WQTS 14

A little more than a year ago, in discussing the failings of our car radio, I said “And there is a chance that JVC’s more recent units radios [sic] were designed and built following more rigorous design and testing processes.

Excuse me while I laugh hysterically.

Yes, I really did get a new car radio. Only a year and a half after sayingDespite its limitations, I have no plans to replace the radio with something newer and more capable.” (Insert that famous quote about foolish consistencies here.)

I got fed up with the lack of Bluetooth. Getting sound out of my phone onto the car speakers so I could listen to ballgames on the way home from work required plugging in multiple cables and random bits of gadgetry. And every time I tried to simplify the process by leaving everything hooked up, the Mariners would take an East Coast road trip, meaning games were over by the time I got in the car. Not to mention, it looked messy.

And, more to the point, it was starting to fail. The sound would cut out randomly, requiring a reboot. Or the display would stop displaying, also requiring a reboot. Or it would refuse to change channels, requiring (you guessed it) a reboot.

So the Circuit City relic–yes, the old radio really did come from the late lamented CC–now resides in a bucket in the garage, and its spot in the dashboard has been taken over by a newcomer.

The new one isn’t a JVC product. It’s a Kenwood. Except that the full name of the company that made it is JVCKenwood*. Which I hadn’t realized when I bought it. Not that knowing would have stopped me. Despite the old one’s limitations, I really did like it.

* Apparently there’s no slash or other separator between the C and the K, much to my surprise.

We haven’t had a power failure since it was installed, so I can’t address whether it, like its predecessor, has issues remembering user settings. But even the few weeks I’ve had it makes it obvious that JVCK’s design review process hasn’t changed for the better.

Let’s start with something that might not be obvious. The English version of the Quick Start Guide is 37 pages long. That’s one heck of a slow quick start. Still, it could be worse. The full manual (only available via PDF download) is 120 pages. Whoever wrote the Quick Start managed to trim more than three-quarters of the text.

But, still. If it takes almost forty pages to introduce someone to the basic features of a product, you have to face the fact that you haven’t done much to build in discoverability.

That aside, the new box is a significant upgrade. No more 11 character LCD with scrolling titles. Instead, it’s got a large screen (okay, not maybe not in absolute terms, but certainly by comparison. “Almost the entire front of the unit” easily qualifies as “large” as far as I’m concerned). And it uses proportional fonts, so more characters can fit in a given amount of space. In typical English language song titles, this seems to work out to about 20 characters. It also uses a smaller font for artists and album titles, so they can squeeze in around 25 characters. That’s an improvement.

Except that they don’t scroll. So Kate’s favorite truncated song title becomes “Papa’s Got a Brand “. Are we talking cattle ranching or personal promotion?

I lied. Actually, they do scroll. If you tap a small on-screen control* (yes, it is a touchscreen), the title/artist/album will scroll. Once. Better pull over if you want to (a) find the button to tap and (b) read the scrolling information without (c) causing an accident.

* This is a theme, actually. There are lots and lots of onscreen buttons. Most of them are small, and those that aren’t are tiny. Clearly nobody involved in designing this radio considered how to use it while driving. Or, if the assumption was that it would only be used in vehicles with on-the-steering wheel controls, said controls should be included with the radio.

Who thought one-and-done was a good idea? And I checked very carefully: there is no setting for autoscrolling, or even “keep scrolling once tapped”.

The old radio had a dial to change the volume. A nice dial that stuck up from the front of the box, easy to see out of your peripheral vision, so you could reach over and turn the sound up or down without taking your eyes off the traffic. The new one? Two tiny buttons at the lower corner of the radio. After several weeks, I still haven’t developed enough muscle memory to change the volume without looking. I wait until I get stuck at a red light.

