Archive for the ‘Equipment failures’ Category

Parentpay part 2

June 23, 2016

While it’s on my mind – one other slant on the ParentPay issues from the previous post.

ParentPay themselves have been engaging with some of the discussions of their product on social media.  All credit to them for doing so, and I hope that they can use this to sort out the product (though my recommendation would be just that they go back to the previous version).  But a lot of what they’ve written so far either suggests that they expect users to accept the new system once they are used to it, or that they would have hoped that users would have been more prepared for the changes thanks to information that had been provided.  Of course, ‘you’ll like it once you are used to it’ and ‘you would be able to do it if only you had paid attention’ are two of the most irritating things that a parent can say to a child…

Unfortunately I’d take issue with both the arguments advanced by ParentPay.  Far from users getting used to the redesign, I would expect some people to get more frustrated with it as time goes on, simple because they’ll get to resent the increased number of steps required to make a payment.  And I’ve revisited the briefing and particularly the video issued before the change.  There are repeated references to my account as a single pot within which you can keep money.  Nowhere is it explained that this is in addition to your existing dinner money balance, that you need to move funds through it whether you want to or not, and that some simple transactions will be more complex than before.

So I hope that the engagement in social media does result in some worthwhile changes to the system, and hope that they happen quickly.


ParentPay problems

June 18, 2016



Here’s a thought experiment.  You are working for a major automotive company and wondering how you can improve a car that you manufacture.  Extensive focus group research has revealed that some customers would like a satellite navigation system as a standard feature.  So, with a great fanfare, you release a new version of the car with an integrated satnav.

The problem is this: the technical people who designed the satnav forgot to take into account that people might want to drive the car somewhere familiar, and just not use the satnav.  So you post on your website a PDF containing detailed instructions for the sequence of eight buttons you need to tap at the start of a journey where you don’t want to use the satnav.  A few drivers seem upset at having to go through this extra stage which they didn’t need before, but you’re sure that’s just resistance to change which will subside.  After all, how difficult can it be to follow a set of instructions?

Unfortunately there’s another snag.  After the seventh tap, drivers are getting the impression that the system should be ready to go, so there are instances of people calling the AA, and cancelling visits to their grandparents, because they have missed the eighth tap and the system won’t let them release the handbrake.  So you add another step, which is that when you first get into the car, the satnav displays a screen reminding you to do the eighth tap, which you need to dismiss before you can go any further.  But drivers are still calling the AA and missing their grandparents, because that extra step occurs as soon as you get into the car, and once you have sat down and fastened your seat belts and checked whether anybody remembered to pack a box of chocolates for the grandparents, you’ve forgotten about the need to do that final tap.

This may all sound fanciful, but it’s not much different from what’s been happening with the ParentPay platform used to pay for dinners, school trips, and so on at schools up and down the country.  ParentPay have just introduced a new feature, called ‘my account’ in response to customer research.  While I have some difficulty in reconciling their explanation, that according to their research parents want to maintain a single account with a running balance, with the fact that I now need to maintain two separate balances and move money between them, the real problem is that even if I don’t want to use the ‘my account’ feature I still need to go through a much more complicated procedure than before, because I still need to pay money into ‘my account’ and then transfer it to the school as a separate transaction.

While I found this annoying, I also thought that complaining about needing to go through extra steps to pay for school dinner is what’s regarded in Internet circles as a first world problem.  And I then read that children were going hungry because of the poor redesign of the site.

I actually liked the previous version of ParentPay.  It might have been no paragon of good human-computer interface design, but it allowed you to pay for a school trip or school dinners with two clicks and typing in the security code on the back of the credit or debit card.  I did see ParentPay’s announcements that a new feature would be added, but nowhere did I see an explanation that the simple payment process that I was used to would be removed.  From a user’s point of view, it would be simple to add one extra option in the process, so that you could choose either ‘pay by card’ which would take you to the old version or ‘pay from account’.  Ideally you should be able to set ‘pay by card’ as a preference, so you could completely ignore the ‘my account’ feature if you didn’t need to use it.

So please, ParentPay, redesign the site and at the very least ensure that it’s no more difficult to use than it was before.  And accept that, even if this was done with the best of intentions and even if it appeared to be OK in your preliminary testing, it really isn’t working in practice.

Healing technologies

October 31, 2012

This BBC piece highlights an interesting area where technological innovation has been inspired by the study of biological system, and where new technology might progress in unexpected directions.  Given the number of people I see using smartphones with visibly damaged, but still functional, screens I think the self-repairing touch screen is a particularly attractice development

Meanwhile on the other keyboard

September 10, 2012

Just by chance this morning I had a visit at home from a piano tuner, at the same time that I was trying to resolve some problems with a desktop computer that lives in the same room as the piano.  My efforts with the desktop computer, which had lost all connectivity to the Internet despite being on a router, and a broadband connection, which was working perfectly with several other devices, weren’t very successful, as I haven’t even been able to switch it into ‘safe mode’ using the F8 technique recommended for Windows.  The computer in question was infected by some sort of ‘trojan’ virus and while the anti-virus tool has successfully removed the virus, it’s disabled the Internet connection as an element of collateral damage.

Musical instruments with broadband connections definitely have a place in the Internet of things, but ours is a traditional upright piano made by Cramer – which for much of the 20th century appears to have been a very respectable middle-of-the-market British make.  But Johann Cramer was a noted musician and composer, and his company appears to have been influential in agreeing the standards for musical pitch.  Which raises an interesting thought, that standards are as important in music as in electronic communication, and that they have emerged over a very long time.

