How to Get (Actual) Dell Support

Karen Quintos, senior vice president and Chief Marketing Officer at Dell, is quoted to have said:

“Listening and responding to customers is so basic and fundamental. The emergence of social media elevates how companies can act on the feedback they get from customers,”

Any Dell representative claiming Dell provides good customer support has not spent any time within the trenches of Dell’s technical support themselves. In this article I will reflect on my three-month long (and continuing) struggle with what Dell refers to as “the best-in-class services and support experience that you have come to expect.” By doing so I hope to provide a guide for any future Dell customers on how to receive the support you have a right to as part of your purchase, while discussing likely reasons for the atrocious support Dell is more commonly known for. The article is structured as follows: first I will provide an overview of key problems identified with Dell technical support, second I list concrete suggestions on how to get better customer support (the part you might want to jump to in case you are just here to get advice), and third I discuss Dell as a case study on how company management can ruin product quality and customer support.

Dell’s seven deadly sins

First, let’s resolve some of that pent up anger you might have through comic relief. After my experiences with Dell I could not help but notice the similarity between the Dell logo and the multi-national conglomerate in the television series Mr. Robot—Evil Corp.

dell_evil

Or how aptly the Veridian Dynamics commercials in Better Off Ted seem to portray Dell’s business strategy.

People lie. Companies protect their interests. It’s different.

Likewise, Veridian Dynamics stance on ethics resembles Dell.

Right and wrong. It means something. We just don’t know what.

Comedy aside, scouring the net for customer dissatisfaction with Dell reveals just how close to the truth this satire gets. As explained in a follow-up article in 2005 to a viral post by Jeff Jarvis, “Dell lies. Dell sucks.” (having a measurable impact on Dell’s reputation), Jeff explains:

I learned some time ago that you can search Google for any brand, followed by the word “sucks”, to find out just how much ill will is attached.

It is now 2016. I decided to do some investigative journalism to find out how common the problems I encountered with my first ever Dell purchase are. Inspired by Jarvis, the two graphs below depict google hits (corrected for yearly revenue) for each of the major laptop brands. Dell ‘only’ takes second place when querying whether a company sucks, but takes the lead in being the most hated.

dell

Investigating where this hatred comes from requires a more thorough analysis of Dell’s customer support, which I have ample of experience with after three months of continued hardware and software issues using my XPS 15 9550. For a 2142-dollar laptop (€1944) one expects (and pays for) a swift resolution when the device becomes inoperable, as opposed to three months which pass before receiving a functioning laptop (¼th of the warranty). The reality is thus different entirely, and borders on the absurd. The following summary is based on personal anecdotes, but many similar horror-stories are scattered online.

  1. Dell support is slow, really SLOW: the three months it took Dell to get me a full replacement is testimony of this, but even the most basic steps towards this goal take weeks. After Dell agreed to a full replacement, it took 17 days before the new order was placed. This includes seven workdays just to send me the specifications of the new laptop; essentially a copy/paste.
  2. Dell support does not know, or own, its own products: I spent several hours on the phone to explain that the flashing battery light indicator on the front of the laptop indicated my battery was no longer working, as per their own documentation. Dell support does not have working laptops by hand; they fully rely on debugging your machine remotely.
  3. Dell firmware incapacitates its high-end hardware: the BIOS, drivers, and other firmware (e.g., PremierColor, offering true-to-life colors for their flagship monitors) is some of the most bug-ridden, untested, undocumented, software I have ever encountered. Support simply recommended me to uninstall PremierColor, as well as to revert to an older BIOS version. A BIOS update released to resolve a particular issue with the monitor instead exacerbated it. To date (three updates and several months later) this erroneous fix remains unaddressed, and the common resolution of rolling back to an older BIOS version remains unacknowledged by support.
  4. Dell is unaware, or acts ignorant, about issues reported by users: many users seek support on the Dell community, which unfortunately is almost devoid of Dell employees. Nonetheless, there is more valuable information to be found here (including resolutions such as reverting to the older BIOS version) than by contacting Dell support.
  5. Dell is wasteful: in total UPS delivery has shown up at my doorstep six times, while Dell was fully aware I was not at home or not ready to deliver a package on these specific dates.
  6. Dell pursues the minimum support required: although Dell boasts about its premium support with “[o]nsite service after remote diagnosis within 1-2 business days”, the reality is Dell requires you to spend an entire day on the phone to establish you have a broken battery, several days to ship you a new battery (for which you need to be at home for delivery), expects you to have the necessary torque screwdrivers to replace the battery yourself, and requires you to spend another day at home to await pickup of the old broken battery.
  7. Dell upper management does not take responsibility: Dell tries its very best to keep you entertained with first-line technical support; unfortunate lackeys who are mainly paid to divert your attention away from Dell’s upper management. Dissatisfaction with delays in technical support is redirected to customer care, which in turn redirects you back to technical support. Social media support is a facade put up to give the impression that @DellCares, but in reality is just another middleman pointing back to technical support.

