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There's an App for That

If you haven't watched HBO's Barry, stop reading and go binge all three seasons. Now.

Spoilers for season three ahead.

Barry is an assassin, but...well, not the cool kind. He's good at what he does but he doesn't have his life together. He can't focus on his girlfriend, he's sandwiched between two rival gangs, his mentor hates him (killing someone's partner tends to have that effect), and his old handler is out to get him.

It's one of those newer shows that shouldn't work, at least on paper; it's a dark comedy with a sprinkling of absurdism, focusing on anything from changing who you are to the pitfalls of fame. It's even got a forbidden-love arc between the leaders of the Bolivian and Chechen mafia. Again: weird. But good.

In the latest episode, All the Sauces, we're again served that heavenly mixture of crime and humour: Barry plants a bomb beneath a house, but it's controlled through a Detonator app.

Hank, the person who ordered the hit, signs him up for the app, clicking "track my location" and "send me deals and newsletters" enthusiastically. Some of the interface is in English, while warnings are spoken in Korean and Japanese.

When it comes time to detonate, Barry connects via Bluetooth, then clicks a big red button in the centre of the screen to detonate. Nothing happens, and the scene cuts to Barry on the phone with customer service. "How can we assist you today?" "Yeah, I'm having trouble connecting to my bomb to my device."

It's a ridiculous scene, including the slight frustration of Barry going through the standard customer care suggestions (connect to wifi, restart your bluetooth, turn your device on and off again) before the bomb finally detonates. The agent says "Okay, sounds like we were successful. Is there anything else we can help you with today?"

Let's make this scenario even more ridiculous by adding some suggestions for the UX:

  • Improve localization. Some of the warnings are delivered in multiple languages.

  • Show system status. The system doesn't provide an error message when the detonator button fails to function.

  • Better convenience. Barry had to call to get his issue fixed; a help article or in-app suggestions to get it working again would have been less of a hassle.

  • Tone & Voice. The UI is incredibly upbeat and silly to the point of distracting from the main goal of, you know, detonation.

The reason this scene is so successful is that we've all been there: we're not out planting bombs, but we are trying to get food delivered, pay our water bill, and reply to messages. We've had that moment of frustration when an app doesn't work like we expect it to. Barry's completed unrelatable moment is suddenly charged with empathy, because that's something that binds us: the pains of bad UX.


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