The end of civilization as we knew it

Authors: Aaron Marcus
Posted: Fri, April 19, 2013 - 10:17:34

Is it just me? I don’t think so. I do not think that I am being singled out by sinister forces whose objective is to end usability, usefulness, and enjoyment of user experiences as I knew them and hoped would continue. However, I am becoming increasingly worried about the future of civilization. Consider these cautionary tales.


In August 2011, I purchased a new Apple MacBook Pro from a local Apple Store. I was warned about jumping two levels in the operating systems to OS 10.7. Apple operating system versions are given charming (?) animal names by Apple but I refuse to learn them because they are impossible to remember in terms of sequence. Is a Leopard before a Lion? I suppose alphabetically it is. I decided: If I have to suffer OS migration terror, I might as well do it just once. In retrospect, I feel I made the wrong decision. The experience was disastrous, and I was crippled to about 50 percent productivity for a period of about four months, from September 2011 through January 2012.

Among other things, the Apple store provided a machine with a track-pad that was dysfunctional. I had to replace the computer. A second computer was delivered, but I discovered it had the incorrect operating system installed. I had to return that computer, but I had made the mistake of tossing away the box in which the computer came. The Apple store would not accept my computer without an Apple box. How many boxes are we customers supposed to store? One for every piece of electronic equipment? I had to purchase a second (actually third) computer, so I could cannibalize the box, return the other computer, and get my money back, hoping that my third Apple MacBook Pro would work perfectly. No such luck, but I am stuck with it. I was so dissatisfied with that Apple store’s representatives that I transferred my registration to another Apple store with the hope that its crew might be better. It was, marginally. Among other Apple MacBook Pro annoyances:

Apple’s own clock/calendar widget has a bug in it that states the wrong date! Today, 11 April 2013, my Apple-provided clock/calendar says 5 April. I have tried numerous times without success to correct/clear/reset this function. I took my computer back to the Apple store, and several “geniuses” attempted to reload the operating system and to perform “magic,” but nothing worked. To this date, the error persists. 

At the time, Apple’s own Mail program, which I considered inferior to Eudora (Eudora was no longer supported and it would not work on the newest OS), had bugs in it, including the fact that if I selected text and wished to change the color to black to make it more legible against a white background, Mail changed the color to white, and the text disappeared! I have noticed in the last week that this bug somehow disappeared over the past months, perhaps with updates of the OS. Nevertheless, it seems to me startling that such a bug should have been there in the first place with a long-standing application.

Apple’s own Address Book application, burdened by its dysfunctional skeuomorphic appearance, which locks in place its layout and size, was a disaster for me. I was never able to find an easy route to port my contacts from Eudora to Mail, except by paying about $1000 to a systems professional (admittedly for that as well as other corrective measures) to pull off the text of all contacts, including many detailed notes, and cleverly recode them so that many, but not all, wound up in the Address Book. However, I have had to individually adjust the contents and layout of each one over time in order to make them functional for me. Another astonishing “design decision” on Apple’s part was to have the search bar constantly interrogate the entire Address Book as I typed characters of the name or company I was seeking. The typing speed slowed to such a glacial pace that I have had to resort to Apple’s Spotlight widget for searching through my Address Book. It works, sort of, but is this the way “insanely great” products are supposed to work?

One other annoying “feature” is that Apple seems intent on forcing all users to treat their desktop/portable computers as if they were iPads, in preparation for the Next Big Thing. I found these gestures inconsistent, unfamiliar, erratic in their behavior, and ill suited to my hand positions on a keyboard (with my two thumbs ready to do movement/navigation with my right thumb and selection with my left). Apple’s previous two-part trackpad was much more usable and useful for this purpose than the single surface of the current computer. I turned all these gestures off, except for two-finger scrolling and enlargement/reduction in size with two fingers. Also, I turned on scroll bars, a control that Apple had hidden away, and discovered they were reduced in size, making them awkwardly smaller targets, without any ability to change their size.

What was most unsettling is this: Apple’s software came full of bugs and dysfunctional enhancements, in addition to forcing significant discontinuation of previously useful applications. I wondered about Steve Jobs, his achievements, his legacy, and Apple’s future. His mastery seemed to be in marketing hype and pretty objects, not in actual software usability. Granted, Apple made changes in user-interface design that were better than Microsoft’s, but my experiences during this period of time has led me to think that anyone who thinks Apple’s products are insanely great seems likely to be greatly insane.


Another, similar, set of user experiences occurred with Comcast. After about seven years using DirecTV to view/record satellite television, I decided for cost reasons to switch to Comcast and to combine cable television reception with telephone service and faster Internet than AT+T could provide at the time. I must admit, I was used to the DirectTV program guide, which had improved significantly over the years and was quite legible, readable, usable, useful, and appealing.

Again, as with Apple, the migration was painful. Neither of the television companies, DirecTV or Comcast, provides an easy way to retain/transfer saved movies, even with migration of their own products. Most of my saved programs were lost in the change-over process (I found a slow, tedious workaround to save some of them via VHS copies and then make DVD copies of those VHS copies).

