I don’t like calling stores

If I’m looking to buy something and I’m not sure if the item is in stock, then the logical thing to do is to call the store in advance and check to see if they have one on the shelf ready to go. I won’t do that though, unless I’m absolutely certain the business has some amazing IT and operations management.

Back in the day I worked at Bunnings, and I was occasionally on the receiving end of those calls. Many stores like Bunnings and department stores have those kinds of enquiry calls answered directly by sales folks on the shop floor. I would normally have a queue of customers following me around the reticulation section at Bunnings looking for help when I had to answer those calls, and I’d have to put up the huffy looks while I prioritised a phone customer over a customer standing right in front of me (as was the policy).

Worst scenario, the item wouldn’t be in stock and the customer on the phone would ask me to call another store to see if the item was in stock there. So now there are two people serving one phone customer, and two huffy customers giving the Bunnings employee dirty looks. So I’m not going to call ahead and cause a situation like that — I’ll turn up and take my chances.

If the business has excellent operations management (full IT support for stock control and the stock auditing processes to go with that) then I’ll call them for sure — but that’s only because they can have someone centrally receiving all those calls and reading the in-store stock levels out of database, without distracting the sales team on the shop floor.

Heterographs

stationarystationery2It occurred to me today that I probably think differently about heterographs than most normal people. I see them as an exciting opportunity, and I still get a small hit of satisfaction when I get to use uncommon ones.

I can remember first learning about stationary and stationery in primary school, and being on the look-out for opportunities to use stationery so that I could prove to myself that I remembered. It was genuinely exciting when I finally got the opportunity to use ‘stationery’ properly,a and I felt really proud.

It occurred to me today that I feel the same way about many tricks of language like heterographs, and I still get a little flush of happiness when I get to write things like, “the building was 10 storeys high.”

It’s not a feeling of superiority or anything though. When I see a mistake where someone has missed a heterograph I’m more surprised than critical, more disappointed on their behalf. I’m so sorry you missed the little thrill of remembering the correct version of their/there/they’re! I’m really shocked when I see a professionally printed sign with a mistake — surely there must’ve been someone in that group of people who loves heterographs as much as me?

Double Rubbish Capacity

It occurred to me this morning that it would be possible to double the amount of our rubbish collection each week.

If you saved up an extra bin’s worth of rubbish, we could wait until the garbage truck has gone past, and then dash out and refill our bin and put it on the other side of the street for a second emptying.

I wonder if anyone does. Surely someone must.

Calendar Tetris

When I came in to work this morning and opened my calendar I had meetings booked from 9am-1pm and then 1:30pm-5pm.

A meeting request came in for 1-1:30pm, so I accepted it and yelled out “Tetris!”, but the whole set of meetings didn’t disappear.

busy_calendar

Keep Your Technical Details to Yourself

I was looking at the error report from one of the front-line users at my employer, and they had included a screenshot of the system. The system was helpfully telling them:

An error occurred: java.lang.NullPointerException

It’s incredibly frustrating for me to see something like that. I appreciate that the system is trying to be helpful, but it is never ever a good idea to show internal details like exception names to end users (i.e.: non-technical users).

Why Not? It’s Useful Information

The error details are certainly useful… to developers and administrators. I’m sure I’ve written software myself in my younger days that helpfully explains to users the technical details of the error, including the exception classname or internal error code.

itunes-error

It wasn’t until I started working in Operations and directly supporting end users that I realised the psychological effects that this kind of information can have on end users and the significant costs that result.

Essentially, many users see error messages with technical detail and interpret that as the system has failed in ways those techo guys didn’t expect and so this thing must be pretty crappy and unreliable. Confidence in the system is easy to destroy and hard to rebuild.

Is that important? For paying-customer software the answer is obviously yes – confidence in the system is directly proportional to revenue. What about for internal corporate software? After all, the users don’t have any choice but to use the application, so it doesn’t matter if they like it or not.

