Geek Speak and Holiday Headaches

Holidays are generally a time for high blood-pressure, so it's always nice when technology steps in to smooth frustrations and make things easier. Unfortunately, time with family – or indeed away from them – can also introduce its own electronic headaches. Many of us make the annual pilgrimage to the family home with a bag full of cables, gadgets and thumb-drives loaded with anti-malware software, along with the apprehension that we'll be the unpaid Geek Squad while we're there. Some things, though, should be simple: talking to distant family via Skype, for instance. Unfortunately, as I discovered myself this Christmas, that wasn't to be the case.[Image credit: Julian B]

I'm away from my family this holiday, and it seemed an excellent time to take advantage of Skype for a video call or two on Christmas day. The tech world may have raced ahead, but carriers and roaming phone calls still lag behind, and using my cellphone to ring could easily rack up a bill greater than I was spending on gifts. Trying to install Skype onto a regular Windows laptop, though, proved to be an irritant greater than forgetting to defrost the turkey.

My parents aren't stupid, or even particularly tech-naive. They've managed to install routers and printers – something, along with scanners, almost guaranteed to get my blood boiling – by themselves before now, and they know how to run regular anti-virus and malware scans and keep their PCs in shapely condition.

Installing Skype, then, ought to have been an easy matter: we should've been video chatting within minutes. In actual fact, though, the convoluted online registration process – page after page of setting up a new account, uncertainty over what personal information was mandatory and what wasn't (and being thrown back to the beginning when something was inadvertently left out, with no obvious indicator of why), then installing the app and being forced to put in that account information again, peppered with Skype's attempts to encourage them to buy SkypeOut credit – stretched out what should've been a quick "make a connection" moment into a homework-like chore for my family and a remote frustration for me on the other end of the phone.

[aquote]We overlook elements of bad UI because we understand what the designers "meant" to say[/aquote]

We take for granted that some elements of the technology world come more easily to us than others. We overlook elements of bad UI or confusing installer decisions, perhaps don't even "see" them, because we generally understand what the designers "meant" to say. Those who aren't immersed within this world suffer for that blasé attitude, are made to feel stupid or inept.

Technology can be wonderful: when all the pieces had finally slotted together, I quietly marveled at how my Galaxy Nexus could give me a clear view into my family's living room several thousand miles away. I used Skype over WiFi on my phone to make several voice calls, too, at rates a fraction of what O2 would've charged me to roam onto T-Mobile USA's network. But to have that video call with my family on Christmas Day, I had to create a new Skype account for them on my phone and read the login details out: the new account Skype had made for them simply wouldn't let them log in.

Skype could have won some devoted customers over the holidays. Imagine an undemanding webpage – holiday themed, perhaps – promoting the simplicity and convenience of video calling, created in HTML5 maybe or using the same quick plugin as Skype made for Facebook's video chat integration. A couple of clicks, a temporary username, and you're talking with and waving to loved ones many miles away. At the end of the call, you'd have the option to convert that temporary account into a permanent one, perhaps receive a little tester SkypeOut credit with the prompt to "call a landline this Christmas." Nothing overwhelming when people are stuffed full of festive food and simply want to connect. Show them how it works, demonstrate why they should want it, rather than making them jump through dozens of hoops first.

(In actual fact, the company ran a "free airport WiFi" promotion across the US. I used it myself in Detroit; there was no promotional material in the airport or when you connected to the network pointing out you could have an hour of free access, you had to guess to log in via Skype WiFi in the app itself rather than putting your Skype username into the Boingo roaming page, and, even when you'd done all that, it was still unclear whether you were going to be charged. Every ten minutes a warning dialog popped up asking if I wanted to extend my session, cautioning it would probably cost me each time (it didn't). Even as a frequent hotspot user I was confused, and it would hardly have made a good impression with a novice.)

The barrier to geek nirvana is still too high. Previously it was a matter of price: a computer, or a smartphone, was expensive. Those who could afford them inevitably spent the time understanding their intricacies, to "make the most" of the functionality on offer. As prices have diminished, though, the headaches and confusions have persisted. The barrier is a more pervasive now, too, and the wonderful promises phones, tablets, computers and other tech make are all too often locked behind poor communication, unnecessary gimmicks and an over-emphasis on something looking good rather than being straightforward to use. I find myself wondering how many people will end their holidays satisfied and enthused about the gadgets they received, and how many will be disillusioned.

Companies and analysts haven't tired of telling us how 2011 has been a difficult year for those trying to sell hardware, software and services to an increasingly cost-conscious public. Turning every user into an evangelist is worth a hundred expensive advertising campaigns; 2012 could be the year when simplicity and usability catch up with feature promises and geek hyperbole.