May 04, 2007

Ready to copy?

The shared xerocopying machine that I use at my university has a card reader beside it so that authorized use can be charged to the right account when you put in your approved plastic xerocopying card. On the front of the card reader is a small LED display screen. It says READY when the system is not ready. If the system is ready, it does not say READY.

When I point out these things about linguistically counterintuitive terms or signs in everyday life, people often write to me to explain what the meaning is. They totally miss my point. I know how to find out the meaning. (Trial and error will do. While the little screen says READY, copying will not work.) What I don't know is why people persist in designing linguistic displays so as to make for possible misunderstandings when they didn't have to.

This is what's going on. When you first approach, if the machine is not ready to copy because no card has been inserted into the card reader, the display on the latter reads READY because the card reader (the machine users are not really concerned with, and tend to regard as simply part of the copying machine) is ready to have a card inserted into it. The copying machine, however, is not ready. When you insert a card, the word READY goes away. So if someone goes away and leaves their card in the machine, the display does not say READY. That means the system is ready to copy (that is, the copier is; the card reader actually is not), so if you are ready you can steal from them by charging your copies to their account.

The slip by the engineers here is that they did not see how the whole assembly — copier plus card reader — would be see by users as one machine. They are not experienced as separate, in the way that a ticket machine in a subway station is seen as different from a subway train. They are seen as one thing, like a washing machine and its control panel.

I should add that sometimes, if it takes half a minute or so to position several parts of a complex original or to decide on the orientation, paper size, and settings, the card reader will spit your card out half way. The little screen then reads REMOVE. When you are done with your copying and pick up your copies to go, and you ought to remove your card, the little screen does not say REMOVE; instead it displays an obscure account number, of no interest to the typical user. So people often go away and leave their card behind, which means the next person can steal from them.

The problem there is that the engineers fail to distinguish the timed-out condition (when you've taken too long to choose your settings and position your original) from the finished condition. What's needed is a display saying "Timed out; please re-insert your card if you're not done yet" in the first case, and "Please press END and remove your card if you're done" whenever a copy run finishes.

It would have been easy to devise words or signs to display that would not be counter-intuitive, but the engineers who designed this setup managed to make a machine that appears to say it's ready when it isn't and says "remove" to mean "push back in".

Don't write and tell me I should understand that the little screen is dealing with the internal state of the card reader. I know that. But I (like any other user) don't give a flying fuck about the internal state of the card reader's little finite-state machine. I'm the human here. It should communicate in a way that suits me. It's not as if I'm here to serve it, and learn its little language. Don't you see that?

Whose side are you on, the humans or the machines?

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 4, 2007 04:56 PM