What the Skype?

I had planned a different topic for this month, but a bad experience with Skype so infuriated me that I need to rant about it here.

What happened? The usual. I started a scheduled call with an important client, and I could hear her, but she couldn’t hear me. “Hello. Hello, Dave, are you there?”  We had to fumble through a frustrating game of charades over the video channel. I held up a can of cat food that I keep on my desk for this all-too-common contingency – “Can”. I pointed at her , “You”; at my ear, “Hear”; at myself, “Me?” She shook her head no. I mimed again, pointing at myself, “I”;  at my ear, “Hear”;  at her, “You”, nodding vigorously to signal the affirmative. Then we both shrugged, as I wondered about the sign language for “WTF?”.  

It took us 20 minutes to get it straightened out. I had to call her on a land line to coordinate: “Can you hear me now? [no] How about now? [still no]”, especially inconvenient because she had set up Skype in a conference room and had to run back to her desk for the land line. Eventually we got it working, though we’re still not sure what was broken or what we did to fix it.

When I mentioned this to several readers, I unleashed an avalanche of pent-up frustration and annoyance. This apparently happens to everyone, at the start of every single Skype call, without exception. Both parties endure a frustrating dance, each saying, “Can you hear me? No? How about now? I can hear you. No, wait, now I can’t hear you anymore.” It’s extremely difficult to figure out what the problem is, especially because the problem itself blocks the channel you’d be using to coordinate your efforts to solve it. There’s no obvious entry point for debugging it, so you have to guess. Not OK.

Worst of all, when we finally got it working, the first thing my client told me was, “It’s probably my fault.” Users blame themselves for software not working correctly. It wasn’t her fault, and it wasn’t mine. It was, and is, the fault of software that requires non-intuitive thoughts and actions from its user. That’s why I wrote Why Software Sucks, to rail against developers of apps that cause that feeling, and The Joy of UX, to explain how to write software that didn’t.

It shouldn’t be this hard. Ideally, Skype should automatically figure everything out and magically just work. If not, how about a little help? Web conference software Zoom, which I use for my remote Harvard Extension School classes, offers an audio test box at the start of every session. You can easily verify that your audio is plugged in and turned on and working correctly.  Skype desktop offers a similar test when you first install it, but after that, you have to work your way down three non-obvious levels (ellipsis menu, settings item, audio and video tab) to even see the testing tab.  Zoom also detects some types of potential problems during the call. For example, if Zoom notices you talking a lot while your mike is muted, it will show a small red highlight around the muting icon on the screen. If you intended to talk to the meeting, you’ll see the highlight, slap your forehead and say “Doh!”, and unmute your mike. But if you’re talking offline to someone in your office (“Damn, that speaker is boring. I sure wish Plattski was giving this talk instead. Don’t they have enough money to hire him?”), it won’t embarrass you by popping on suddenly.   

Because of the prevalence and the seriousness of the audio connection problem, Skype should have an obvious connection wizard or mayday button. It would trigger a good, smart wizard, asking about your exact symptoms, perhaps offering selections such as “I can’t hear other people”, or “Other people can’t hear me”. The wizard would automatically handle the obvious situations, such as testing your Internet connectivity by pinging Microsoft. It would communicate with both parties as needed. “Alice, I’m hearing you OK. Bob, you say you can’t hear her, is that right?” And it would figure out the problem and fix it, without needing to restart the Skype session. For example, “Bob, I see you’re wearing a headset, but your audio is set to your local speakers. (Wizard switches Skype audio to headset.) How’s that now?”  

Microsoft spends a lot of time and effort adding obscure features to Skype. Most recently I saw a feature called “background blur”, which (you guessed it) blurs the background of your video transmission so your counterparty can’t see that you’re sitting on the toilet. This is, at best, a misprioritization of developer resources – especially because the workaround is easy, just use the bathroom first and then sit in front of a blank wall. (Now foreground blur, which would blur the face of anyone too ugly, that I can see. Or better yet, subtly improving the speaker’s looks, like showing me with more hair, maybe for an extra fee. After they fix the audio though.) 

Audio is very much the essence of Skype. If it’s not working, your computer is an expensive paperweight.  Microsoft should ensure that this essence works correctly, as seamlessly as possible, before wasting time on extraneous nonsense.

Blatant Self-Promotion 1: This holiday season, why not give the gift of a ranting lunatic? Send that hard-to-please geek on your shopping list a link to this column, and invite them to subscribe. The price is right (free), and double your money back if not delighted. What a great way to start the decade of the 2020’s. My best to you and yours.

Blatant Self-Promotion 2: I’m teaching my 3-day UX Jumpstart Workshop at the University of Iceland, on March 18-20 in Reykjavik. It’s open to the public, with information and registration here. Participants will work on their own projects, under my guidance, and the class will be taught in English. Be there! Aloha.

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  1. OMG, just wait until you experience Teams. So, so much worse. Audio issues, UX issues. MS took your book on Why Software Sucks and followed every step of what not to do.


    1. Ayee, what can you do? Any knowledge is double-edged. See my white paper entitled “Using WPF for Good and Not Evil” to see how anything powerful can backfire, and usually does.


  2. Skype was excellent software until MS bought it. At that time it was pure peer to peer application – the server was only providing IP addresses to computers for communication. These days plan is to kill Skype and push Teams. Ask your contacts at MS about internal wars between Windows Messenger, MSN Messenger, Office Communicator (Lync) before Skype was bought. From Office Communicator we got Skype for Business.


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