Ripple effect

Any person, group, or business which creates or manufactures a product for mass consumption — or offers a wide-spread service (such as a utility company) — is potential target for public scrutiny and criticism. Any noticeable flaws quickly rise to the top, providing fuel for the most outspoken critics. The larger the distribution and dependence on the good or service, the larger the target, and louder the criticism.

Unfortunately, we, as a society, take the good for granted. We forget how amazing it is that some of the products we use work at all — often, they work very well. But we’re not a society known for praising the good. We don’t think about the positives often enough. Instead, we dwell on the negatives, even when the negatives only make up 5% or less of the whole picture.

We’re comforted by the fact that others around us see, and dwell on, the negatives too. The frustration builds, those who share in the negative dwelling jump on the bandwagon, and the criticism becomes so loud that praise is never heard. Because there is no praise. Not praise that can be heard amid the criticism. Of those who publicly share and proclaim their opinions, the numbers are often reversed. 95% of the critics complain about 5% of the product.

In grade school, many of us would have loved to see a “95%” scribbled across the top of our test papers or filled into a report card. A number that high could produce a euphoric sensation, confirming just how “good” we were. Better yet, it might have meant a long-awaited trip to Chuck E. Cheese, where numbers that high would produce the maximum amount of grade-based reward tokens.

But in grown-up society, 95% is not good enough. Getting grouped into the 95th percentile is not good enough to open the doors of some of the best schools, even for an ambitious student. 95% percent correct means nothing in the business world, where a 5% error in reporting can land a business in court, or send it into bankruptcy. IT professionals would scoff at a server that boasted 95% uptime. When a doctor tells us there’s a 95% success rate for this procedure, we immediately begin to worry about the remaining 5% of cases. A 5% delta in course could result in a New York-bound passenger jet landing in Miami.

So we’ve been conditioned to think 95% good is unacceptable. And we seek out the remaining 5%, drawing as much attention to it as we can.

If Company X produces and releases a product considered 5% flawed, some customers will discover those flaws, and become vocal about them. Each customer uses a different portion of the product, and some depend on a certain portion to work perfectly. When that portion is flawed, those few customers’ criticism becomes strong enough that other customers begin to listen and pay attention. More customers, including those not affected by the flaws, begin to complain, despite the fact that the product has been working perfectly for them. Eventually, the criticism drowns out any praise trickling back to the company.

The original flaws in any product are continually magnified by a small portion of its most vocal critics. The criticism ripples outward, causing more people to join the fray, until it seems the entire product is flawed. This deception might disappear if only the critics would be silent long enough to let the ripples die out. Is it really that flawed?

We live in an imperfect world, and we produce imperfect things. Every thing and every person can use improvement somehow, somewhere. But let us not forget so many of the things which are good, lest we also forget to thank those responsible for the good.

About the author

Designer, advisor, father. Previously led design teams at Twitter, Google, and Wired. Giants fan. Deutsche lernen. Wanna-be runner.

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