'Curse you, users' redux

An old friend weighs in on the topics of users and usability.

Last week we were discussing feedback from my April column "Curse You, Users."

I must relate a final response from reader Don Capps: "I'm a computer scientist and an ex-supercomputer engineer who specializes in operating systems (VM, filesystems code analysis, performance and what not). After almost 20 years in the business I've learned to answer the question, 'What do you do' with the following: 'I'm a CS janitor'. My job is to clean up the huge software messes that everyone else makes. So ... you must be the IT Janitor. Glad to meet you :-)"

COLUMN: Curse you, users

Aha! We're all IT janitors! That explains everything!

Anyway, at the end of last week's column I promised to publish my old friend Winn Schwartau's riposte to the original column.

Shortly after Winn read the column he emailed me to say, "I agreed with the premise and then I got mad at you." So, without further ado, here are Winn's thoughts ...

The Dirtiest Word: Counterspin to Backspin, by Winn Schwartau

"What is the dirtiest four letter word in the English language?" I've asked hundreds of audiences this question and their answers range from the sublime to the outrageous while hundreds of blushing faces avert their eyes. Then I suffix the question with, "with regards to information security."

The audience relief is palpable as they shout out five and six letter words to everyone's amusement. And then someone finally shouts out "User." (The word I was searching for was different, but that's for a different article.)

Then, as Mark Gibbs did in his "Curse You Users" article, the audience and I collectively rant about security, poor education, awareness and user (in)competence. I am appreciative of his phrase, "digital literacy," and sympathize, but that's where he and I disagree.

Instead of exclusively blaming the user, I have come to a vastly different conclusion. We, the IT community, the high priests of the information age, are truly to blame. Because we tend to understand what goes on under the hood of intelligent device, we similarly appear to expect the mere user to be just as digitally literate. And that's just not going to happen.

Metaphor time: Google a picture of the cockpit of a modern airliner. How many switches, dials, readouts and controls do you see, and how many hundreds of hours of training are required to safely operate that highly complex machine?

Now, consider the dashboard of any car. The most complex set of controls are the entertainment system and deciphering how to reset the clock. The rest of the car is simplicity itself.

Without picking on any one vendor, let's migrate this thinking to IT. How many options are there in a modern operating system? How many of those options are accessible by the user, who, in fits and starts of frustration or in the desire to learn how to perform a particular task themselves, click, pull down and choose (Yes/No) only to ruin performance or usability with little hope of return?

Now think about the iPhone or iPad. How many options are there for the user to muck things up? A couple of orders of magnitude less, for sure.

Vendors, enterprise geeks and technical enthusiasts are demanding, creating and delivering entirely too many features, unnecessary complexity, and mind-numbing techno-babble to more than a billion people whose sole desire is to search for lost classmates, watch painful YouTube videos and plagiarize term papers.

For the poor, undereducated user who expects instant gratification in less than two clicks, we have given more choices, more options and more complexity with the end result being, as Mark says, a pile of "ba-doo." Whose fault is that?

Retail market studies show that the more choices a user has on the grocery shelves is directly proportional to how much less he will buy.

I use Word on both a PC and a Mac. I assume Mark Gibbs uses Word. But I cannot begin to fathom why I need 145,981 different options (I made that up, but it feels like it) to write a column like this. What does the average user really need?

Ergo, I suggest that vendors introduce a simple way to switch between a few options: 1) For the beginner who wants three fonts and to write, 2) For the intermediate user who wants more features (list) and 3) advanced users who really needs every option known to man.

Same thing goes for operating systems. The enterprise needs a boatload of backend capabilities to manage complex business-enabling infrastructures. But please, for the love of the Help Desk, downtime, user frustration and productivity, only give the digitally illiterate user "who won't learn" just the basics he needs to do email, browse and a few other simple tasks.

Longtime friend and colleague Dr. Eugene Schultz and I talked about this exact problem several years ago at a government security conference. He said, "I do not understand why, after more than 30 years, we have not built a self-healing operating system." Why, we agreed, should a user have to become fluent in complexities of defending their computers from the vast plethora of attack vectors? Should we really expect them to do that in the midst of their daily lives?

Why are hundreds of millions of smart phones consumerizing the enterprise? In large part because they are simple. Anyone can use them. Apps are simple, as per my wish list above. Ten billion downloads in a couple of years tells us what the user wants: simplicity, only the tools they need, a really cool UI and a paycheck.

Sure, users will always be dumb. They will shift into second gear instead of drive and hit the highway at 70 mph only to burn out their transmission. Auto manufacturers design for what I call the Dumbest Common Denominator, and in that regard, I agree with Mark's assessment of users.

On the other hand, in so many ways, the IT community can be legitimately accused of Epic Fail. We have overestimated them beyond comprehension and that is our fault. There are three million of us geeks and three billion of them. Mark and I are both right, but seem to disagree on how high the digital literacy bar should be.

Winn Schwartau, winn@alwayschaos.com, is one of the world's top experts on security, privacy, infowar, cyberterrorism and related topics. (He also highly recommends Backspin. Really.)

Gibbs is en garde in Ventura, Calif. Your parry and thrust to backspin@gibbs.com.

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