a nearby shelf of objects. An author might sell a service, a service that is mostly simple text that might be delivered electronically, but in order to increase heft, they might print the text on thick paper, sign it by hand, and seal the paper with wax.

The service of showing a particular piece of admittedly charming art has some costs - bandwidth and power and the amortized initial cost of the artists' and programmers' labor - but the profit margin on a "virtual" good can be insanely huge. In the case of Zynga or similar, big well-funded companies that callously map our cognitive biases around our sense of value and exploit them so that some people purchase these goods with insane profit margins, actions to increase heft seem to be non-virtuous. But in the case of a small author trying to create a great customer experience, actions to increase heft seem to be virtuous. How do I distinguish one case from the other? Is it not fair for something so large and smart as a corporation to use those abilities to persuade people to basically give it money?
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