Mixed signals on the high-tech highway

Peter Seebach ([mailto:crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net?cc=&subject=Mixed signals on the high-tech highway] crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net) Freelance writer 02 Apr 2004

Abstract: Mixed signals have become a fixture on the user

landscape that most of you just ignore. Whether you're pressing Start to shut down a computer operating system or marveling at privacy-policy doublespeak, you've become so inured that you barely notice how exhausting and irritating it all is. Not so for the cranky user. This month's column reveals both the madness and the method behind the seemingly random insanity that most computer users are soaking in.

Sometimes you don't know whether to laugh or cry. I've spent countless hours poring over technical documentation whose sole purpose, it would seem, is to inform me that the next step is counterintuitive. I could dedicate years of my life to navigating the intricacies of online privacy policies that are designed to derail me. I've learned to press Start when I mean stop, Talk when the conversation's over, and opt out, opt out, opt out, when I know it is unlikely to make a difference.

It's like some grand April fools joke that's gone on a decade too long. You expect certain vendors to jump up and cry "Surprise!" just when you've finally learned how to use their product despite all its quirks. And the question is, as always, Why not just fix it?

In this month's Cranky User, I'll look at three prime culprits of the mixed signal: doublethink, non-comprehension, and terminology drift.

Press start to stop

Anyone who has ever used the Windows operating system (and who hasn't, at least once?) is aware of one of the most obvious examples of mixed signals, ever. The Windows Start menu is a clear imitation of the Macintosh apple menu, which, prior to OS X, served as the launch pad for commonly used applications and system references. Unfortunately, the decision to refer to this feature on Windows as the Start menu has resulted in instructions that, nine years later, must often be repeated: You want to shut down the machine? You'll have to launch the Start menu.

It's not just computers, of course. For many years I used a cordless phone with a button labeled Talk that you pressed to hang up. One of my friends still teases me about that phone, years later. But, to be fair, it was a stupid design. It did exactly the opposite of what you meant it to do. (Even if this was often what you wanted ...)

For a more subtle option, consider those beautiful, artistic glass doors where the handle is totally ambiguous as to whether you push or pull, or which side of the door will open when you finally do one or the other. The same principle is at work: The intended use of the object is the opposite of its visual signals.

In these examples, the signals are mixed but not impossible to understand. After all, even if my car exhorts me to "BRAKE" when it really wants me to stop using the parking brake, at least I've got a flashing red light to warn me that something is wrong.

We're sorry, we can only do what you want

Far worse than the mixed signal of a mislabeled button or badly designed door handle is that of the professional customer service representative. Once, I wanted to call my cell phone provider. I searched the company's Web page for about half an hour, but couldn't find a single phone number. What the company did offer was a contact form: you could fill out the form, and a customer service representative would call you back at their convenience. This made no sense at all. I found a feedback form, and sent the company a note pointing out how inconvenient it was. The response I got was fascinating:

I understand that you would like someone to phone you with a response to your comment. I will be happy to resolve your questions over the Internet. As we are an inbound call center and, more specifically, an Internet-based group, I am unable to honor your request for a call. I assure you we are dedicated to quick turnaround times with Internet requests. If you feel that your questions can only be resolved by speaking with a Customer Care Advocate, please call our toll free number, 1-800-XXX-XXXX. This line is answered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for your convenience.

Now ... this was in response to my complaint that I couldn't find a number to call. In short, my so-called customer care advocate was telling me that he or she understood that I wanted what I hated, but that all they could do was something totally different; which, of course, is what I actually wanted.

To this day, I have no idea what that person was thinking. Since then, the callback form has disappeared and everything works the way you would expect it to: you call in and get put on hold forever. But at least it's familiar.

Double opt-in with chocolate fudge

The final category of mixed signals is also the most insidious, because it is deliberate. Most Web site privacy policies show a marvelous command of the art of the intentionally mixed signal. The majority of privacy policies claim that Company X is committed to preserving your privacy. Within two paragraphs, however, the policy explains that the company is allowed to sell your personal information to others with no restrictions on further resale or use, and that it will accept opt-out requests only by paper mail with a note in writing from your mother and a signed statement from your primary care physician that being spammed would cause you physical injury. And, furthermore, if you opt out, the company may still spam you, but it won't help other people do it -- except as contractually obligated. (Meaning that it's okay if they sell your data, because the sale is a contract.)

I've been trading e-mail with one company for about six months now. Every time the company spams me, I reply that I'm no longer using its product, that I don't want to be on its list, and that I never gave the company permission to start spamming me in the first place. I even got a very friendly woman on the phone once, who explained that she would definitely look into this and find out how I got on the company's mailing list. Of course, I'm still getting the spam, months later. Luckily for me, recent versions of OS X can burn CDs from disk images, so I never have to deal with that company again.

And, speaking of opting out, has anyone ever successfully done it? I've noticed a popular pattern of marketers gradually inventing new catch phrases for their opt-in systems, then applying them loosely until they've eventually destroyed them. It was by this means that the phrase opt-in was co-opted to mean "we offered them a chance to say no, but they didn't take it." The practice of confirming subscriptions was then named double opt-in, in much the way that the practice of signing checks is considered double payment. Nowadays, you can buy lists described as double opt-in that contain what are almost certainly e-mail addresses, but some of them aren't even that.

My guess would be that, by 2007 or so, certain marketers will have upped the ante to quadruple opt-in, meaning "we have it, no one's taken it from us, you can't prove we stole it, and we haven't been sued yet," with the elusive quintuple opt-in reserved for the unusual case of "someone actually requested this mailing."

This example of mixed signals is particularly disturbing because all the "Yes, you want this e-mail" signals are coming from one side, while all the "No, I don't" signals are coming from the other.


The only positive thing to come out of mixed signals is that they can be funny. Trading comments about the Windows Start menu has surely brightened many an otherwise dull afternoon, and my former college roommate has probably gotten more than an hour's worth of laughter out of my old phone. So, the next time you find yourself caught up in a tangle of mixed signals and feeling like the joke's on you, write about the experience and share it with your friends. Turn the tables on the tricksters, make fun of them, and get everybody laughing. If enough people hoot and holler, maybe it'll get fixed after all.

This week's action item: Play some April Fools' pranks. Have fun!


About the author

Peter Seebach is a freelance writer who's participated in the e-business game for years and just wants everyone to play fair. If you have comments, feel free to contact him at [mailto:crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net] crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net.