The installation process was painful. I later learned when things were set up and running that the initial Comcast installer had removed or used my own on-roof TV antenna set of cables, which rendered that antenna useless for my other off-air digital TVs and FM radios not connected to Comcast. I had to install quaint rabbit-ear antennas on the other television sets.

The electronic program guide (EPG) was horrible. I was amazed at its poor quality in comparison to DirecTV and wondered at the millions of customers who suffered through it. Did they know about the, well, almost beautiful, version that DirecTV provided?

What astonished me recently was the installation of one new set-top box on the main television screen, the Xfinity X1, which replaced an earlier set-top box. The Comcast installer said that both units he had on his truck were dysfunctional and not booting up properly! He left and said someone else would come a day or two later to attempt a second installation. This second installer eventually replaced my equipment. The installer quickly assured me that everything was working and departed. It seemed in proper order, but, really, how was I to know about all the new functions that this box enabled?

To my pleasant surprise, its EPG was much more useful than the old system. Comcast had finally, after many years, improved its EPG, even though it was still not quite as well designed as DirecTVs. Selecting Favorites and preparing a list of preferred stations was still a hidden, frustrating process, involving many steps. When I called one Comcast representative, that person did not even know how to set up Favorites, yet it seems one of the most likely activities of a new customer: to select the 100 really desired stations from the 800+ that are available. Comcast does not make this process easy.

However, the worst was yet to come. Weeks later, I attempted to retrieve and view a favorite television show. When I tried, the screen froze into a gray default Xfinity screen, and eventually an error message box appeared suggesting I call Comcast Customer Service. I did. That person could not solve the problem and said Comcast would call to either solve the problem or send yet another installer to replace the box for the fourth time. No one called. After two days, I called Comcast. The customer-service technician spoke strangely slowly, could not seem to communicate well, could not solve the problem remotely, and dropped the call when she attempted to transfer me to a supervisor. I had to call again, make my way through the phone-messaging system (I was at last getting quite adept at the numerous steps), and spoke to a third technician. He could not solve the problem and transferred me to a supervisor. After sending some “strong signals,” as he called them, and my rebooting the device for perhaps the fourth time, the system had restored this functionality. Hooray! Then, as I was trying to thank him and comment on Comcast’s poor technician behavior and phone system, his call dropped also! Fortunately, he had given me his direct number, and I called back to thank him.

Although this functional problem of Comcast’s was restored, it had cost me significant time (perhaps one to two hours), numerous calls to a vendor, and exposure to what seems to be unstable or faulty equipment and poorly trained technicians being provided by a major company in the U.S market. Is this a trend?

Entries for the journal of inevitable disaster

Well, taken individually, each of these events can be attributed to random fluctuations in Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, eventually will. Mind you, those of us fortunate to have such challenges live in a world surrounded by vast arrays of equipment and networks connecting them. To be fair: Most things work most of the time. If that were not true, we would be living truly in Hell on Earth, as some unfortunate people do in some countries.

What gives me pause is the seeming increase in the number of things that don’t work at all, that don’t work well, and that weren’t designed well in the first place. This, despite the progress we seem to have made, judging from the dazzling array of appealing, colorful new products/services.

Were these products mentioned above shipped out too soon? Did people forget to do quality control and quality assurance? Have businesses learned so little from 40 years of user-interface design and user-experience design professionals that products and services are produced that reach major segments of the U.S. and world markets and still have strange, unsightly, unjustifiable, intolerable bugs?

Are things getting worse? Are we in a gradual decline because we are just losing our grip on producing complex systems that can be maintained and serviced by technicians who have increasingly poor educations, poor communication skills, and poor manners? I fear for my children’s and grandchildren’s lives.

When corporations say naively that they intend to do only good and no evil, are they just being naive or ingenuous? Or are they in their own sophisticated way, just part of the problem?

Let us consider further ... while there is time...

Posted in: on Fri, April 19, 2013 - 10:17:34

Aaron Marcus

Aaron Marcus is principal at Aaron Marcus and Associates (AM+A) in Berkeley, California.
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@ 5633953 (2013 04 24)

But Aaron, you paid a lot of money for your MacBook Pro, doesn’t that make you feel better about the experience?

@[email protected] (2013 07 02)

I’ve been pondering many of these issues lately, through a glass, darkly.

I think we’re going through a “complexity inflection point” where our individual brains, optimized for simpler times, are no longer able to deal with the many problems we face (and not incidentally, created). In response, we’ve come up with systems that allow our minds to meld, to collectively come up with solutions using filters and rankings and whatnot.

But doesn’t that “solution” just add more complexity? A downward spiral into chaos?

Not necessarily. Out of, or on top of, complex systems emerge novel behaviors and patterns. Ants and anthills. Flocking birds. Traffic jams. Wikipedia.

My hope is that we’re on the cusp of a phase transition from a world where our machines have become too complex to effectively service to one one where the machines can service themselves. Yes, I’m invoking AI. Or more accurately:  AGI, Artificial Generalized Intelligence.

That’s one outcome of many, I fully realize. But it’s the one we need.

-Tristan Naramore