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'Curse you, users' redux

Backspin By , Network World
June 23, 2011 04:47 PM ET

Network World - 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.

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