Chick-Fil-A Labor Day Giveaway: FAIL!

I learned midday today that Chick-Fil-A was hosting a fairly bold and dramatic nationwide promotion for Labor Day: Show up = Free chicken sandwich. Nothing to buy. The only catch is that you had to arrive sporting the logo of your favorite sports team. No problem. After Saturday’s BYU-Oklahoma game (BYU 14, Oklahoma 13), donning some Cougars paraphernalia would be no sacrifice at all. :)

Chick-Fil-A Giveaway

My next task is to find a local Chick-Fil-A. I’ve seen billboards on the freeway so I know there’s one nearby, but I’ve never been to it. I then realize the brilliance of the promotion. Get everyone in the area to realize that there is a Chick-Fil-A nearby and build some local Chick-Fil-A love and loyalty with a fairly modest investment per customer on their part.

Turns out my local restaurant is in the food court of the University Mall in Orem, Utah. No problem, especially since we have five cousins from up north to return home anyway. Next I have to supply sufficient BYU logos for all 12 small people. Not a problem at our house. I raid my t-shirt shelf and we’re in business.

Next stop, Orem! Avoid Labor Day freeway parking lot by taking back roads. No sacrifice because we’re heading to Orem to feed 14 people for free just because we show up in BYU gear. Starting to feel some positive vibes about Chick-Fil-A.

Arrive at the mall outside the food court and 14 of us pile out of our 15-passenger van (yes, I do own one), all decked out like it’s game day. As we near the door, an interested bystander says to me casually, “Going to Chick-Fil-A? They’re all out.” I go, “No!” in sort of mock horror. He says, “They’ll give you a coupon. Just thought you ought to be prepared.” Hmmm. Well, understandable that they might run out with such an unrestricted giveaway, although far more classy to actually stock enough chicken to get through the day. I mean it’s still hours before closing. Well, let’s go get our coupons and see what they do to make lemonade out of this.

No dice on the lemonade. I roll up to the counter while the other 13 Cougar fans in my party stand back so as to not create a mob scene at the register. Girl in the uniform sees us and says, very apologetically, “I’m sorry, we’re all out of free chicken sandwiches.” I then calmly reply, “We’ll take 14 coupons then.” She raises her eyebrows, I gesture behind me toward the cheering section, she coughs up the coupons. This is the moment when the Fail emerges. Out of curiosity I ask her if they’re completely out, or if I can still buy a chicken sandwich if I really want one. Just call it a hunch on my part. She says that, yes, in fact, I can still buy a chicken sandwich. Apparently it’s just the free ones that they ran out of. The ones you buy they still have in stock. Yikes.

I take my 14 coupons and then I look at her and say with that gentle but slightly condescending grandpa tone of face that I’m trying to perfect, “You know, if I were running the show here, I’d give away the chicken sandwiches until there wasn’t a single sandwich left for sale.” To her credit, she gives me a pained and knowing nod and says, “I know. I agree.” Much smarter play on her part than whatever management was thinking.

Meanwhile, the good cheer is just gone. I was planning on spending no cash for dinner, and now I’m standing in a food court with 12 hungry kids in tow, and the teenage boys are getting that vacant look in their eyes like they’re about to kill something large and eat it raw if necessary. I now realize that I’m about to fork out greenbacks to feed this crew because I am a doofus with no backup plan. Of course, I’ll be danged if I’m going to now go back to the Chick-Fil-A counter and order 14 chicken sandwiches (the ones you pay for, which are, in fact, in stock). So instead we slide over and cause a near riot situation at the Taco Bell counter and drop $40 there plus another $12 for my wife and me at whatever it is in the food court that’s trying to be Panda Express. 50 bucks down and all I have to show for it is a detour plus 14 coupons for mythical chicken sandwiches.

