Gaming the system

Catching up on my NetVibes page, I clicked my way to Language Log, and Mark Liberman’s soliloquoy, When Bad Interaction Happens to Good People.

It’s well worth reading, but here’s the gist: Liberman’s university installed FacilityFocus, a computer system through which students, faculty, and others could report maintenance problems (leaky faucets, broken windows, that sort of thing). Liberman describes the system as “highly buzzword-compliant,” so you know where this is going. As he says,

…We’re asking everyone to enter their (non-emergency) work requests via the web interface to FacilityFocus. And that web interface is a wonderful example of what can go wrong when a designer fails to heed Geoff [Pullum]’s advice…

“…Put yourself in the place of a person who did not work with the developers of the operating system, someone who sees your dialog box without the benefit of any prior experience with the way you conceptualize things, and … ask yourself whether they would understand what to do”.

Far more easily said than done, especially here on earth. So much so that Liberman created a kind of job aid for the system: The Legend of FacilityFocus. From the introduction:

  • Penn has contracted with an outside supplier, Maximus, to provide a Penn-specific version of the FacilityFocus software. This provides wonderful new functions for automation and integration and tracking — but from the point of view of a College House resident trying to get a light-switch fixed or a sink unclogged, the Maximus web interface is not exactly user-friendly.
  • In fact, you can win only if you know which screens to visit in which order, which fields to fill out and which to ignore, which secret codes to use, and so on. If you’ve ever played a game like The Legend of Zelda, you know the general concept. And if you haven’t — well, good luck, you’re about to find out!

Yep, it’s a gamer-style cheat sheet, both funny and well-done. Imagine you’re trying to get the a/c or lighting for your office fixed, then go read it. I’ll wait.

I’d like to point out, from a performance-support standpoint, that Liberman’s first section keeps the focus where it belongs: how to report a problem In five steps and 42 words, he tells you how to send in your maintenance request.

  1. Go to the Penn Portal and click on FacilityFocus Maintenance Request.
  2. Click on Customer Request.
  3. Click on Insert (without entering anything in the text boxes).
  4. Fill out the “Customer Request Insert Form“, using the correct code for Building and Location.
  5. Click Save.

He avoids nice-to-know stuff, uses simple language, and includes important guidance in steps 3 and 4.

The Legend itself is a crash course in interface design:

  • Sorry, I can’t provide you with this link directly — it can only be activated from the Penn Portal page.
  • You might get the Maximum FacilityFocus screen. And then again, you might not — if your browser is blocking pop-up windows.
  • You might think that since you want to request work, you should click “Work Request”…[Instead,] click on “Customer Request”. That’s because you’re a Customer, and you want to insert a Work Request.

The screen that appeals when you click Customer Request has 23 text boxes.

Liberman: “You may be tempted to fill out some of the 23 temptingly-empty text boxes…BUT DON’T!….Yes, I know that it says “Search Criteria Required!” at the top of the screen, in red letters, with an exclamation point. But that’s just to fool you into thinking that search criteria are required….”

Those who managed to get past this obstacle encounter the Customer Request Insert screen (and isn’t that a name designed by a programmer whose cubicle lacks good lighting?):

See the “reference no.” field, top left? You might think that since this is a text field, you ought to fill it in.

Silly you.

DON’T fill out the topmost leftmost box, “Reference No“. That number will be assigned by somebody else, later in the process. At this point, there’s nothing that you can put here that will do anything except confuse people, so leave it blank. You might as well get used to the fact that in FacilityFocus, as in life, there’s a certain amount of stuff that you just don’t know.

Some days, these posts just write themselves.