Sunday, February 9, 2020

Hostile Technology: A Vent

     I am a retired engineer: a technologist by trade. Thus, I expect to find the technology I confront comprehensible. Sadly, that isn’t always the case. These days, now that there’s software in everything, the software artisan in me is often close to apoplexy.

     Many have been the times when a badly designed website has made me want to ferret out the designer and throttle him to within an inch of his life. This impulse becomes especially strong when the website in question is one that offers something for sale that I’d like to purchase. Worse still is when the website is operated by some vendor with whom I must do business – e.g., a local utility company – and I can get assistance from that vendor in no other way. Such companies have little idea what they’re doing to themselves with their websites’ poor human engineering.

     But today’s adventure isn’t about a website. Oh no. It’s about something even more diabolical. Yet it’s a device you probably already have, and have learned to cope with.

     Yes, that’s right, Gentle Reader: The Last American Without A Smartphone has just acquired a smartphone. I didn’t want one. The proliferation of Internet two-factor security systems that require one has forced my hand.

     “They’re really simple and convenient,” said my beloved wife Beth, whose uses her phone mostly for playing variations on Bejeweled. “It’s like having the world in your hand. You’ll fall in love with it.” I forbore to comment.

     The lovely young lady who assisted me in this purchase advised me not to get a bottom-tier model. (She assured me she wouldn’t get a commission on the sale.) She steered me up the pyramid to what she called a middle-of-the-road device. I walked out of the store $560 poorer, with a device I had no idea how to use even to make or take a phone call. I sit here today fulminating over this purchase, and I shall tell you why.

     First, the phone doesn’t come with a User’s Guide. Oh no. That’s so last year. It comes with a “Quick Reference Guide”...which doesn’t tell you how to turn the thing on, much less how to make or accept a call. So I went to the vendor’s website to search for a downloadable User’s Guide. Believe it or not, Gentle Reader, I had to compel the website’s Help system to connect me to a human assistant to find the damned thing and download it...and it still didn’t tell me how to turn the phone on.

     I figured it out by experimentation, after nearly twenty minutes’ frustration. But that was just the start of my agonies. Now I had to figure out how to make a call.

     The phone’s home screen tells you nothing. It’s covered with icons, but there’s no help available for what they do. Hie thee to the User’s Guide, Fran! Which I did. But would you like to guess how far into that document I had to read to find out how to make a call? I was fifty pages deep into the thing before I threw up my hands. Then I asked Beth, who has a similar model. The procedure is relatively simple, though I wouldn’t call it intuitive. But there’s worse.

     The key to making the mastery of a new device pleasant is consistency of approach. Fundamental operations should be uniform. That makes them easy to master: the application of a common vocabulary of basic actions to a range of operations. How was I to know that phone calls are no longer considered fundamental operations on a phone?

     You’d think that a touch-screen device festooned with tap-and-go icons would use a tap-and-go approach to invoke the operations they govern. And that is indeed the case...with one exception that’s impossible to intuit. The exception: Accepting an incoming call.

     The ring tone sounds, the screen illuminates, and the number of the caller is prominently displayed. Below it are two icons: a green handset and a red handset. Green means “go,” right? So I tapped the green handset...and the ring tone continued uninterrupted. I tapped it again. I tapped it twice in rapid succession. I tried holding it down. No dice: the call went to voice mail.

     I couldn’t decline the call by tapping the Red handset, as I discovered soon afterward. The call still went to voice mail.

     The Quick Reference Guide was no help. Apparently, as with turning the device on, the knowledge of how to accept an incoming call must be transmitted genetically from father to son.

     Where’s that damned User’s Guide again? Read, read, scratch head, read further...did I buy a camera by mistake? Or perhaps a handheld PlayStation? Ah, here we go: Answering a call. I only had to read 77 pages to find it. So what’s the secret handshake?

     What? I have to swipe the green handset icon to the right? Swipe? Everything else this damnable device can do is accessed by tap-icon-and-go, but this, the most important thing anyone has ever done with a phone, has to be different?!

     This is evil. This is a mortal sin against good design principles. This is worthy of a life sentence programming a PDP-8 with nothing but an ASR-33 teletype.

     I hate this thing. I want to return it. But I can’t. I need it now. The world around me has decreed that Thou Shalt Have A Smartphone. I’d settle for slowly torturing the designer to death, but I suppose the satisfaction from that would be fleeting.

     I’m told the top-tier units are even less oriented toward making and taking phone calls. I suppose I should take comfort from that.

     Excuse me? You want to know the make and model? It’s a Samsung Galaxy A50. With this execrable device Samsung has guaranteed that I will never again buy any of its products. But this one, I’m stuck with. And please, don’t regale me with the improved ease of use and incredible new features the coming models will offer. I’d rather use a Dixie Cup on a thread...if it could send and receive text messages, anyway.