Memo to Chick-Fil-A management: If you’re going to play an incredibly bold marketing game, then play the game boldly. Stock enough chicken to feed the entire community, because in a college town people are definitely going to show up for free food. When you run out, start giving away other stuff, whatever you’ve got. It’s a make or break day. When your cupboards are completely bare, and you’ve given away the last french fry, put up a huge sign saying something like, “Thanks for your love, [your city name here]! You cleaned us out!” and then stand there cheerfully handing out the coupons to anyone that walks by with a logo on. Act like it made your day to get cleaned out by the locals on Labor Day. If that wasn’t your point, then why run such a gutsy promotion in the first place?! Instead, you come across looking chintzy when you could have been a hero and really built some customer affection. My wife is a sucker for this sort of thing, and you had her right up until, “You can still buy one if you want.” I’m not seeing her as a regular after this.

Memo to myself: Figure out a way to motivate my lab students using coupons for free chicken sandwiches…

Burger King — Most Valuable Bag?!

It’s Saturday night, I’m on the way home with approximately half of my kids, it’s late, I have no idea what to feed them once I get home, so I make a semi-irresponsible decision to buy burgers at the local fast food joint rather than whipping up something more nutritious and cost effective in my own kitchen.

This is when I hit pay dirt, and realize it’s been far too long since last I blogged. About anything.

I’m sitting with the kids, inhaling my Whopper Junior (trademark, copyright, patent pending), when I begin to read the brown paper bag that the food came in. Don’t ask. I’ve been a compulsive reader since I was first a reader, and I sort of read anything that passes before me, mostly out of instinct (and compulsion).

To assure you that I’m not making this up, I’ve included a photo of the side of said bag.

Most Valuable Bag

MOST VALUABLE BAG

Huh? OK. I’m game. Let’s read on.

In football, the “twelfth man” is a crowd that helps a team to victory through cheer.

What the?! Yeah, I know what the “twelfth man” is, but “helps a team to victory through cheer”?! Who writes like this? Nobody that follows football. Now the “Valuable Bag” has my full attention.

This bag, emblazoned with a #12 on its bottom, is like the twelfth man of your lunch.

The twelfth man of my lunch?! Helping my lunch to victory through cheer, no doubt. Of course, this is dinner, but let’s not get too picky.

Because while you can’t actually eat it, the meal you are about to enjoy wouldn’t be possible without this MVB.

Um. OK. Several problems here. First of all, the dangling “it” leaves me wondering whether it’s the meal or the bag that I can’t actually eat. A few seconds of thought, plus one re-parsing of the sentence, leaves me with the inevitable conclusion that it’s the bag that I can’t actually eat.

But now, a logical fallacy has stopped me mid-Whopper (trademark, copyright, patent pending). This meal wouldn’t be possible without the bag?! What about the traditional “For here? Or to go?” question, which, if answered, “For here” would cause the food to be served on a plastic tray, rather than in a bag (valuable or not), thus providing an existence proof against the claim that the meal I am about to enjoy wouldn’t be possible without this MVB? Huh?! What about that, SmartBag?!

Still one thing sticking in my craw. The Most Valuable Bag claims that emblazoned on its own bottom is “#12″. This I gotta see…

#12

Multiple problems. 1) Is this what you would really call “emblazoned”? 2) “12#”? Don’t you mean “#12″? I think “12#” would, strictly speaking, be read “twelve pounds,” which makes no sense whatsoever. 3) What the heck does “1-5″ have to do with anything? Is this the snap count? An expression that evaluates to -4? The number of eligible receivers? 4) If “12#” is “emblazoned,” what do you call “1-5″ which is similarly “emblazoned” on the bottom of the MVB, but in a font size twice as large?

What can all of this possibly mean?! I’m struggling with explanations.

I can only come up with one possible takeaway from this experience…

Whenever possible, don’t outsource your advertising campaign to non-native English speakers who don’t follow football, and have never actually ordered fast food from your establishment.

