"If you want to change big things, you pay attention to small things."
-Rudy Giuliani on C-span talking about the Broken Windows theory
The Broken Windows theory was the catalyst for solving NYC’s crime wave in the 80’s and 90’s. NYC’s administration had been focusing on major crimes, like murder, and overlooking smaller crimes along the way. But it wasn’t working. So the city started going after petty crime that it had been overlooking: turnstyle jumpers, squeegee men, public drunks, etc. The result: All crime rates fell suddenly and continued to drop for the next ten years.
Giuliani says, “The idea of it is that you had to pay attention to small things, otherwise they would get out of control and become much worse.”
In a lot of our approach to crime, quality of life, social programs, we were allowing small things to get worse rather than dealing with them at the earliest possible stage…So we started paying attention to the things that were being ignored. Aggressive panhandling, the squeegee operators that would come up to your car and wash the window of your car whether you wanted it or not — and sometimes smashed people’s cars or tires or windows — the street-level drug-dealing; the prostitution; the graffiti, all these things that were deteriorating the city. So we said, “We’re going to pay attention to that,” and it worked. It worked because we not only got a big reduction in that, and an improvement in the quality of life, but massive reductions in homicide, and New York City turned from the crime capital of America to the safest large city in the country for five, six years in a row.
One key component of Broken Windows is that it shows progress. It’s not about miracles or heroic solutions or solving massive problems overnight. It’s about building momentum. It’s showing your audience that you’re headed in the right direction. It’s making visible changes, even slight ones, that show you’re doing something. Someone is on the case. People know that you haven’t abandoned them. You’re giving them a reason to trust you. You’re building faith.
Broken Windows and the web
This concept applies to all kinds of areas, not just fighting crime. In fact, others have already pointed out connections between Broken Windows and web development:
In Software Entropy, the Pragmatic Programmers talk about entropy, broken windows, and computing neighborhoods.
Don’t leave “broken windows” (bad designs, wrong decisions, or poor code) unrepaired. Fix each one as soon as it is discovered. If there is insufficient time to fix it properly, then board it up. Perhaps you can comment out the offending code, or display a “Not Implemented” message, or substitute dummy data instead. Take some action to prevent further damage and to show that you’re on top of the situation.
And Broken Windows Theory and Your Web Site says visiting a site with broken links, misleading navigation, or missing images is like visiting a neighborhood where “you get the feeling that no one cares.”
If you’re trying to create a community around your web site, I think you really have to consider this theory because it prompts you look at the value of the small and seemingly inconsequential problems on your site. By considering the ways that small problems can multiply a feeling of apathy, you may find that your time is better-spent fixing broken windows as opposed to building new houses.
Solving “street-level” problems at your site
It seems counterintuitive to focus on little problems instead of big ones. But cracking down on your version of squeegee men, graffiti, etc. could yield surprising results.
Some related ideas:
- Web apps can show someone’s “on the case” by posting a list of recent changes and what’s coming next (example). [SvN]
- Divide problems into smaller and smaller pieces until you’re able to digest them. [Getting Real]
- Show your product is alive by keeping blog posts coming post-launch. [Getting Real]