There are other buttons. I have no idea what they do, because they’re equally tiny, and I don’t really want to experiment while driving. No, let me amend that. Once of them–helpfully labeled “ATT”–mutes the radio, presumably so you can quiet it enough to hear the traffic cop who’s chewing you out for swerving across three lanes of traffic while you hunted for the volume buttons. (Checking the Quick Start Guide, I see that “ATT” is right next to the “HOME” button–which also doubles as the power button. Nice.

Moving on.

One feature I hadn’t considered when buying the radio, but greatly enjoy is the ability to plug in a thumb drive full of music files. And, hey, I’ve got a thumb drive already loaded with my entire music library, almost 50,000 tracks, nicely sorted into folders by artist and album. Feel like some ZZ-Top, Brave Combo, Danny Coots, or…? Got you covered. As long as you want to listen to a specific track or album. Because there’s no way to play* all tracks in a folder full of folders**.

* Not quite true. If you start playing a track in folder/subfolder1, it will play through to the end of subfolder1, then go on to subfolder2. But you can’t shuffle all of folder’s tracks; hit the shuffle button (another tiny on-screen icon), and the radio will shuffle the current subfolder, then move on to the next subfolder and shuffle that.

** Also not quite true. If there’s a playable track in folder, it’ll go from that to subfolder1, then subfolder2, and so on. It’ll even shuffle the entire set of tracks in the subfolders (as long as you hit the shuffle button before the first track ends). But why would you have a random song in each artist’s top-level folder?

Shuffle is a particularly vexing issue for me. I like the ability to be surprised with something I haven’t heard for a while. So if I’m not sure what I want to listen to, I’ll often tell my playback device to shuffle everything. Guess what you can’t do with this radio.

Actually, you can shuffle everything. Go into the search function and hit play without making a selection. Hey, it works! For a little while. Then you realize you’re hearing the same artists over and over. Turns out that search–and therefor the search-based shuffle–can only load 1,000 tracks at a time. Oops.

Come on! Even my iPod Classic (pre-upgrade) could shuffle more than tracks than that.

Apparently, nobody considered the actual use cases for thumb drives larger than, say, 32GB. Even though someone did check off the boxes in the requirements document that said “support exFAT” and “drives up to 512GB”.

There are minor annoyances, too, pointing to inadequate testing and/or limited post-release support (the firmware for the radio has apparently been updated a grand total of twice since the initial release in 2020). For example, Android Auto can’t connect to the radio unless the phone is unlocked, even though I’ve selected the option to connect without unlocking. Swiping controls left/right works nicely unless you move your finger too slowly, in which case the radio sees a tap instead of a swipe. Android Auto always starts in the Map app (though, to be fair, this may be Google’s fault, not JVCK’s). And so on.

All my complaints notwithstanding, I do consider this radio a major upgrade from the old one. I love having the big screen that shows (most of) the title, artist, and album information at the same time instead of making me switch among them. Album art onscreen is nice, especially while listening to SiriusXM channels.

And the Bluetooth works nicely. It connects automatically and rarely skips or stutters. Baseball in the car, without unsightly wires and gadgets draped over the dashboard. Heaven!

WQTS 13

Once a product hits the thrift store, it’s much too late to make corrections to the packaging. But perhaps this can serve as a cautionary lesson.

“Ntelligemt Hulahgop”?

I understand the need to find a unique name for your company and product, but some approaches to the problem are just wrong. That includes all of the approaches used here.

How exactly does one pronounce “ntelligemt”? I’m guessing the “n” is pronounced “in”. That’s fairly standard. But is that a hard or soft “g”? “gehmt” doesn’t exactly fall trippingly off the tongue, but “jehmt” isn’t an improvement. The soft “g” might work if it weren’t for the “m”, but we’re stuck with that.

Then there’s “hulahgop”. I’m sure whoever came up with the name wanted something to suggest “hula hoop” without actually violating Wham-O’s trademark. And, yeah, okay, a “G” looks like an “O”. But we’ve got a pronunciation problem here too. It’s not the “G” so much as the “H” that precedes it. “huhgahp”? “huhjahp”? Maybe we can say the “H” is silent; “hulagahp” almost works, and “hulajahp” is even better–as long as one ignores the ease with which it could be mispronounced as a well-known derogatory slang term.

