Removing the brown M&M’s

There’s a tale of supposed rock star excess, originally told of Van Halen and since attributed to many other groups and divas, about brown M&M’s. They would demand, so the story goes, a bowl of M&M’s in their dressing room, but with the brown ones removed, and there would be a fit of petulance should an errant brown M&M be discovered.

It sounds like an urban myth, but Van Halen’s singer, David Lee Roth, revealed in his autobiography that there was truth in it, and good reason for it. In the age of 1970’s stadium shows, the planning and execution took on previously unknown complexity. Truckloads of lighting rigs and sound systems would precede the band to the venue, and this gear would need to be set up to a high degree of technical precision; the girders and flooring had to support the weight, there had to be a specific number of sockets with certain amperage, etc. If a small error was made in the setting up, it could spell disaster for the show.

As a way of testing the attention to detail of the venue’s staff, Van Halen’s rider would contain the request for a bowl of M&M’s, with a clause hidden away in the pages of the contract, stating that all of the brown M&M’s should be removed. Arriving at the venue, they would head straight to the dressing room and check the bowl. If there were no brown M&M’s, they could relax, confident that attention had been paid to detail, and the show would go without incident. But if brown M&M’s were discovered in the bowl, invariably there would be other details missed, and errors would unfold throughout the show.

I was reminded of this anecdote yesterday as I evaluated a product offered by two different companies. The first company’s sales rep answered the phone after two rings, took interest in my specific requirements, enthusiastically gave me a live demo there and then and followed the call with an email containing all the details I might need. The second company engaged me in a live chat then took 5 minutes to respond to my initial question about pricing. Their response was that they didn’t know and could I try finding the info on the website! I couldn’t. I then tried calling the sales number, and was placed in a call queue. Three times. I never got to talk to anyone.

The first company made me feel relaxed and confident about entering into a contract with them. The user experience was good from the off. The second company – well it’s probably best for us both that we don’t pursue a relationship. After an initial experience like that, I’d be the kind of user that would thereafter find brown M&M’s everywhere I looked.

So now when I evaluate products, I think it useful to ask, “what would Van Halen do?” And if I find brown M&M’s in the bowl? Well, I’ll kick a hole in the dressing room door and trash the buffet.

Originally published on The Red Gate User Experience team blog