Second possible takeaway… During this Fall football season, the Most Valuable Blog recommends that you help your team to victory through cheer. Twelve pounds. Negative Four.

Low-tech fix for the PowerPoint autorecover problem

Back in July, I wrote about an unbelievably frustrating bug in PowerPoint 2004 for Mac. I got burned back in July and lost a very productive several hours of work. Tonight I’m banging away late at the office because I’m back in the classroom tomorrow at BYU and I’m not quite ready for prime time. For reasons that I’ll refrain from explaining fully, I needed to do some work on PowerPoint again. I started in, shocked anew at how inferior the Mac product is to PowerPoint for Windows (which I consider an excellent product, by the way), but that’s a side note. Just a little way into my renewed PowerPoint adventure, I remembered the painful episode of death from last summer, and decided to protect myself this time. The answer of course, is to manually save often, but my problem is that I get into flow and suddenly an hour or so has gone by and I haven’t saved anything.

The answer is my handy dandy Pyrex kitchen timer. I actually keep this thing in my office for various situations in which I want to manage my time, remind myself when some time period has passed, or wake myself up after an uncomfortable nap in my chair, whatever.

Pyrex timer

The Pyrex kitchen timer has one simple but cool feature that I’ve come to value. If you set it for a particular time (say 5 minutes), it will beep when the time runs out (naturally, so that’s not the cool part). If you press the “Start/Stop” button just one time, the timer will stop beeping and launch the timer again. So in practice, here’s what I did. I set the Pyrex timer for 5 minutes. As soon as it beeps, I press ‘Apple-S’ to save, and press the button on the timer. Then I keep working until it beeps again. Repeat until project complete. It turns out to have been fairly non-invasive in terms of my flow, and an emotional lift in terms of my sense of well-being while using PowerPoint for Mac.

Punch line: Just about 15 minutes ago, after spending a very productive hour working on some slides, and literally about 30 seconds after the last time I had manually saved, PowerPoint 2004 for Mac puked its guts out just like in July, offered to restart and fix everything, and then came back devoid of prior content, happy and lobotomized. Other than having to manually reopen the file (of which PowerPoint 2004 for Mac disavowed all knowledge), I’m back and productive… In a sort of “my software package hates me and wants to ruin my productivity” sort of way.

Support chat – From the sublime to the ridiculous

I want to say at the outset that I’m a big fan of online support chat. I wish it were more available. But most of all I wish it worked better. I don’t have concrete empirical data here, but it seems like more often than not I’m having some kind of problem getting what I need from an online support chat session. Even when it works properly from a technical perspective, I’m typically getting information that is of no actual use to me.

The following two examples serve to illustrate. The first one was saved a few years back (apparently for a moment of sharing just like this). My original question (not recorded) informed them that my XBox wouldn’t read any CDs or DVDs whatsoever.

Welcome to Microsoft XBox Support

The XBox Chat session has been accepted. This chat session is being recorded for quality monitoring; your IP address may be traced.

{Mylene} Welcome to the Xbox North America Customer Support!My name is Mylene.

{Charles Knutson} hi mylene

{Mylene} Hello Charles

{Charles Knutson} i take it you saw question/concern

{Mylene} I understand that you are having disc reading issues, right?

{Charles Knutson} yup

{Mylene} I’m sorry to hear that, Charles

{Charles Knutson} me too

{Mylene} you mentioned that none of your discs works

{Charles Knutson} correct

{Charles Knutson} no dvds, no xbox games

{Charles Knutson} none recognized when loaded

{Mylene} It seems that you’re experiencing a technical issue.

{Charles Knutson} you spose?

{Mylene} I suggest that you contact our Technical Support team to properly diagnose the problem with your console

{Charles Knutson} is this a script? or a real person?

{Mylene} I’m real, Charles :)

{Charles Knutson} uh, ok… if you say so mylene

{Mylene} You can reach our Technical Support team at 1-800-4MY-XBOX (1-800-469-9269). They are available 7 days a week, from 9AM to 1AM EST. The call is toll free in North America.

