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< Paul Doumer vs The Rats of Hanoi />

What's this now

Today I've decided to share a somewhat unusual post. You might say come on, this is only your second post - I know. But this is something I've been thinking about a lot lately.

I want to share an article with you, about how Hanoi's rat extermination program backfired, really hard. Read it here

I read this article for the first time a few years back and have read it a couple of times since. It's about the cobra effect, and Paul Doumer, moving to Hanoi to make the city profitable by industrilization.

One of the first initiatives was to build sewers throughout Hanoi, but really he was just building a massive highway for rats. This became a huge issue, similar to Indias King Cobra issue, which actually is the origin of The Cobra Effect. But the first time I heard of the effect was in this article. Also I'm biased having been to Vietnam two times.

I'm not going to spoil anything more about the article, it's a good read and I suggest you read it. Now let's talk about why I'm sharing this.

So why do I share this

The Hanoi Rat Massacre and its aftermath are often referred to as The Cobra Effect, where a solution only makes a problem worse. - Quote from the article

The first time I read this sentence, I thought to myself - hold up, now we're talking software.

As I said, the first time I read this article was a few years back. At the time I was very new to programming and software development, but I realized that this was more or less a spot on description of making decisions when crafting software, and dealing with a mass of people (read: end-users) can be extremely unpredictable.

At the time, I had written some simple applications that I had put in the hands of others to try out. But there was always a problem with them understanding how to use my application. Until reading this article I could never really see why. But I came to the conclusion that I really believed in that I could dictate how users interacted with my application because, heck, I was the author of it!

But this article alone got me more interested in UX than any other clickbait 'This is why you need UX'-article on Medium. Why?

Because it made me realize things like

  • People don’t always do what is the most logical or right thing to do.
  • Not keeping this in mind will eventually lead to people acting in a way that you’re not prepared for and sometimes, you may even be giving an incentive for others to build rat-farms. (i.e. abusive use)

I mean, I did know this, but I had not yet realized that it applied as much to software.

How can you avoid it?

I’m just straight up guessing here, but the feeling I get when reading this article is that Paul Doumer didn’t exactly pay attention to ‘the users of his application’, i.e. the citizens of Hanoi.

When making decisions, we need to think about our users. Who are they? What are they used to? Do they want performance over UX? Do they want money more than they are concerned of rats?

Then also by definition, the cobra effect cannot be avoided. It’s like Murphys Law. If it happens it happens. You really can’t tell until you're in the aftermath. But you sure can try to prevent it!

What about the tech industry

Has it happened there? I say, yes it has.

One example being Apple. I remember when I was in elementary school and everyone had an iPhone 3G.

Apple thought it was a good idea to not be able to install software on your device unless it came from App Store. The only way to do it, was to jailbreak your phone. Now, I would say that’s a rather nerdy thing to do than abusive, but how do you think Apple sees jailbraking?

And also, do you think less people would have jailbraked their phone if they could install software from an executable or customizing the looks of the UI a bit more? I strongly believe that’s true.

I mean, it is always possible to abuse an iPhone, but by not letting users do what they want to do, or more importantly are used to having the freedom to do, did Apple give an incentive for building rat-farms? I strongly believe that also.

I believe that taking away something, by force, from users that they are used to, leads to bad things.


I want you to read the article about the cobra effect in Hanoi, and then answer the question:

Do you think that you can give an incentive for others to abuse your application if you’re not paying attention to what they want?

Posted by Philip Englund - October 13th, 2020