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Comparators and metaphors

Friday, October 14th, 2016

I’m constantly amazed at the use of some quite random objects as comparators typically when describing size and scale. You know the sort of thing, “it’s the equivalent of two ‘Olympic’ size swimming pools”, or “it’s the length of 10 double decker buses parked end to end”. I’m not entirely sure that these references are at all helpful, as how many of us could visualise and compare something to the size of a swimming pool, let alone an ‘Olympic’ size swimming pool which is traditionally longer, and their scarcity probably means less people have actually seen one! We rarely see a double-decker bus in our area anymore, but if we did then it would apparently take 470 of them to fill the deck of the new aircraft carrier that’s being built for the Roya Navy! I get the point of contextualising what is being described but the comparator should make it easier to visualise and understand and not worse.

A similar thing happens with metaphors (i.e. a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else). Carol Kirkwood (BBC Breakfast Weather presenter) prefaces any Met Office weather warning when using the red, green, and amber traffic light metaphor as a proxy for the severity of the weather, but then completely devalues the benefit afforded by the use of this metaphor by having to describe that the ‘Amber’ warning is one step up from the ‘Green’ warning, yet not a severe as the ‘Red’ warning.

The more information we have the less information we have…

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Driving on the M1 Southbound I came across an electronic overhead sign that read:





The intention of this sign was to inform motorway users that it would take15 minutes to reach the M6 motorway should they travel the 17 miles by going via the M69 which connects both routes.

By being able to travel this 17 mile journey in 15 minutes assumes that your speed must be averaging just over 60 mph (i.e. approximately a mile per minute). Ordinarily this would have been very useful information, but at that particular time the overhead gantry speed signs were flashing ’40′ MPH, and the actual speed, due to SWOT (sheer weight of traffic) and congestion at a major confluence of two motorways, was less that 10 mph. It made me reflect on the incongruence of these signs, and question what was the point of an ‘informational’ device that is clearly giving incorrect information? What I really needed to know was the ETA under the road conditions that prevailed at that time and surely the sign should be dynamic and take its inputs from what is actually happening on the motorway in order that it gives accurate and helpful information?

Having recently acquired a BlackBerry the immediacy and ‘always on’ nature of information, when you have constant access to it as opposed to the natural time delay until the next time you fire-up your laptop, has heightened my awareness to the inappropriateness of some of the information we receive. Three examples:

Amazon sending me special offers to purchase Dan Browns new book ‘The Symbol’ when I had already pre ordered it from them several weeks earlier and was expecting it to be shipped automatically when available. So although Amazon can tell me what books ‘others who also bought this book’ have purchased they can’t recognise what I have already purchased. Or Pink Elephant Business Parking at Heathrow Airport sending special offers for parking but not recognising that my car was already in their safe keeping at Heathrow T5 Business Parking having been pre-booked several weeks earlier and their number plate recognition system had automatically matched my arrival at the car park to the pre-arranged booking.

But the most annoying incident was when trying to buy foreign currency from Travelex on-line using my Netbook computer. I got to the part of the transaction that uses 3D security but the pop up screen requiring me to enter my VISA security details was ‘pinned’ in a fixed position on the screen. Scrolling down didn’t reveal the foot of the box containing the ‘send’ button. After aborting the first transaction I realised that I could change the zoom level on internet explorer to show more content in the screen and hence reveal the whole box. On repeating the process at the pop up screen I changed the zoom level to reveal the button, only then to get the unhelpful message that my ‘card could not be processed‘. Could not be processed now, for ever, or was this because I had aborted the first transaction, or was there a problem with my card? Typical of on-line sites these days there are no telephone numbers published for you to make an enquiry so I rang a 24 hour Visa number to find out. Several calls later and only having threatened to cancel my card did I discover that Visa had rejected the transaction as, what appears to me as quite normal card behaviour, had conformed to a pattern typical of card fraudsters, i.e. that I had made a small transaction (£4 cardholder not present transaction to Birmingham Library for a document search), and was then trying a much larger transaction (to purchase foreign currency) so they had put a ‘stop’ on my card, very useful as I was just to depart to the US on vacation! What is the point of the security number, and the additional 3D security if it isn’t to validate my identity? How long before the validation requires validation and then further validation, and how do you know if your typical card use imitates fraudulent usage patterns?

Now for those of us who have worked in operational roles we can no doubt rationalise these situations with simple explanations. In the motorway example the two systems are probably quite separate and rely on an operator sitting somewhere in a control room, or worse two operators in two separate control rooms, making a cerebral connection between the motorway conditions and the messages that need to be displayed, but this didn‘t happen. For Amazon and Pink Elephant an extract of those clients who had already placed orders or bought their services should have been run and removed from the mailing list, but once again this didn’t happen. And finally a set of rules applied to a purchasing transaction procedure should also be matched with all the correct security information having been provided – but once again it didn’t.

No matter how you view these incidents they are the subject of process or service failures, and when viewed through the lens of the customer or end user they just don’t work, albeit for all manner of rational reasons be they technological, human, procedural, or design. Their consequences, while in these examples might initially appear minor, I believe could have far reaching ramifications for potentially both the end user/customer or the organisation providing the goods or service. The motorway sign we now no longer trust or believe is the one we ignore that tells us of fog ahead that has caused an accident we are hurtling towards.