A week

It’s been a very busy week – I seem to say that all the time, don’t I? Well, this was another busy week. But, as is typical of me, a personal tale. This relates to Tech Comm, just be patient.

Miles to go before I sleep

Because I live 100 miles from where I work, I stay in San Diego with my best friend’s family several nights a week. She lives 5 miles from the office and her family is great so this works well. I have a room above the garage with a futon, wedged into a corner, a basket for my dirty clothes, an alarm clock, a shower downstairs. It’s all good.

I come down Monday and go home Wednesday or Thursday nights, depending on how the week is going. This week, I needed to be in Chatsworth at an STC meeting on Thursday night, which is 100 miles from my house but the other direction from San Diego (I’m 100 miles from where I need to be all the time). I wanted to go home Wednesday night to see Current Husband, sleep in my bed, pet my animals, that stuff.

Mystery lights

Wednesday night, I went into the underground parking garage, got in my car, started driving out of the structure. A dash light came on, shaped like an engine block. “Oh, that’s probably not good.” I thought.

I pulled out of the garage and found a parking space on the street in downtown La Jolla. But I was dead in the water. I had no idea what the light meant – was the engine about to explode? Did she need a tune up soon? Did the computer hiccup? The engine seemed to running fine…

And there was no way to find out what it meant. I don’t carry the instruction manual in the car. Not because I’m lazy – I drive a Miata. It’s a 2 seater with a trunk the size of a glove box on the average SUV. I need every bit of space in that trunk to get what I need to San Diego for the week. If I were an inch longer in the body or the legs I  wouldn’t fit in the car with the rag top up. (She’s an adorable car that really goes Zoom Zoom…)

Truth tables

I had 100 miles of freeway in front of me before I was home. I needed to make a decision, based on the information I had, which wasn’t really information at all, in that it would let me make an informed decision. And this decision really mattered, because making the wrong decision potentially left me stranded on a dark isolated freeway in a little sports car. Potentially with a destroyed engine.

So I burst into tears.

And called AAA to arrange a tow truck to go to the dealer. I called the dealer to arrange for an out of hours drop off. I asked about a loaner, which I could get in the morning, they said. I called my best friend, asked for a pick up at the dealer in an hour and told her she had me for another night. Then I called my husband and cried some more.

In the end, everything got dropped off, picked up, and I got back to my friend’s house. In the morning, she took me back to the dealer for the loaner and I flew up the freeway to be home for 4 hours before I drove to Chatsworth for a fine and great evening with the San Fernando Valley STC chapter.

Helpless users are not happy users

The next day, the dealer called and told me it was my gas cap – the seal was gone and wasn’t providing proper back pressure to the fuel system, or perhaps it was the exhaust system. Nevertheless, it was safe to drive but I had no way to know that at the time. It was warranty work and the car would be ready Friday.

At the dealer Friday afternoon, the nice service man told me that in the future, if that light goes on again, I could drive her home. If the light starts flashing, that’s bad and I need to stop driving her right away.

And how would I know that?

Domains and schemas

I’m out of my domain – I’m not a car expert nor do I want to be a car expert. I shouldn’t have to be a car expert to use what is essentially a shrink-wrap technology. 

As a user, I see a light that indicates something is wrong. The light is not normally on and it looks bad because it’s shaped like an engine block. It’s a well designed icon, in that it clearly signals Scary Engine Thing – Pay Attention.

But I have no more information. The light doesn’t distinguish between something is not right and something is wrong. And that distinction is critical to me, the user. I need a little more information than that to know what I’m dealing with. The feeling of helplessness because I didn’t know what was wrong made me cry and that’s not what you want to do to your users.

It’s also not obvious the light could flash – in my experience, in my schema for cars, lights are digital, in that they have 2 states: On and Off. Now I know for my car, at least, there are 3 states, at least for this light. I’m afraid to extend that knowledge to other lights because I don’t know if it’s true for the other lights.

Support your users

Provide enough information to your users so they can make at least the critical decisions. Don’t make them sit on curbs in La Jolla and cry. It’s not nice.

And don’t tell me there’s no room in the interface. Find a way to make it work. These decisions matter to your users. We have an obligation to provide some information to support them in making the right decisions.

See? I told you this related to Tech Comm…


2 Responses to “A week”

  1. Kelly Burch Says:

    Excellent post, Sharon. Enjoyed the story and relating it to the business at hand.

  2. You are adorable.

    You had me at “Current husband.”

    You totally won me between “I burst into tears” and “Scary Engine Thing.”

    I had to talk My Better Half in from orbit when her own Check Engine Light went on. Fortunately, I was with her at the time, riding in the car.

    She still panicked, she loves her car. I was finally able to penetrate the thick forest of “buts” to convince her to keep driving and just call the dealer the next day. They told her what I told her. Unless the car chokes to a stop, keep moving. This is a 1996 Subaru, mind you.

    Guys think, if a light goes on, drive the bloody thing until the next oil change or until the vehicle explodes or stops moving, whichever comes first.

    Women think a bit differently, more along the lines of, “Oh My God!”

    Great post.

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