The Paradox of Choice

It started with a fairly innocent directive from the powers that be: “Our on-hold music sucks. Figure out how to change it. By yesterday.” In an of itself, the request was perfectly reasonable. The music was indeed, very, very bad. It was some old, slow and sleep inducing orchestral piece that we have been unable to identify so far. Not that we haven’t tried, mind you. Several times we have attempted to run it through various music identification programs (like Shazam on the iPhone) just to be able to put a name on that horrid auditory abomination. Sadly, we were unsuccessful. The poor reception (yay voip phones!) and sound distortion, combined with the obscurity of the tune in question made all these electronic tools fail their searches, or quit working and freeze up due to the sheer badness of that music.

The music was the butt of many jokes, and the rather common office threat “if you don’t cut that out, I will put you on hold and make you listen to the puke music for 20 minutes”. And yet, no one has ever suggested changing it. It just never crossed our minds. We treated it like a simple fact of life. Water was wet, sky was blue, and our on-hold music was unspeakably bad. That’s just how things worked. So when the sheer brilliance of the suggestion descended upon us from the very top, we all slapped our heads in astonishment. It was so simple! All we had to do was change it.

So I assembled a team. I picked only the bravest men and women available, for we were going to a place forgotten by time. A place of unspeakable horror: our phone systems online configuration interface. You see, the control center for our VoIP system was was most likely designed some time in the middle ages using sticks, stones and squirrels. Or something like that. We just refuse to believe that it was made by people who actually heard about the internet at some point in their life. The system is so byzantine, so backwards and so convoluted that we commonly refer to it as the “forlorn labyrinth of despair”.

The employee manual clearly states that anyone accessing the labyrinth must be accompanied by a “spotter” who must sit with their back to the monitor and time the browsing session with a stop watch. No one is allowed to interact with the dreaded UI from hell for longer than 15 minutes at a time, and the spotters’ job is to enforce that rule, if needed, even by force. He or she also must monitor their partner for clear signs of mental fatigue or erratic behavior. The manual also recommends to have a doctor standing by, but the “spotter” system has been working well for us. After the first few mental breakdowns and mouse hand sprains, we got it down almost to perfection.

We took turns browsing the forlorn labyrinth searching for the on-hold music option for several days. We documented our excursions, drew maps and made checklists to be sure we have not missed anything. After our exhaustive search was over, we determined that such option simply did not exist. And we only lost 3 men in the process. Two had to be institutionalized, but the third one is expected to fully recover if he ever wakes up from the coma… I escaped with my mind intact. For the most part I think. I’ve been having some weird dreams, and mild hallucinations but I’m pretty sure I’ll be fine.

Of course this would not please the powers that be, so instead incurring their wrath we decided to contact the phone systems technical support first. Of course no one wanted to make the call, and I was not going to volunteer for it either. You see, they recently outsourced their customer service and tech support to the cheapest call center available… Which just happens to be located in the eight circle of hell. The hell-kin apparently are fine being paid in live goat sacrifices. And buying goats in bulk is apparently cheaper than paying call center folks in India or eastern Europe. Naturally talking with the demonic powers from below on the phone is not a pleasant experience, so I opted to email them instead.

Few seconds after I hit the send button, a reply slammed into our mail server like the fist of an angry god. We actually felt the building shudder, and the server rack whine under the force of impact. The contents of the message turned out to be a copy-pasted form, instructing us to email them an MP3 file we want to use. Below it was a sternly worded warning that we must have either composed and performed the music ourselves, own the rights to it, or it has to be in public domain. Submitting a copyrighted music file would of course force them to report us to the militant arm of the entertainment industry mafia.

We reported that to the higher powers, and they snapped back with a quick “make it happen” message. And so it started…

First, we needed to determine what kind of music we wanted to use. We had folks in the marketing department look into different genres and their appeal with our customers. They have run anonymous surveys, and made powerpoint presentations of their findings… By the way, did you know that you can actually make 100 slide presentation that basically says “Uh… We still don’t really know… But use elevator type music, that’s the best bet”. Of course I only learned that this was the message they were trying to convey after reading the abridged summary of the original summary of the meeting that I was in.

The end result was a decision that bunch of tone-def geeks from the IT department should be responsible for locating and obtaining non-horrible sounding elevator music. Why? Because the task involved electronic files and finding them on the internet. Which seems about right, considering we do have a dedicated team of “googlers” on the payroll… No seriously, whenever someone in accounting, marketing or some other weird department needs to know about something, they usually call tech support cause “we are good with that internet stuff”. Googlers usually find the requested information (like the driving directions to the local Macy’s), print it out, and send it over via interoffice mail… Because if they used email, they would actually have to physically walk over to that persons’ desk and show them how to open it in Outlook. So we set them to the task of finding royalty free music.

