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Category: Design

Battle to the death (metaphorically) when getting customer support over the phone, thanks to the new “phone support roguelike” text adventure system! Customer support will never be the same again.

Background:

Sometimes, getting technical support from a company requires making an actual phone call. Like the audio / voice kind that people used to do in old movies!

Typically, one ends up in an “on hold” scenario in which soothing music is intermittently interrupted by the message “representatives are busy, your call will be answered in the order in which it was received.”

The Issue:

Since this is a very non-interactive process, it is easy for users to feel bored, un-engaged, and unvalued. It’s very likely that a caller will be on hold for half an hour or more, and the hold music loses some of its charm after it repeats five times. (If you want to re-live the experience, try searching for Cisco CallManager Hold Music).

Proposal:

Instead of just having the calls answered in the same order they are received, a company could reward the most attentive callers with faster service—in other words make the customers prove their dedication and loyalty!

Here are three proposals that will accomplish this:

Proposal #1 of 3: “Arbitrary Questions”

This is the simplest to implement (Figure 1): while on hold, a caller will need to occasionally answer simple questions (e.g. “What is two plus two?”). If the user pays attention and answers the question correctly, they remain in their position in the customer support queue. But if they make a mistake or fail to answer, they move down in the queue. Thus, attentive callers get faster service.

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Fig. 1: This “customer support flowchart” shows a hypothetical “Arbitrary Question”-based customer service queue. Note that in this case, the penalty for failure is extremely high—complete disconnection! This makes it the world’s first “customer support on-hold roguelike game.”

Proposal #2 of 3: “Text Adventure”

This proposal is inspired by text adventure video games (e.g. Zork) or the famous series of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. In this system, instead of being presented with simple math questions, the user is asked to survive in a fantasy adventure.

An example text-adventure-themed question might be:

“Your party of adventurers encounters a horrifying army of mummies in the crypt. Do you:

  • 1) Attack them with your mace
  • 2) Throw a lit torch onto their ragged forms
  • 3) Try to retreat
  • 4) Try to convince them that your quest is noble”

This system has the disadvantage of requiring more effort to write, but it has the advantage of potentially being more engaging to the audience*. ([*] This requires that the questions are tailored to the audience correctly: users of a municipal railway line might not as enthused about the mummy-crypt example above as customers for an online board game store would be.)

Proposal #3 of 3: “Battle Royale / Thunderdome Tournament Brackets”

In this system, a tournament bracket is generated to include all callers in a specific interval of time (say, 5 minutes). These users are then pitted against each other in one-on-one trivia battle: whoever answer the most questions correctly advances in the technical support queue, while the loser is moved down in the queue.

This could reward the most loyal fans of a company, since the trivia questions could be themed around that specific company (e.g. an Apple technical support call might ask “Which of these individuals was a co-creator of the original Apple Macintosh?” and then have a list of names).

Conclusion:

All of these systems allow the “on hold” process to be more engaging, thus (presumably) increasing brand loyalty and customer satisfaction.

PROS: Adds a sense of danger and adventure to even the most trivial technical support question.

CONS: If you call for customer support, but you don’t know that much about the product, you might ALWAYS have to wait for hours while the true fans destroy you in (say) Samsung-themed trivia questions.

Behold the natural evolution of “in-game purchases” for video games: instead of “pay to win,” this new system is “pay to lose” or “pay to not be able to play at all.”

Background:

The financial model of the video game industry now makes heavy use of in-game purchases (“microtransactions” / “DLC” (downloadable content) / “loot boxes”). These supplementary purchases frequently bring in more revenue than traditional sales.

Most transactions fall into these categories:

  • Pay for additional content: the “expansion pack” model. This is old-fashioned, but still exists.
  • Pay for cosmetic items (e.g. “pay 5 dollars and you get a helmet shaped like a giant bird”)
  • Pay to skip the grind (e.g. “pay 10 dollars to get to level 100 and be able to use the best sword, rather than playing the game for 100 hours).
  • Pay to win (for multiplayer games, e.g. “pay 5 dollars, and in the next 5 matches, your tanks will reload twice as fast”). Frequently seen in mobile games.