Knowing your rights

If the treatment you are receiving by Dell feels unjust to you, firstly know you are not alone. Dell has a history of lawsuits filed against it by consumers, including a lawsuit against deceptive business practices and failure to provide on-site timely repairs. Dell also “knowingly downplayed hardware defects for millions of computers”, for which it settled. Therefore it is worthwhile reviewing what Dell owes you as part of your purchase.

Review Dell’s terms & conditions (this might differ depending on your point of sale, but the following gives an indication of things to be aware about):

  • Under warranty, Dell has to refund or repair the product, but will not provide any further compensation (e.g., consequential damages or unavailability of the product).
  • Warranty won’t be extended when the product is replaced or repaired.
  • Dell will send parts or provide an engineer service only if it has been established that the problem cannot be solved by recommended troubleshooting procedures (except when you have special needs). (From Dell’s European Collect and Return Service)
  • No warranty is provided for Dell software. Dell only commits to delivering the software regardless of whether it works or not (e.g., PremierColor).

At first sight this paints a grim picture where Dell can provide ‘support’ indefinitely until the warranty runs out, regardless of the state the product is in. I am skeptical of this; it seems highly unlikely Dell could sell you a cardboard box claiming it to be a laptop, ‘fixing’ it for just as long as the warranty lasts. Therefore I am currently pursuing a complaint requesting compensation based on the Consumer Terms of Sale:

(12 A) Either party may terminate this Agreement (i) if the other party commits a material breach which is not cured within 30 days of written notice or (ii) if the other party ceases, or threatens to cease, to carry on business or becomes insolvent.

I claim Dell has failed to deliver me a functioning laptop within 30 days, and gave them notice of this breach. In my specific case, I have not had a ‘laptop’ in the true sense of the word for over three months, since I had no functioning battery requiring the device to remain plugged in to an external power source at all times.

Whether or not you want to pursue your inquiry with Dell to this extent, I can provide you with a couple of concrete tips based on my experience with technical support and my reading of the terms of sale:

  • Take pictures and videos of erroneous behavior, and write down error codes: for straightforward hardware issues with laptops, run Dell’s Preboot System Assessment and note down error codes prior to contacting Dell.
  • Avoid phone support: not only is phone support painstakingly slow (spelling service tags, error codes, and starting all over when redirected), if you ever want to pursue your issues with Dell, you need a written notice of the problems you encountered.
  • If a refund or replacement is taking too long (or is denied), don’t wait too long before filing a complaint through an external party defending your rights: citizens of Canada and the United States can do this for free through Better Business Bureau (BBB). European citizens might have luck finding a similar service through Online Dispute Resolution. Dell seems proud of their BBB statistics, which includes resolutions within a month, but fails to consider that the majority of customers do not know about BBB. Furthermore, Dell seemingly sees no harm in wasting weeks of customers’ time, requiring them to talk to technical support during work hours.
  • Consider the advantage of a full refund over a complete product replacement, in particular when nearing the end of your warranty. Using a full refund the same product can be purchased, effectively renewing your warranty.

How company management can ruin product quality and customer support

In the same vein as Douglas Adams’ quote on technology, the following could be stated about Dell support:

We are stuck with support when what we really need is a product that works.

Dell support is primarily about appearances, not results. To exemplify, the report on how to listen and engage in the digital marketing age commissioned by Dell in 2011, is focused primarily on influencing customer’s perception (think pointless endeavors like @DellCares), not around resolving actual issues reported by customers:

“I believe the greatest benefit has been that our customers who use social media and interact with our efforts see us as a more progressive company because we are using multiple channels for communicating.” — Marketer at enterprise banking company

Corporate management has put in place a support system which might look good on paper, but fails miserably from the consumer’s perspective. Dell’s hierarchical company structure, comprising several departments each focusing on their respective tasks, each adhering to strict workflows and predefined communication channels, has resulted in a company which can hardly communicate internally, let alone, communicate effectively with customers in a timely manner. As derogative as this sounds, this is based (again) on personal anecdotes collected over the past three months. Although I did attempt to request more detailed information from Dell, they unfortunately did not reply:

  • Communicating technical issues reported by customers resembles a game of Chinese whispers, where front-line support distorts and filters information prior to redirecting it to the engineering department. No direct communication with qualified engineers seems possible, regardless of the amount of technical details the end-user provides.
  • Known issues are not communicated internally (or at least not effectively). For example, widespread public feedback on erroneous firmware releases goes unanswered. Instead, hardware replacements are sent out for issues which have long since been identified to be software-related.
  • Technical support and customer support are two separate departments which do not communicate internally. It is up to the customer to reach out to both, restating the problems they encountered. That said, I have yet to find out what purpose customer support serves, more than redirecting you back to technical support.
  • Internal communication within Dell slows down to a crawl since everybody needs to report to somebody higher up. In the end, nobody takes responsibility and the only way for consumers to get things done (in a timely manner) seems to be by filing a complaint through an external organization.

