Telephone Rings

posted Mar 02, 2004

We have a new telephone system coming in here at work. It is uniformly an improvement over the old system, at least on a technical level. It did, however, require purchasing new phones to go with the new system.

I want to shoot whoever designed them.

Or at least make him sit in this room with us for a week or two.

He (and I highly doubt it's a "she") seems to be under the impression that the job of a phone ring is to force you to pay attention to the phone. The phone has not done its job until you pick it up. So it is loud and shrill, and based on the how successful the sound is at being both of those things, I'm quite confident in declaring these characteristics were definately concious design decisions.

This is incorrect. The purpose of a phone's ring is to notify me that the phone is ringing. It is my decision what to do with that data. If I choose to ignore the ringing, the phone should not penalize me with acoustic psychic pain. Just now as I write, I looked and the phone doesn't even have a "Do Not Disturb" button that would force the call into voice mail (or at least shut the ringer off!), so with this phone even after I choose to ignore a call (perhaps it's for someone else on the same line), the only way to get the damn thing to shut up is to pick up the call and immediately hang up, which is generally considered anti-social in a non-businesslike way. The ring should be mellow, or at least have a mellow option, and volume controllable. If there's a volume control on the ringer, nobody here has yet found it. (Slightly later update: OK, we found it, and there are three options: "Off", "Really Loud", and "Really Really Loud". In other words, there are no useful options, so we're settling for "Really Loud", which is about 20dB too loud in my opinion.)

I see this problem a lot when people get too specialized. For the phone designer(s), the phone was the center of their world for some significant period of time. Therefore, they design it as if it is going to be the center of your world too. Of course, even if you work in a call center, it isn't really the phone that is the center of your world, so much as the communication it engenders. So the phone, rather then being a helpful tool, is something that we are now engaged in almost all-out war with. I for one have been seriously pondering how to modify the ring... without or without help from the phone designers. (I've been wondering about the effect of just wiring a resistor in series with the speaker, but I don't know enough electronics to know if that would work.) And while I'm not working calls, there are people in this room who are, and they are no more amused by the phone then I am. If it annoys casual users like me, and it annoys the "pros", then who is this phone serving?

Marketers get this too. Many of them honestly come to believe that we actually care about or like advertising, rather then seeing it as an evil, with debatable levels of necessity. People in large companies honestly come to believe that the world revolves around them; put them in an echo chamber with marketers and that is the source of some of the stupider marketing campaigns we've seen. (I think one of the important parts of effective marketing is remembering that the world does not already revolve around you, even if it kind of does; your job is not to "take advantage of how the world revolves around us" but to "make the world revolve a little bit more around us for some customers". I think the Microsoft ads reflect this understanding; their world largely does revolve around them, but their ads are still focused on increasing market share in a hostile market, rather then playing on their current position.)

Big government can get this way, too; you often see it in the design of the forms they use, which is full of jargon that only the given department cares about, and they expect you to bend to them. (To their credit, I believe the IRS actually does as well as they can with their source material; you can only make discussion of the Farm Service Credit Act of 1924 so clear without obscuring critical facts. Most government doesn't have to be worried about nearly every citizen using their forms.)

Anyhow, the ringing phones in the background drag me back to my main topic. The phone is a tool, a means to an end, not an end itself. If you are designing a phone, please, remember that it is not a sin to ignore the phone, and make sure there are nicer, mellower rings and volume settings (and I don't mean a choice between "Loud", "Louder", and "REALLY F'IN LOUD", I mean between "Inaudible" up to "Really Loud"). (This is especially important as at least for me, phone rings start to tap into the same part of the brain that can pick your name out of nearly incomprehensible static; you don't need loud phones because your brain will learn to pick it up even if it's relatively quiet!)

Neither you nor your product are the center of my world... or at least you wouldn't be if you weren't annoying the hell out of me.

(I suppose if that's the legacy you want...)

 

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