Matters don’t get any better once we move past those names.

Who thought it was a good idea to break up the word “beautiful”. I don’t know about you, but I can only assume that Beau Tiful was Beau Brummel’s lesser-known brother.

And why the missing spaces in the tagline? “exercisemakes peoplemore beautiful” Is it supposed to convey a message? Other than “Nobody associated with the product has ever bothered to learn English”. That’s the message I get.

And it’s one that’s reinforced by “free adjustments”. I suspect they meant “freely adjustable”, but the way it’s phrased, it suggests I’ll need to take it to a shop to have the belt tightened or loosened to fit my waist–but at least the shop won’t charge me for the service.

Finally, there’s that block of text at the upper left. In case you can’t read it in the picture, what it says is:

Shock-absorbing

Massage contact 360

Surround massage

Wait, what? This is a massager? I thought it was exercise equipment.

But I guess it makes sense. Doesn’t everyone like a vigorous stomach massage while jumping up and down? I know that would help me lose weight: five minutes and I’ll be getting rid of everything I’ve eaten for the past week.

WQTS 12

Hard to believe it’s been more than four years since the last WQTS* post. Granted, last year probably shouldn’t count. It’s not like any of us have had opportunities to encounter the results of egregiously bad testing recently. But still.

* For those of you who’ve started reading since June of 2017, or whose memories don’t extend that far back, the acronym expands to Who QAd This Shit. It’s where I mock products that were improperly tested, insufficiently tested, or–a closely related discipline–never granted a design review.

We took the car in for service yesterday–the Toyota, not The Bug. Aside from the semi-annual maintenance, it also needed a new battery. Generally, when it comes to matters automotive, we rely on experts for diagnosis, but it didn’t take much expertise for us to figure that a battery that had been in service for seven years and occasionally failed to hold enough charge overnight to start the car was about due for retirement.

Guess what happens to the radio when the battery is replaced. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

If you guess that it reverts to its default settings, you’re right. Partially.

For the record, the radio in question is the KD-HDR30, made by JVC. To be fair, it is, like the car, more than a decade old; nobody’s going to be buying one today. And there is a chance that JVC’s more recent units radios were designed and built following more rigorous design and testing processes.

The radio itself reverts to the defaults. The add-on modules that give it additional capabilities don’t. So the SiriusXM module remembered our station presets, but the radio switched to its built-in FM tuner.

That’s actually a reasonable default. It doesn’t make sense for the radio to assume the presence of optional hardware. What’s less sensical–and points to inadequate testing and/or design review–is that the FM station presets were gone.

Who thought it was a good idea to withhold capabilities from the base unit that were given to an optional component–the satellite radio plug-in? Clearly, somebody who didn’t think the radio could lose all power after installation.

Wait, it gets worse. The base radio component apparently has no ability to remember anything. Every single setting reverted to the defaults. So the FM tuner was at the top of the dial and the volume was at the exact middle of the range, two ticks higher than we had left it. Annoying, but one has to set the default values somewhere, and those choices have some logic behind them.

Less logical, when we switched inputs to SiriusXM, we discovered that the radio’s default display was the time remaining in the current song. Not the title (our preference) the artist, or even the channel. The time remaining. Who chose that? Realistically, nobody did. Nobody defined the default behavior, so a developer chose the first item in the list of options. Presumably, it was the same developer who put the list of options in their current order. And most likely, that order came straight out of a list of capabilities someone gave him.

