A Phone Made of Human Ass

closePlease note: This post was published over a year ago, so please be aware that its content may not be quite so accurate anymore. Also, the format of the site has changed since it was published, so please excuse any formatting issues.

Good Human Ass vs. Bad Human AssI’m a big proponent of usability. I’ve only mentioned it on the site a few times, but I’ve always evangelized it in the workplace. The idea that things should be easy to use extends beyond the web and into other facets of life. I shouldn’t have to read the instruction manual to know how to use a toaster (although even some toasters are easier to use than others), and although some machines will be inherently more complex, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be harder to operate or understand.

The phone I have at work is made of human ass. It’s a usability nightmare. I first realized this while I was on hold the other day. When you call a company and you hear a message that says your call “may be recorded,” it almost certainly is being recorded. That recording doesn’t stop just because you’re on hold, so anything you say while on hold gets recorded. I wanted to say something to my boss, but I didn’t want it to be recorded, so I wanted to mute my phone.

The mute function (on phones that even have it to begin with) doesn’t seem to have any sort of standard operating procedure. On some phones, you simply press the button and the phone is muted. On others, you have to hold the button down in order to mute the line. In my experience, these “business class” phones tend to be the kind where simply pressing the button gets the job done, so that’s what I did.

No light came on. No icon appeared on the LCD screen. Was the phone muted or not? I pressed the button again to see if, perhaps, I had simply not pressed it properly. Still nothing. I assumed that if there was no visual indication, it must be auditory, so I spoke into the handset to hear if the line was muted. My reasoning was: if I can hear myself, the line has not been muted, but I can’t hear myself, it has. I could hear myself. “O.K.,” I thought, “this phone must require me to hold down the button,” so while holding down the mute button, I talked into the receiver. I could still hear myself. Great.

By this point, I couldn’t remember how many times I had pushed the button, so I didn’t know if the phone was muted or not. I finally got my answer when the customer service representative picked up the line and couldn’t hear me when I started talking.

The phone has other horrible features, such as a pair of buttons labeled “called” and “callers” respectively. What do these buttons do? Their functions are not inherently obvious and there’s a good chance I’ll never find out. There’s also a button marked “flash.” What the hell does that do? I assume – based solely on my experience with other phones – that this jumps you over to a clear line, dropping the call you’re currently on. I’ve seen this function labeled as “release” on other phones, and that makes a little more sense to me, but still isn’t entirely clear. Why not “end” or a big red X? In fact, why even bother to include a button that does that function, since the hook (the button in the cradle) already does the exact same thing?

In doing some quick research to make sure that hook was, in fact, the correct term, I found this Wikipedia entry that explains why “flash” is the word used. You know in old movies when the actor would tap on the hook a few times and then the operator would suddenly come on? Well it turns out that old switchboards had lights next to each line. When someone tapped on the hook like that, it caused the light next to that line to flash, letting the operator know their attention was desired. Now tell me honestly, did you know that before right this moment? I’m guessing that the majority of you, like me, did not. What we have is an example of old technology creating a term and new technology continuing to use it, even though it no longer makes any sense at all.

I have to agree with James Dyson, who said, “I just want things to work properly.” Speaking of which, I hate my vacuum cleaner.

Actually, I don’t have the vacuum cleaner itself. It does a pretty decent job and is reasonably easy to use. What I hate about it is that it’s bagless. I like the idea of a bagless vacuum cleaner, in that it’s “greener” because you aren’t throwing out a bag every time, and not having to buy the bags saves money. However, in practice, cleaning out the canister is a huge pain, and dust flies everywhere. As a result, Morah and I push the capacity of the canister to its limits because neither of us wants to go outside and empty it. Changing a vacuum bag is a significantly easier, faster, and cleaner process – one for which I would be willing to pay a little extra.

I’ll finish by talking about toasters. At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that I shouldn’t have to read the instruction manual to know how to use a toaster. You probably thought something along the lines of, “toasters are easy to use. Who would ever need to read the instructions?” It’s true that toasters are one of the easiest machines to operate, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be unnecessarily complex.

Most toasters have 2 basic user controls: a start/stop switch (usually in the form of a sliding element that you press down to start and lift up to stop) and a knob of some sort to determine how toasted the bread should be. This level of toasting is colloquially referred to as the toast’s “darkness,” and it’s for this reason that I prefer toasters with pictures on the knob rather than numbers. The picture is pretty self-explanatory: light toast on one end, dark toast on the other. How dark do you want your toast? Just turn the knob that far and you’re off to the races. The number slider is somewhat more ambiguous. Are the numbers a measure of time? Surely your toast wouldn’t be in for 1 to 7 seconds, so is this minutes? Wait, perhaps it’s a standard amount of time and this is a temperature setting. But it’s not 1 to 7 degrees on any scale. It’s equally unlikely that those numbers are multipliers for some base time or temperature setting.

And why can’t a toaster just be a toaster? Seriously, what’s up with this thing? And a croissant toasting rack? Give me a classic toaster any day of the week. It may be boring, but at least I’ll know how to use it.

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  1. Tom D

    Sounds like Jerry Seinfeld woke up on the wrong side of the 700 count bambo sheets this morning.

  2. Tom D

    And yes, I agree, it should just work is how all tools of mankind should function. Except for puzzles, intended to be puzzle puzzles. Those are fun to figure out, but tools shouldn’t be puzzles.

  3. I’m at work now, so I had to check my phone.

    The mute button (which has the word mute, as well as a picture of a microphone with a line through it), lights up when mute is on, a beep is played on the handset, you can no longer hear yourself, and the display status says “Microphone mute on” for two seconds.

    When you press it again, it changes the status display to “Microphone mute off” for two seconds, and plays TWO beeps in the handset, in addition to undoing all the other mute activities.

    This is on the Cisco 7941 IP phone (nice and deluxe; also $400 so …). I only have it because of a mistake in the storage logs. I was supposed to have the basic model (still $200), like the other grad assistants. Ah, well. ^_^ (I’m also not supposed to have this 24 inch widescreen monitor [in addition to the standard paltry 19 inch], but I’m glad I do because it makes my work a lot easier)

    I would imagine that “called” brings up numbers you’ve called, and “callers” brings up numbers that have called you.

    Speaking of Dyson, I used to be a fan until the Airblade. He appeared in videos demonstrating the Airblade and appeared to be taking claim for the invention (this is in 2006, and virtually identical hand dryers were ubiquitous in Japan since long before I went there in 2004). Still, his company DID make that fun vacuum puzzle game…

    I want a toaster that goes up to 11. ^_^ The new toaster I bought for the office kitchen has numbers (1 – 5) and in between the numbers, circles growing larger the higher you go.

    I’m on a usability kick right now, what with the Human-Computer Interface course last quarter and the Web Usability course this quarter. Have you read “The Design of Everyday Things”? It was required reading for HCI, and I had borrowed the book from a friend. After the course, I bought my own copy, it was that good.

    (Sorry for lack of comment structure, I’m at work, and frequently inter

  4. I have not read The Design of Everyday Things but would like to, as I’ve heard many good things about it.

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