In short, the best way to get Dell support ironically seems to be to spend as little time as possible talking to Dell support. Instead, once Dell has failed to deliver you a functioning system within 30 days (or sooner), immediately proceed with a complaint through an external organization requesting a full refund or replacement system. Hopefully, through this writing, Dell becomes aware of the shortcomings in their support system, and can start working towards improving customer support so that less drastic measures are required in the future.

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Why can’t we file Windows bug reports?

A bit of a rant today, for which I apologize in advance.

So far, I have always been quite pleased with Microsoft Connect. As a bug reporting platform for Microsoft, I am under the impression that most issues are given professional consideration, even though they might go unanswered in the long run. The Microsoft Community on the other hand—the only place to submit bug reports concerning the Windows operating system—is a joke. One can not help but feeling treated like an average chum when an underpaid overseas employee ‘answers’ your question by posting a suggestion along the lines of:

giphy

In other words, the Microsoft Community is a help desk, tailoring to problems which can be solved by pointing to documentation, or posting a friendly reminder to update your computer, rather than a bug reporting platform. Perhaps justifiably, I got angry when trying to report on a recent issue with my new XPS 15:

No, the above ‘recommendation’ is not helpful. In fact, although I am certain your intentions are well, it even comes across as offensive. Please let me clarify why, and why you (or rather, Microsoft) might want to reconsider how bug reports for the Windows operating system currently work.

As part of my workday (as a software engineer), I took time off to report on a bug which could help out further development on a product I use every day as part of my work (the Windows operating system). I know pinpointing bugs can be hard, and detailed bug reports are hard to come by. Therefore, I figured sharing my findings could help out anyone working on this product by either making them aware there is a problem, or by pinpointing where the problem in particular might lie. Consider it free labor on my behalf, because I care about the product which makes up my everyday work environment. I do the same whenever I encounter problems with Visual Studio, and every other product I rely on. To this end, I have had great experiences with Microsoft Connect; as a counterexample to the ‘Microsoft Community’ here, I feel the Visual Studio team takes feedback from the community seriously, provides timely feedback, and iteratively improves on the overall product based on community interaction.

Unfortunately, such a ‘community’ seems to be non-existent for Microsoft Windows. As if possessed with magical foresight, I was warned this “community is crap” and I should expect nothing but “crappy unhelpful ‘suggestions’ which after about a week or so are enforced as the accepted answer by moderators”. Please let this sink in for a moment: this is the impression that professionals that try to contribute to this community (and Windows) are left with after posting. Sure, they won’t report on any more bugs; do you believe this means they are solved? More likely, the product or particular feature reported on is abandoned altogether.

This is where you, Sayan, come in. An unfortunate employee of Microsoft, hired to post anything remotely related from the documentation, seemingly assuming any question on this site must be posted by a granny that just received her first tablet computer for her 75th birthday. Unfortunately this also means you are now the one being bombarded with this wall of text, for which I apologize. Feel free to redirect this to whoever ‘higher-up’ believes they are providing good ‘product support’ for Windows.

It is a bit hypocritical to pester people with pop-ups requesting automated bug reports each time a crash occurs, or requesting people to enable application reporting ‘to improve your experience’, but seemingly disregard any detailed feedback people provide voluntarily. Why is there no professional, public, bug reporting site for Windows?

For now I have disabled this “setting[ ] which adds to its beauty”, since I can obviously not expect my newly purchased >2000 dollar laptop to handle it. If you believe this means my question is answered, by all means mark it as such. Alternatively, if this bug report inspires your curiosity and you require more information in order to pinpoint the exact problem, I am more than willing to cooperate. I hope I provided you with sufficient information to run a repro on your end. I already ran two. ‘Helpful’ would be taking this bug report seriously, and you (Microsoft) doing the same.

Why does Microsoft (apparently deliberately) block off bug reports by professionals? They could easily set up Microsoft Connect to welcome Windows bug reports. Even without the developers looking into those issues directly, I feel by merely opening such a site up to the community better support than what currently is provided can be achieved. Cutting off such ‘volunteer’ testers is a big missed opportunity by Microsoft.