{Charles Knutson} i’m on it, eliza

{Mylene} ok

{Mylene} It was a pleasure chatting with you today. Thank you for inquiring about Xbox. If you need further assistance, please come back and visit us again. I hope you have a nice day!

The Support Professional has ended the session

If you look carefully, there’s only one single line that doesn’t look like it was clicked on from a pull-down menu by someone who didn’t know anything at all about the XBox, but could put two and two together and determine that disc reading problems might be a technical issue.

My reference to “eliza” was an inspired spur-of-the-moment shout-out to Joseph Weizenbaum’s computer program ELIZA from the 70′s. ELIZA was a rudimentary natural language processing system inspired by a typical psychologist who adds no information but simply listens reflexively (“I’m mad at my mother.” “Tell me about your mother.”)

I have to say that I was probably initially put off by the name “Mylene.” With apologies to actual people out there named Mylene, it sounded suspiciously like a feminized version of “mylar,” which is the magnetic coating on floppy disks. I’m always a bit suspicious that I’m talking to a natural language processing script anyway, especially when the answers come way too canned.

The next example is actually the last two of four interactions with the same system just today. In the first two, I try to ask for help for certain problems and find that after one response the rep vanishes, a canned message suggests I’m not there, and then my link disappears. Very frustrating. By the third interaction I abandon my original question and turn my attention to their online chat system.

Charles Knutson: I think your online chat system is broken… rep keeps saying he/she sees no action and then hangs up on me without answering my question… Can I get a non-canned answer from the rep this time so I know I’ve got a live person and not a natural language processing script?

[Brenda H - A representative has joined the session.]
Thank you for contacting AT&T. A Representative will be with you momentarily.

Charles Knutson: hi brenda

Brenda H: Welcome to AT&T Premier Support, my name is Brenda H. I am reading your question and will be right with you.

Charles Knutson: are you there?

Charles Knutson: i’d like to first establish that I’m interacting with a real person… are you there?

Brenda H: I’m sorry about the disconnects. How may I assist you today?

Charles Knutson: ah, thanks

Charles Knutson: are you still there?

Brenda H: I haven’t noticed any activity from you in the past few minutes, if you need to copy any of the information provided to you please do so now. I will be closing the chat window shortly unless you have more questions.

Charles Knutson: dang it!!! don’t hang up on me again

Brenda H: Thank you for using AT&T Premier Support. Have a great day. This chat window will close shortly. If you need to copy any of the information provided to you, please do so now. If you require more assistance, please feel free to log back in and another agent will assist you.

By the fourth try I’m mostly having fun, and seeing just how silly this can become. I was either disappointed, or not disappointed, depending on your point of view. :)

Charles Knutson: This is my fourth try at some help. EVERY time, i ask my question, get one response, type away, and then get a message saying that the rep doesn’t see anything, i keep typing, and then it disconnects on me. I think you may have a bug in your system. Since this may be the only thing you see from me before you hang up on me, could someone please fix this? I’m very frustrated by this system.

[Debbie S - A representative has joined the session.]

Thank you for contacting AT&T. A Representative will be with you momentarily.

Debbie S: Welcome to AT&T Premier Support, my name is Debbie S. I am reading your question and will be right with you.

Debbie S: I apologize for the inconvenience.

Debbie S: How may I assist you today?

Charles Knutson: you can report this bug to the people who manage that

Debbie S: I haven’t noticed any activity from you in the past few minutes, if you need to copy any of the information provided to you please do so now. I will be closing the chat window shortly unless you have more questions.

Debbie S: Thank you for using AT&T Premier Support. Have a great day. This chat window will close shortly. If you need to copy any of the information provided to you, please do so now. If you require more assistance, please feel free to log back in and another agent will assist you.

