Thursday, April 24, 2008

Press or say 3 if you're being robbed by gunpoint

Dear 911 Emergency System Manager Dude,

There is a man on the intersection of the 163 North and the 8 East, lying on the ground, with blood coming out of his head. There are 5 cars involved, maybe 6. It's 9:30 am, and there is a lot of traffic headed directly at the accident. Even though I know its probably already been reported, I pick up my phone to report the crash and make sure bloody guy gets the ambulance he needs. This is the phone call I expected to make:

Me: 9-1-1
911: This is 911 please explain your emergency
Me: There was an accident on the 163 and the 8 and there is a man lying on the ground with blood everywhere that probably needs an ambulance
911: We'll make sure to send someone out there
Me: Thanks!

However, the emergency reporting system had "upgraded" since the last time I used it. Below is the phone call that actually happened. WARNING: extreme ellipses may follow.

Me: 9-1-1
busy signal
Me: ...huh...
Me: 9-1-1
busy signal
Me: 9-1-1
phone rings
Phone: Welcome to the California Highway Patrol
Me: Hi I'd like to report...
911: ... If you would like to report an emergency, please press or say 1 now
Me listens to the menu
Me: ...
911: If you would like to report an emergency, please press or say 1 now
Me: ... huh?
911 hangs up

Terrible emergency system design just happened, and it may be killing people. From the moment I got the first busy signal (is it 1982 again?), this shiny new 911 reporting system/workflow/call-taker/whatever made it hard for me to complete a critical task and gave me motivation to write about the lessons learned from this short dialog.

A key concept in designing obviousness is that all choices should be as easy as possible. I had already decided that this was an emergency by dialing 911, and yet they forced me to rethink my choice verbally or by touch tone. You know 911, you're right, this isn't an emergency - I was robbed by gunpoint and killed by the time I figured out what the hell was going on with your system. Note to everyone who makes things: reducing redundant choices is the key to accessibility by end users and marks the efficiency of a system.

Deciding to use an automated system for a critical human-centric task such as 911 is a huge mistake. People (read:I) hate automated telephone systems and even if they have come a long way since first inception they are notorious for long waits, incorrect routing, and frustrated end users. Perhaps they actually want to discourage people from calling 911. In my case, congratulations 911, you have succeeded.

After deciding to go with the automated answering system, someone made a decision that talk to an operator was not an option in the main menu, let alone the default choice. Systems that ignore the usage patterns in which all of its users exist will suffer if not die before the second server is even plugged in. Even if the new system is better in every which way, a good system has no traction if people can't use it based on some piece of previous knowledge. Every automated system has a skip to operator option - where is yours 911? I can't find Ctl + Alt + Del on my phone...

So whomever made the decision at 911 headquarters to switch from an easy to use, simple emergency system to an automated, confusing pile of crap, congratulations on your un-success! You're fired.

Now can I have my old 911 back?


Friday, April 11, 2008

No Frustration Setup Policy

While many designers spend countless hours thinking about the design and usability of a products functionality, it seems that many neglect the experience of new user setup/assembly. Here is my tale...

I recently purchased and camped with the T3 Quarter Dome tent by REI and it was the best new setup experience I have had with a product in many, many years. So good, in fact, that I decided to dedicate this post to it. I'm sure anyone who has camped has felt the frustration of arriving late to a site and trying to assemble a tent in the dark for the first time, fumbling with the user manual to find out which posts attach to which side of the tent, why something seems to be unnecessarily tight or loose, etc... Arg! It seems that the designers of the T3 have also felt this pain (dare I say listened to their users?) and provided the following anti-frustration features that are simple and just knocked my socks off:
  • Connected support "rods": support pieces are tied together with bungee cords in the middle, meaning that it almost instantaneously assembles in the right way as soon as you pull it out of the bag, and also means that you never lose one
  • Color coded assembly: the top of the tent has lines in two colors, orange and silver, striping across the top that correspond to the orange and silver colored rods. Since the rods almost assemble themselves, you can see immediately how they lay across the top with respect to the tent. Color coded tags show that orange rod starts and ends in one stripe and the silver rod starts and ends in another. Dare I say idiot proof? I dare!
  • Two doors: the flyaway (as well as the tent) has a door on both sides, meaning that you don't have to decide and reducing the amount of times you say "oh wait, it goes the other way"
I could go on far too long about the little things that make this tent *fun* to assemble but I think I can go right to the point: the best user manual is the product itself. Smart use of color to lead the user and simple tricks to prevent "oh wait.." moments can take a user experience from "meh" to "wow" even if the final product is the same.