Proposal:

Conspicuously absent from these models are “pay to stop being addicted to the game” and “pay to force myself to become a more responsible adult.”

Below are a few proposed new categories of in-game purchase wherein a user would pay in order to play less of the game (Figure 1):

  • Pay to cause the game to automatically quit if you’ve been playing for more than an hour.
  • Pay to prevent the game from running at all until after your taxes are filed.
  • Pay to prevent playing the game after 11:00 PM on a work night / school night.
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Fig. 1: These new in-game purchase options would be irresistible for an individual with an important presentation to give in a few days, but who couldn’t bring themselves to stop playing this addictive game. “Pay to lose” may seem counterintuitive, but it opens up a large number of surprising new microtransaction options.

PROS: Increases civic virtue and personal responsibility.

CONS: May reduce overall game revenue, since this process would tend to kick out the bigger spenders.

 

 

Improve your car with the new bicycle-bell-inspired “secondary car horn” option. Now you’ll have options besides just honking at people! Unless you are a goose, in which case that will remain your only option.

The issue:

Imagine that you are driving a car down a narrow road and you see a person unloading groceries from a car trunk.

There are two common options:

  1. Continue driving: hope the person unloading the car doesn’t walk out into the street
  2. Honk the horn, to inform the person unloading the car that you are there

The second one is safer, but is considered extremely rude.

Thus, in real-world scenarios, most people will probably politely run over the car-unloading pedestrian rather than honk potentially unnecessarily.

The root problem here is that there is no “polite” way for a driver inform others of their presence. This is also becoming more of a problem as quieter electric cars become more common (so the car engine isn’t generating a “hey nearby people, a car is running” sound at all times).

Proposal:

This was solved ages ago for bicycles with the traditional bicycle bell, which conveys the sentiment “in case you weren’t aware, a bike is passing by!”

The car horn, on the hand, conveys the accusative sentiment “hey, you have committed some major driving error!”

What is needed is the bike-bell equivalent for a car—a “more polite” horn (Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: Left: a traditional steering wheel only features a startling “honk extremely loudly” option. Right: we can add a bicycle-bell-inspired “chime to inform pedestrians of a car nearby” button as an alternative to the normal car horn.

Conclusion:

Why isn’t this a feature, anyway? It seems like this should have been standard on cars since the mid-1980s.

PROS: Improves public safety and may reduce the number of people run over every year.

CONS: Adds one cent to the manufacturing cost of the steering wheel.

Avoid being stressed out by non-stop negative news with this new local news app idea, which will report positive happenings as well! And if there aren’t any, it will fabricate them out of nothing, so don’t trust it too much!

Background:

There are many phone apps that provide neighborhood-focused local news updates in real time (e.g. “Nextdoor” and “Citizen”).

This can make a person aware of every single burglary, car accident, “suspicious dog,” and other strange happening that may occur in their general vicinity.

The issue:

While this information can be useful, it often leads to an unrealistically alarming and paranoia-inducing view of daily life.

For example, in a large city, a person is almost always within a mile or two of a robbery or burglary, and these apps will constantly ping the user that crimes are being committed on a non-stop basis in the user’s immediate area.

Proposal:

In order to combat this relentless deluge of negative news, we suggest a modification of the local news app to provide a more “balanced” coverage of what’s actually going on in a neighborhood (Figure 1).

For example, perhaps someone snatched a purse from a cafe, but also at that same time, a kindly neighbor rescued someone’s cat from a tree.

In a “normal” news app, only the purse-snatching would be reported, but here we also report the cat rescue.

 

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Fig. 1: A neighborhood news app tends to only report gruesome happenings and dangerous things (left). This makes sense, but it also encourages a pessimistic view of one’s neighborhood. On the right, we see a “balanced” number of positive items as well: for example, the negative item “Horse theft” is balanced out by a new map marker for the positive item “very contented horse.”

Conclusion:

If we want to design this app in an extra-cynical fashion, it could just completely fabricate all of the positive situations. As an example, it could randomly populate neighborhoods with fictitious feel-good news like “jogger is complimented on their nice hat” or “dog-walker is high-fived by impressed neighbor.” The fabrications will be harder to detect, since there is no local government department dedicated to collecting statistics on cool and uplifting local happenings. Note: this scenario may negatively affect the reputation of the app if the truth is revealed.

