This week my youngest son started high school. In an age where  self-esteem is considered a core metric of eduction systems everywhere, many high schools hold welcome parties or special orientation days for freshmen and their helicopter parents. They give out elaborate packages of information but. naturally, the only thing in the package any of the kids really cares about is the timetable. 

And there it is. 

Can you figure this out? I can’t figure this out. My kid can’t figure this out.

We looked through the package for a decoder ring. Nope. But there were three brochures about bullying and countless bits of paper explaining why I should plan on selling a kidney to fund gym clothes, spa days and motivational speakers. Well at least he’s outgrown those damn Transformers (more on that later).

This timetable makes me sad. It makes me sad because it resembles the timetable I was handed in high school 30  25  20  well it was a while ago. Same indecipherable drivel from a scheduling algorithm, different day.

I don’t blame the algorithm. Algorithms work hard enough as it is so we shouldn’t expect them to also make their output legible and comprehensible. That’s the job of marketing. We are on the hook to make sure order forms, schedules, instructions, interfaces, invoices and policy documents are doing their jobs: communicating information, reinforcing the value proposition of the product or service, getting stuff done faster, improving customer experience, driving additional revenue, preventing lawsuits, engendering world peace etc.

So I don’t think the board of education to which I’ve surrendered my children gives a crap about marketing. Their revenue is more or less assured and I have a legal (and moral) obligation to keep my kid off the streets during daylight hours, so their services are not optional for me. But there are still countless other examples of this type of thing. Try reading your grocery receipt. What about your electricity bill? Or the statement from your media buyer? These are the remaining outposts of the Obscurocratic empire.

Obscurocracy was an unacceptable power trip a generation ago. Where the people who understood the “code” could wield this literacy over the rest of us like priests in a medieval village. Obscurocrats, Keebler Elves and the strategists in HR hid behind the ramparts of unintelligible codes while abbreviations and numbers and rained down upon us in a terrifying barrage of forms and touchtone phone mazes which ensured that only the strongest could order office supplies or renew their passports. 

Most of us with children of high school age will recall conversations with bewildered Geek Lords as we asked why the billing system couldn’t put in the whole name of the product? Why we had to type colons and backslashes and whatever those pointy things are called just to open a file. It was a system limitation it was how it worked. Nothing to be done. You wanted automation; this is what it looked like.

Bill Gates changed all that. Bill made a nifty thing that hid all that nasty stuff and gave us icons instead of command lines and queries. Then Steve came along and taught computers to think like people instead of the doomed opposite. And then he made it elegant and pretty. But while devices and interfaces got better, the stuff coming out of them didn’t. Bill and Steve probably figured they’d done their part and invoices, reports, and statements never shared the design zeitgeist  .

I think marketing too often blames this stuff on the Productivity Prevention or Customer Abuse Departments, and if they do anything about it at all, they create a “bill explainer”. The 21st century decoder ring.  If your company has a bill explainer then it also has a CRM issue.

Bill and Steve (with some help from Al Gore) also took care of our other excuses around customer misery. We don’t need to print weighty manuals in dozens of languages anymore. Our customers don’t need to replace pages 13.5.7 and 6.1.1.1.1. in their loose leaf catalogues.  There is no need for line drawings, or ridiculous things like this Transformers instruction sheet.  

They gave us online documentation, knowledge bases, user groups, live chat online videos. 

In an age where I can stuff my therapist into an iPod and look at the back of my own head on a satellite image, why can’t I decipher my kid’s timetable? I blame marketing.