Why 403?

May 17, 2011

WordPress provides blog owners, such as myself, with a neat ‘dashboard’ that includes a convenient bar chart showing how many views I’ve had over the last few days (partial screen dump to the right).  Just recently, I’ve found that if I try to view the dashboard from most places except my desk at work, the bar chart doesn’t appear, and instead I get a simple ‘403’ message implying that I’m not allowed to view the chart.

So far I haven’t been able to find much on the Internet about what could cause this, except that the dashboard might possibly object to the IP address that my computer is connected to.  But I get this with my laptop whether I’m at home, or at the university where I work, or in the British Library, and the computer will be assigned a different IP address in each of these cases – which is a bit of a mystery


April 27, 2011

Running for a bus in Crouch End last week (and pleasantly surprised to find that I could still run reasonably fast) I spoilt it all by falling over, grazing my wrist, and cutting my upper lip.

Why share this apparently inconsequential information?  Partly because it’s a blog, and blogs started as places to record mundane matters.  Partly because in the remote possibility that anybody who sat next to me on the bus ride, or the tube ride immediately following, is reading this, I’d like to point out that yes, I had been in a fight, it was with a bus stop, and it’s a slightly moot point which of us won.

And also to make a usability point.  Having arrived in Oxford Street I went into the Gents in a well-known large department store, to clean myself up and banish the battle-scarred look.  Which was great once I’d overcome the challenge of finding out how to turn on the high-tech taps provided for hand-washing.

Analytics and advertising

April 21, 2011

WordPress offers some simple analytic tools which I can use to find out which posts people have been reading, and I’ve been a bit surprised to find that my post from November 2009 on a sustaining technology (the washing machine) attracts a steady stream of ‘hits’.

Maybe these readers know something that I didn’t, because our 18-month-old washing machine has developed a leak in the door.  Fortunately this looks to be a guarantee claim, since John Lewis sells washing machines with a two-year guarantee.  But it’s very striking that, since clicking on the John Lewis site a couple of times yesterday to find out about how to claim, several other sites have displayed prominent banner advertising for John Lewis whenever I browse them from my laptop.  I know that analytic tools are used by websites to place targeted advertising – I just assumed that usually their use would be a bit more subtle than it has been on this occasion.

And it did snow…

December 21, 2010

Last week I wondered whether it would in fact snow on London last Saturday.  It did: there was a steady fall of heavy snow, and enough snow and slush on the streets to prevent buses from getting to some parts of London at least.  Boris Johnson, who is usually adept at using new media, and should have known better, sent out a tweet that transport was running within London and that shops were open, just around the time that the huge Brent Cross shopping centre in north London closed early for the day.

A lot of news coverage has focused on how much grit and salt is available to treat roads.  But this weekend, there were plenty of roads and pavements which had been covered with generous quantities of grit during the previous week, but still became gritty and slushy over the weekend.  The term ‘wrong kind of snow’ entered the language, in London at least, when it was cited as the reasons for trains failing in another cold winter twenty years ago.  But a New Scientist article from 1994 (online but behind a paywall, so I won’t put in a link) suggested that, despite the unfortunate choice of words, this really was quite a reasonable description of the causes.  As the Inuit know, there are many types of snow, and apparently a particularly powdery consistency of snow, that the train designers didn’t expect to encounter in London, managed to penetrate brake systems and door mechanisms.

So I wonder if something similar happened with gritting the roads in London – at the very least I wonder if there is a mismatch between the kind of snow and the kind of grit or salt which was used.

Caught in the cyber crossfire

December 15, 2010

One day last week, I tried to get some money from an ATM at HSBC in Moorgate.  The machine took my card, asked me to put in my PIN, then paused for an unusually long time before returning my card and telling me that it couldn’t give me money due to a technical fault.  I then went across the road, tried a Barclays ATM, and had the same experience.

Since I successfully withdrew some money from another HSBC machine a few minutes later, I thought little of the experience at the time.  But it does look as though I was caught up in one of the effects of the recent episode involving Wikileaks,

YouTube, and why I might not need vehicle telematics

December 8, 2010

I’ve recently set up a very simple online survey for some of the MSc students about their use of web resources.  It’s a quick and crude survey, and I’ve had just 8 responses so far out of a population of 18, so results need to be treated with caution for all the reasons that I discussed in my post of 18th November.  But two of the questions are about the students’ use of different web 2 tools – blogs, wikis, twitter and YouTube, and already a pattern is emerging.

When asked which tools they would be comfortable using as sources of information, they identified YouTube as by far the most popular.  7 of the 8 who have responded so far said that they’d use it.  This places it ahead of blogs and wikis, and at the opposite end of the scale from Twitter, which none of the students used for information, despite its popularity with high-profile members of the Twitterati.

So there’s an indication that among this group at least, YouTube has caught users’ imagination and Twitter hasn’t.  Somehow bite-sized videos, however amateurish, are attractive whereas short fragments of text aren’t, even to a group accustomed to using text messaging for one-to-one communication.  Maybe it’s just evidence of how powerful visual communication can be.

Curiously there is a connection here with my post a while back about why vehicle telematics might be useful, to help to diagnose faults in a car.  On YouTube there’s a video of somebody in a car exactly the same as mine, making exactly the same creaking sound that mine does in cold weather.  If only the person who put that video up had identified the fault, and shared it with his viewers, YouTube would have proved a more useful fault-finding tool than vehicle telematics.