There is still a significant cost in corporate environments: the change management cost. When users have no confidence in the platform:

  • Communications strategies for future changes become more costly and less effective because disillusioned users aren’t listening.
  • Engagement for requirements and design for future versions becomes more difficult (“I don’t have time for this requirements meeting, I’ve got a job to do and the system is crap anyway.”)
  • Supporting the software becomes more expensive, as users are quicker to jump to support, and less helpful when engaging the support staff.

All of these costs are hard to quantify, which means they don’t end up explicitly in project plans and support models. That’s why we end up with these kinds of errors being displayed in dialogs to users, and nobody really caring about it.

What should developers be doing instead? What if you can’t prevent it?

Firstly: developers should absolutely create systems that record as much detail as possible, and make that data easily accessible to support staff with the relevant customer/user details. Specifically:

  • Log everything together in a central place, but make a special “support staff” view (accessible with elevated rights) where support staff can quickly query the error information from the live system. I’ve seen too many systems where the support staff need to raise a production service request on another support team to get an extract of the logs, which leads to user conversations like, “I’ve logged a support ticket for the error you’ve reported, I’ll get back to you in a couple of days.”
  • Don’t expect the support staff to wade through a stack trace to find the source of the error – summarise your best guess of what have might have occurred (e.g.: error communicating with XYZ service”) so that the support staff can quickly triage the issue and start taking action. It’s often not possible at development time to know exactly what may have gone wrong when the code executed, but there is always some interpretation possible. Even a list of possible reasons for the error is helpful for support staff.
  • Log all of the relevant details together so that support staff can query based on the information they know. The end user will report an error with something like a customer ID, case ID or transaction ID, so the support staff need to be able to query directly on that business-domain parameter. I’ve worked with systems where the support staff have to query on internal database IDs or date ranges and then hunt for their data across multiple database tables, and that obviously leads to poor customer experience.

So that leaves the question of what to put on screen, and that needs to be answered with, “what can I put on screen that maintains or builds user confidence?”

Technical information that is meaningless to the user does not build confidence. Confidence is built when the system appears to the user to have the issue under control, which means a business-language message about what occurred, and a clear statement about next actions – and often that is simply “try again”. It’s important not to leave any ambiguity in the users mind about whether their data is safe or corrupt, if the system will recover, and what their next action should be.

The message I saw at work was

An error occurred: java.lang.NullPointerException

A much better message would have been:

The Credit Decision service did not respond in time with a decision about the credit requirements for this customer.

Wait a moment and resubmit this application for credit decisioning, as the service may be experiencing high demand. If the problem persists contact the XYZ Support team and quote your application number.

The downside of providing better error messages is that they tend to be longer, and users are infamous for not reading anything on screen. This is exacerbated by a lack of confidence in the system – they’re even less likely to read longer dialogs when they have no confidence in the system’s robustness. Still, it’s better to have the information there than leave the users wondering if the system has eaten their data.

So what about when it’s not possible to prevent technical information from appearing in front of the users? Not possible implies something that can’t be predicted and from which the system can’t recover on the fly (if it could recover it could deliver a controlled error message). If the system is in such a catastrophic situation then it’s pretty reasonable that technical information might end up in front of users – hopefully these kinds of situations are pretty rare for your organisation, and if they’re not, it’s probably worth tackling that instability first.

I Shall Not Kiss Babies

In the unlikely event that I run for some sort of government office, I hereby do solemnly swear that I will not kiss any babies.

I really don’t understand the motivation behind it. It would be creepy and weird if some bloke came and kissed my kids on the head, why would you do it to a stranger’s kids?

(I’m not a kiss-to-greet person in general anyway – polite handshakes and nods all the way for me.)

Conference Lines

I have spent too much time at work exchanging confused looks with colleagues while we try and figure out what the guy on the other end of the conference line just said.

If you are that person sitting on the conference line typing away at your emails on your noisy keyboard without your phone on mute: I hate you.

I Misspoke

Well, that was embarrassing.

I was just talking to a work colleague, and we agreed to meet next week to catch up. So I tried to say to her, “Great, I’ll book a 1/2 hour slot in your calendar early next week.” Did I manage to say that? No.

“Great, I’ll book an hour in your slot then.”