You get the idea. I hope you enjoyed this. If not, we value your input. Online operators are standing by 24 hours a day to assist you.

As far as you know.

No autorecover in PowerPoint 2004?!

I made the switch from Windows to Mac last spring, a decision for which I have only one regret — that I didn’t do it earlier.

Well, now it’s actually two regrets — that I continued to use PowerPoint for Mac instead of switching to Keynote.

Here’s the short version of my recent pain and suffering. The first wave of pain is actually the simple fact that PowerPoint 2004 (the Mac version) is a pretender compared to the very easy-to-use PowerPoint for Windows. Lots of little goofy things that seem unnecessarily clunky. For example:

1) Go to open a file. Default is to show me “All Readable Documents” rather than PowerPoint documents. I’m running PowerPoint, for crying out loud. How about defaulting to that?

2) Open a PowerPoint file, go to normal view. On the left is the outline view of the text. Long lines of text disappear under the slide pane on the right. Along the bottom of that window is a scroll bar. Grab that bar, slide it all the way to the right. The text shifts left about 1/4 inch, leaving all the rest of the text still hidden.

3) Speaking of the scroll bars, rather than shifting the contents of the window while you slide them, the contents just sit there until you release, and then jumps to the correct spot. Wasn’t that de rigeur like 15 years ago?

I could go on, but you get the idea. (I’ve considered doing a point by point comparison of the two versions. Maybe in the future.) In any case it seems clear to me that there is less commitment on the part of Microsoft for the Mac version of PowerPoint than for Windows. I wonder why that might be?!

But like I said, that was just the first wave of pain. The acute symptoms struck Friday afternoon.

I’m in a massive flow, amazingly productive. The kind of productive flow that you get into after several hours of spinning your wheels before all the lights come on. The kind of flow where you get as much done in two hours as you had in the previous six. The kind of flow where you’re reaching a zenith of productivity, almost completely done with this amazing……

Huh? Shoot. PowerPoint just died.

Totally killed itself. That’s never happened before. Well, no problem. It’s been autorecovering every 10 minutes all afternoon. I’ve seen the little banner message across my screen. The most I’ve lost here is 10 minutes. Painful, but I can manage.

Before relaunching PowerPoint, I look around for autorecover files. I always like to do a little manual maintenance in these situations in case something stupid happens next. No autorecover files that I can find. I can see Word autorecover files, but nothing relating to my presentation. I poke around a bit more. Look in the Preferences… Hmm. In Word there’s a preference for the autorecover folder, but not in PowerPoint. Finally, after dinking around for a bit, I just decide to trust PowerPoint and relaunch. It comes up and shows me the Project Gallery, rather than something about autorecovered files. The help screens tell me that PowerPoint is supposed to give me a selection of autorecovered files when the death thing happens. But it’s not offering up anything. More research. More futility. I finally click on the presentation as an act of ultimate desperation. It’s my version from 2:52 p.m., the last time I manually saved. The version just before all the beauty and productivity gushed forth.

I’m now livid. And depressed. I know, I know. Save frequently. But I’ve been using Word and PowerPoint for Windows for almost 15 years, and ever since autorecover showed up as a feature, I’ve had a good sense of security, and have seldom been burned. Heck, I stayed with Office when I went to the Mac because it’s been such a reliable and usable product. Alas. It appears my PowerPoint days are over. I installed Keynote yesterday and am preparing for a learning curve/paradigm shift of at least modest proportion.

And that’s the story of pain and suffering, courtesy of whoever forgot to actually make the autorecover work in PowerPoint 2004 for Mac. I could continue whining and venting my pitiful spleen, but… I, ah, have a presentation to re-generate.

Adium – “Don’t Change” vs. “Change All”

Before I pick on Adium, I have to first issue this disclaimer: I like it. I use it. It’s good software and mostly does all the things that I want.

