Time is $$$

written by   Arvid Janson

Not long ago a friend of mine locked herself out from her apartment. I met with her some time after the event, and the story she told about the locksmith got me thinking about the way we value our own time — and others.

You know, I was already in a pretty bad mood, and then this smooth talking guy shows up, waves this flashy tool around and just…opens the door! I mean, the whole process couldn’t have taken more than a couple of minutes and he STILL charged me 100 bucks. Idiot.

We spent a couple of minutes talking about the implications of these fancy new locks which can be reprogrammed, and while I think we finally agreed on that it was a good thing that he didn’t have to break down the door, she still felt robbed.

Would it have mattered if the lock smith actually suffered in the process? If he spent 30 minutes of grunting, sweating, swearing before finally getting the door open? In theory, no. The end result is still the same, the door is open, which is the service we pay for. In practice though, the opposite is quite often true.

We want to make sure we get our moneys worth, even when we’re not quite sure what we’re actually paying for.

The Economic Man

The logic in the scenario above is obviously flawed, but aside from the fabled Economic Man perfect logic is a virtue given to few in this world. The Economic Man, Homo Economicus, is a concept developed in classical economy, where people are regarded capable of analyzing situations objectively, factoring in relative costs and benefits – in short, completely rational beings.

I practice though, this often a false assumption when we look at individual decisions, a fact that is pretty much the basis for the field of Behavioral Economics. Instead, in most cases we tend to rely on previous experiences, by comparing new problems to previous solved ones, and their outcomes. We solve problems through estimation.

This method is often both quite effective and efficient, but for obvious reasons it has a major Achilles’ heel: dealing with unknowns. While we are quite good at recognizing problems we have encountered previously, tackling new ones are a whole different question.

How much does it cost to open a door?

The problem were facing is that we have no simple way of defining the relative value of getting the door open. It’s obviously important to us to get in, but in 99.9% of the cases, this is a process that is completely free. This leads us to believe that the cost of getting the door open is zero, which – lacking another point of reference – is not a totally bad assumption.

But, more importantly, this also implies that when we hire a locksmith, we’re actually only paying for their effort – since actually getting the door open is free. We want to see the locksmith actually do some work to make the cost seem worth while, even though this is a bad trade of for both the locksmith and ourselves.

Non the less, the perceived value of the service is greater, as more effort has been put in to reach the final result.

The value of speed

As web developers, we spend a lot of time trying to simplify, and optimize code for speed. We use memcaching, distributed networks, image sprites, and black magic, all in an attempt to shave of milliseconds in response times. But creating usable and valuable services is more then just about speed. Adding components that visualize the work being performed, the value being added, is integral when trying to build services that people will actually want to use.

Most of the time speed is a good thing, but do remember that people are still people. In some cases we may even increase the experienced value of our service by doing quite the opposite; slowing things down.