Saturday, 7 July 2012

The Compressed Reconstituted Potato Container Dilemma

  There's a particular brand of compressed reconstituted salty potato snack that comes packaged in a distinctive cylindrical container.  It appears to enjoy a certain popularity amongst the kids these days.

  I mention it, because it neatly divides the human population into two mutually exclusive groups.

  • Those whose hands are small enough to reach inside the container to retrieve a salty snack.  
  • Those who are unable to reach inside the container to retrieve a salty snack.

Small hands, Group A.

When there are only a few salty snacks present in the bottom of the container, those with small hands can reach deep down inside to obtain one more.


Large hands, Group B.

By contrast, when there are only a few salty snacks remaining, members of Group B must steady the container with one hand whilst simultaneously securing the container's mouth with the other.  They then gently tip the container so as not to risk undue spillage.

The Paradox

I can't reach!

  Consider what happens when two friends of the same group attempt to share when there is only a few salty snacks remaining in the bottom of the container.  Friends belonging to Group A will proffer the container at a slight angle, allowing their compatriot the opportunity to reach inside and obtain a satisfyingly tasty morsel.

  Likewise, friends belonging to Group B will pass over the entire container, to allow their compatriots the use of both hands to regulate flow control, minimizing spillage.

  For sharing involving purely Group-A, or purely Group-B, no conflict will arise, so let us not consider such cases any further.

  The paradox occurs when a member of Group A and a member of Group B attempt to share a container. 

In this instance, the container will be alternately tilted or passed, causing dissatisfaction, confusion, and lamentation for both participants.

The Dilemma

The paradox is readily observed and thereby quickly resolved in the case of the almost-empty container.

But consider the case of a freshly opened cylindrical container of compressed reconstituted salty potato snacks.

Here we have a much more subtle problem of etiquette :
  • Group A members have the expectation that the container will be offered at an angle.
  • Group B members have the expectation that the container will be passed to them.
When the container is full, both the member from Group A and the member from Group B are able to obtain snacks using either technique.  And yet each will be subtly offended by the other (being alternately greedy or lazy with each exchange), with neither knowing why the other is indulging in such bizarre counter-intuitive behavior in such a trivial matter.

Indeed, even in principle, it is not possible for such a mixed group to discover the cause for the dissatisfaction until some fraction of the salty snacks have been consumed, the first observable behavioral differences arise, and the damage has already been done.

The Designer

I see this happening all the time in Game Design. A designer will come up with a system based on their personal approach to gaming.  They might be a Group A, or a Group B.  It doesn't matter.  They'll take their design to focus testing, and these preliminary results will show, unanimously and unambiguously, that the feature is working as designed.  But I know differently.  I can tell when I'm watching the focus test in progress.  Half of the respondents will have this one particular twitch that I've come to recognize signifies something isn't quite working the way they expect, but they don't have the language to report the dissonance.  And the other half will be fine.

Occasionally, when the two groups are of vastly different sizes, and the designer is a member of the minority, I see it on the faces of all of the respondents.  But the feature invariably makes its way into the game.  And why not?  After all, it's been focus-tested and there were no problems reported.  What more can a designer do?

(As an aside, if you ever try to dissuade a self-righteous designer based on a few observed facial tics, you'll learn just how quickly you can lose credibility... even when your initial observation is subsequently confirmed independently.)

The Perils of Focus Testing

Has this happened to you? A feature focus tested without problems, but gets slammed in the marketplace?  Why not tell me more about it in the comments below.


  1. Mass Effect 3 story endings? Early Mass Effect interior space design? Mini-game design and relevance? :)

    1. Actually, story /endings/ are an interesting case in general, because of the lead-times involved with making changes late in production.

      You often hear of movies where multiple endings are shown to test audiences to try and reduce (perceived) risk at the box office. (See for multiple examples)

      I wonder if the reaction to ME3's endings will bring the same practice to the video game industry?

    2. Personally I think they needed to strip the ME3 plot down to it's bare bones and start again. The first sequence from the start to landing on Mars made me angry at what a bad job had been done. I dropped the game for a month or so.