Still Sneaky After All These Years

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I still retain the capacity to get bummed out by the intrusiveness of software from companies you’d think would be trying to make us happy these days, not make us madder.

My friend Scotty, the Winpatrol watchdog, has been doing a great job of keeping an eye on these things. The culprits either try to change file associations or add a program to the boot sequence, without telling us. Some recent examples:

Windows Live Mail, without me doing anything at all, suddenly tried to wrest control of my emails by grabbing the extension EML from Thunderbird:

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This was unconnected to anything I was doing, or had asked. I didn’t even know I still had Live Mail installed. Shocking. Imagine if I hadn’t been asking Scotty to keep guard? Or that I didn’t have much of a clue what I was doing? (OK, don’t answer that one.)

(Just out of interest, launching Outlook Express will do the same thing:)

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Still, I suppose the Microsoft defence is that everyone else is doing it. I installed WordPerfect Office the other day and found that, without asking, it tried to take over handling DOC files without asking first. Luckily, Scotty woofed a warning:

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No wonder users are baffled about what is going on with their computer and end up heading off to the Apple Store for some TLC. Software companies have got to stop doing this kind of thing. (And no, I’m not saying that Apple are any better at this. It’s just they reduce the choices so people feel their computers behave more predictably. This, after all, is what people yearn for.)

Likewise with starting programs. Once again it’s about predictability: If software starts loading without the user being asked first, then a) the computer is going to slow down and b) the user will have a bunch of new icons and activities to figure out. A couple of examples:

Windows Live forces its Family Safety Client to boot without asking:

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as does eFax, the online faxing service:

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These companies need to stop this. They need to stop it now. Consumer confidence is low, but so is user confidence. I am inundated with letters from readers of the columns who talk about their bafflement and sense of alienation from their computer. (Meanwhile, I read love stories from those who switch to Macs.) The point is this: Not that people believe Macs are better computers—although they may well be—but they are simpler to use, more predictable, more understandable, more, well, user-friendly.

What’s user-friendly about changing the settings on someone’s computer without asking them? Would a company try that with someone’s car, fridge, or dishwasher?

Building Social Quirks Into Design

At my Mum’s house, and my childhood home, we have this quirk in the kitchen where the dish washer door comes down and pretty much blocks the kitchen entrance. To a designer, or someone carrying a heavy tray past, this might seem like a flaw. I’ve realised it’s not, and that designers, if they’re not already, should consider this kind of thing a feature they should intentionally include in kitchens, or indeed anything. Let me explain.

That bottleneck has created some interesting moments in our family history. Nothing major, but nothing brings people together like having to negotiate a hazard. Folk have to give way; folk have to pass trays over; folk have to try to keep the dish washer door shut. Dogs get stuck; people learn to sidle past each other; people meet in the bottleneck and fall in love. (Well, OK, not the last bit, but you get my drift. In short: A design flaw creates an interpersonal space that helps to bring people together in a quirky way.

So good kitchens (and good design) should not just be about function, form and beauty. They should include quirks, annoyances, absurdities — elements that somehow precipitate social interaction, or at least force users to behave a little differently. I wonder how many times an awkward relationship or bit of family distance was altered for the better by that bottleneck next to our dish washer.

Column: Ethel fights back

Loose Wire — Tea, Sympathy And Service

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 25 July 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
If you want good customer service on-line, try impersonating a little old lady. It worked for me.

Frustrated by the poor response to my own e-mail enquiries to big companies — I’m not naming names here, except to say I’m still waiting for replies from the likes of 3Com, Fujitsu and Linksys — I figured things might work better if I metamorphosed into Ethel M. Girdle, a septuagenarian who claims to have typed her way through World War II while flying Spitfire fighter aircraft and is a dab hand at growing roses and laying on tea parties for the local pastor.

First stop for Ethel was fixing her Zanussi dishwasher. “Hello, young man (or lady),” she wrote to the customer-service centre in Britain. “My washer makes a noise like one of those newfangled leafblower things and my crockery doesn’t get clean. Can you send one of your nice young chaps round to fix it, I’m having the vicar for tea on Friday and if he sees the china in this state he’ll think I’ve gone over to the other side. Yours, Mrs. Girdle.” Zanussi responded with impressive speed and grasp of the gravity of the situation. “Dear Mrs. Girdle,” they wrote. “Sorry to hear of the problems that you are experiencing with your dishwasher, if you would kindly let me have your postcode I will be able to look up the details of your nearest service centre for you so that one of our engineers can come and repair your appliance so that your china gets nice and clean again.”

My own experience of airlines and the Internet has been woeful, so I was interested to see how my fictional friend got on. She wanted to visit her grandson and fired off e-mails to several airlines: “I’m coming to Hong Kong/Sydney/Tokyo/Singapore to see my grandson, who is doing a grand job running one of your banks. This is not the first time I’ve flown (I used to fly during the war, don’t you know) but it’s been a while. Is it OK to bring my cocker spaniel, Poppy? He won’t be any trouble, unless you’ve got rabbits on the aircraft! And may I bring my own teapot on board? I do like a cup of tea in the afternoon.”

Ethel’s still waiting to hear from Japan Airlines and Qantas, while British Airways’ Web site had no functioning e-mail address for ordinary folk. Singapore Airlines offered a form letter, Cathay Pacific was somewhat intimidating: “Please kindly note that domestic animals of any description are not permitted to be carried in the passenger cabin on any Cathay Pacific flights.” But Virgin Atlantic rose to the occasion well: “I can assure you that our crew will make sure you receive a nice cup of tea on the flight or more than one in fact! It would not be necessary to take a teapot with you. Unfortunately Virgin Atlantic do not have a licence to carry pets of any description, even though I am sure he is no trouble.”

Next, Ethel decided to buy a computer. “I need the following,” she e-mailed IBM: “A nice keyboard (if possible an electric one, the manual ones tire me out) and a nice screen to look at. Could I use my TV instead, and save a few dimes? It’s a big one, though black and white and takes forever to warm up. My grandson says I need a CD drive but I think I can just drag the stereo over and plug it into the computer, yes?”

IBM were very helpful. “Please note that all our NetVista (desktops) come with a standard keyboard. However, we are unsure of what you mean by “electric” vs. “manual”, they wrote, before gently pointing out that hooking up her black-and-white TV and CD player to the PC was a no-no.

Encouraged, Ethel went back for advice on the Internet: “Do I need some sort of passport, or special goggles, or something? My grandson says the connections are very fast these days, I don’t want to mess up my hair.” IBM was reassuring, saying a passport wouldn’t be necessary.

Overall, I was impressed. Customer service on-line has a long way to go — shame on those companies that didn’t reply — but at least there are some bright and helpful folk at the end of those e-mail addresses. And for those of you not getting customer satisfaction on-line, feel free to impersonate Ethel. I know I will.