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.

Man flies 193 miles in lawn chair

Man flies 193 miles in lawn chair

Kent Couch is my hero.

Last weekend, Kent Couch settled down in his lawn chair with some snacks — and a parachute. Attached to his lawn chair were 105 large helium balloons.

Destination: Idaho.

With instruments to measure his altitude and speed, a global positioning system device in his pocket, and about four plastic bags holding five gallons of water each to act as ballast — he could turn a spigot, release water and rise — Couch headed into the Oregon sky.


I’m confident my wife would never let me try this stunt. And frankly I’d be really embarrassed if I died in the attempt. But this is the sort of thing that I’ve dreamed about since I was a little kid. And Couch had the guts to try it. Twice.

Couch is the latest American to emulate Larry Walters — who in 1982 rose three miles above Los Angeles in a lawn chair lifted by balloons. Walters had surprised an airline pilot, who radioed the control tower that he had just passed a guy in a lawn chair.

I suppose there will be other copycats, probably not including me (alas!). It’ll all be fun and games until some guy goes up with a case of beer for ballast and then falls out of his chair unconscious and unable to pull the ripcord on his chute while he plummets to his death somewhere over Nebraska.

Then there will be laws passed against elevating one’s self in a lawn chair without a license, or crossing state laws while reposing on outdoor furniture.

But until then, my hat is off to Kent Couch, my design hero of the day, for courage in the line of reclining, and for elevating his game above and beyond the call of common sense.

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:


Adium has been updated.


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


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.”


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.


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.

Bose QuietComfort 2 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones

The first time I tried on a pair of Bose Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones, I was on a cross-country flight with one of my graduate students, David Vawdrey. He had just acquired a pair for himself, and was so excited by the experience that he insisted on giving me a live demo in-flight. Turns out that 35,000 feet at the rear of a wide-body jet is the place to fully appreciate these things!


These headphones are noise canceling, not sound canceling, so you can still hear announcements, and most of the time carry on conversation, but the most annoying aspects of normal cabin noise more or less vanish. This is a case of genius on two levels. First of all, someone had to think of the fact that business travelers would kill for really nice, high quality noise canceling headphones. Second, someone had to actually pull off the technology of noise canceling headphones and package them in a great form factor. Mission accomplished.


Now a bit of personal bias. I have significant hearing loss in both ears, and I tend to hear most sounds somewhat poorly, especially midrange sounds where conversations take place. But a weird side effect of my hearing condition is that there are some sound frequencies that I actually hear more acutely than most people. Naturally these are high, shrill pitches, just like… um… the ones that pound you incessantly on airplanes!

Prior to this point in my life I had done a ton of business travel, and my experience with airplanes was that I had two options: 1) Use earplugs. Several problems. If you jam them in far enough to really block the sound, you arrive at your destination with a sore ear canal. When they’re in, you can’t hear the flight attendant when it’s time to select your meal, and you can’t carry on normal conversations with your travel companions. Of course, that can be a blessing or a curse, but that’s another topic. Finally you’re stuck if you want to watch the in-flight movie. 2) Do nothing and arrive at your destination with a throbbing headache. I had played it both ways, and neither was fully satisfying. But I generally erred toward the earplugs as the lesser of two evils.

That brings us to the cross-country flight in which David put the headphones on me, asked me if I was ready, and then threw the switch. Absolutely amazing. Seemed like 80-90% or more of the ambient noise (especially the most irritating frequencies) just vanished. Regular sound was reduced, but still audible. Plus the headphones were incredibly comfortable. From that moment my only question was how I would beg, borrow or steal a pair for myself. By my next trip, I had managed to acquire my own pair, and air travel has never been the same since.

Now, the second brilliant aspect: they double as super high quality music headphones. So take yourself back to the last time you tried to watch a movie on an airplane with the sound system on the plane (especially the now-antiquated air-driven headphones). In order to get past the background noise, you wind up cranking the volume, pounding your ear drums, and contributing to the arrival headache, not to mention contributing to permanent hearing loss. The Bose headphones simultaneously cut the background noise and provide an amazingly clear sound, so you can listen to the movie, the music or whatever, at normal volume. Just amazing.

Last touch of class: inside the case is a business card slot containing a set of courtesy cards. On the back, the card reads, “Our customers tell us they are often asked about their Bose QuietComfort 2 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones. For your convenience, we are providing this handy courtesy card for you to pass along.” Contact information follows. That’s confidence! And yes, I’ve given them out on airplanes…

Retail Price: $299.00. Worth every cent.