Sussing Out The Menu

Ah, the cascading logic of menus....

Writing for simplicity is very complex. One starts with very low expectations and as the journey begins, the path moves lower and deeper into the swamp of the inability of others. People sit in rooms for days and argue qualitatively on their assumptions of how others will think and react to cues and clues from going from A to B. No one has emprical data because that takes time, is hard to interpret and is so much more boring than personal opinion. When faced with decisions, consensus is usually brought about by sheer force than elegence for all. The instinct is to rely on briefer instructions; but placing brevity before clarity is a rookie mistake as the brutal truth shows there is no magic two-word description, while ignoring translations and dictionaires, to solve a vague and complex task. One has to move the user to the solution, not hope through a rare blast of common sense the user navigates without incident or issue. However, people are an odd lifeform and believe that if we talk about it long enough, a solution will appear amongst the hyperbole and vagueries which appeases all. Sigh.

One company, quietly sitting in the middle of Kansas City, has made a living exactly in this arena. They call themselves experts in "UX" (user experience) but they are nothing of the sort. They come into companies, take copious notes, attend every meeting and bill outrageous number of hours at even more outrageous hourly rates. As self-proclaimed UX experts, they imply that they can enhance and improve customer facing processes even where no processes exist. "We are a one-stop shop," said Account Executive Nick Sweedon. "We create stability where instability exists....all we need is a signed Statement of Work and a few months of your time."

Five years ago, Billy Chen and his college roommate, Avi Nagel, were sitting in their palatial dorm room wondering about the future. In spite of both their concentrated efforts, it appeared both of them were going to graduate, with honors, from an outstanding university. Neither of them had the stomach for graduate school yet but sitting there, rudderless, it became apparent that until a new plan was established, the brutal reality of the outside world was heading towards them at a troubling cadence. They stayed in the dormitory for all four years and throught seniority and persistence, had occupied an extremely large corner of the old residence hall. They had time to assemble their best toys and other than the boring distraction of school, had the time of their collective lives. However, all good things appeared to be coming to an end so it was time to create an alternative plan which allowed them total freedom, minimal responsibility, an opportnity to learn something interesting and the ability to work with smart people. However, on this pleasant Saturday, they were stuck.

"I don't want to have anything to do with food," said Billy. "I don't want to prepare food, I hate spoiled food and I really hate the thought of cleaning up solid food. Gross."

"Got it," said Avi. "I will add that to the list. NO food"

Satisfied, Billy continued on a litany of things that did not appeal to him: no inventory, nothing with different sizes, nothing that was heavy, nothing that had a shelf life (with a direct but redundant reference to spoiled food), no real life (the idea of a dog or child dying due to his stupidity physically pained him) and similar variables either physical effort or unique sizing and fitments. After several hours, Avi sighed and waved at the now-full whiteboard.

"There is nothing you like, nothing you will lift, nothing you will eat or nothing you will wear."

"When you put it like that....I seem a bit useless," said Billy.

"A bit? Well, at least you are consistent in a very narrow manner."

"Well, that was cold."

"If you are stating that our new business venture, which will keep us from having to grow up and join the world of maturity and clock-watching, is within this list somewhere...I will keep writing."

Billy nodded as he saw a convenient way out of the current situation. Billy's brain rarely kicked in unless it was a survival moment. He would passively goof off when general discussions were happening but only showed true genius when the pressure was on and he had the responsibility to deliver. This was one of those moments and Billy smiled and said, "We will make nothing but take whatever crap they have and make it less crappy."

Avi said, "The motto is not what I had in mind but keep going...and we need to talk about primogeniture when we figure out what we got."

"Absolutely," said Billy as he smiled. He loved big words and in a moment he would know what that meant.

The two went around and around on ideas with lists of external pressures from geo-political uprisings, cellphone usage, miles per gallon estimates, the fragmentation of television viewing patterns, changing dietary trends and dozens of other activities to try to find a common brownian type of motion to predict something that currently eluded mankind. They both were convinced that by studying the circumstances which are creating work environments, they could determine the next big thing that was not related to spoiled food.

