Halloween Special: The UXorcist
Foreword by Spooky Director Gemma Wisdom
Here at the Labs we love nothing more than a scary tale at Hallowe’en. And on this Eve of All Hallows, we are delighted to present a story of bad UX and customer experience that will – quite literally – chill you to the bone. It’s a tale of twisted technology, spooky software as a scary service, and Mike Oldfield’s 1973 concept album Tubular Bells… the scariest record ever made.
Dare you read The UXorcist?
Do-do dooo do-do doo do-do-do-do do-do-do do-do do-do doo dooooo, do-do dooo do-do doo do-do-do-do do-do-do do-do do-do doo dooooo etc (keep humming that to yourself for 43 minutes and you’ve got the idea)
I found the property listed at Holidayz-on-Demandz. It was kinda creepy. The place was deserted, silent, the wind barely moving the acacia trees. The low sun cast a spooky red glow and ebon shadows across the unkempt driveway, which was lined with mock gothic statues of famous Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Gates. Jobs. Musk. Bezos. Zuckerberg. Page. George Takei. The Segway guy. Some old dude with a light bulb. And MC Hammer. I was trying to work out who the statue was right by my car. I figured it was the seventies experimental rock legend Mike Oldfield. Then, suddenly, it sprang to life and knocked loudly on the window of my Prius!
“Arrrrrggghhh!” I screamed!
“Are you Ms. Lennox?” a voice asked. That was no statue, that was a man standing in the driveway.
“Oh you gave me quite a shock!” I said sheepishly and got out of the car
“I was standing there for ages,” said the man, “but you just kept staring at me and frowning.”
“Sorry, I thought you were Mike Oldfield.”
“Uh-huh,” said the man looking confused, holding out the name badge on a lanyard around his neck “Er, I’m Matt, your Holidayz-on-Demandz host.”
“Matt? I’m supposed to be meeting Mr. Ulrich Sers?” I asked. That was the name of the host in the advert. Matt looked a bit awkward and shook his head.
“There was an accident. I’m his er… assistant… I’m looking after all his properties now, while they settle his estate. He’s dead, you see.” The news hit hard. Unsettling. “He was in a mining accident,” Matt continued.
“But I thought he worked in software?”
“Yes,” said Matt, “It was a Bitcoin mining accident.”
“I had no idea that could be so dangerous. I mean, I heard you could die of disappointment if you bought-in when it was at the $20,000 peak last November but–”
“Are you a miner?” he interrupted.
“No, I’m thirty-six.”
“Bitcoin mining takes a lot of processing power,” he continued, “he got trapped in the server room in the basement, and the air conditioning went crazy. Froze him solid.”
“That’s shocking!” I gasped.
“No, it’s freezing,” replied Matt, “Crazy really, the whole house is wired up to a digital assistant called Jojoba. One of the new ones from E-Z Smartspeakers.”
“Jojoba? I haven’t heard of that one.” I said.
“Yeah, well, it’s an invite-only beta at the moment, so by Silicon Valley law it’s got to have a stupid fruit name or whatever. Anyway, it killed him by mistake.”
“We looked at the voice logs in Ulrich’s app,” replied Matt with a sad look on his face, “He kept saying Jojoba, turn the aircon off, but she just kept answering I can’t find ‘Jojoba turn the aircon off’ in your music library. Tragic. Anyway, let’s get you settled in, eh?”
I woke up at 4am. I could hear something down the hall. Was I alone in the house? It sounded like someone was playing music. Spooky music… Do-do dooo do-do doo do-do-do-do do-do-do do-do do-do doo dooooo, do-do dooo do-do doo do-do-do-do do-do-do do-do do-do doo dooooo…
Then all the lights came on.
“Good morning Ulrich,” said a slightly robotic female voice. What? It must have been an old setting from when he was alive.
“Jojoba!” I called out “Stop playback! And turn off the bedroom lights!”
“Hmmmm,” replied the voice, “I’ve found a few devices that share that name, which one did you want?”
“BEDROOM!” I shouted.
“Did you mean Bathroom?” she replied
“Bedroom light!” I said, “Turn off bedroom light!”
“Hmmm, I can’t find ‘bedroom light turn off bedroom light’ in your music library. Here’s a radio station you might like, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells Radio from Spooky Streaming.”
“No Jojoba!” I cried, “Stop playback! Mute! Mute!” The terrifying concept album stopped.
I lay there, shivering with fear, turning it over and over in my mind… how could a nineteen-year-old from Reading, England, record that instrumental track in 1973 and play every instrument himself? That’s over fifty? Some spoke of a curse. The cursed legend of the Tubular Bells curse. They said no matter how hard you listen, you’ll lose your mind trying to spot when the actual tubular bells were playing, which is impossible because it’s all just a jingly-jangly wall of plinky-plonk, most famously used as the theme tune to The Exorcist. How utterly diabolical.
I reached for the laminated A4 list of Jojoba skills, wake words and commands that Matt had left for me on the bedside table.
“Jojoba, nightie nightie.” I said, as calmly and slowly as my galloping heart would allow.
“Pyjama pyjama” replied the voice assistant, and finally, she did what I asked, So that’s how you turn the lights off, I thought, and then drifted off to sleep thinking about what a proper conversational user interface testing program would have made of that.
I had spent my long weekend break at the horrific U.Sers residence mostly out and about, seeing the sights of Silicon Valley, including the Intel Museum, Santa Clara Railroad Depot, Apple’s Headquarters, and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Which was all loaded into my Prius Sat Nav system by Jojoba. Thank goodness for that laminated sheet of Jojoba commands and the handy companion app, without which, I’d have been really stuck. Except, something I couldn’t figure out was why the only wake words I could use were Jojoba, Computer, or Please Just Work You Useless Piece Of Junk, which I assumed was another wacky beta name thing.