As a counterexample, let me describe the most frustrating setup I've had in many years, which just so happened to occur the week before the best one. I purchased some Speedplay clip in pedals for my road bike and attempted to mount them on my cleats. Here is a sampling of why it took two days to assemble correctly:
  • Bad print: the paper was neon orange and everything is written in 8pt font with bold and underlines exploding on the page to the point of complete ineffectiveness
  • Incomplete instructions: additional instructions and warnings were littered in the box like an afterthought, the most important of which accidentally drifted under the table only to be discovered after the problem was solved. I know its cheaper, but just reprint them!
  • Color: the only color coding turned out to be things that were irrelevant to assembly as well as screws that were only 1mm difference where almost unidentifiable and shims for different shoes were all the same gray with the label nicely etched in (you guessed it) gray were the most annoying
  • Language: assembling these shoes I said "what does that MEAN?!?" more times than I care to share. This instruction sheet definitely needed a definition list
After 2 frustrating days of wondering if it was my poor instruction reading, new pedal break in, or the pedals just not living up to the expectation set, I finally got things working right. With both products, after things were put together correctly, the end products were awesome and I am happy with my purchase decisions. However, if someone asks me about my pedals I'll recommend with a disclaimer: "...but it was a bear to assemble so watch out". You probably don't need to ask me what I think about the tent because if you know me, you already know.

So from here on out, a new No Frustration policy for getting started with a product made by LizCo is active. Any questions can be directed to your closest level of management and there is a reward for snitching on any product produced caught violating the new policy.

Now if I could just produce something...


Friday, April 4, 2008

Blog Policy

Dear Loyal Followers,

I know you have been dying to know - what the hell is up with Liz's blog? I can answer that in exactly 3 lines:

1. I had a Plone blog hosted here but now its not
2. I never blogged that much in the 1st place
3. Textdrive got bought by Joyent and moved from linux to unix servers (yay), asking me to migrate my blog database (boo) and for the love of money I am just too lazy to migrate the old blog so I'm using a hosted site (blogger) that publishes to my awesome URL ( to continue to provide you with quality not-blogging. Run on sentences are a new feature that you can come to expect from me this time around...

For your convenience, you will not have to update any urls or rss feeds that you never subscribed in the first place. However, to pay for this feature I had to cut some corners so humor is no longer free.

To those looking for the old Plone blog, since most of the content is on I will not be republishing here unless someone asks politely. New content on Plone will continue to emerge but old content will remain hidden in the Google cache.

I hope you will find these changes amenable to your situation - please direct any requests and/or complaints to human resources aka me.


3 Click Bug Reporting Policy

Dear Companies that make web software,

As a developer, I know how important it is to get bugs from your users out in "the field", especially all you beta web n.0 site. So, when I come across bugs, I will do my best to let you know what happened in a clear and concise way. However, if I can't find your bug reporting link in 3 clicks, your loss.

For example, I was on YouTube today looking for a preview of the "Short Circuit Remake" and when I searched, the title bar says there are 4 results but only 2 were displayed. Hmmm.... that's odd... I should report that. 4 clicks, 2 Help Center searches, and no email address later I gave up. Sorry GooTube, you're outta here!

Why 3 clicks you say? In reality it should be 1: scroll to the bottom of the page and click "Report a Bug". But I'm feeling generous today on the day I make this new policy so congratulations, you have me for 3 clicks.



UPDATE: admits they have no email to contact them with - you have to mail in your bug reports, along with any requests or talk to their service representative. Yeah right!