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Monday, February 20, 2012

Broken user interfaces are everywhere

I have a real problem when I encounter systems which have obviously been screwed up for a long time but are still being advertised to the public. It supports this notion of papering over the problem and never really taking care of things.

Quiet street A couple of years ago, I took a vacation in south Texas. Part of that stay took me down to Corpus Christi. That was a mistake. The town which I remembered as fun and vibrant back in the 1980s was now lifeless. I remember walking from my hotel to a local diner a couple of times in the middle of the day and never encountering anyone else.

There was no traffic and there was nothing really going on. This was in the middle of summer, too, so I really don't understand what had happened. All I can figure is that the economy at the time had chased off all of the tourists. Given this, you'd think the people who bothered to show up would get lots of attention and excellent service, but that didn't happen either.

None of this was a huge deal, but then something weird happened at the very end. On my last day there, it was time to check out. There was a small placard in the room which cheerfully informed readers that they could complete their checkout over the phone with an automated system. This seemed good to me, so I went to try it.

The system promptly barfed. I called back and tried again, but the same thing happened. It was the sort of failure which leaves you wondering if it bothered to do anything. You might assume that its silence meant all is well, but then what if it didn't check you out? You might be on the hook for another night. I didn't want to find out the hard way, and so headed to the front desk.

There, I mentioned that I had tried the phone method in an attempt to not have to stop at the desk on my way down. That's when the front desk clerk replied, "oh, yeah, it does that". I suppressed my bile, smiled, finished my paperwork, and exited.

I really hate that line.

Bonus: I noticed this on my way out of town. I was just standing there pumping gas, and then saw this sticker.

Disabled access sticker

Clearly, this is an old sticker. Remember gas pumps with hooks? You'd take out the pump handle and then either lift something or turn something to block the spot where the handle rests. That was the equivalent of "on", and it would tell the pump you were ready to go. It was a nice way of keeping people from booby-trapping the pump nozzle handle by locking it open with the little latch underneath.

Something happened over the years, and that extra step was removed. The instructions changed, too:

  1. Select payment type
  2. Remove nozzle
  3. Select grade
  4. Insert nozzle
  5. Squeeze handle to pump gas

The pump goes hot shortly after step 3. If the nozzle was locked open by a previous user, look out! If you didn't catch it in time, odds are you just hosed down the side of your car (and yourself) with fuel. Lovely.

This happened to me exactly once. After that, I started ignoring any instructions and always put "insert nozzle in car" ahead of any involvement with the buttons. Let it beep at me. I don't want to be sprayed with smelly gasoline ever again.

For reference, this is what that gas pump with the above sticker looks like:

Gas pump

As previously described, there is no longer any sort of hook, switch, or other on/off device at that point. There are no moving parts shown in my picture, in fact. There is some kind of catch up inside there which serves to alert the pump that you're done, but it doesn't seem to do useful things when the handle is removed.

If you're disabled, I have no idea what you have to do to get their attention. Clearly, the docs and the reality on the ground are out of touch with each other. I'm sure "it does that" applies here, too.