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Multiplayer Point ‘n Click Adventure Games: Long Overdue

“What are adventure games?”, you might ask. When confronted with this question I usually reply they are interactive movies, where you need to solve puzzles in order for the plot to progress. As you interact with objects and characters within the game, the backstory is revealed. The first few minutes of Resonance provide a good first impression of what a point ‘n click adventure game has to offer: captivating cutscenes, followed by seemingly trivial interactions with the game environment, which regardless reveal a rich underlying story.

resonance

Example of a point ‘n click game (Resonance), where the player needs to interact with objects in the game environment in order to progress the plot.

Adventure games have gone somewhat out of fashion over the years, making way for more fast-paced action-packed video games, like first-person shooters. However, a few—mainly independent—developers have kept the genre alive, and true gems (like Resonance) are still released sporadically. They generally adhere to the core game mechanics (as well as witty dialogues) introduced by the classics, and often still prefer old school pixel artwork over modern graphics.

One overlooked feature of adventure games is they are inherently suitable to be played by multiple players; not true multiplayer, but for the lack of a better word, lets call them potential ‘audience games’. At countless occasions I have invited friends over to kick back in the couch, open a beer, and gaze at a projection or screen as somebody point ‘n clicks his way through the game’s narrative. Similar to watching a movie, but different in that shouting throughout (to point out what to click next) is not only appreciated, but in fact encouraged. 1394641-200px_rubberchickenThere is something suspiciously entertaining about listening to people’s concoctions on what item to combine with the “rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle” in order to finally put it to good use; usually followed by a short silence and a subsequent “Why on earth would you want to do that?”. I dubbed such evenings (and late nights) ‘Adventure Game Nights’, and wanted to report on what works and what does not. In addition, I see opportunities for making adventure games true multiplayer experiences.

After years of hosting such events for uninitiated and seasoned players alike (I once even played a game over Skype), some things became apparent:

  • It is best to pick games with a strong narrative, rather than a shallow story line. In other words, games like Resonance, The Inner World, Still Life, and The Blackwell Legacy appeal to a wider audience than true classics like Monkey Island. Games on the far end of this spectrum, interactive dramas like The Walking Dead, are the perfect gateway drug for people to get hooked on the genre, but unfortunately lack the complexity which make adventure games stand out.
  • Spoken dialogues are essential! It is near impossible to stay focused as a group when everyone needs to read on-screen text at their own leisure and pace.
  • If you cherish your night rest, start early, and pick a game which doesn’t last too long (aim for a maximum of seven hours). Short episodic adventure games offer a solution, although they generally aren’t as captivating (the Blackwell series being the exception). Ideally, in case you have a core group of point ‘n click addicts, you can decide on a longer game and play it over several evenings.
  • Pixel hunting (scrutinous scanning of the screen to find anything clickable) is exacerbated when playing in group; you’ll hear people shouting “Can you click on the red thingy in the bottom corner?”, at times followed by “We already clicked that!”. A quick primer on how to tell whether something is clickable or not in advance is recommended.

The takeaway message for game designers and developers is there might be a broader audience for point ‘n click adventure games than they traditionally anticipate. Rather than solely tailoring adventure games to single player experiences, there is an opportunity to design adventure games with group experiences in mind. Besides changing the overall format so it can be consumed in one sitting (similar to movies), it would be worthwhile experimenting with features which account for multiple players wanting to interact with the game environment simultaneously. To this end designers could leverage the fact that players each carry a powerful computer in their pockets (smartphones) allowing for rich interactions. Some obvious candidates: maintain a history of interactions and dialogues, ‘vote to skip’, suggested puzzle resolutions including a point system, …

The possibilities are endless … A multiplayer point ‘n click game is long overdue!

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Non-generic Wrapper instead of Base Class or Interface

A common solution to treating a generic type as non-generic is to implement an interface or make the generic type extend from a non-generic base class. Among other reasons, this allows you to instantiate a collection of generic types. There are varying implementations of this pattern, but they all seem to share this common strategy. In this article I present an alternate approach favoring composition over inheritance which I argue is more appropriate in circumstances where the intent is to break type safety.

To clarify, I will follow Steven Lowe’s argumentation on misuse of inheritanceSemantically, the statement “SomeType<T> is SomeType” is not always true; SomeType<T> is not a proper subtype of SomeType when the base type exposes type-specific bits (as Jon Skeet puts it). In this case the extending type imposes more restrictions than the base type. When there is a need to expose type-specific bits (implying type casts are involved), using inheritance does not follow the Liskov substitution principle (LSP). Regardless, such subtypes seem common. Just consider Microsoft’s List<T> implementing a non-generic IList which to quote Eric Lippert, “is a bit odd, since List for any type other than object does not fulfill the full contract of IList”.