The next morning, Billy woke up and looked out over the quiet campus. He loved this life; Sunday would be an easy day consisting of nursing his moderate hangover, reading a few chapters for an interesting Humanities class, playing some basketball, taking a steam and if he hurried, a quick nap before having a dinner on a tray. Avi was still sleeping in his room when the idea hit him. He smiled and stretched and walked over to the littered whiteboard and wiped in clean with one of Avi's t-shirts. In the middle of the board, he wrote "Lewis and Clark."

"Wake up, I got the answer. First off, do you know anyone who is trusting and likes to wear a tie?"

"Nick Sweedon is a good guy and I have seen him in a tie."

"Perfect," said Billy. "This idea might just work."

"Care to share?"

"Yes," said Billy. "The problem is that we have been talking about making things or making hateful things better. And that is too much work. What I propose it making something that is adequate already slightly better but making it seem like a big deal. This results in my objectives: no one dying, no food, no work and lot of money."

"I hate to distrust you," said Avi, "But could you please provide a tangible example; something that makes me sit up and no care that you temporarily but totally ruined my last clean t-shirt."

"That seems fair," said Billy. "You sit back and let me tell you a story. A story in which we create a problem and solve it in a manner that everyone loves us and pays us lots of money."

In a sign of good faith, Avi adjusted his pillow and said, "Lay this on me."

For the next hour, Billy rolled out his idea of dumbing down user menus, limiting user discretion, simplifying help screens and creating an interactive world in which everyone is considered an idiot.

"While I like your spirit, Jakob Nielsen has been doing this for years."

"While I like your recall abilities, there are two problems with Jakob Nielsen's approach: he thinks people are not stupid and you actually have to read his thoughts."

"True, that would be the approach I would suggest."

"The problem and opportunity is this: people are stupid and/or lazy..and some are both."

"We will need a name. A cool name."

"Well, we will need to work 'UX' into it and somebody has to talk to the customers, answer phones, hustle business or whatever it takes to give the illusion of maturity."

"I completely agree. How much work do you estimate cleaning up menus and workflows will take?"

"A few hours at the most per company."

"How much should we charge them?"

"As much as possible; people have to feel good about hiring the company. We will fix the problem but they would feel stupid if we came in and fixed everything in an hour. We want them to feel good about spending all that money."

Within one week, the duo slapped up a website and filled the meta tags with all kind of user experience vernacular and waited for a phone call. They had met briefly with Nick Sweedon and was assured that he would be more than happy to be the point of contact as long as he was an equal partner. Splitting the company into three pieces with the remaining one percent going to the ASPCA, UX1 was born. Now, it would just be a matter of sussing out a few menus and they would be set.

When relieving someone's anguish, it is always recommended not to add an opinion if the task is difficult or easy; that is not the point. The point is to make the bad issue disappear for the customer. They are already happy and a snarky remark after the fact will not enhance the experience for the person forking over the money. From the first job in which they begged a college senior secretary to clean up her desktop for only a positive recommendation to the one hundred thousand dollar invoice for cleaning up the sign-on mishmash jungle of a multi-billion corporation, the UX1 team worked professionally and silently in their assigned tasks. If a raised eyebrow was sensed by the already-offended IT help desk or if chortle was heard by the individual footing the bill, this venture would have died a quiet and deserved death. "Act like your listening," said Avi, "and whatever you do, make it look cool. Nothing else matters."

Some of the gigs were as easy as locking down administrative rights; not allowing anyone to configure or manipulate anything but some jobs were emotional rollercoasters as they had to deal with a variety of fiefoms governed by long tenured employees who felt it was their inalienable right to reshape anything into a tool purely for their own amusement. Avi took a special likely to deconstructing these feisty secret hamlets of ego-fueled ignorance by turning off data feeds, stopping all non-authorized batch jobs, unplugging all rogue servers and then locking down all administrative rights. If they could not encourage mature behavior through negotiation, they would starve it out into the bright light of commpliance. There were reasons that people were allowed to follow any technical whim they desired but those days were over: sooner than later, people would have to read manuals, play by the rules and document their jobs. These were challenging times for UX1 because they had to become the bad guys so after a few profitable but exhausting battles regarding legacy employees, UX1 made a point of avoiding these fights by bidding their services at such rediculously high rates that they missed out of some business but when they did get the job, the extra income justified an expedited air battle to break the will of the stubborn employees so while the battles happened, the fights became very short when one knew what plug to pull and when.

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