Baby Duck Syndrome

As a software developer I’ve been fighting baby duck syndrome all my life.  It’s the tendency to stick with the first instance of something you learn, no matter how bad it is.  The expression comes from the imprinting that takes place with baby ducks, where the first thing a baby duck sees after hatching is adopted as its mother, whether it’s actually its mother or not.

A corollary is that the harder something is to learn, the less willing a user is to switch to something new, even if the new thing is much better (and is thus much easier to learn).  The investment made in learning something difficult is seen as being lost, even when a replacement requires much less investment to learn and use.

Wikipedia describes it as:

In human–computer interaction, baby duck syndrome denotes the tendency for computer users to “imprint” on the first system they learn, then judge other systems by their similarity to that first system. The result is that “users generally prefer systems similar to those they learned on and dislike unfamiliar systems”. The issue may present itself relatively early in a computer user’s experience, and it has been observed to impede education of students in new software systems or user interfaces.

In the 80s I was selling a text editor for Prime minicomputers called XEDIT.  It was much simpler and easier to learn than the alternative editor that most people were using, but we had a lot of trouble selling ours.  The problem turned out to be that users had struggled to learn and use the alternative editor, and didn’t want to go through that ordeal again with a new one.  No matter that the new one wasn’t an ordeal at all.  People were afraid.

The problem with baby duck syndrome is that it limits you.  Things tend to get better with time, and new ones tend to be better than old ones — not always of course, but often enough.  The people who overcame their fear and learned our new text editor all loved it, and they greatly improved their efficiency.  Everyone else was stuck in the past.

But it sure is a hard sell.  You’ll do yourself a favor to always remain open to trying new things, even when it seems scary to give up the old.

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