From this it becomes clear there are real-world scenarios where a generic type needs to be accessed in a non-generic way (e.g. during reflection as I argued previously). Type safety is temporarily broken, leaving it is up to the caller to guarantee only the correct types are used. How then to improve on the following common implementation? Note that since the non-generic interface is implemented explicitly, the caller consciously needs to cast to ISomeType, somewhat alleviating the problem of possible misuse.

public interface ISomeType
{
    object Value { get; set; }
}

public class SomeType<T> : ISomeType
{
    public T Value { get; set; }

    // Explicit implementation (cast to ISomeType needed to be used).
    object ISomeType.Value
    {
        get { return this.Value; }
        set { this.Value = (T)value; }
    }
}

We need a non-generic interface but are given a generic interface, so why not apply the adapter pattern?

An adapter helps two incompatible interfaces to work together. […] Interfaces may be incompatible but the inner functionality should suit the need.

Since the class we are trying to create an adapter for is generic, our adapter implementation needs to be generic too. However, we can expose the non-generic interface which will be used by the client. Just like a usual adapter, the non-generic wrapper contains the adaptee and refers all of the IAdaptor calls to it, casting to T where necessary.

 

public interface IAdaptor
{
    object Value { get; set; }
}

class NonGenericWrapper<T> : IAdaptor
{
    private readonly Adaptee<T> _adaptee;

    public NonGenericWrapper(Adaptee<T> adaptee)
    {
        _adaptee = adaptee;
    }

    public object Value
    {
        get { return _adaptee.Value; }
        set { _adaptee.Value = (T) value; }
    }
}

Furthermore, to facilitate the creation of this non-generic wrapper (and in addition hiding its implementation) the wrapper can optionally be initialized from within the adaptee and added as a member. This approach seems similar to how user interface controls in .NET expose the window handle they operate on as a member variable, allowing for unsafe operations when the control class does not offer the required functionality.

public class Adaptee<T>
{
    public T Value { get; set; }

    public IAdaptor NonGeneric { get; private set; }

    public Adaptee()
    {
        NonGeneric = new NonGenericWrapper<T>(this);
    }
}
Pattern which can be used to expose a non-generic interface from within a generic class.

Pattern which can be used to expose a non-generic interface from within a generic class.

This approach still requires boiler-plate code to be written and maintained (NonGenericWrapper<T>), but no longer breaks the Liskov substitution principle. Ideally creating non-generic wrappers can be automated, of which I created an early prototypical solution before (not functional in all scenarios). Until then, this solution provides a more robust implementation for complex scenarios using generics, like collections of generic types with varying type parameters on which the same operations need to be performed. This might be the topic of a future post.

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Missing Affordances in Windows 10

Before heading out to the shooting range and placing Windows 10 on the target stand, let it be said that Windows 10 is a great improvement over Windows 8 and definitely a step in the right direction. However, this post is not concerned with overall impressions, neither with minor bugs which I’m certain will be ironed out over time. Rather, it sets out to highlight (call it nitpicking if you want) several annoying aspects of the redesigned window manager which I don’t expect to see changed any time soon. At first these seem like minute manageable details. However, when it comes to usability seemingly small issues can become a major annoyance when running into them on a regular basis, especially when they occur during moments of high workload where the window manager is already put under a great amount of stress.

Affordances

There is no need to go into detail about the notion of affordances (and its many interpretations), except for presenting one of the earlier definitions (The Psychology of Everyday ThingsNorman 1988, p.9):

“…the term affordance refers to the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used. […] Affordances provide strong clues to the operations of things. Plates are for pushing. Knobs are for turning. Slots are for inserting things into. Balls are for throwing or bouncing. When affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction needed.”

Within user interface (UI) design, this means UI components should thus ‘afford’ clicking, dragging, moving, or any other operation that is supported by presenting the user with clear visual clues.

Window Manager in Windows 10

As Windows evolved, the styling of application windows was designed to be more and more in line with current minimalistic trends in interface design. Styling preferences aside, unfortunately this also introduces changes in the visible affordances to work with windows. In the following figure, notice in particular how the distinction between the title bar, the menu bar, and the window border are removed in subsequent versions of Windows.

window chrome_smaller

Different styling of application windows in (from top to bottom) Windows 7, Windows 8, and Windows 10.

You might wonder, which affordances does this affect? Take a look at the old documentation on how to manipulate windows. In particular, I notice two major changes which bother me.

Resizing windows: 


Resizing windows in Windows 7.
In Windows 7, there was a visible border above which the mouse pointer changed to a resize icon. There was thus an easy visible target to point to when resizing windows.Resizing windows in Windows 10.