But here’s my nit. Today Adium informed me that a newer version was available. No prob. Let’s upgrade. It downloads the new stuff, does its magic incantations, then hits me with the following dialog box:

picture-7.png

Adium has been updated.

Great.

Do you want to allow the new version to access the same keychain items (such as passwords) as the previous version?

Yes.

This change is permanent and affects all keychain items used by Adium.

I realize that the ensuing click of my button will have sweeping implications and CANNOT be undone. But I’m OK, because I DO want to allow the new version to access the same keychain items as the previous version. My answer is, “Yes”.

“Don’t Change” “Change All”

Huh?! Wait. My answer was “Yes,” not “Change” or “Don’t Change”! What’s change got to do with it?!

Lemme think… Must remain calm… If I keep the same keychain items, that sounds like “Don’t Change” doesn’t it? I want them to stay the same. But the warning says, “This change is permanent,” suggesting maybe that “Change All” will do something to the newly upgraded software to bring all the old keychain items with me. But change what? The new empty keychain list to the old keychain list?

All I want is for all my old configuration stuff to follow me over here. I want to “Allow” or “Don’t Allow” or even “Yes” or “No” will do.

It’s a small nit, I suppose. But it’s really bad interface design. Don’t ask the user a Yes/No question and then provide two buttons that have meaning primarily to the programmer.

I click “Change All” because I believe that sounds more like “Yes” than “Don’t Change.”

Relaunching…

All of my online friends are still with me. I think that means that my new version has access to the same keychain items as the old version. Whew! “Change All” made everything appear the same to me.

Now if I just knew what a keychain item was…

Bluetooth: The happy pulse says I’m ready… ready… ready…

I’m a big fan of Bluetooth. Especially when it works properly, which is happening more and more these days.

But I have one really significant nit: The *bright* flashing blue light.

I get the fact that some sort of feedback is helpful when you’re trying to establish a connection between your cell phone and your headset. I get the part where the light is always blue (clever… blue… I get it). But it almost seems like certain design engineers are so excited about the fact that they’re using Bluetooth, that they have gotten a little carried away with the little blue light, to the point that it’s obnoxious and intrusive, particularly in the dark.

Case in point: My home printer is an old Laserjet 4P, from back in the days when HP printers were Cadillacs. (Yeah, way back, like when Cadillacs were Cadillacs.) Back when HP printers used to last forever. I retrofitted this printer with a Bluetooth adapter, and it works really well. My wife and I both print to it from our Bluetooth-enabled Mac laptops in our communal home office. Problem: At night this thing pulsates in a surreal blue that makes the home office look like something out of the twilight zone. It’s as if the Bluetooth adapter is pleading, “I’m still here!! I’m relevant! I’m ready WHENEVER you’re ready to print. Still ready… Even now… Still ready… Still ready… Ready… Still… Really I am…”

Bluetooth is cable replacement technology, and I believe it should act like it. My parallel cable never drew attention to itself, it just carried bits when I needed it to. Back when the home office was downstairs, near some of the kids’ bedrooms, it became a huge issue because the kids were afraid of the flashing blue light they could see under their doors, at the end of the hall, across the family room, eminating from somewhere beyond the open door of my home office. I am not making this up. So I dug into the adapter and violated the warranty in order to try and gouge out the stupid LED, or at least cover it with electrical tape. I was somewhat successful, so now the adapter blinks throughout the night in a much more subdued, emotionally controlled manner. I can see it from my bed, but it’s more soothing now, and less manic.

Same issue with every Bluetooth headset I’ve owned. You’re driving down the freeway at night with your headset on your head (where else?), and you’re suddenly distracted by an explosive blue flash to one side of your head (for me, the left side). What was that?! A cop car with his lights on?! Wait… it’s gone. Huh… That was strange. I wonder… FLASH! It happened again… What was that?! I actually spent about 10 minutes during one late commute wondering what in the heck that scary blue periodic pulse was until I realized that it was originating from near my left ear. OK, so I’m slower than most at this sort of analysis. But ultimately, I removed the headset rather than endure the tortuous and continuous blue pulse for the rest of my drive.

