Dial tone moments

Googlers love to discuss and debate things within the company. As a rule of thumb, the internal discussion is civil and respectful, but can be passionate. I may take a few of my favorite internal posts that I wrote, tweak them a bit, and publish them here just so I can refer to them more easily down the road.

Here’s something I wrote in 2012:

Recently Google has been shooting for more “magical” moments, and that’s a noble goal. But I think our first priority has to be “dial tone” moments. On a basic level, that can be as simple as uptime and reliability–if Google Voice or Google Music or some other product is too flaky, people won’t use it.

But we should also strive for dial tone moments in terms of consistency or utility or latency. Here’s a simple example. Saturday night in Mountain View I wanted to check how hot it would get on Sunday. I got three different answers from Google. Google Now claimed the high would be 88 degrees. Doing a mobile search for [weather mountain view] predicted a high of 82 degrees. And the News & Weather widget predicted a high of 81. I got those results all within a minute of each other.

If we can’t tell the user whether it’s going to be closer to 80 or closer to 90 tomorrow, how can we expect users to trust us for magic moments?

I think a lot of Google’s reputation or “brand” comes from being a useful, functional tool. Magical moments are fine (great even), but overall the most important thing Google needs is to nail “dial tone” moments, where people just assume that Google will always be up, always be fast, and always get them exactly what they need. If we can do better, great, but we have to nail those dial tone moments.

At Charlie’s, the main cafe at Google’s Mountain View headquarters, there’s a door that uses an electric eye to automatically open as you walk up. When the automatic door is working, it’s a smoother experience than walking 10-15 extra feet and pulling open the regular doors yourself.

Unfortunately, the automatic door seems to be broken about 5-10% of the time. Either someone forgets to unlock it when the cafe opens up, or it’s broken, or it takes too long to open. Then you’re left standing and feeling silly waiting for a door that might or might not open. I noticed that over time, lots of people stopped using that door and went straight to the regular doors. It took 3-4 extra seconds to walk over to the regular doors, but they always consistently worked. The automatic door was optimizing for magical moments when it needed to optimize for dial tone moments. The automatic door had to walk before it could run.

What does this mean for you or your company? Look for dial tone moments or rough edges where you could improve. I had one colleague at Google who I swear could walk from his car to his office and find six different things that needed to be improved. There’s stuff all around you that could be much better if you just lower your annoyance threshold enough to notice it.

Just as an example, I’ll pick on tivo.com because I love TiVo. One annoyance: when you tell tivo.com to keep you signed in for 45 days, and then come back a week later, you have to sign in again. Another annoyance: you can only search for shows happening within the next two weeks or so.

I would consider the first annoyance to be a dial tone issue: it shouldn’t be hard to stay signed in to a website. That’s a very fixable issue. In fact, when I come to tivo.com, the message at the top knows my name even while another part of the page is telling me that I have to sign in:

Tivo sign in required

The second annoyance–only searching two weeks out–might easily be a multi-month project or even impossible, depending on how and where TiVo gets their data from. But you’d get almost as much goodwill from fixing the easy, dial tone issue as you would from fixing the really hard problem.

If you’re not using (“dogfooding”) your product every day and looking daily for annoyances, snags, or rough spots, you’re missing out. If you run a website, pay attention to the uptime and speed of your site. Monitor your vital metrics and trigger an alert if something goes seriously out of whack. Your product should probably be reliable before you shoot for flashiness.

18 Responses to Dial tone moments (Leave a comment)

  1. I am so happy to read your blog matt, But I am so sad after reading some update about url with https:// will get high ranking on google rather than http://.

    My sadness is I am loosing my google pagerank and MOZ said that my website just found 0/60

    This means that I have to start from zero again and I am loosing my 4 years + old domain

    Help me with that please

  2. Terrific post. Thanks.

  3. the weather is a great example – nice to read the door example to.
    I mean I am from a contry where “to google” is equal to “search in the internet” – so we do think that google will be allways fast, top and serve what we are searching for – but its also a country where we will never drive in driverless cars. 🙂

  4. (1) Juliezar: REALLY?

    (2) Matt, thanks for introducing me to my new favorite UX term, “Dialtone”. And yes, having the product producer use their own product would certainly aid QA.