If some QA person questioned the behavior, the business owner or project manager decided there wasn’t time to fix it: “If we change the order of the list, every feature that refers to the list will need to be changed; that means reworking and retesting every menu selection. And if we start setting exceptions for the defaults, instead of always choosing the first possibility, we’ll have to decide what those exceptions are, recode the initialization sequence, and retest. For something that only happens once, when the radio is installed.” Because, of course, we all know the radio is connected to a battery, so it can’t lose power.

The really egregious design issue, however–and the one that convinces me that there were no design reviews and possibly no QA–is that by default, the radio goes into a store demo mode. That means the display cycles endlessly through a list of the radio’s features. Why would anyone want to see the list after they’ve purchased the radio?

Turning the demo mode off requires the user to find a menu semi-hidden behind a long press on a button that normally does other things, locate demo mode in that menu, turn it off, and save the setting before the menu times out and returns the radio to its normal display.

Why is this the default? Granted, any unit could be used as a store display. I’ll even grant that a store display unit is more likely to lose power than one installed in an actual customer’s car. But making every unit default to store mode suggests that either the radio is the victim of poor design practices and less-than-adequate QA, or that JVC prioritizes stores’ convenience over customers’.

WQTS 10

WQTS is ten posts old! To commemorate this milestone–one post per finger (for most of us)–I’ve got an unusually large selection of items for us to shake our heads in despair over.

13-1
Looks like a fairly standard calendar page, doesn’t it? Take a closer look at the middle of the month. Maybe I’m an old fogy, not up on the latest* in matters calendrical, but I still prefer my dates to follow the pattern “18, 19, 20”.

* OK, almost the latest; this is actually a calendar from 2015.

It’s easy to see how this happened, though I would have expected dates to be computer-generated, rather than hand-keyed. But how did nobody notice before the company printed and shipped thousands of these? I’m guessing that a “boundary” test went awry: somebody confirmed that the first was a Wednesday, the thirty-first was a Friday, and assumed that meant all of the dates in between had to be correct. In short, an incorrect choice of tests.

13-2
No, I’m not talking about “remodelation” or the lack of capitalization. This is one where QA was lacking in the development of the specifications. Another pair of eyes might have caught the omission of any indication of what name to look for on Facebook. I checked: it’s not the name of the restaurant.

13-3
“Code hoping”? Ouch! This is from the packaging for a device that’s supposed to let you start your car remotely if you were too cheap to buy the manufacturer’s remote-start option. Let’s hope that the QA folks who tested the security features that ensure nobody can start your car without the fob are not the same ones who reviewed the package copy.

Oh, who am I trying to kid? Chances are neither the package nor the code were QAed. After all, that’s what advertising writers and software developers are for, right?

13-4
Ignore the fact that it’s a pretzel covered in some chocolate-like substance (bleah!). Ignore the fact that nobody at Olivier’s Candies Ltd. can spell “chocolatey,” since my dictionary swears this is an accepted variant* and more importantly, what they meant was “chocolate-” (yes, with a hyphen). But didn’t anybody realize that since these are inanimate objects, they cannot be patriots? Please, people, use your adjectives! “Patriotic Chocolate-Covered Pretzel” Oh, and you might want to add an “s” at the end, since I can clearly see there are at least six per package.

* At least they didn’t spell it “chocolatty”.

Again, a case where there clearly wasn’t any QA done at all. Guys, “copywriter” and “copy editor” are NOT synonyms!

13-5
One more case where a copy editor should have been engaged. Not just for “bakering,” though there is that. But “eaten out of hand” does not mean what the sign-maker thought. Clearly, she* thought it meant to eat something you’re holding. But “out of hand” is actually an idiomatic** expression meaning “out of control” or “immediately, without thinking.”

* Pronoun chosen by coin flip.

** An expression that doesn’t mean what a literal interpretation of the individual words would suggest.

I’ve cropped the picture, so you can’t see the apples, but they’re sitting very peacefully in the bin, hence, not out of control. They also look ripe, but not overripe, so eating them immediately doesn’t seem warranted. Perhaps the intention was to suggest that they should be eaten thoughtlessly. But thoughtless eating is generally the province of less nutritious fare–Patriot Chocolaty Covered Pretzels, perhaps.

