The Interface Problem

The first two definitions of “interface” are: (1) the point where two systems, subjects, organizations, etc. meet and interact and (2) a device or program enabling a user to communicate with a computer.

One of the greatest problems with the increasing use of computerized systems is that all too many human/computer interfaces are flawed, both on the human side and on the computer side, as exemplified by the following examples.

A little over a week ago, the local Walgreens called to remind my wife that she was due for her second Shingles shot. She couldn’t do it immediately, but she had time after a dental appointment last Tuesday. So she stopped in at the Walgreens around 5:00 p.m. and went to the pharmacy. There was no one waiting for anything, and two pharmacy technicians and a pharmacist were on duty. She asked for the shot. She was told she had to make an appointment, except the store’s pharmacy telephone information line said that appointments were only necessary for COVID and flu vaccines, and that people could go to the pharmacy without an appointment. The main Walgreens website said the same. She pointed out that when she’d called the store, she was told she didn’t need an appointment for Shingles. She came home furious, but she called for an appointment, but was told by the Walgreens central vaccine scheduling office that they could only schedule COVID and flu shots by telephone. Other shots had to be scheduled online. But when she tried that, the Walgreens system wouldn’t schedule anything but COVID and flu. Another call back to Walgreens vaccine scheduling didn’t solve the problem, but the person on the other end suggested a Walgreens’ scheduling subsite that she could go to directly, a site that wasn’t listed anywhere. That worked… so far as getting the appointment, but that site wouldn’t accept her doctor’s info, which mean more of a wait when she did get the shot.

That’s definitely an example of an interface problem.

Another example is something experienced by a Canadian reader who was trying to obtain a Kindle version of ISOLATE from [the Canadian Amazon outlet]. He could get the audiobook and the hardcover, but not the Kindle ebook. The same was true for a number of his Canadian friends. I brought the matter to TOR’s attention, and my editor looked into it. Amazon replied to TOR that there was no problem. The links worked fine. Except they didn’t for those Canadians. Paradoxically, my Canadian friend got the Kindle from [the U.S. Amazon], but he informed me that still said the Kindle version was unavailable, not only to him, but to number of others.

I’d like to think that these are isolated examples – but they’re not. Too many organizations have websites that are close to impenetrable even for people with considerable familiarity with computers, not to mention those businesses with semi-AI telephone systems that not only work poorly, but often never allow a caller to talk to a real person, or only if the caller spends forever going through menu options and trying to reply to a computerized voice saying “I didn’t get that. Did you mean XXXX,” or the equivalent.

Yet more and more businesses are relying on flawed computerization and voicemail systems that don’t deal with real-world people and their problems… and with the shortage of workers, this problem is likely to get a lot worse.

8 thoughts on “The Interface Problem”

  1. Kurt Lorenz says:

    Mr. Modesitt,

    I had to laugh and commiserate with these recent experiences. My wife and I just returned from a trip to NC to visit her mother for Thanksgiving. We always get back from these trips late in the day and usually I run out and get a takeout pizza. Of course, that’s AFTER I call to the pizza ‘parlor’ and leave my order. Well, this year (yesterday in fact) I was unable to connect with as many as four pizza places to make an order. The first three never answered the telephone. The last one, Dominoes, placed me on a never ending propaganda tour of all things Dominoes. I finally called a small chain place and got an immediate answer. I was delighted to place my order and run immediately to the store and pick it up hot and ready. I was so delighted they answered the phone that I left a $4 tip on a $13 pizza.

    I think I know the problem. All these restaurants are moving toward servicing, and depending on, an online ordering system – even when their phone based system remains intact. Until forced to do otherwise I will stay loyal to simple people interfaced businesses.

    Oh, and I loved your Isolate novel. I’m a newly devoted reader (as of 2 years ago) of your work and loved this story as much as any I’ve read to date. Thanks for your novels AND your blog.


  2. Postagoras says:

    Automated customer service is great when it works.
    But if a customer needs more complicated service, or the automated system is set up wrong, it’s the customer who is inconvenienced. The company feels no pain.
    By bitter experience, people today have learned coping skills, looking for work-arounds, or just turn-it-off-and-turn-it-back-on. That’s fine with the companies, they really don’t care.

  3. Joe says:

    It’s not the fault of the computers, or even their programmers. It’s the fault of the one-trick-pony MBA graduates who only know how to cut costs in order to increase profits. But because they have no skin in the game, they only get rewards for profit, but no consequence for discouraged customers.

    1. Tim says:

      I remember when call centres of several large companies here in the UK went offshore.

      However the offshore teams had strict instructions to stick to scripts developed here in UK. There was no place to have a discussion and better diagnose a broadband fault, for example. This was largely because they did not have the working knowledge to do this.

      But the service was far cheaper.

      A few years later some of these companies advertised ‘on shore call centres’ following a very negative response from the public. And, yes, you are now usually quickly passed to an agent who has more flexibility because of their experience.

  4. Frank Hamsher says:

    I had a similar problem with Kindle here in Australia with another author. His ebook showed as available in the US for a Kindle US price of 10.95. It was only available in Australia as a used hardcover from Amazon US at an exorbitant price.

    To be fair the book was long out of print.

    I contacted the author (an academic as well as a sometimes SF writer) to ask him to find out why the Ebook didn’t show up here in Australia. He researched my problem with Amazon and they told him there was no issue.

    He suggested that I look on Ebay for a used copy. I found one that cost me less to order and post to Australia than the US Kindle ebook would have cost. Also received the book in good condition in a week’s time.

  5. Bill says:

    Since I do this for a living, I can see multiple possible points of failure. First, the person writing the requirements didn’t cover everything, the testing was incomplete, and the rollout clearly missed proper instructions to everyone. That assumes everyone is well meaning. It is also possible that there are internal company struggles that are sabotaging the efforts. Normally I assume ignorance over malice, so it is likely that cost cutting is the culprit.

    The underlying issue reminds me of many of Mr. Modesitt’s novels. It is a tax and economics issue. Because of how the US taxes operational expenses vs capital expenses, it is cheaper to outsource than to pay employees to do the work. In addition, the companies that are hired are much larger than the companies that hire them. So, if the software has issues, the hiring company can lose significant amounts of money while they vendor won’t notice the lose of one client. Plus, the normal consequences of software failure are just the loss of the money spent and no damages.

    Further, if the leader who hired the contracting company gets fired, the contracting company will hire them.
    The best solution is to change the tax laws so that hiring employees is better than hiring contractors. The other part of it is to make errors like this costly in terms of bad publicity. Social media does help and might actually do some good.

    1. M Kilian says:

      I think you have the right of it. Even in Australia, there is a tax incentive to fix something after it has broken, but not to pay for maintenance to prevent or mitigate disrepair. Even with roads we can see this in that oftentimes the responsible government body would rather wait and fix potholes than to secure funding for resurfacing.

      It also doesn’t help that digitalization has become increasingly esoteric as each layer of programming away from binary reduces the analogue understanding of cause and effect. Granted that binary and assembly were still esoteric to the majority of people, but subroutines and background processes weren’t such a problem either.

      1. Tim says:

        As a young programmer in the 70s, we were all taught IBM assembler. Then we moved to high level languages and there were options to look at the object code to diagnose performance issues.

        Even 20 years ago you just threw more hardware at a problem like this.

        But in defence of this practice, I remember taking an age to work out a problem with a Fortran optimising compiler which had 7 cycles of optimisation (the problem was in the third). Maybe my time would have been better spent.

        Then came object oriented languages and open source software …. with levels of impenetrable abstraction.

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