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Pieter Brueghel the Elder: Dulle Griet [Mad Meg] (1563)
"If it's really important, I ask The Muse to run the gauntlet …"

Much has been made of the Ease of online shopping. I cannot validate this claim because online shopping still seems to me the very antithesis of Ease. This Damned Pandemic Lockdown reinvigorated my online shopping curiosity, though, so I've recently been reengaging to learn if anyone has engineered any Ease into their interfaces yet. I'm the guy who, when checking out at Whole Foods® explains that he has not (yet) figured out the Amazon One-Click® app. They either take my word that I'm a member, the person in line behind me loans me their identity, or I just take along The Muse, who just seems to know how those sorts of things operate. Amazon has long held my admiration for the absolute hostility of their user interface, which seems more hazard to commerce than intelligent assistant. Their design became the burgeoning online shopping industry's standard for online commerce, effectively disqualifying me from participating. I'm usually beyond caring.

The vacuum died last weekend, so I went online shopping for a replacement.
I found the target model in a few short minutes. Then came the ordeal. Peppered with intrusive identity questions, I got lost and soon fled. I had not intended to purchase an identity crisis. Later, The Muse asked if I'd ordered the replacement and I told her, "No. They had an interface!" Same story with my beloved bread bakery. They'd said that they'd devised a means for online ordering for Thursday pickup, a workaround from the usual hour waiting in line to purchase, but the interface proved impossible to navigate. I fussed for a day or two before discovering that I'd taken too long to solve the mystery. The ordering deadline had passed and my shopping self-esteem experienced another in a seemingly endless series of hits. I know. I'm an idiot. My favored purveyors seem dedicated to reinforcing my conviction.

The wine store reported eight positive Covid tests among employees last week, so that place became off limits. I thought I'd try ordering online for later pickup, but, yea, you guessed it, the online shopping app had been designed by an idiot, but not for the use or Ease of this particular idiot. Sure, it intended to allow nearly endless filtering. I could supposedly choose to display or block offerings by a vast array of alternatives. I might select by price by simply nudging a slider along a scale. The scale, though, seemed heavily weighted toward the high side of the price range. I fiddled for a full five minutes trying to set it way down near the bottom, but $36.95 was the closest I was able to get to my $10.00 target, and nobody shops for wine that way, anyway. Who remembers the name of anything? One scans the shelves and finds faint rememberings, almost familiar faces. I remember the shape of certain bottles. I cruise old reliable corners. I have not memorized all of the dozens of wine regions in Italy, France, Portugal, or Spain. The app, presented as the very soul of Ease, apparently had never considered how real people actually make purchase decisions. I left in deep, freshly-disqualified disgust.

What might an effective online shopping app do? It might try asking, like the guy at any brick and mortar hardware store does. No need to engage in any tiring game of twenty questions. Two or three should do. It's a simple matter of shifting the 'what can you do for me?' ethic toward a 'what can I do for you?' one. And no app should expect a crisp description of what the shopper wants because—and this notion has apparently never occurred to Amazon or anyone with an online shopping app—Nobody Knows What Anything's Actually Called! In spite of trillions spent on entraining advertising, we do not fawn over brand names. We file almost everything under the 'Whatchamacallit' label. We might not even recognize it if we see it. The hardware store guy's a master at connecting fuzzy wants with specific products. A well run hardware store always maintains the attitude that if they don't have it, you don't need it. They're not terrified of telling a prospective customer, "No!" They know you'll be back another time with another unmentionable need they'll very likely be able to name for you, and likely even satisfy. Online, it's them asking the questions, usually many more than twenty. Labyrinths. With monsters.

I will not even mention the tail end purchase functions. Might I just scan the card? Sorry, that function's not allowed. Enter that card number twice at least because nobody can successfully transcribe any such number string the first time. A series of shortcomings display after each attempt, tiny red font deepening the mystery. I catch myself wondering what that message might mean and how I might remedy the difficulty. Do I qualify for free shipping? Would I like them to remember me? How about joining our spam email service from which you'll never be able to unsubscribe? 15% off your next purchase, assuming, of course, I survive this one, which I almost never do not. Ninety percent of the time, I ultimately decide that I didn't really want what I'd been trying to purchase, anyway, as if the true purpose of that Hardware store clerk was to chase me off, not satisfy my want. The online apps always prove too needy. They just seem greedy to me.

And in one critically important way, these systems do provide a valuable service. The ordeal effectively prevents me from whim shopping. I need to want something really, really badly to even submit to running that gauntlet. I usually just chase myself off, knowing where I'm not wanted, successfully segregating myself from the threat. I cannot get this sort of service anywhere else. It could not be more effective in creating the Ease of
not shopping if it were a slum bodega with young toughs ringing the entrance. I can always afford not to purchase something. If it's really, really important, I ask The Muse to run the gauntlet, for she's apparently the kind of idiot they designed to serve. She almost always emerges successful from the other end. I rarely do.

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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