Is that what you want in a product? A visual cue so distracting that you have to attack a printer adapter with a sharp knife to subdue it? Or stow a headset in your pocket to silence its visual barking? Enough with the flashing blue lights. If I want that I’ll go to Kmart.

“I’m sorry… Our movie theater is controlled by the corporate office in Texas.” Huh?!

One isolated incident is an anomaly. Two may be a trend.

Let me explain…

About a year ago my wife and I were regular attenders at a local movie theater in the Provo area (which will, naturally, remain unnamed). By “regular” I mean we saw maybe two movies a month. One Friday evening, while waiting for my wife in the theater lobby, I stood watching movie trailers on a really nice, big, flat-panel display hanging on the wall. I noticed immediately a mouse arrow obnoxiously situated in the middle of the screen. That told me three important things: 1) The display was being driven by a computer, rather than a DVD player set to loop; 2) Whoever launched the trailers application forgot to move the cursor out of the way afterward; 3) Nobody bothered to look at the output to see if it was working properly. Ever.

The next time we were at this theater (a week or two later) I sought out the display to see if the cursor was still there. Sure enough! This time, though, I also sought out a manager, pointed out the obnoxious arrow and suggested that someone could go to the computer that’s generating the video and move the mouse arrow to the edge. Here comes the staggering part… And I swear I am not making this up. The manager apologetically told me that the video shown on that flat panel display was generated by a computer in Texas, at the corporate office, that he had complained repeatedly to them about it, that nothing had ever been done, and that the people in Texas were gone for the weekend after 5:00 Friday afternoons.

The good news: The manager took responsibility, offered rational explanations for the observed phenomena, and didn’t make me feel like the obsessive techno-geek that I actually am.

The really silly news: Your video feed is controlled in Texas?! Ok, fine. Maybe I can buy that. But nobody in the corporate office will fix that?! Harder to swallow. And nobody at the corporate office is available on Friday and Saturday nights when most your weekly revenue shows up?! Hmmm.

So I chalked it up as an anomalous blip, an inexplicable amusement. Until this last Friday.

We were at a dollar movie theater on Friday afternoon for a matinee showing of “Night at the Museum” ($1 each before 5:00!). This theater shows late run movies, about the time they come out on DVD, so you can get the live movie experience (sticky floor, greasy popcorn, crying babies, cell phone interruptions, talking teenagers) for cheaper than you could buy the DVD and take it home to your own family for a home movie experience (sticky floor, greasy popcorn, crying babies, cell phone interruptions, talking teenagers).

As we walked up to give our tickets to the ticket dude, we found instead what appeared to be the theater manager standing there. As he took our tickets, he warned us that the recent cold snap had taken the theater by surprise after unseasonably warm weather, and that now the air conditioner was running despite the fact that it was about 35 degrees outside. He then continued to tell us that he had been on the roof to personally try and fix it, that it was no help, and that we might want to consider grabbing our jackets from the car, because… (drumroll please…) the air conditioning was controlled by the corporate office in Texas, and nobody was in that office after 5:00 on Friday, Texas time! I would not make something like this up. I swear.

The good news: The manager took responsibility, offered rational explanations for the observed phenomena, and graciously protected us from an unnaturally chilly movie viewing experience.

The extremely silly news: Your air conditioning is controlled in Texas?! No, not fine. Nobody in the corporate office is available on Friday and Saturday nights when most of your weekly revenue shows up?! Even more silly in this case.

It begs the question: Does what we gain in corporate centralization compensate for what we lose in local responsiveness? I’d have to ask the corporate office… but… they’re closed.

