My social network has dozens of cool features, but it is also a den for spammers and cyber-criminals. Ever since I subscribed to the service, spam inflow to my mailbox has increased significantly.
In order to logon to my computer, I need to provide a username and password, run a finger print and swipe a security card. It has significantly reduced unauthorized access to my computer, but I feel frustrated when I need quick access to my computer.
My Personal Digital Assistant keeps records of all my contacts and appointments, but sometimes, I wish it could also double as a mobile phone, music player and radio. It will make me move around with fewer devices.
Do any of these statements sound familiar?
At one point or another, end users like you and I will have to put up with one annoyance or the other from our work tools – be it hardware or software. When we make purchases, we expect that the product will function in a certain way. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.
Application and appliance developers are on their feet, working endlessly, trying to find the best way to create product and services that will consistently remain appealing to the end users. They provide feedback forms on their websites; sometimes make telephone calls to existing users/customers with the view to get a glimpse of the user’s experience with the product or service. The feedback exercise usually informs developers on the challenges their respective end users may be experiencing, and in turn, paves the way for developing better future releases of the product.
This journal will focus on the following consumer-related design issues:
This describes the numerous purposes to which a product can be applied. Some products are more functional than their contemporaries. A smart-phone for example stands out from non-smart-phones. In addition to basic mobile telephone functionalities, a smart-phone’s capabilities can be extended to include features that make the mobile device more intelligent and functional. Today, a mobile phone doubles as a digital camera, digital music and movie player, digital organizer, email client, and in some cases, a compass, a GPS navigation device, and a news aggregator. Instead of purchasing several devices for each purpose, one smart-phone provides all the functionalities you need. An increase in the functionality gives a product or service a much wider market appeal.
Sometimes referred to as “user friendliness”; ease-of-use describes the relative ease with which a product or service can be used. How often have you had to read through an entire user-manual in order to use a new mobile phone or computer? I imagine your response is, “Rarely”. Rarely will you find yourself in a situation where you will be required to re-learn basic use of computers all over again simply because you changed jobs or computer brands. In the event where new knowledge is inevitable, end users expect that it be as they say, “as simple as a-b-c”.
End users are more attracted to products and services that appear familiar. The steeper the learning curve, the less likely they will be willing to use the product. They typically want products and services that literally “work-out-of-the-box”. Save them the overheads of “un-learning” old knowledge and “re-learning” new ones.
Security can be viewed from various perspectives. It could be a measure of how safe the product or service is from attack or theft. In some cases, it describes the severity of an exposure to attack or theft. One question every end user of technology should always ask is, “if this piece of information is compromised, what harm can come out of it?” An examination of the potential severity of a compromise should flag a user to make necessary adjustments. End users need to understand the damage potential a security breach may cost them. The adjustments required in this case will be to minimize the possibilities of a compromise.
Developers work very hard to ensure that users enjoy the values that proceed from their products and services. They are constantly performing juggling acts in an attempt to create the “right balance” for the functionality ease-of-use and security of their products and services. In their perspective, the user must experience the best of three worlds. This is usually where the problem kicks in. The best of three implies that the user gets 100% performance from each aspect. Finding the right balance is an ever evolving issue.
I will attempt to illustrate this concept. Consider Figure 1 below – an equilateral triangle (a triangle with three equal sides). Each side is labeled to represent an aspect of the application’s design – Functionality, Ease-of-use and Security. The blue round object in the middle represents the application’s balance. Figure 1 assumes there’s a perfect balance of all aspects of the design. While this illustration suggests that the application has the best of three worlds, it also shows that no aspect has more importance than another.
Figure 1 – Finding the Right Balance
In practice, most applications are not as balanced as the illustration depicts. There is usually a skew. The skew makes the application’s balance move to indicate its current strength, while exposing its current weakness. See Figure 2, 3 and 4 below.
Figure 2 – Weak in Functionality but Strong in Ease-of-use and Security
Figure 3 – Weak in Security, but Strong in Ease-of-use and Functionality
Figure 4 – Weak in Ease-of-use, but Strong in Functionality and Security
A fundamental economic law states that you cannot make a person richer in a society without making another poorer. Resources are in limited supply. The same rule applies in technology, but pans out slightly differently. In this case, you cannot have the best of security without giving up some functionality or ease-of-use; you cannot have the best of ease-of-use without giving up some security or functionality; you cannot have the best of functionality without giving up some ease-of-use or security. Either way, something has to give. More detailed analysis on the reason behind this anomaly will be explained in subsequent journals.
Very often we find that a product with loads of security don’t appeal much to end users because they seem to find it difficult to use. Imagine a situation where you are prompted for authorization credentials (a username and password) each time you need to write data to your hard drive? You might consider this a nice security feature that will significantly reduce the chances of a virus writing itself to your hard drive. But as you use this feature progressively, you’d find that you have given up some ease-of-use. Although this might be an overly simplified example, it depicts the reality of your daily experience and the developer’s dilemma.
There is rarely a time any application has the best of the three worlds. Hackers have helped keep this truth valid. They are constantly looking for avenues to exploit applications, products, and services. Hence the best balance is one that is constantly evolving with the trends, as shown in Figure 5 below.
Figure 5 – Ever Evolving Balance
For example, having the ability to quickly lower security in order to improve ease-of-use and quickly restoring security afterwards. When developers release upgrades or patches, it is sometimes with the view to address known security problems associated with the application; add a new function to the application; or enhance its ease-of-use.
These issues are present with us when we use computer systems, mobile phones, social networks, or any technology product, and we have to recurrently decide on what works best for us at every turn.