I came home from my last excursion – a visit to the tea rooms at IBM’s New Almaden Research Lab, where the mechanical hard drive was invented – and began packing. That’s when I noticed it was hot. Really hot.
“Jojoba, turn thermostat down to twenty-two degrees.”
“Sorry, I don’t know that one. You can find a list of commands in your Jojoba app. And discover new skills. Try asking me to make a fart noise. Would you like that?”
“Jojoba!” I said “Turn down thermostat!”
“Bbbbrrrrrrrppppppppppyttttttttttt Sorry, I had a beta-root salad for lunch. For more skills open your Jojoba app and search for skills. Would you like to know the pollen forecast for Ulaanbataar, Mongolia?”
“I’m sorry, I’m having trouble connecting to the internet right now, please try again later.”
I pulled my phone out of my pocket and froze in horror. There was no wifi. I ran to the router, there was no signal. A smell of burned plastic hung over the wifi box. It must have shorted out in the heat? Sweating, I went upstairs to the laminated sheet Matt had left me. At the bottom, in tiny writing, there read the following terrible words:
IF THE INTERNET GOES DOWN FOR SOME REASON AND YOU’RE HAVING TROUBLE WITH JOJOBA / COMPUTER / PLEASE JUST WORK YOU USELESS PIECE OF JUNK CALL E-Z SMARTSPEAKER CUSTOMER SUPPORT ON +66 666 666 666
I had no choices left. I had to face my deepest fear and use my smartphone… to make a voice call. I put the phone to my ear, like they used to in the olden days. And then it answered!
“Hello, you’re through to Gary, can I take your sixteen digit beta programme reference number please?”
I read the number from the laminated sheet.
“Okay, and how can I help you today?” asked Gary cheerfully.
“Gary! Gary! Help me! My Jojoba has gone crazy and it’s cranked the heating up! And it’s like, seventy-five degrees outside, which is totally within the normal range for October in Silicon Valley.”
“Hmmm, we’ve had a few calls like that recently, it seems to be a bug in an old JojobaOS update. Have you installed the latest version?”
“How do I do that?” I cried, dizzy with the heat.
“It’s automatic on restart,” said the warm, reassuring voice “Just switch your main Jojoba-home-hub unit off and back on again.”
“Where’s this home’s Jojoba-home-hub hidden?” I gasped, finding it hard to speak.
“Our records say it’s in an air conditioned server room in the basement,” said Gary. The most chilling words I have ever heard. The server room where U.Sers got trapped? I thought. I started downstairs.
The last thing I remember was banging on the glass of the server door, crying, as cold gnawed at my aching limbs, tiredness pulled on the back of my head, and the blackness crept into the tunnels of my vision.
I woke up in Santa Clara County Hospital. My head hurt like a jackhammer was in the base of my skull, digging up a busted sewer pipe in my cerebellum. My vision was blurry, I looked down at my hands, bandaged and sore. Matt was by my bed.
“Hey! Welcome back, you had us worried there for a bit.”
“Wha… what happened…I, I…”
“Lucky I found you,” he said, “My Holidayz-on-Demandz app pinged me to say you were due to check out, I thought you might like a hand with your luggage. If I’d been an hour later, you’d have frozen, just like Ulrich. I guess we really need to get that server room aircon checked out before we rent it out again, eh?”
“I… I called out for Jojoba to save me but… I think the wifi was down…”
“The wifi?” Matt frowned. “No, that was all working fine. And Jojoba. I got a follow-up call from guy at E-Z called Gary, nice guy, he ran a diagnostic on Jojoba remotely, says it’s all working ay-okay. You must have tripped and banged your head.”
“Jojoba, Computer, Please Just Work You Useless Piece of Junk, whatever you want to call it, I think it’s, it’s…evil…” I said.
“Uh-huh, riiiight,” Matt laughed, “Or, you know, these smart home gadgets, beta programmes and such, well, they can be a bit buggy.”
“But I kept saying Jojoba, turn off aircon! But she didn’t, she just kept saying Did you mean play Tubular Bells? Explain that!”
“Probably just the acoustics down in the basement, they’re not good, plus the noise of those servers, and that pesky aircon, well, that can be a seriously limiting factor in the accuracy of voice commands. That’s all it was. An acoustic accident. And the groundbreaking sixteen-time-platinum-selling Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield was Mr. Sers’ favourite record, it’s on the streaming service he used with Jojoba, that’s all. You know, they say if you listen to that record too much, well… maybe you’re imagining things. I don’t know, I’ve never listened to it. Don’t like all that seventies concept stuff. You can’t find it in my music library.” He smiled and got up to leave, then paused to tap the control panel by my bed, “Oh hey, they got all kinds of entertainment here. Great patient experience design, huh? Hmmm, here’s a radio station you might like.”
“Here’s a radio station you might like,” he repeated.
“You… sound like… her…”
“Hmmm, I don’t know that one,” he winked, and left the room.
Maybe Jojoba was just a badly designed voice assistant, not a homicidal incarnation of pure evil. And maybe Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells sold over sixteen million units on artistic merit alone as opposed to some dark, cursed magic. Maybe Matt was right, maybe this whole thing had me so shaken up, it was just my mind playing tricks on me. But then, as Matt walked away down the corridor, I could hear him singing a little tune to himself… and my blood ran colder than back in that server room.
Do-do dooo do-do doo do-do-do-do do-do-do do-do do-do doo dooooo, do-do dooo do-do doo do-do-do-do do-do-do do-do do-do doo doooo.
Thanks to our friends at Wordsmith Digital for their creative vision in making this piece come to fruition.