Well, whatever. Just remember: No matter what happens,
13-6

WQTS 9.1

My apologies if this spoils your plans for the week. Despite what I said Thursday, there is a post today. I found this little error too amusing to not share, but didn’t want to sit on it until after my vacation.

31-1Many newspapers’ sports sections, including the Chron’s, include a listing of player moves–trades, promotions, suspensions, and so on–tucked away in the back. These are not exactly a fount of stunning revelations. The only people who look at the Transactions report are obsessed geeks, and we usually know all the details before they make it into the paper.

Just imagine my surprise, then, when I found this blockbuster news hidden away in Transactions (Thursday, 5/26/2016 for anyone who wants to confirm that I haven’t doctored the image.)

Apparently the Seattle Seahawks have changed sports, moving from football to baseball.

I can’t decide which is more surprising: that this happened mid-season, or that the ‘Hawks will be playing in the American League, going head-to-head with the Mariners!

I presume there will be a follow-up item in Friday’s paper listing the roster moves necessary to get the 53-man active roster down to MLB’s 40-man limit.

It should be a very interesting experiment in roster construction. Football teams, by and large, don’t have more than a handful of players capable of throwing the ball accurately enough to pitch. That’s going to make for a very skimpy bullpen.

Receivers and kick returners ought to be able to make the transition to the outfield, but stocking the infield may be a challenge. On the other hand, finding players with the traditional catcher’s build shouldn’t be any trouble at all–and while there may be an elevated number of wild pitches (see note above regarding pitchers), I don’t think there will be a whole lot of passed balls. And those new catchers are going to love MLB’s anti-concussion rules.

And talk about offense! Nearly every player on the roster is going to make David Ortiz look undersized. When they make contact and get their bodies into it, well, let’s just say that I expect this team to hit record numbers of 450-foot home runs.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this move, though, is the question of how to lay out a diamond in CenturyLink Field. Looking at the current seating chart suggests that the longest dimension is 420 feet. That’s fine for dead center field, but the fences in left and right are going to be a hell of a lot closer to the plate–maybe 255 feet down the lines. Given the likely quality of the pitching, that’s never going to work. Heck, that wouldn’t work even if the rotation included Felix Hernandez, Madison Bumgarner, and Clayton Kershaw. Some seats are going to have to get ripped out, and that’s going to hurt revenue.

Still, as I said, an interesting experiment. Stay tuned for updates!

WQTS 09

A baseball-related Who QAed This Shit? It’s as American as an apple-and-hotdog pie*!

* Bleah! Kids, don’t try this at home.

Allow me to start by filling in the background for those of you who can’t recall the last time you watched a televised baseball game.

Typically, when a relief pitcher comes into the game, the broadcaster will overlay an box on the screen to provide viewers with some background on the pitcher. This is what’s so delightfully referred to as a “value add” because it immeasurably enriches your viewing experience.

But I digress.

Every network has its own version of the overlay with a layout designed to showcase the information they believe their viewers desperately crave. Here, for instance, is what you get on Comcast SportsNet California, broadcast home of the Oakland Athletics:
24-1

Pretty straightforward. Name, number, team (in case you’ve forgotten which game you’re watching, I suppose), a handful of basic statistics about his performance so far this year*, and, down at the bottom, a single yellow bullet point.

* Occasionally, especially at the beginning of the season, you’ll get last year’s stats or career numbers.

And it all works well–until it doesn’t, as happened last week in a game between the As and the Yankees:
24-2

That’s an interesting bullet point, isn’t it?

Apparently the UI for creating the overlay prefills the data entry field with a helpful reminder. In haste to get the overlay on viewers’ screens, the stats person didn’t supply a bullet point. Oops.

Now, I’m not suggesting that our unfortunate stats person is responsible for a QA failure. That’s not his or her job.

