on why removing features makes people unhappy

i have been active in the gnome project for a long time. over the years, i have seen and heard a lot of criticism and praise, but there is one thing i never quite understood. people were always complaining if a feature was removed. sometimes, that specific feature was replaced by something better, sometimes the feature had been evolved and sometimes that feature was dropped.

and it seemed to me that there was almost always a pretty good reason behind it. still, people were complaining. and gnome people wrote posts, comments on bugtrackers, justifications on mailing lists. and people kept complaining. oh, the good ol' times where everything was better and we still had our precious features... and people kept complaining.

after time had passed, and another feature was replaced, enhanced or removed, the same game started over again. we were attacked as interface nazis, people who think their users are dumb, people who don't listen to their users and other more or less mean things. no, i won't link to these statements, please find them yourself.

recently i have been reading passages of il principe (the prince) by niccolò machiavelli, written 500 years ago. basically it summarizes strategies on how to earn, secure and grow power in a politically hostile environment. besides beeing an extremely interesting read, there is a conveniently named chapter with the title that one should avoid being despised and hated. therein, the following quote stuck out:

when neither their property nor their honor is touched, the majority of men live content

niccolò machiavelli

this quote and most of this chapter tell you basically, that as long as you don't take anything away from your people and don't harass them, you'll be fine. it is interesting that this both applies to physical property as also to notional property. so if we go back to the comments by upset users, they are fundamentally telling us that they are disgruntled that we took away something that they had before. the sapid fact is that it does not matter if it was replaced by something better or if it was wrong to have it in the first place.

i have found a great explanation by robert cialdini in his book influence: the psychology of persuasion in which he summarizes this issue as part of the the scarcity principle.

as opportunities become less available, we lose freedom; and we hate to lose freedoms we already have. whenever free choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us desire them significantly more than previously. so when increasing scarcity - or anything else - interferes with our prior access to some item, we will react against the interference by wanting and trying to possess the item more than before.

robert cialdini

addendum this post was written with the intention of understanding why people are getting upset, i did not want to dive into the discussion of why a feature was removed. however i very much recommed a very well written article by lukas mathis which treats this topic in more depth:

you can't please all of the people all of the time. sometimes, you have to make a few people really unhappy in order to make everyone else a little bit happier. don't let angry customers dictate your application design - the application isn't as important to them as it is to you. keeping your application healthy is your responsibility.

lukas mathis