The "Just In Time" Theory of User Behavior

I've long believed that the design of your software has a profound impact on how users behave within your software. But there are two sides to this story:

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I’d say that almost nobody reads tutorials or manuals… ahead of time, which is when they should.

Based on the long-term popularity of articles on my site, people usually break things and then try to figure out how to fix them. Our articles that talk about how to fix common problems have literally millions of pageviews, but the articles about how to prevent those problems and do it right in the first place? Maybe thousands.


I’ve always loved the JIT theory in stackOverflow… Just after writing the title, it shows me how many duplicates there actually are. Countless times, that feature saved my rep.

It might be worth noting how a lot of websites (including stack exchange) have tutorials where things start animating as you reach that part of the “Getting Started” guide. It fits this theory nicely, example here.

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I actually didn’t read the discourse getting started PM until I got bored and was wanting to look to see if there were features I was unaware of. I think that if software needs an instruction manual, it’s no good, but if it has it there just in case you goof up, that’s great.


The proposition that people will do bad things given a chance of getting away with it — and can be nudged out of it — is utterly sound and almost banal to hear (it makes so much sense!). I think there’s a real qualitative problem in how to nudge well, though. How Discourse does this is not trivial — the tone, the depth, the style of the messaging is pretty well done. I can easily imagine several very clever and powerful people I’ve met implementing this practice in an utterly awful and counter-productive way. Not ‘if’ but ‘how’!


I hate it when sites try to nurse me. In The end i stop using Things. Things i want to so Are complicated? Find snother application/site.

This probably explains why internet piracy is so popular. It’s because there’s that 98% of people who don’t see anything wrong with taking something intangible, even more so when the probability of getting caught is miniscule. I’m curious to see the piracy numbers if a large scale peer-to-peer file sharing website like thepiratebay were to make use of this “just in time” theory. Like for instance, a simple yet fully objective message prior to them searching, or clicking a magnet link that tells them, “Internet piracy is illegal and considered a federal offense in the [insert country here]”, but would make no attempt to stop the user from file sharing.

Anyway, nice post.

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The true purpose of locks is, of course, to change my mental state from half-panic to full-on-meltdown when I’m in a desperate hurry to access a place that I’m fully entitled to access, and I don’t have the keys to hand.


I agree with the overall idea here and on the post, but allow me to digress from it a bit (as I usually do)…

I always thought some locks (talking about locks in specific) were not meant to “protect” (as already stated, they don’t really protect anything for real) from people in general. For instance, I lock my apartment, but I do not do it, on my small building, to prevent fellow neighborhoods from entering…

Picture your neighbor doesn’t lock their door and some outsider thief comes in and out unnoticed. Primary suspects will be people who live in the same building because only the inner door was unlocked. So, I also do it because I don’t want to bring that problem to friendly neighbors. If the front door gets unknowingly compromised for any reason, nobody from inside should have to account for other people careless behaviour.

If you have a big enough “family” of any kind, you might want to lock your room for the same reasons. It’s not a matter of trusting close honest people who you know from robbing - that’s very unlikely. It’s about easing for them if or when someone anonymous from outside take on the tempting anonymity factor.

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Not really. Data piracy is a terrible name - it’s not nearly the same of goods piracy. In fact, data freedom do very good for many. Here in Brazil there’s a theater company who started sharing their show on youtube - basically the best bits. Their tickets sale raise, they could also start selling targeted ads. “Internet piracy” is indeed illegal, but should it be? I’m not the only one who can easily argue those laws must be re-thinked.

I agree with pretty much everything written in this post. I think though, when it comes to User Behavior, a lot of good interfaces are those who aren’t noticable at all. Ofcourse there has to be some sort of “notice” to help users learn where and what are the options of interface and best practice seems to be, the one where user learn this in first 2-5 minutes of first time engaging with the interface. I am not sure if that has to do anything with people’s “white lies” tho but I get the point in this post. Indeed people are smart and it takes only a bit of “right” way to engage them to “behave” a bit “honestly” :smile:

There is an ever simpler reasons why people do not read user manuals: Because they are very, very often bloody useless, unless one already has prior knowledge that can be applied to the task of reading the manual.


The term “internet piracy” and the related legal stuff originates in the misconception of somebody can possess the ownership of a thought or an idea. The whole concept of intellectual property is wrong by two main reasons:

  • It is highly retrograd. If somebody keeps some knowledge/information/or even fiction thi himself (herself) it can not be used as a basin for a new higher value piece of knowledge, so at the end the entire humanity loses. (It is even true about fiction created for amusement purpose: imagine if the people responsible for the present design of tablets would never pay for the movie tickets/cable TV and watched the original sci-fi series Star Trek.)

  • Stealing a car or a house and “stealing” a movie/some software/an e-book can not be considered equally wrong . The obvious difference can easily be demonstrated by the following illustration: This does not mean that privacy does not cause financial damage to somebody, but it means that piracy causes the loss of possible income of the manufacturer/seller of the product instead of its posessor.

Also if piracy means the loss of possible income and therefore it is considered to be a crime, people who are turning vegans (and causes the lack of demand for meat, therefore decrease of pork breading/death of potentionaly existing pigs), can be considered animal slayers. I’m not saying that piracy is ok, only that the related current laws are ill considered or even ridiculous.


adore your writing style … just wanted to throw in a key word i was missing: “progressive disclosure” — hide complex stuff until needed, a UI concept that is around for quite a while and that needs to be rediscovered.

