05 2 / 2012
TextExpander as Behavior Modification: Adding friction to the top of a slippery slope
Trying to be productive on the web is like trying to stick to a diet with an all-you-can-eat buffet sitting next to your desk. One moment of weakness—or even inattention—and you can find yourself going up for “just one more” helping from the Reddit trough.
A big part of this, for me, is muscle memory. When faced with an empty browser window, there are a few go-to URLs that my fingers reflexively type into the address bar: “reddit.com”, “facebook.com”, “plus.google.com” (though that last one has been less of a problem lately). You probably have a similar set of guilty distractions.
This is where TextExpander comes into play.
In a nutshell, TextExpander is native Mac app that gives you the ability to set up “snippets”—abbreviations which, when typed, are replaced by the string of characters you set up in advance (very useful for boilerplate responses, email signatures, et cetera).
For instance, when I type “wiki-biases”, TextExpander replaces that short string of characters with “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases” (a page I link to far more often than I care to admit).
So in the case of the weak-willed web developer trying to stay on the straight and narrow (and productive) path, said developer can simply add a TextExpander snippet with the abbreviation “reddit.com”, and set TextExpander to return any given string of characters—from the phrase “Get back to work!” to the URL of a motivational post (I suggest “http://learntoduck.com/startups/just-fucking-sell/”, which is what prompted me to change this behavior in the first place).
Of course, there are ways of getting around this when you really need to—from relying on your browser’s URL autocomplete (clear your browsing history to patch this loophole), to temporarily disabling TextExpander.
That doesn’t matter. All we’re trying to do is overcome that initial “muscle memory” impulse. If we can make it even a few steps more difficult to seek distraction, it’s far less likely that we’ll wander that direction at all.
Every user experience designer knows that removing friction (obstacles, requirements, steps) from a desired action makes a user much more likely to perform that action. As a corollary, we can be sure that strategically adding friction to an otherwise simple—almost reflexive—undesired action will make us less likely to “slip” into that behavior in the first place.