No, the failure is on some anonymous QA engineer at whatever video software house CSNCA hired to create the overlay code. Either nobody ever tested this scenario, or the bug was prioritized too low.

In all seriousness, however, it’s the software design that’s at fault. The overlay software must* do one of two things:

  • Prevent the user from pressing the “Display to 29,000 Viewers**” button if the default text is still in the field.
  • Treat the default text in the same way it handles an empty field.

* I’m using the word in the specification sense. “May” is optional, “must” is not.

** Yes, the As’ TV ratings suck. (That number comes from an article in Forbes last year.)

QA for the Yankees’ YES network, by the way, does the job right:
24-3

WQTS 08

Three food-related QA failures today.

Last weekend, Maggie and I went to “Pints for Paws,” a benefit for Berkeley Humane. Naturally, this being the Bay Area, there were protesters. Mercy for Animals had a question for everyone who attended:
11 - 01They have a point. I immediately saw the error of my ways. I assured the young man who gave me the brochure that I would make changes in my diet as soon as I could find a supermarket that carried canine cutlets and feline fillets. Oddly, he didn’t seem pleased with the evidence that their campaign was working.

In software development, ambiguous specifications are a major cause of bugs. The same is true in any other field. Murphy’s Law tells us that if something can be misinterpreted, it will be. If you’re trying to make an important point, have an independent observer review your copy before you blow your budget on printing.

While I’m on the subject, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on organizations that are actively working against your cause instead of a group that’s has similar goals, but doesn’t go exactly where you are? I’ve never seen a pro-vegan protestor outside a barbeque restaurant, even in Berkeley…

For what it’s worth, we also went to the Bay Area Book Festival. Oddly, there weren’t any protesters there. Shouldn’t someone have been alerting attendees to the fact that the publishing industry kills trees–but not flowers–to print books, and urge them to go 100% e-book?


A few weeks ago, I saw this display at the grocery store:
11 - 02Yes, that’s a penny that I added to the basket to provide a sense of scale. Those are the smallest, orangest grapefruit I’ve ever seen.

And no, the sign isn’t for the shelf below. It’s hard to tell in this cropped, resized photo, but those yellow things are lemons.

It’s the little things that matter, folks. Developers test their code* before it goes to QA. You can do the same thing in any industry. Take a few seconds to ask yourself if you’ve completed all of the steps before you mark a task as done.

* Well, in an ideal world, anyway.


And then there’s this:
11 - 03I’m sorry, but this is just wrong. I freely admit that I don’t really get the whole “sweet + salt” craze. Sure, I’ll occasionally nibble a chocolate-covered salted caramel* or pretzel, but I don’t obsess about it. And, while I don’t have a problem with anyone who has gone full-on for sweet/salt foods, I will object strenuously to this abomination.

* No, Maggie, I haven’t been snitching yours, despite the temptation.

Let me make it easy: bacon is not a universal food, nor does it make everything better.

Back to the software industry: projects are reviewed many times to ensure that the software can be built as defined and that the design meets the needs of the customer. Same again in the rest of the world. Get someone outside of Marketing to take a look at the plan. And remember that “It won’t kill anyone” is not a sufficient standard of excellence.

It wouldn’t have taken a culinary QA expert to tell them this was a bad idea. Anyone with two functioning taste buds could have said “these flavors just don’t go together.” But I suppose cynical exploitation of a pair of trends trumped common sense.

WQTS 07

Advertising, as I understand it, is the art of making people aware of a product and convincing them they must have it. Sounds simple–especially the first part–but apparently not.

This advertiser is having trouble with the first part.
wqts71
With a what?

My first thought was that it’s with a boat, but I’m not totally sold on that idea. All of the boats are showing wakes. If Google can use barges for mobile “interaction centers,” why shouldn’t these people use shipping containers for mobile farewells to the dearly departed? Especially convenient if you’re going to spread the ashes at sea. OK, maybe not.

