Tue, 22 Apr 2008

Now that I have your attention…

Here's a frustrating anecdote demonstrating a simple principle of user interface design.

For the past 3 days, my LG CU400 cell phone has been relentlessly trying to get my attention. But why?

The first time I heard the tone, I picked up the phone and saw nothing of interest on the display. There was no message indicator. The signal strength was acceptable. I had no voice mail, new text messages, missed calls—nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

Initially, I thought there must be some kind of signal interference and perhaps it was toning when re-acquiring a signal. Later in the day, I was mountain biking on Beacon Hill passing directly under cell phone towers and in line of site of nearly every cell phone tower for 50 miles. Yet, the tone persisted periodically.

I use my cell phone for its alarm clock feature, but the mystery tone woke me in the night and I had to silence it in order to sleep.

Monday (day 2), I made a note whenever I heard the tone. I wasn't near the phone all the time, and was in noisy areas periodically where I wouldn't have heard it, anyway. The three times I noted indicated a pattern, though: 11:37 am, 5:37 pm, and 11:37 pm. Monday night, I powered the phone off.

Today (Tuesday, day 3), I powered the phone on and heard the tone very soon afterwards. And again in 5 minutes. The phone toned every 5 minutes 3 times, then every 15 minutes twice, then every 30 minutes twice.

Then silence for just over an hour. At 1 hour 2 minutes, the cycle started over.

I had checked my alarm settings. I checked the memory—plenty used (I've got several photos and even a few videos saved), but still plenty free.

Finally a new clue. I sent a text message, which I do infrequently, but more often now that I've started using Twitter. The phone prompted: Send without saving?

Ah-ha! It must be unable to save text messages.

There were 196 messages in my Sent folder. That's probably every message I've sent in the 13 months I've owned the phone. I deleted all those messages and immediately received 3 new text messages that had been queued up. They were Twitter messages with time-stamps over the past 3 days.

So, I assume what happened was that each time a new message arrived, or when the phone was powered off and on, the out of text message memory tone started it's alert cycle. And even though the phone indicated I had plenty of memory available, that memory obviously wasn't available for text messages.

The morale of this story: It isn't enough to tell the user there is a problem. You must tell the user what the problem is!

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This site is the personal weblog of Marc Mims. You can contact Marc by sending e-mail to:
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