May 3, 2007

the coming age of enraging technology

Lousy design and poor failure scenarios are going to be the downfall of ubicomp systems.

I've been on the verge of a screaming fit twice in the last two days, due to the wonderful digital technologies that are becoming pervasive in my life. And at least twice more, I have just shaken my head in disbelief and shame at the ignorance of certain design engineers. I'm going to tell you about these experiences.

Screaming fit #1. I go to my neighborhood gas station to fill up. Swipe the credit card, start to pump, and nothing. Wiggled stuff, pushed buttons, tried to restart the pump -- finally got 30 cents of gas to flow. The station attendant comes out, asks me to try a different pump so I do, and the same thing happens, this time 25 cents. He shrugs and says they must have run out of gas. So I go down the street to another station, swipe the credit card -- DECLINED. The Visa fraud detection algorithm detected a card theft in progress, and locked me out. Unbelievable, I'm incensed. I don't have my phone, so I steam all the way home and call Visa, where I have to endure a 5 minute automated transaction verification process before I can talk to a person. I'm sorry to say I was not very nice to her, but she cleared the lockout anyway. She offered to let me explain to their security team just how lame their algorithms are, but I couldn't see what good it would do, so I said goodbye.

Screaming fit #2. I go to the website to use online check-in for a flight. It pulls up the right records from the database, but it says it can't find a valid e-ticket for the reservation, so I can't check in. Fine, so I call the United reservation desk. Actually it's a voice response system, one of those you have to talk to. Just knowing this, my BP starts to rise. It asks for my confirmation #, but after three tries of spelling it out, it cannot figure out what I am saying. It asks for flight date, flight number, airport and last name, and finally finds the reservation, but still wants me to follow one of its preprogrammed scenarios. I ask for a human in every way I can think of, but I'm stuck in a voice-response cul-de-sac. Now I'm yelling and cursing at a digital voice synthesizer, and it's not helping anybody. Finally it gives up and transfers me to a human, promising that all the info I gave it will be transferred to the person's screen. It wasn't. I'm sorry to say, I was not very nice to that person either, nor to the next person they transferred me to. After that it got worse before it got better, but you get the picture. Oh, a possible silver lining to this story -- I was told by one of the agents that if you hit "0" or "#" 3 times, the system will send you to a human. Remember that for next time.

Head shaker #1. In our newly refurbished conference rooms, they installed automated control systems for the projector and the conference phone. In order to use these appliances, you have to get up from the table, walk over to the corner of the room, and interact with a little touchscreen panel. Turn on the projector? Walk. Dial the phone? Walk. Mute the phone? Walk. Hang up the phone? Walk. Stupid loser designers, what were you thinking?

Head shaker #2. Same newly rebuilt conference rooms. Ethernet jacks installed into the tabletop, cables carefully shrinkwrapped and routed under the floor. For a room designed to hold 12 people, there are 4 jacks. And three of them are broken in some non-obvious, non user-serviceable fashion. And we're a freakin' computer company, go figure that one out.

I hope ubicomp really does take a hundred years. That way I'll be spared the indignity of having to use it.

Posted by Gene at May 3, 2007 11:05 PM | TrackBack

Database of how to escape from the robots to get a customer service human in various companies telephone support systems. Very useful.

Posted by: Jonathan Rochkind at May 8, 2007 1:52 PM
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