Mike Guenther said...

I would go back and give the salesperson a hard time for not explaining the basic operations of your new purchase. Even though I've had smart phones for several years, whenever I get a new model, I always ask for tips on how to make best use of it.

Rick C said...

You swipe to answer a call because it's too easy to answer (or reject) a call by tapping. The saleslady should've told you that when you said you had never had a smartphone before, though.

Help files seem to be a dead thing these days. Find a teenager to walk you through the basics. (I'm about 3/4 serious.)

Ragin' Dave said...

I had to change over to a smart phone in 2017. I hate it. I hate how expensive they are. I hate how intrusive they are. I hate how much they track you. I hate how everybody expects you to do their work for them on your phone. I hate having another expensive computer in my pocket.

Cell phones, like automatic transmissions, made it easier for people to ignore the basic functions that a person has to do, until they no longer even remember that the function exists. Like planning. Why plan, when you can just call a person and have them hop-to at a moment's notice? Phaw. A pox on the whole network.

Amy Bowersox said...

Fran, cynical me says you should have gone the iPhone route. As with all Apple devices, on an iPhone, everything is either easy or impossible. For one thing, when you get a call, you tap the green button to answer it. None of this "swipe to answer" stuff!

Then again, I checked with Sabrina, who has a different Samsung Galaxy model, and she said that she used to just be able to tap the "answer" button, but now has to hold it down to answer, which she finds annoying. (That's one thing about Android's too easy for individual manufacturers and cell carriers to play around with the default apps, meaning even two examples of the same model of phone can work differently. Another plus for Apple: all iPhones work the same. Mostly.)

pc-not said...

One of my biggest frustrations in life is the almost non-existent availability of clear written instructions coupled with most any purchase. As a man, I generally don't look at them at all unless forced to as a last resort.

In another life as a commercial fisherman 40 years ago, I recall outfitting my boat with one of the best radars available, a Furuno. The equipment was highly advanced, but installation directions were incomprehensible. It wasn't hard to see that that Japanese electronics company must have used technical writers with basic English skills, but zero expertise with communicating in practical, useful language that the average third grader could accomplish. I finally had to give up and call a marine electronics guy in to do a simple install.

Fast forward to today. Not much has changed except that native born Americans can't write step by step written instructions either. Dumbing down has reached a new level. I swear if I wasn't so old I would free lance as a writer creating simple specific steps to be easily followed by most people. Therein lies the problem. Most of the population would not know how to follow simple, specific steps.

WalkingHorse said...

Edsger W. Dijkstra, one of the luminaries of computer science, wrote a short piece entitled "A Discipline For Executing Pascal Programmers". It had some worthy recommendations which remain largely ignored in software development practice. This dereliction of duty is further aggravated by the systematic abuse of the end user as a loathsome inconvenience as well as the refusal to create documentation that is worth more than lining for the bottom of bird cages. I am pleased to be retired. I have learned to tolerate these awful devices, and I will close with this:

The purveyors of anything they insist upon calling "Smart" are cranks and hucksters intent upon defrauding unwary prey.

Linda Fox said...

I have an Apple phone - model 8. I only upgraded from the model 6, because the speaker was beginning to make it hard for me to hear (newer models are more hearing-aid friendly).

I only owned ONE Android phone - a Samsung, as it happens. I bought it because my husband was sold on them, and I wanted us to have the same model, to make it easier to take calls when the owner wasn't available (in the bathroom, or cooking). It was a very difficult to use phone, and I seriously contemplated killing him when he switched a few months later for a different model.

After that, I bought what I liked. The Apple phones are quite high in usability, and their interface is similar from model to model, and upgrade to upgrade. I don't buy the newer ones because:
1) Price
2) Size of phone approaches a tablet

Here's a youtube video for beginners -

HoundOfDoom said...

I'd consider a one plus. Their phones have a much cleaner interface. Samsung is reviled for their crapware, as well as their high prices. Not as pricey as Apple though ($1k for a phone, WTF?)

On a budget? We also just got a redmi note 8, which is working well for the bride. If it didn't, I'd never hear the end of it. Look on eBay for these.

WalkingHorse said...

I have stuck with my Galaxy S5, primarily because: it sort of works, battery replacement is a snap, I have more or less made piece with its 'user interface'.

Wraith said...

Man, do I feel your pain.

I was getting a lot of robocalls, so I tried to block the number. 'Add To Reject Call List.' They still kept coming through. Try it again--still coming through. Eventually my wife figured out that you have to go into 'Call Settings' and tell the Reject Call List that you want it to actually reject calls.



Seriously, some designer needs to be beaten with an old hard drive until the stupid falls out. >:(