They’re obviously shipping something–“all kinds of goods”–to Eritrea. Maybe it’s “with a course”? I don’t know. I’d assume the ship’s navigator would know where he was going. Probably not worth advertising. Or, since it mentions “conveniently secured,” perhaps it’s “with a lock”. That might work. But if that’s the major selling point, you really ought to be more specific.

Then there’s this advertiser, who’s having trouble with the second part of the process.
wqts72
It’s clear they’re pushing cat litter deodorizer, an easily-understood product with a clear market. And yet they completely fail to convince me that I need to buy it.

I’m the first to admit that I sometimes snuggle the cats, which means I wind up getting a nose full of their scent. And yeah, some of them can be stinky at times*. But I don’t go shoving my nose into their “area“. It’s even questionable whether cats have an area in that sense. Millions of people my age grew up with that euphemism, and will make the same association. Suggesting that we want to sniff our cats that way isn’t likely to encourage us to buy the product. And, let’s face it, the cats–who routinely shove their noses into each other’s areas–don’t want to smell deodorizer. They want to smell the cat they’re sniffing.

* Not Ms. Kokoro, of course, who has the sweetest smelling fur of any cat I’ve ever met.

In short, advertisers need to consider all the connotations of the words they use.

Moving on.

Advertising encourages a certain amount of vagueness. In the case of some products–think perfume–it’s not just encouraged, it’s apparently a requirement.

Other fields aren’t as easygoing. I wouldn’t trust a navigator who told me to head “thataway”. Other professions require precision. Baseball, for example. Pitchers need precise control to get strikes. Lawyers spend their lives arguing over the exact meaning of words and phrases.

And there’s medicine. Would you trust a doctor who doesn’t know who you are?
wqts73
I had to fill out this form recently. I won’t ding whoever created the form too much over the redundancy in asking about drinking liquids (there aren’t a whole lot of solids one can drink or liquids one can eat–though apparently Jello is considered a liquid. But I digress.) I’ll also let the oddity of asking about my PCP at the end of the form slide (shouldn’t that be at the top along with my insurance information?)

It’s that middle question that stumped me for a while. I finally wrote “Second Base.”

WQTS 06

This post is a little bit later than usual, thanks to Mother Nature.

It’s raining here in the Bay Area. Despite the way our three-year drought has been monopolizing the media’s attention, the mere fact of rain isn’t really newsworthy. This is, however, a major storm*. We’ve had a couple of days of warnings and–all joking aside, perfectly justified–sandbag distributions.

* By local standards, naturally. Those of you in hurricane and monsoon zones may snicker derisively. I also grant permission for those of you in snow zones to laugh hysterically.

And, Pacific Gas & Electric workers have been making the rounds, trimming branches that might bring down power lines, and preparing as best they can to handle the inevitable outages.

Before I start discussing the failures here–and they go beyond QA–I want to be totally clear that I’m not dissing PG&E’s field employees. They do a vitally-necessary job that carries a high level of risk even in the best circumstances. Kudos to them.

But.

At 7:59, I got home from driving Maggie to BART. This had nothing to do with the weather; I drive her most Thursdays; that it means I’m not trapped at home if the storm knocks out the power is purely a bonus feature. I pulled out my phone and started to send her an e-mail assuring her that I had made it home in one piece. At 8:02, while I was still writing, the power went out.

I was a little surprised it had stayed on as long as it had. I finished the e-mail, sent it off, and made the rounds of the house, shutting off computers (yes, we do have multiple UPSes; doesn’t everyone?) At 8:10, I called PG&E’s automated outage line. This is a voice-recognition system. None of that old-fashioned business of punching numbers on the phone.

