The Pebble and the Avalanche

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Current Revolutions in Business and Technology

by Dr. Moshe Yudkowsky,

author of The Pebble and The Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions


Tue, 2010-Jan-12, 06:24

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Toyota's and Western Union's User Interfaces

I had to wire money on behalf of a friend the other day, which gave me the opportunity to try Toyota Motor Credit Corporation's user interfaces as well as that of Western Union. For Toyota, the less said the better; about half the time their telephone system refused to accept calls at all and instead served up an announcement about technical difficulties. When I did get through, they were unable to clearly explain how to send money via Western Union's online service.

Western Union was more interesting. I tried to send money in person, but my debit card would not work at my local currency exchange — I can only theorize why, since I've never tried to use it before. The paper-based, in-person version of sending money seemed to be straightforward enough and cost $13.

I next tried to send money via the online version of Western Union. This was a bit more confusing because Western Union's web site uses different names for the same service in different places on the web site. In the end, I managed to find the correct method to send money — and even so the web site claimed, in the end, that I needed to check the Toyota account number. The price of the service was $44, which ordinarily would make no sense (since when is Internet-based service more expensive than human service?) but probably reflects the increased risk of fraud over the Internet.

Finally, I tried Western Union's telephone service in the hopes that I'd be able to straighten things out with human intervention. The automated telephone service makes every user interface mistake in the book: the system asks me to confirm credit card numbers instead of automating the check of the number's validity (which the web site does with ease). The system uses very poor speech recognition — after using it, I can finally understand why some people tell me they hate speech recognition. When a human came on the phone to complete the transaction, he cheerfully accepted the same account number that the online service had rejected. The cost of the service was $49, the most expensive of all; again, I attribute this to a premium based on fraud experience.

The entire experience left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Western Union, of course, cannot be held responsible for Toyota's inability to explain how to use Western Union, but I have to wonder if Toyota should be held responsible for Western Union's inability to figure out Toyota's account numbers. These disaggregated services should work together; otherwise they're rather useless.

Mon, 2009-Dec-07, 10:02

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Pop Quiz in the Grocery Store

I've just read a nice quote from Craig Herbert, the CEO of Supervalu, a conglomeration of grocery store chains. In an interview in the Wall Street Journal, he said something I absolutely agree with:

"Look at three-for-$5 deals. Even if you're good at math, you have to stop and think for at least a few minutes and say, 'Oh, wait a minute, how much is that per?' We don't want you to have to bring a calculator to our stores."
I've said the same thing many times myself: "A phone call is no time for a pop quiz." You can see some of my comments on proper user interface design in this video of my latest talk at SpeechTek in New York.