In Windows 10, all borders (except the top border) are invisible. To resize a window you need to hover over the empty area surrounding the window in order for the resize option to appear. Even more challenging is resizing the top right corner. Try figuring out where the resize option appears, as opposed to where the close button lights up! This is complicated immensely since the top border is visible (but overlayed by the close button starting from Windows 8), and the side border is invisible. Hovering over this area is quirky and unpredictable to say the least.

Moving windows:

The title bar can be used to move the application window using the mouse (click and drag). However, in Windows 10 there is no longer a visible separation between the title bar and the menu bar. [UPDATE: Microsoft has since released an update reintroducing colored title bars.] Note that the menu bar can not be used to drag the window. The pointing task to move a window is thus complicated since there are no visual clues to determine whether a window can be dragged from a given position (not even on hover). However, since it seems the menu bar has been removed for modern Windows applications, this is mainly a problem for classic desktop applications (and will be until they are phased out).

Discussion

In line with the concept of affordances, Microsoft’s user experience checklist for desktop applications states the following:

Never require users to click an object to determine if it is clickable. Users must be able to determine clickability by visual inspection alone.

  • Primary UI (such as commit buttons) must have a static click affordance. Users shouldn’t have to hover to discover primary UI.
  • Secondary UI (such as secondary commands or progressive disclosure controls) can display their click affordance on hover.
  • […]

For your convenience, the definitions (taken from Microsoft’s glossary) of some of the more obscure concepts listed above:

commit button—A command button used to commit to a task, proceed to the next step in a multi-step task, or cancel a task. […]
primary command—A central action that fulfills the primary purpose of a window. For example, Print is a primary command for a Print dialog box. […]
secondary command—A peripheral action that, while helpful, isn’t essential to the purpose of the window. For example, Find Printer or Install Printer are secondary commands for a Print dialog box. […]
progressive disclosure—A technique of allowing users to display less commonly used information (typically, data, options, or commands) as needed. For example, if more options are sometimes needed, users can expose them in context by clicking a chevron button.

Using this terminology it can thus be argued Microsoft now considers window operations to be ‘secondary commands’, as opposed to ‘primary commands’. Personally I don’t find what in essence are invisible UI components good design, regardless of whether their functionality becomes visible on hover. More importantly, the lack of any visual distinction (even on hover) between the title bar and the menu bar contradicts Microsoft’s own design guidelines. It seems like usability took a backseat to styling, just for the sake of having a ‘flat’ look.

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Core Values Theory: Hacking Emotions

Underwood: “And you don’t make decisions on emotions?” Tusk: “Decisions based on emotions aren’t decisions at all. They’re instincts, … which can be of value. The rational and the irrational complement each other. Individually they’re far less powerful.”

This exchange between the manipulative protagonist Frank Underwood and billionaire Raymond Tusk in House of Cards highlights a key argument I’ve been raising during discussions on relationships for years—decisions based on emotions aren’t decisions at all. It sets the scene for a rational account on relationships I’ve come to refer to as ‘core values theory‘ during many heated conversations late into the night. My own understanding of the concept, based on nothing else but the experience of life, seems to have solidified sufficiently in order to recount it here. Although you are reading a software design blog, don’t expect anything IT related beyond the title “Hacking Emotions” from here on out.

What do you want?

what do you want

Seems like a simple question doesn’t it? “What do you want in life?” The truth though is that the majority of people you ask this question either greet you with a blank stare, or simply state they “just want to be happy”. Try it out for yourself! Next time, rather than discussing the newest episode of Game of Thrones, catch a friend off guard by asking this very question. You might be surprised to discover a general consensus that we are all just pawns in the grand scheme of things; passive bystanders whose roles are limited to either jumping on the passing train, or waiting for the next one. “Carpe Diem” offers a rich perspective on life, make the most out of each moment, but does it exclude glancing at the train schedule so you know where you are headed?

The problem with the blank stare, or solely relying on emotions to decide on a course of action, is you assume a passive role in life. You let your environment decide for you and simply express approval or disapproval. You do not grow as a person—you do not learn what it is that makes you happy or unhappy, what your goal is in life. Ultimately, it is counterproductive; simply pursuing the experience of happiness does not guarantee it in the long run, as you do not gain an understanding of how to maintain it. A case in point being our current materialistic society; quick-fix possessions do not lead to true happiness, on the contrary, it is self-destructive.

In his book “The 7 habits of highly effective people”, Stephen R. Covey’s advocates becoming aware of one’s own internal ‘maps’: where you stand, and where you want to be headed.