The first thing the system does is ask if you’re calling to report a dangerous situation, such as a downed line. I said “no,” and the computer played a pre-recorded message extolling the virtues of using the Web to report outages. Finally it asked “Are you reporting an outage?” I assured the friendly silicon that was exactly what I wished to do. It matched my phone number to billing records, asked me to confirm my address–it was correct–and then informed me that there was not a known outage in my area.

That was the first sign of trouble. I’ve never been the first person to report an outage, even when I’ve called immediately after the lights went out. By the ten minute mark, there’s no way I’m the first. So, Failure Number One: either the design of the system is faulty, in that it does not inform users when there’s a problem retrieving outage data, or there was a QA failure, and the error detection routines were inadequately tested.

But, OK, fine. I assured the computer that my power was out and I wanted to file an outage report. “OK,” said my electronic buddy, “is this a complete outage or a partial outage?”

“Complete,” I replied.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that. Please say either ‘complete outage’ or ‘partial outage’.” Failure Number Two, and I put this one squarely on the design team. Why should I have to say “outage”? The important–and distinctive–information is the first word.

“Complete outage,” I said, willing to go along with the joke.

“Please hold,” PG&E’s electronic idiot said. A moment later, I heard a new voice.

“Hello, this is [name withheld to protect the innocent] in Sacramento. Do you want to get the status of an outage?” Failures Three and Four. Design flaw: I was not informed that I was being transferred to a human operator. Design or QA flaw: Said human operator was not alerted that the system had failed while taking an outage report.

NWTPtI was very polite and helpful. The first piece of information she asked for was my address. Failure Five–the automated system had correctly identified me; my account information should have been transferred along with my call. Again, this could be either a design or QA failure.

“There are three hundred forty six people affected by an outage in your area. There is no estimated time for the return of power yet, but a worker has been dispatched,” NWTPtI informed me, and then asked if I would like to be notified when an estimate was available and again when power was restored, and offered me a choice between text message or automated phone call.

I chose the latter, gave her a few more pieces of standard information*, and we concluded the call.

* Including the closest cross street. Shouldn’t that come from a geographical database as soon as she entered my address? I could call this another design failure, but why pile on? After all, it could have been some kind of perverse validation that I wasn’t pranking PG&E.

At 8:47, the power came back on. At 9:59–more than an hour later–I got an automated call from PG&E informing me that my power had been restored at 8:50. I’ll give ’em a pass on the time discrepancy; three minutes is within reasonable rounding error. Hell, I won’t even ding them for the delay in calling. It would be unreasonable to expect them to have enough lines to contact thousands of customers in real time.

But there’s still Failure Number Six: I’m still waiting for the call with the estimated time to make the repair. This one I’m throwing at QA. Either a policy change was made and nobody caught the resulting error in NWTPtI’s script, or software QA missed at least one condition under which a call wouldn’t be made.

The bottom line is that the power is on. That’s far more important than letting me know how long it’s going to take–I’d rather sit in illuminated ignorance than enlightened darkness–but really, PG&E, much as I respect your field workers, I’ve lost quite a bit of respect for your back office personnel.

WQTS 05

Halloween is coming (and there will be a full-sized Halloween post tomorrow), but I thought it would be a good idea to remind you all how not to observe the occasion.

  • w5-2Your kids are going to want to collect “hella candy”. Or maybe “hello candy”*. Either way, this collection bag isn’t going to do it for them. Considering how much of the lettering has flaked off already, by next Friday, it’ll probably be down to “hell and,” leaving the kids to supply the damnation.* That sounds like either a disturbing porn movie about hospital volunteers, or an attempt to subvert Sanrio’s intellectual property.
  • w5-1No matter what they collect their loot in, you can bet that they will not want to find any of these “Despicable Me Fruit Flavored Snacks” in with the candy. What do despicable me fruits taste like, anyway? Judging from the picture on the box, much like a faded, hairy Twinkie. Bleah! (Full disclosure: I’ve never seen “Despicable Me,” so my apologies if the movie discusses the flavor of the fruit it’s named after.)