PROS: May reduce the stress of urban living and counteract some of the negative features of constant news updates.

CONS: Crucial “negative” news (e.g. “Huge fire approaching! Evacuate!”) could be drowned out by nonsense like “Extra-fluffy cat spotted at corner of Main and 2nd!”

Don’t get on another video chat until you’ve fixed your crazy mountain-dweller hair with this incredible “green screen wig” lifehack!

Background:

When on a meeting with video chat, people generally like to look at least vaguely professional / presentable, even if they just rolled out of bed 5 minutes before the meeting.

The issue:

There are two main problems in video chat for people who want to project a corporate-approved professional image:

  1. The background should look non-disastrous.
  2. The person taking the call should not look like they have been living in a cave for weeks (Figure 1).

Several videoconferencing applications have solved problem #1 by adding a “virtual green screen” feature, which can automatically transform the user’s messy room into an expensive-looking modern mansion interior (e.g. the house from the movie Parasite).

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Fig. 1: This videoconferencing individual may be harshly judged for their unkempt appearance. If only there was a technical solution to this (besides using a comb)!

Proposal:

Fortunately, we can use the exact same green screen technology to allow the user to fix up their hair situation.

The implementation is simple: the user wears a cut-out green screen “hat” (Figure 2) that allows the computer to superimpose a flowing mane of magnificent hair behind them. Hair problem: solved!

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Fig. 2: The head-attached green screen could be secured in place by a hairband, or it could be glued to the front of a pair of headphones.

PROS: Should save millions of hours per year in hair maintenance for videoconferencers.

CONS: May promote a new standard of unrealistically majestic hair.

Stop procrastinating—accomplish items on your to-do list! This new candy-based “Kanban board” will amaze and shock you when it doubles your productivity! Results not guaranteed.

Background:

One popular method of organizing items that need to be done is the “Kanban board” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanban_board) (e.g. the web site Trello).

Conceptually, this resembles a to-do list with categories as columns. Each item to be done a single sticky note (Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: Here is a basic Kanban-style to-do “list” with sticky notes on a whiteboard. Some of these tasks are quite annoying, and may be postponed for a long time! That snake will have the run of the garage forever, at this rate.

The issue:

Unfortunately, it’s often hard to get motivated to do items on a to-do list, especially if there is no appealing inherent reward.

Proposal:

In order to fix this procrastination-promoting scenario, we simply use clear tape to affix a pice of candy to each to each sticky note (Figure 2).

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Fig. 2: The board above has been modified in a cheap and easy-to-set-up manner: a single piece of candy is taped to each not-yet-completed task.

When a person completes a task, they are allowed to eat the piece of candy that is taped to the task’s card.

For especially time-consuming tasks (e.g. “file taxes”), one could imagine taping several dozen small chocolates to the note in order to provide sufficient motivation.

PROS: Allows even the most unrepentant procrastinator to get motivated to accomplish a task.

CONS: May have negative health consequences for people who are especially productive, thus reducing their overall productivity. A paradox indeed.

The “NO SNACKS!” credit card is the latest premier credit card idea—you won’t believe it, but people will (probably) pay extra for a credit card that is objectively worse in every way! Look inside for an incredible dieting secret.

Background:

Part 1: Some credit cards provide special bonus features, such as a discount on certain purchases, “airline miles” that can be redeemed for plane tickets, or extended warranties on certain purchases.

Part 2: When attempting to eat healthy foods, the battle is often lost at the supermarket: it’s easy to buy a gallon of ice cream and 800 gummy worms, and obviously you’ve got to eat these things once you’ve purchased them.

Proposal:

Thus, we propose a “restricted” credit card (Figure 1) that could operate in one of two ways:

1) It prohibits certain items from being purchased (i.e. junk food is blocked at point of sale).

or

2) It adds a 100% “you are cheating on your diet” tax to these prohibited items.