Leaning Truck of Beijing meets Great Wall of China

I took this photo outside of Beijing in May 2006 just as we made the turn-off to the Great Wall.

beijing-may-27-2006-030-2.jpg

Just over those hills on the right… the legendary Great Wall of China, standing solid for thousands of years, visible from space, one of the design wonders of the ancient world.

Immediately to our left… the Leaning Truck of Beijing, one of the design wonders of the modern world (the viewer wonders why this thing doesn’t just tip over).

You can’t script this sort of thing.

Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems

This inaugural post in the category of “Bad: Problematic Designs” concerns a technology known as Interactive Voice Response (IVR). The core idea of IVRs is a set of verbal menus that are navigated by the caller in a variety of ways. The most inocuous instantiation of this technology simply guides the user through choices, allowing the user to “say or press” a certain number. The main complaint is the overarching idea that one must navigate through a hierarchical tree of perhaps several dozen total options before talking to a person. In some situations you simply can’t get to a person at all, so if the automated option doesn’t exist, you’re hosed.

From a high-level view, these systems beg the question — just what value-add is coming from all that navigation? Are there really 27 people standing by, one for each leaf node in the tree of options? Does it ultimately dump the caller to the same pool of operators, but with a note to that particular operator concerning your ultimate quest? (“I seek the holy grail…”) Or is it just cathartic for you as a caller to really think through your motives before deigning to bother one of their operators?

Granting the premise that forcing the caller to traverse the tree adds some value (to the caller) that compensates for the time required to do it, there is a distinct advantage to the “press or say [number]” option — mainly the cell-phone-while-driving scenario. If I can drive while menu navigating, it’s far less hazardous to say “five” than press it. (The relative merits of talking on a cell phone while driving is clearly a topic for another day.)

So I think I’ve become habituated to this rudimentary approach to IVRs, so long as I can 1) get to a person 2) within a reasonable traversal depth in the tree 3) in a reasonable amount of time. But lately the approach has seemed to shift. One automated system I call regularly no longer gives me menu choices with the “say or press [number]” option. Now it says things like, “If you would like to check your balance, say ‘Check balance,’” etc. I figured out quickly that if you just track these options numerically, you can just press the corresponding number on the keypad. So if the first option was to say “Check balance,” you can just press ’1′ instead.

Now a pause for psychological introspection by your host… Why does this bother me enough to hack the system until I understand how to press numbers instead of say phrases? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I have an inherent distrust of technology, especially when it begins to get uppity. Maybe it’s because I have had such pitiful experiences with voice recognition software in the past. Maybe it’s because I know that I’m interacting with a computer, and I’d like to do that on fundamentally low-level terms. Maybe it’s because I’m really irritated by the excessively chipper automated voice saying, “Okay!! Let’s get the balance for you, big boy!!” (Frighteningly reminiscent of Eddy, the shipboard computer from Serius Cybernetics Corporation in the original BBC radio programs of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) I’m just looking for an account balance in the most efficient manner possible and I don’t want to emotionally bond with a voice recognition system!

Today I hit an all-time low (or high as the case may be). The MP3 file posted here is an actual recording of my conversation with an IVR protecting the front gates of one of our government agencies. Amazingly, when I actually got to the operator, he was remarkably personable and helpful. Perhaps it was only in comparison to the pseudo-personality I had to wade through in order to get to him.

Today’s lunch discussion of this experience with my Ph.D. student Dan Delorey (aided and abetted by the nearly intoxicating influence of a fire grilled chicken salad from Cafe Rio in Provo, Utah) has given rise to two new, but related, ideas, soon to be launched in this space.
1) Tell your troubles to the IVR. Fine, mister uppity-human-wannabe computer! You wanna talk? Let’s talk!
2) IVR Wars. Let’s get some of these systems talking to each other if they’re so smart. Let’s see if Sears can get some answers from Delta Airlines. We don’t know yet what the criteria will be for victory… The first one to get a human on the line? The last one?! The first one to hang up? We’ll have to think through this a bit.