YEINU: Your Experience Is Not Universal

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard statements like the following.

Firefox crashes ten times a day for me.  I don’t understand how anyone can use it.

There’s a simple answer: for most people it doesn’t crash ten times a day. But the person making the statement hasn’t realized that what links the first sentence to the second is an assumption — that other people’s experiences are the same. This is despite the fact that browsers are immensely complex, highly configurable, and used in many different ways on an enormous range of inputs.

(BTW, in case it’s unclear: I don’t think it’s ok for Firefox to crash ten times a day for anyone.)

My mental rebuttal to this kind of thinking is YEINU, short for “your experience is not universal”. It’s something of a past-tense dual to the well-known YMMV (“your mileage may vary”).

Although I’ve mostly thought about this in the context of browser development, it’s not hard to see how it relates to many facets of life. In particular, just this morning I was thinking about it in relation to this question on Quora and the general notion of privilege. Out of curiosity, I googled the exact phrase (using quotes), and while I got several hits on software forums (such as this and this, the latter being on a Mozilla forum), three of the five highest-ranked hits were from posts on feminist blogs (#1, #4, and #5). Interesting!

So, next time you’re puzzled by someone’s reaction to something, it might be worth considering if YEINU.

8 Responses to YEINU: Your Experience Is Not Universal

  1. That’s a standard assumption I tend to make when reporting serious bugs: unless I’m absolutely sure the bug will affect other people, I tend to start out with “I assume this doesn’t happen for other people” (implicitly: because someone would have noticed).

  2. Is it worth putting a check into Firefox which can pop up a dialog saying “Your copy of Firefox has crashed ten times in the last week. This is very unusual. Click here to see some useful tips that might fix your problem.” ?

  3. Hi Andrew,
    We have two of those checks currently – one when Firefox crashes on startup for the third time in a row and one when Firefox takes a long time to start. We’re also looking into others.

  4. That’s great news – it upsets me when I see people leaving Firefox because it’s not stable for them.

  5. So this means software companies should be hiring humanities scholars to help learn about the cultural location of, and cultural work done by, their products? You can only get so far if everybody you know thinks such a thing as universal truth exists.

    Anyway, this is a great blog post: short, straight-forward, links to lots of big ideas. Thanks!

    • Nicholas Nethercote

      Humanities scholars is an interesting idea… but when many software products are mostly created by straight white males under the age of 40, you hardly need to go that far to improve things.

      I’m reminded of a couple of things… (a) there have been several very interesting blog posts relating to Firefox OS along the lines of “this is how people in Brazil/Colombia/Venezuala/etc. use their phones in practice”, and (b) I recall a complaint about the iPhone 5’s larger screen from a woman who found that she could no longer easily use it one-handed while breastfeeding because her hand was too small.

  6. Your experience is never universal.

    You don’t even notice experiencing things that you think are universal. Peggy McIntosh describes this realisation in her seminal essay Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. “Without darkness we couldn’t see light.” (or whatever — you know the idea I mean.)

    I think realising and remembering that YEINU is the single most important prerequisite for escaping privilege and, one person at a time, dismantling the kyriarchy.

    As communication improves, more people will realise this — free, open and unrestricted communication, in some sort of a world-wide … web?