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Fig. 1: Left: a regular credit card. Right: a special restricted-use credit card that would make it easier to not buy junk food. The note on the front is intended for the cashier (“Do not allow the bearer of this card to buy snacks / junk food!”), in a manner similar to the (generally ignored) “CHECK ID!!!” message that people sometimes put on their credit cards.

 

Implementation of this process could be straightforward, as it would have a high degree of overlap with the existing “restricted items” list that is already in place for government food assistance (“food stamps” / “SNAP”), as seen in the unusually specific list of ineligible items below:

https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/eligible-food-items
Households cannot use SNAP benefits to buy:
  * Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, or tobacco
  * Live animals (except shellfish, fish removed from water, and
                  animals slaughtered prior to pick-up from the store)
  * Prepared Foods fit for immediate consumption
  * Hot foods
  * [and additional items]

This restricted-use credit card would operate in a roughly similar manner, although it would presumably be unrestricted when dealing with non-food items (i.e. you could still use it to buy an umbrella or car battery).

PROS: Could help promote a healthy diet, thus increasing quality of life and reducing overall national health care expenditure.

CONS: May be difficult to sell people on the idea of “a credit card, but more expensive and less useful.”

Never get on the wrong train again (assuming your city has a functional public transit system), thanks to these new musical cues—enjoy country music and/or smooth jazz on your entire commute! Also, it’s the same songs every single day.

The issue:

In cities with extensive public transit systems, it can be easy to get on the wrong bus/train/subway or miss your stop.

Obviously, an astute transit-taker could realize their mistake by noticing the following:

  • Stop names being verbally announced
  • Stop names being indicated on a screen, even on buses.
  • In some places, different metro stations may have a distinctive jingle that plays. This “train melody” can be unique for each station.
  • And now that essentially everyone has a cell phone, a rider can also check their position with their phone’s GPS.

But we can still improve things further!

Proposal:

In order to make the “train melodies” even more informative—and make it less likely that you’ll get on the wrong train—the following system is proposed:

  • While moving, each train (or bus, subway, etc…) plays a song the entire time it is moving between stops.
  • These songs are specific to each pair of stations and direction: so there is a particular song that plays from Station A to Station B, and a different song that plays from Station B to Station A (or we could play the same music, but backwards).
  • The song durations are chosen to be the approximate amount of time that it takes the train to travel between the two stations. So a passenger has a general idea of when they’re about to arrive at the next stop, since they will notice that they’re coming to the end of the song.
  • And here is the key additional innovation: each transit line (e.g. a train line or bus route) has a different genre of music: see details in Figure 1.
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Fig. 1: Each dot in this transit map represents a station, and the four colors represent different lines (a “Green Line,” “Red Line,” etc.). Each line plays a different genre of music: e.g. the Green Line could play American country western (serving the journeys indicated by “A” and “B” above) while the Blue Line plays 1980s German industrial music (which would regale passengers on the commute indicated in “D” above). This will allow each reader to have an immediate intuitive understanding of which line they’re on.

This sort of music-genre-specific train melody also makes it extremely obvious when you’re on the wrong train at a transfer station: you might not notice that you’re on the wrong train if two lines have substantial overlap for much of their routes, but the unexpected music would make it extremely clear.

This might get complicated for bus routes: large cities have dozens (or hundreds!) of routes, so we’d have to start delving into very subtly different musical sub-genres.

PROS: May save hundreds of work hours that have been, previously, lost as a result of commuters getting on the wrong trains.

CONS: It would be very difficult to change the music selection without confusing everyone, so we would end up with a “time capsule” of musical choices from whenever this system was first implemented. It could get increasingly dated as time goes on.

Bonus Idea:

Instead of just playing random unrelated songs in a specific genre, the entire line could be calibrated to play an entire album by a specific band. This might help bring back the long-form album in a world dominated by singles, too! So maybe the “Red Line, Westbound” would also be the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” line.

 

 

 

Fix your “webcam eye contact” issues with this incredible new “swivel camera” laptop idea! Your conference calls will feature totally natural and not-at-all-unsettling eye contact from now on.

Background:

Most laptops include a built-in camera, typically located just above the top edge of the screen.

This type of camera is generally marketed as a “video chat” or “conference call” camera.