  5. the weather is a great example – nice to read the door example to.
    I mean I am from a contry where “to google” is equal to “search in the internet” – so we do think that google will be allways fast, top and serve what we are searching for – but its also a country where we will never drive in driverless cars.

  6. A really good read Matt. I like the revolving door example, we’ve all been there. Very similar to touch sensitive flushing toilets that always seem to flush whilst still seated! It’s a lesson to all businesses that we must get the basics right first before shooting for those magical moments. I love the idea of employees specifically looking for those annoying snags and rough spots, isadly in my opinion this isn’t performed often enough.

  7. Inspiring text, Matt! We need to pay attention to small details and edges in the things we do. Greetings, Bobby

  8. Great post, inspiring either. Going to remember that analogy in my own work.

    That said, sometimes Google can be such a frustrating company to love from a consumer standpoint. There are “dial tone” misses in nearly every product, which to me seems like an issue with Google rolling out so many products, so fast.

    What I’d give for a day with Googlers to spill my “dial tone” issues!

    • Matt, for what it’s worth I totally agree. Google’s products usually have good uptime, but we can often improve on speed and even more so on little product details like you mention.

  9. Sometimes regular dogfooding isn’t enough. Google Music is a good example where it works just fine if you have a high speed reliable network as the Google campus does, and presumably most Google employees have at home, and heck even on the buses. But when using it while out driving where coverage comes and goes and it is a monumental pain, often going silent or aborting playback because of transient connectivity issues. It misses the user’s fundamental goal – play me some music, and keep playing.

    For work, I ended up setting a wifi access point with Linux traffic shaping behind it to have atrocious random behaviour in terms of latencies, packet drops etc. (My colleagues call it the AT&T simulator.) So much mobile software performed badly mainly because the devs had made networking synchronous with the user interface. Perhaps the Google campus could do with a similar network?

  10. The door with an automatic opener: there is a rule that preserves the “magical moment.”
    *Always a manual option,* that way if the door does not open automatically you are not forced to go to the other door, you simply must exercise the manual option on the automatic door.

  11. It just occurred to me that there is probably a sizable segment of the younger population in this country that have never even heard a dial tone, possibly never will, and would have no idea what it was you were referring to… and that many of the ones that have it was just a digital sound effect. It doesn’t make me sad, but it’s definitely a “Huh” moment for me.

    Regarding the post, it does seem at times like Google doesn’t have a large enough QA department to fully test all of the products or product changes when they go live. Has any thought been given in to a public bug tracking system for Google services? I know there is the support forums, but that’s really not the same thing. As far as I know the only actual bug tracker is for Chrome, and that has 67,401 open issues in it.

    • Another term I have heard for this is paper cut. That may have more longevity than dial tone as I suspect paper will long outlive the analogue phone system despite predictions of paper’s demise going back decades.

  12. By the way, it’s not just buggy products that Google should look at when looking for more ‘dial tone’ moments. The randomness of enforcements of some Google policies, like what is highlighted in this article today on Marketing Land, is a great example of something that should be looked in to for improvement:

    Google AdSense Strikes Again With Vague, Arbitrary Warning Over An Ancient Article

    And realize, it’s not about 1 article getting flagged, it’s about the semi-randomness of this type of flagging over many years.

  13. Ok, here’s a second* great example: “Sorry, but our system has determined you may be a spammer.” <- that being triggered because I posted 1 link to a Marketing Land article that was relevant to this discussion. Sure, you can of course flag whatever you like… but the blog ate the comment as well, instead of rejecting it and giving me a chance to edit it. I know, you're not Google, but still. 🙂

    *the first example was in the comment that got eaten.

  14. It seems to me that I have the hardest time with Google applications. They are never very easy to use. To set a homepage in Google Chrome you really have to dig to do it. It should be a simple action like right clicking. Within the analytics and Google Plus areas, things are buried so deep that to simply edit ones profile takes multiple steps. It is like the engineers at Google have decided to be so smart they made their apps harder for simple things. Everything should be more user friendly and the simple things need to stay simple. I think Google needs to hit the factory reset button and start over with alot of their stuff. IMO

  15. “Dial tone moments”, I love it! What a great analogy, and I really enjoy reading these posts; they offer a fascinating insight into the inner workings of Google.