Each of us has many, many maps in our head, which can be divided into two main categories: maps of the way things are, or realities, and maps of the way things should be, or values. We interpret everything we experience through these mental maps. We seldom question their accuracy; we’re usually even unaware that we have them. – Stephen R. Covey

Far from being a book I would recommend, it still contains valuable ideas, including the suggestion of being proactive as opposed to reactive in lifeBeing proactive does not simply mean taking matter into your own hands, but also implies identifying that which concerns you, in order to work towards enlarging your influence on that which truly matters to you. It implies a positive stance in life, asking yourself “What can I do?”, rather than “Why does this happen to me?”, the result of which is a rewarding sense of empowerment.

Part of what makes us human is we do not have control over our emotions. It is outside of our circle of influence, but most definitely within our circle of concern. How then, to take a proactive stance when emotions are involved?

So, what DO you want?

Relationships, being one of the most fundamental building blocks in life, give rise to the strongest of emotions: love, hate, loneliness, jealousy, … and happiness. While I imagine that most people readily agree with the earlier quote from House of Cards, I have yet to meet anyone that truly applies it in all aspects of life, including relationships. On the contrary, mainstream culture seems to disregard any sense of rationality when it comes to love. Love is impenetrable to human thought, and should be left to destiny. Media does a good job of reinforcing this simplistic view, even in nontraditional “Once upon a time …” movies: “It just happened. […] I just woke up one day and I knew.” – 500 Days of Summer

Unless you aren’t looking for ‘happy ever after’, the problem is relationships (and marriages) also “just happen” to end because “the love is gone“. This common view on relationships is a reactive one.

One of my most controversial viewpoints in life is that relationships should not be dictated by feelings. I look at emotions as a manifestation of an underlying cause which you do have some level of control over. I am not declaring war on feelings here. Feelings (or lack thereof) are useful signposts put up by your body. However, it is your mind’s job to follow the right ones and decide where to go. A proactive approach by no means guarantees a ‘happy ever after’, but more importantly increases your awareness of what you are looking for and allows you to learn from past experiences (what to repeat, and what not to repeat). I do not believe in relationships built solely on top of feelings, and consider them a fruitless endeavor; emotional roller-coasters that make you feel alive, but in the end you still need to exit the theme park.

There is a need to identify who you are, what you want in life, i.e. to identify your identity—your core. As often expressed: “Find yourself before you find love.”

Core Values

In a nutshell, core values theory advocates identifying objective values you expect your partner to have in a relationship, based on your expectations in life. They are testable, meaning, as you get to know someone, you can objectively judge whether or not they fit these criteria. They are ‘core‘ values in the sense that they make up your identity; changing them would imply changing your nature, your personality. Emotions do not come into play. Within Stephen R. Covey’s diagram it could be depicted as an unbendable center you are unwilling to change.

core_values_theory

Ironically, a common response to this is “But how can you be so picky? If one thing on the list doesn’t work out, you give up? You do not open up yourself to new experiences”. The truth though is most people already have a similar list, but just aren’t aware about it. By externalizing and objectifying it for some reason it becomes a faux pas. Their list however is usually longer, transient, more restrictive than the core values I am talking about here, and includes subjective values like “it needs to feel right”, or “it needs to be love at first sight”. The ‘list’ is nothing more than a mental exercise, identifying key aspects in your life on which to make more rational decisions when clouded by emotion, or even in the absence of emotion. If anything, it is more in line with the idiom, “There are plenty of fish in the sea”, recognizing you are not after ‘the one’, but after anyone you can fully respect, and love.

There is some reasoning behind this madness. Firstly, you should not think less of your spouse; a relationship is built on mutual respect. In the case of conflicting core values I argue this is unsustainable. It easily turns into recurrent arguments throughout the relationship, where you want to out-argue the other, causing resentment and loss of respect. Secondly, you should not expect to change or ‘fix’ your partner in a relationship; do not expect the core values of your partner to change, it is outside of your circle of influence. Your energy should be focused elsewhere, where you can actually make a change, and where you can still discover yourself.

This ‘theory’ has some controversial implications. There is nothing wrong with dating someone you have no feelings for, yet are sexually attracted to. Consider it an opportunity to discover your core values. From my own experience I can tell you either feelings will follow, or you learn something new about yourself to take with you into subsequent relationships. But more importantly, a breakup should be indicative of discovering a mismatch in core values, which makes it less of a loss, and more of a learning experience.

Conclusion

This perspective on relationships comes at a price. Most people want to be swept off their feet, where emotions take center stage. I’m a rational person, and prefer placing rationality at the center. Either way, the stage is big enough, and there is room for both. It might seem hard to believe in a long-term relationship with such conflicting perspectives, but luckily, a rational center is not a core value to me. I know I can learn a lot from an emotional counterpart, and I like to think this works both ways.