After some intensive googling, they came up with a fairly decent list of creative commons licensed easy-listening pieces. We hauled a treasure trove of mp3’s into yet another meeting, hoping that the decision makers could then busy themselves bickering about which song to pick and leave us alone for 3-6 months… But someone blurted out something about creative commons, which made a lady from the legal department spit out her coffee in an uneven spraying motion, optimized to cover everyone present with a sticky, sugary brown mist.

Everything had to be shut down, and put on hold wile she and other lawyer-spawn assembled in their subterranean lair to research this “creative commons” thing that they have never heard about. This new outlandish idea made them feel frightened and they let us know that by purposefully spilling coffee on their computers and sending them in with passive aggressive sticky notes saying stuff like “this is what you get for rocking the boat you info-communists”. Also, one of them spray-painted some anti-IT graffiti on the door to the boiler room, mistakenly thinking that’s where we nerds live and hide our servers.

It only tool them a few weeks to clear creative commons music and stop trying to intimidate the techies with idle threats. We were finally able to get down to music selection. First batch of mp3’s got shot down during a long meeting that took almost an entire day. Folks listened to each, then complained (too fast, to modern, too much rock’n’roll, to slow, to classical, too funky, not funky enough…), then argued, then voted, then voted again cause someone changed their mind… It was a mess. So next day we had another meeting, which resulted in creating a committee that would deal with the selection, an advisory sub-committee which would elect a chair person for the parent committee in another meeting scheduled for the next day… And so on.

Fast forward this about a month into the future. We now have an entire sprawling infrastructure built around the intent to change the on-hold music. We have employees who routinely dedicate several hours a week to the task of finding royalty free music. We have an elaborate vetting procedure that needs to be followed in order to submit a song for voting. We have a thick binder with written procedures, selection rules, and style notes. We are testing a beta build of an internal web portal which would allow automating some of the music submission procedures, and let the decision makers listen to and vote on new selections from their desks, without having to attend the lengthy lunch meetings twice a week.

Of course the “extended lunch meeting” enthusiasts caught wind of the tool being built and retaliated by breaking computers and spilling rancid milk under the boiler room door (they still haven’t figured out we don’t actually live there). The janitorial staff is very angry at us right now because of this, but fortunately they don’t have any company owned computer they could purposefully break, and we no longer let them into the NOC after they cleaned one of the server racks using a wet mop and a bucket…

The moral of this story is this: would it really kill you to put several default on-hold music choices in your system? It is great to be able to pick your own music, but to much choice is sometimes worse than no choice at all. If you give people 5-6 options they can usually pretty quickly pick the least annoying one. If you give them a single default and an open ended “you can upload whatever you want” option they will tend to agonize over this choice for a very long time…

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10 Responses to The Paradox of Choice

  1. Gothmog UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    This is a masterpiece in geek-rage, Luke. Well done.
    I and my compatriots in my IT dept have had to deal with a door security system that must’ve been programmed by the same eldritch nether-beings that built your VoIP solution. We’ve instituted similar safety procedures.

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  2. Chris UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    That was an interesting tale, and all too familiar. One of the projects I’m working on at work right now displays weather radar data in a window. Many hours have been spent discussing and selecting just the colors and shapes to be used on the display, and those choices change every month after even more hours of meetings about them. We probably would be further along if we were limited to just a few basic colors.

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  3. Matt Doar UNITED STATES Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    Well put. It’s all so endearingly human: http://bikeshed.org

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  4. Victoria Netscape Navigator Mac OS says:

    Oh, this is precious! You need to keep the ruse with boiler room :) tape some cables near it

    Your committee thing reminded me of a project where the client requested design of the tiny FB application, then upon receiving it said that it differed so much from the current one that they would need the whole board of directors to approve it, but they can’t wait, so let’s use the mockups he made in Visio. BOARD of directors!

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  5. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Normal bureaucratic BS.

    I had to request for access via a web portal for access to a web portal which allows me to request access to a machine. I learnt something about recursion that day.

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  6. copperfish Google Chrome Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Thumbs up. Turning into quite the comedian Luke. I sense a BOFH style series of articles from you soon :)

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  7. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I assume the title is a reference to the book by the same name, which makes the same point: choice is good to a point, then it is bad.

    The article did sound just like the BOFH stories on el reg.

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  8. IceBrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    Excellent post!

    Incidentally, I’ve volunteered to help on an open source project. Two months later the 9 or 10 of them (of which only 4 have actually offered to help with the code) are still trying to decide which web framework – if any – to use, for what is essentially a minimal CRUD webapp for their community.

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  9. Eric Google Chrome Ubuntu Linux says:

    Sounds like it might be easier and cheaper just to replace your phones. :-D

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  10. DDay UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Sounds like a normal day at the office to me!

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