The issue:

When a person is on a video call, they tend to look at the image on the screen instead of directly at the camera. (Of course!)

So from the camera’s perspective—and the perspective of the remote video chat partner—the person using the webcam isn’t making eye contact, and is instead looking down semi-randomly.

Proposal:

We can solve the “video chat participant is not making eye contact” scenario by reducing the angle between the camera and the screen.

There are two straightforward ways to do this:

  • Solution #1: Move the laptop much farther away, so the camera and display are at nearly the same angle from the video chatter’s perspective.
  • Solution #2: Move the camera so that it is in front of the display. This is the solution we will be exploring.

Implementing Solution #1 is impractical with a laptop, since it (in most cases) needs to be relatively close to the user.

But Solution #2 is easy: we can put the camera on a swiveling arm and allow it to swing down to the middle of the screen (Figure 1).

Eye contact problems solved!

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Fig. 1: Left: a normal laptop camera. Even though the chat participants are both making eye contact with the image on their screens, they are actually looking down from the perspective of the top-mounted camera. Right: now that the camera has been “swiveled” to the center of the screen, the chat participants are making eye contact in a natural manner.

PROS: Solves the weird eye gaze issues inherent to video chatting.

CONS: Adds a new fragile plastic part to snap off your laptop.

Bonus Part 1: A simpler solution:

  • Solution #3: The camera doesn’t actually have to move in order to have its viewpoint moved to the center of the display: the same result can be achieved with a small periscope (or fiber optic cable) that hangs on the laptop lid and redirects the camera view to the center of the screen.

One could imagine that such an aftermarket attachment could be manufactured extremely cheaply. Perhaps this is a good crowdfunding opportunity!

Bonus Part 2: Overly complicated solutions:

  • Solution #4: Create a partially-transparent laptop screen and put the camera behind it. This would probably require a new and highly specialized LED panel manufacturing process.
  • Solution #5: Edit the video feed in software, changing the user’s eyes in real time to always point directly at the screen. This is probably feasible, but it could be somewhat unsettling. (See also the related “touch up my appearance” face-smoothing feature on Zoom).

Related Idea:

See also: the laptop camera prism idea for including multiple people on a single machine on a conference call.

Did you forget to lock your door? Close your garage? Turn off the lights? Well, two out of those three scenarios can be solved with this new feature that should be on every car key fob and garage remote control!

Background:

When an action is routine and uninteresting (e.g. locking a door, turning off a light, etc.), it’s sometimes hard to remember if you did it at all.

The issue:

Occasionally, people find themselves wondering “did I close the garage when I left the house?” or “did I remember to lock the car when I parked it on the street?”

Proposal:

The solution to some of these scenarios is straightforward: every remote control device could have a small LCD screen to indicate how long it has been since the last time it was used.

For example, for a garage door opener, the display might read “5 MIN. SINCE “CLOSE”.” Then you would know that you had pushed the “CLOSE DOOR” button on the remote 5 minutes ago (and thus, probably did in fact remember to close the garage door).

Since LCD displays are so cheap, this would only increasing manufacturing costs by a few cents per device. See Figure 1 for a car remote-entry key fob mockup.

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Fig. 1: This car key fob allows the owner to remotely lock or unlock their car. It now has an additional feature: an LCD display indicating when the remote was last used. With this innovation, you will never again need to ponder whether or not you remembered to lock the car!

Upgraded Version Idea:

In order to reduce complexity, the system above only checks to see the last time a button was pushed, not whether the action actually occurred (most remotes are one-way, and do not have any way of determining, for example, whether or not the garage door did, in fact, close successfully).

Thus, a logical extension of the idea above would be to put a small receiver in the remote as well, so that the garage could send back a “yep, garage door closed successfully!” message. Then the LCD screen would be able to say “GARAGE DOOR LAST CLOSED 5 MIN. AGO” instead of the (somewhat weaker) statement “BUTTON LAST PRESSED 5 MIN. AGO.”

PROS: This seems like it could legitimately be a product, and it is unclear why it is not!

CONS: Adds a 15¢ cost to each device for the LCD display and additional plastic.