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Judy, at the Front Line
Jun 25, 1998 :: Alexis Massie

I was driving from Philadelphia to Boston to spend Father's Day with my family. Having left immediately after work, I'd only just passed the Connecticut border when I noticed my eyesight blurring. There comes a point when driving tired is the same as driving drunk, so I pulled off the highway into a deserted restaurant parking lot to rest. "Just for a few minutes." I thought to myself.

I woke up at 6:45 the next morning. The parking lot was dotted with cars; the employees, having come to work, apparently chose not to closely examine the mysterious car with its secret sleeping inhabitant. For me, it was like waking up in a strange place without knowing how I got there. But I knew one thing, at least: I needed coffee. Thus, I came to be at The Loft, a small breakfast dive off Route 84, in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, just in time to meet Judy.

Judy was already having a bad day. You could tell in every fiber of her bustling body. She buzzed from table to table, frazzled and speaking much too fast for the hour of day. Her customers stared at her, bleary-eyed. I passed her as she took an order from an older couple at a table by the window, to go sit at the bar. I suppose I could have sat at a table -- there were plenty available -- but I caught a glimpse of a terminal behind the counter.

This one was a GUI, a glorified Macdonald's cash register. I noticed that it had a touch screen, and that the buttons were beveled. My nose wrinkled in disgust.

Judy didn't notice my disappointment. She was calling out to a man behind the bar, who wore a white shirt and carried himself like a manager. He was young. Younger than I was, I thought.

"I need your help," she was saying. "I'm getting everything mixed up."

"Sure," he replied, without enthusiasm. He poured me a cup of coffee. I sipped, and watched them interact with the terminal.

The young manager didn't seem to have trouble with it. The rows of poorly colored buttons, screen after screen full of them, each displaying a title of anti-aliased text, with small letters of a glaring yellow, didn't seem to phase him. He pushed a lot of buttons, moving from screen to screen - ping!ping! -- as a veteran. But there seemed to be an awful lot of screens involved for a cup of coffee.

Judy, on the other hand, approached the terminal with dread. She moved quickly enough, her little name tag bouncing on her chest, and started pushing buttons. However, those of us at the bar clearly heard her sighs. I noticed that she pushed the buttons more slowly, staring at each screen. The manager moved from customer to customer, delivering coffee and plates, without comment.

The customer sitting next to me put a twenty dollar bill on the counter. When Judy had finished inputting another customers' order, she turned and saw it. "All set?" she chirped. Her eyes were tired.

"Yep," he gruffly replied. Trucker, I thought. The flannel gives it away.

Five minutes later, she called the manager over. "It ate the order," she explained.

"What?"

"It ate the order. I don't know."

The manager spent some time trying to find the order, screen after screen, pushing buttons and accessing lists. In the mirror, I could see the puzzled expression on his face. "Yep. Looks like it ate the order. You can put it in again. I'll take care of it later." He left, to refresh some coffee.

Judy watched him leave. Next to me, the trucker sighed. We exchanged amused glances. With hesitation, Judy turned to the trucker. "I'm so sorry. What did you get again?"

I could imagine the sales meeting. In my years doing interface design for The Industry, I've been to my share of them.

"You can keep a record of anything you want!" The sales guy might have said. "At the end of each day, it will generate a customizable report with the simple push of a button! Got a special order? No problem! We can make a button for that! Your cook wont have to worry about reading the waitresses' scrawl, and that valuable time can be spent making sure the order comes out the way your customer wants it! Not only that, but by utilizing the latest cutting edge technology, we can enhance the system to meet your future needs with a simple upgrade. Part of a chain? Keep a networked centralized database of all transactions! Auditing will be a breeze!" And so on.

Programmers most likely spent a few months creating the software, and management was trained in administrating it. They probably spent very little time instructing the waitresses, who probably resisted the change from the start. Besides, it's a screen with buttons. How hard could it be?

Judy knew we were watching her. She kept glancing up at the mirror behind her. Luckily, the trucker was patient and I was empathetic. She turned, somewhere in the third screen, to glance at me over her shoulder. "My life was so much easier before this thing." She said, not knowing what I do for a living. "I don't understand why I can't just write it down."

"No kidding," the trucker agreed. The trucking industry uses similar tools to keep track of their fleets.

My peers and I have long conversations about what is good and bad design. We argue, sometimes for days at a time, over what the user is or is not most likely to respond to. What is unfortunate is that, most of the time, there is no design at all. Technology firms, such as the one who created The Loft's Restaurant Management System, more often lack a professional design staff than have one and undervalue the resources that they do have, because what sells a software program is not ease in which it is operated, but the business reports it generates. And no one seems to mind -- except maybe the users.

The cash register finally chimed open. Judy left to help more customers, who were filing into the restaurant with more frequency. My coffee finished, I stretched a bit and left. But not without paying my bill, with an enormous tip.

-- Alex Massie is an irregular contributor to theobvious.com, which she did not design. She also did not design quiet foxes, nor soulflare, though she wishes she had. She does, however, make her living designing coporate sites as well as noncommercial sites such as afterdinner.com, regarding.com, and themonster.net. She spends as much of her remaining hours as she can in a fogged up car, swearing she didn't know the kid was fifteen.

 

 

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