There you go, well said mg30rg! (I mean it for the whole post)

I’d say you should edit your answer and leave your link in a single separated line so it can be embedded in the body. Too bad I can’t suggest this edit in your own post… [/feature suggestion]. You could’ve done it like this:

If you know discourse for just 1 day, maybe you haven’t realized that’s already there. Else, what do you mean? There’s already the “summarize” in the summary (which in itself is a hidden UI, one of the many “arrow down”) which will show only the most liked posts in a big topic and there’s already the “scrolling”, which hides most of the conversation until you scroll…

Fantastic article!

Minor typo, but in a major point: “minumum” -> “minimum” (at least it doesn’t change the meaning )

Here now, this is the rationalization a lot of people use to lower the crime, but that is not the cause.

The reason why piracy has been so rampant is because they made it harder to do the right thing than to do the right one. That is if I bought a DVD it would only work in certain regions, I’d get punished with having to watch annoying trailers, and I’d need the player. By pirating the movie I got a lot more flexibility. The same with music: by buying the physical album I’d be stuck with a device that soon becomes obsolete, I’d have to pay for songs I don’t want. In other words I would get punished for doing the right thing, we were taught to go for piracy.

The important thing is that once you decide to do the wrong thing, comes the justification. And the justification is one were we want to claim that what we are doing is somehow right or even righteous.

So ideas are a complicated manner, the pattern of “ownership” isn’t a clear mapping to the ownership of something. Yet creators deserve some control over their ideas in order to make use of them as they best seem fit (yes even open source requires that people don’t pirate), since otherwise there would be no incentive to share, or even create new ideas.

The fact that a movie isn’t like a car is nothing that limits things. The fact is that a car is nothing like a house, and because of these there are different rules for something that is a piece of land or something in a piece of land, and something that is a thing. The same thing happens with ideas. Ideas have a lot of properties of land: you can’t move it around, and it kind of needs to be shared to an extend (people may need to move through land).

So what are the problems with IP? Well the first is that many people have decided they’ve got strong feelings and therefore want to fix it. This is part of what worries me, people have strong opinions about IP without really understanding why or how it came to be. The other is that IP was originally done in a hacky way with assumptions that don’t apply: ideas now are hardly bound by physical copies, and as such now it’s clear how much easier it is to copy ideas vs. things. Copying ideas is also fundamental to the evolution and survival of ideas (one of the main purposes of patents is to guarantee that a publicly accessible copy of your idea exists). Again the creators deserve something in exchange for creating and sharing ideas, we give them some level of control over the idea and everyone is happy.

Can this be abused? Certainly, though as we’ve seen not very effectively. Can the system be improved? Probably, though I think that we are far from getting the “aha” moment of how to do it. It’ll probably be something that could have been implemented on the 18th century law systems, but there wasn’t a need and the solution clearly isn’t obvious.

Now piracy doesn’t mean loss of possible income. It means loss of incentive to make ideas. This new era will see less epic albums as it was during the 70s, now bands will have to spend more time travelling around, instead of locking themselves up to create “the perfect album”. We’ll see more singles, and more improvisation, but probably less experimentation and out-there songs (as they won’t have a full album to amortize the cost). Maybe nothing would have changed had the music industry adapted and released their equivalent of the iTunes Store in the 90s. Maybe everything would have been different had they chosen to decide how the market evolved instead of just thinking it could be wished away. I don’t know.

TL;DR: It’s not so much laws that are ridiculous, but the way in which many creative companies went about adapting to changes that was absurd.

You say piracy means “loss of incentive to make ideas” and you name the cause too: “bands will have to spend more time travelling around”. Let’s assume that this is true, and some great albums will never be written. It is a huge loss for our era, but if you think about it there are larger gains:

  • Since the publicity of the internet is available for every artist and
    entertainer practically anyone can have her/his 15 minutes of fame
    which means literally thousands of really talented people can get
    recognized and given the opportunity to live from their talents. You
    might say, that the publicity of the internet does not need piracy to
    helo those young artists, but if you really think it over, noone (or
    at least only a very few people) would consume free music instead
    of sold music if their mindset would not be reconfigured to
    believe that all music is free, only you have to pay for a few forms.

  • No era of civilization advances without competition. Those '70 bands
    had one or two competitors in their own genre nowadays they have
    thousands. You might ask what is the role of privacy in that again.
    Now If you could only consume music you have payed for, there would
    simply be not enough purchasing power (sorry I’m not sure about the
    word) on the market to support that much entertainers.

  • And one more question: do you think that the general availability
    of music nowadays by free webradios, youtube (which have become a
    custom music source nowadays), and such mediums would be even
    possible if the music was not already available to download for
    free (but illegally)? Record companies would never let that

And one closing thought, which I have read these days and fully expresses the foolishness of the entire media industries retrogad holding on the classic model of media purchasing:

"The war against illegal file-sharing is like the church’s age-old war against masturbation. It’s a war you just can’t win.”
(Lawrence Lessig)


One thing that would make Stack Overflow nicer is when someone down votes, in order to make the down vote they had to actually comment on your answer/question. It is incredibly discouraging to be down voted and have no idea why, so you can’t improve your answer. It would also get rid of the trolls that down vote.


I find this the hardest problem of all. Everybody has a different level of tolerance towards accepting advice.
Some will take it to heart quite easily, others will see it a s criticism of their intelligence or credibility and need a softer, less direct tone.

Finding the right amount of directness vs sugar coating can be really hard.