What is design? (voicemail fail edition)

I was talking to a client on the phone earlier today who told me that the last time they called (and I hadn’t been able to answer), my provider played a recorded message to the effect that “the number they’d called was not in service” or that my number “does not exist in the system” (I’m paraphrasing).

Someone else had told me the same thing (also, I will point out, over my one-and-only phone line) last week, but I ignored it because (duh) my phone is very much in service. I have the phone bills to prove it.

This time I called my phone company; their friendly customer support representative quickly and efficiently got to the root of the problem.

I had disabled voicemail.

Think about that: I disabled voicemail (because I hate the whole voicemail experience, as is my right) but whenever someone was being directed to it, they were told that my number was no longer in service. Not “this customer has disabled voicemail” or “This customer is currently not available.”

This is roughly equivalent, on a business line like this, to “this company has gone out of business.”

This makes me even less happy than you might imagine.

What does this have to do with design?

Somebody designed this voicemail system. A system that failed catastrophically.

  • When I requested a simple configuration change, no one told me what would happen.
  • How long did it silently fail like this, undermining my business? How long would it have gone on?
  • A product manager somewhere said, ‘you know what? this is good enough: ship it.’ That’s a direct, almost inevitable result of their system design.

This was a failure of a system meant to make communications easier and more robust. Instead, it communicated something fundamentally untrue (that my phone had been disconnected) with implications of something far more ominous (that I was no longer in business).

Thinking about how things behave when they break down is a huge part of how they’re designed, whether intentional or not.

Got feedback? Don’t leave voicemail: send email.