Voicemail at UNM

Perhaps the worst indictment any user interface has ever faced
(Also available in binary and ASCII.)

The System is the Problem

Answering Machines

Telephone answering machines have a simple interface: you push play and it plays all your messages one after another, and then stops. Then you push on and it forgets all the messages you just heard and gets ready to record new ones. If there is something that you want to hear again, like a phone number you didn't catch, you hold rew for a second right after the snippet in question. When you have pending messages you know, because there's a blinking light and the machine picks up after three rings instead of five.

Perfectly serviceable answering machines cost less than $20 in volume, are easy to replace, support indefinite archives (by pulling out the tape), don't run out of memory when you go on vacation for a month, never discard unheard messages to make room for new ones, usually fail gracefully, and are basically a wonderful electromechanical replacement for the traditional English butler.

Voicemail Hell

It's nice that voicemail can offer additional features. It is unfortunate that in offering additional features, they forgot to maintain the functionality and simple interface that suffices 99% of the time.

Instead, there is a laborious menu followed by a hellish smattering of key codes for disposing of each individual message: ``Press 4 to save this message. Press 5 to erase this message. Press 9 to erase the current message and play the next message. Press 2 to replay the current message. Press 3 to go to the previous message without erasing the current message. Press 7 to erase the current message and return to the previous message. Press the pound key at any time to hear this menu again. While a message is playing, you may press 1 to ... Press 8 to undelete the last message deleted ...'' (Oops, scratch that one, undo is never ever provided.)

Voicemail systems provide no mechanism for quickly rewinding two seconds to hear a phone number again. Nor do they provide a way to save a message forever, analogous to taking the tape out of the machine and saving it for use later in court. Voicemail is, as far as I have been able to calculate, always more expensive than just buying everyone an inexpensive answering machine.

``You'll eat borscht ... and you'll like it!''

Voicemail is a non-distributed unreliable centralized complicated expensive disaster. But it has a technological imperative, so they stuck it to me anyway.

The Punch Line

I was informed I'd be expected to attend a one-hour Voicemail Training Session. When I made it clear that the probability of my doing that was not well approximated by any positive number, I was sent a form to sign.

A form that may well be the worst indictment any user interface has ever faced!

Barak Pearlmutter <barak@pearlmutter.net>