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Generic TypeConverter for XAML

TypeConverter‘s in WPF are part of the underlying mechanism which allow you to assign values to attributes of complex types within XAML using plain strings. For example, whenever you specify Point‘s.

<LinearGradientBrush StartPoint="0,0" EndPoint="1,1">

Typically, you specify a TypeConverter for a certain type by applying the TypeConverterAttribute to it.

[TypeConverterAttribute( typeof( PointConverter ) )]
public struct Point : IFormattable

Since attribute arguments cannot use type parameters, this prevents you from specifying a generic TypeConverter for a generic class. I came across this issue while implementing a type converter to support specifying instances of my generic Interval class from XAML. The following is not possible.

// attribute argument cannot use type parameters
[TypeConverter( typeof( IntervalTypeConverter<T, TSize> ) )]
public class Interval<T, TSize>

However, you can write a non-generic TypeConverter which is capable of converting strings to several different target types. When using XAML you can obtain a IDestinationTypeProvider service through the context which is passed to the ConvertFrom method. From here you can retrieve the fully specified target type, including generic type parameters. Through reflection you can then call a Parse method on the specific type to take care of initializing an instance of the desired type. An example for Interval can be found in my library.

public override object ConvertFrom(
    ITypeDescriptorContext context,
    CultureInfo culture,
    object value )
{
    var typeProvider =
      (IDestinationTypeProvider)context.GetService( typeof( IDestinationTypeProvider ) );
    Type targetType = typeProvider.GetDestinationType();

    // ... convert to desired target type using a parsing method

    return base.ConvertFrom( context, culture, value );
}

However, it is important to note that this type provider will only work for XAML, since the IDestinationTypeProvider service is only provided by XAML’s ServiceProviderContext. It is thus not desirable to add this TypeProvider to types which work independent from XAML, like my Interval class. In addition this would require referencing the System.Xaml assembly.

How then to make XAML use this type provider without applying the attribute to the type definition? One option is applying the TypeConverter attribute on a per-property basis.

The per-property type converter technique is particularly useful if you choose to use a property type from Microsoft .NET Framework or from some other library where you cannot control the class definition and cannot apply a TypeConverterAttribute there.

However, this implies a lot of redundancy, having to apply the attribute to every property of that specific type. Using TypeDescriptor.AddAttributes() you can assign a TypeConverter at runtime.

TypeDescriptor.AddAttributes(
  typeof( Interval<,> ),
  new TypeConverterAttribute( typeof( IntervalTypeConverter ) ) );

Any subsequent TypeDescriptor.GetConverter() call will then return the converter for the specified type. Unfortunately this does not work for XAML, since XAML does not seem to take component modifications at runtime into account. Therefore, in order for this to work, we need to implement this runtime behavior ourselves. Recall that XAML does load TypeConverter‘s specified in TypeConverterAttribute‘s. We can thus use a special type converter which redirects its implementation to a converter loaded through TypeDescriptor to hook into XAML’s type conversion runtime. I implemented a RedirectTypeConverter which can be used as a base class for this exact purpose. Each of its methods first ensures the converter is initialized using TypeDescriptor, and then redirects the call to this converter. When TypeDescriptor.GetConverter( _type ) returns the redirecting type converter itself, this means no converter was specified using TypeDescriptor, hence no conversion is supported for this type.

protected RedirectTypeConverter( Type type )
{
	_type = type;
}

public override object ConvertFrom(
	ITypeDescriptorContext context,
	CultureInfo culture,
	object value )
{
	InitializeConverter();
	return _converter.ConvertFrom( context, culture, value );
}

public void InitializeConverter()
{
	if ( _converter != null )
	{
		return;
	}

	_converter = TypeDescriptor.GetConverter( _type );
	if ( _converter.GetType() == GetType() )
	{
		string message = string.Format(
		  "Conversion failed. Converter for {0} is missing in TypeDescriptor.", _type );
		throw new InvalidOperationException( message );
	}
}
class RedirectIntervalTypeConverter : RedirectTypeConverter
{
	public RedirectIntervalTypeConverter()
		: base( typeof( Interval<,> ) )
	{
	}
}

Applying this converter using TypeConverterAttribute to generic types thus allows redirecting type conversion to a converter which supports multiple target types in environments which provide information about the target type (like XAML using IDestinationTypeProvider). You only need to add the converter once, and it will be supported for all of your dependency properties using them.

TypeDescriptor.AddAttributes(
  typeof( Interval<,> ),
  new TypeConverterAttribute( typeof( IntervalTypeConverter ) ) );

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