foobar on computers, software and the rest of the world

Fake popup study: Users are idiots? I don't think so...

, posted: 25-Sep-2008 06:26

The Psychology Department of North Carolina State University has conducted a study, in which they tested how likely it was that users clicked on fake pop-ups. Those fake pop-ups are often associated with exploits and the installation of malware on your computer. Their test system created a number of different pop-ups, all with different types of hints that something was not right. The very unsurprising result of their study:
[ the researchers] found that the students are so anxious to get the dialog out of the way, they click right through obvious warning signs.
The study then received coverage on ArsTechnica. The article there, however, has a rather dumb headline: Fake popup study sadly confirms most users are idiots. Well, that's just stupid. I guess headlines like this help the article to become popular (it was dugg more than 2000 times already). And in the end, ArsTechnica needs to sell advertising so they will be quite happy with this.

But the kind of attitude that a headline like this illustrates is the real problem. Maybe we should write an article with a headline like this: Stupid headline reveals counter-productive, arrogant attitude by no-life geeks.

Seriously, as long as the technical community looks with arrogance and disdain on the by-and-large non-technical community of users we will not get anywhere. We are completely forgetting that computers have become a product for the masses, if we like it or not. I wrote a little while back about how very well made some of those malware sites are. We might still chuckle about how anyone can fall for this and forget that we - as people who live and breathe this technology on a daily basis - have an entirely distorted view of reality as it presents itself to the rest of mankind.

Let me turn this around: How many of those oh-so-clever-smartypants geeks that mock 'the user' will be able to fix the engine of their car when it gives up its ghost? How many will have noticed that ever so slightly changed running noise that should have reminded you to check on it a bit sooner, and which is completely obvious to any trained mechanic? Cars have been around for much longer than computers, and are much easier to use! How could you possibly fail at that? What? You super-geeks don't know all there is to know about car engines? Losers. Let's heap mockery on you.

Another example? How many of you know how to take care of your body? You know, that thing that we are stuck inside for all of our lives? The thing that so much has been written about? Tons of information is available on how to live more healthy. Are you doing what you should do? Reading about it, living healthy, etc.? Are you recognising the little warning signs and then change your trained-on behaviour accordingly? No? Loser!

So, what I'm saying is this: We as a technical community make a huge and silly mistake if we mock the end users. What are obvious idiocies to us can be caused by a completely unintelligible mess of details for someone who doesn't work in the field, and who doesn't uses computers like the rest of us uses a light switch or phone.

Instead, we should focus on making computers easier to use, present easier dialogues (don't drown people in an avalanche of dialogs, which trains them to click OK), and provide safer OSs and applications.

It is unrealistic to assume that the large number of non-technical users should be 'educated' in how to use the messed up, overly complex and confusing technical systems we have produced. We have our attitudes the wrong way around. It is us who needs to change what we produce.

If we were intellectually honest, we would acknowledge the demonstrated user behaviour as what it: A clear indication of shortcomings in our attitudes and products.

Other related posts:
Skype surveillance: You can't trust closed-source software
Google anonymises IP addresses in their logs? Not really...
A very well-made malware installation site

Comment by Susan Hague, on 25-Sep-2008 08:09

I have got to comment. You are SO GOOD! Your head is right where it ought to be in relation to the rest of your persona, congratulations and live a good life.


Author's note by foobar, on 25-Sep-2008 08:34

@Susan Hague: Sometimes in the comments to these forums, it's hard to tell whether something was said in a sarcastic manner or not. Especially with the reference to my head's position and all, I am hoping and just assuming here that your comment was NOT sarcastic. Hoping that I got that right, I will say 'thank you very much'!

Comment by super4pi, on 25-Sep-2008 08:48

Hey, I can fix my bike, car, toilet, whatever just as well as I can fix my computer. Fuck you.

Author's note by foobar, on 25-Sep-2008 08:55

@super4pi: Yeah? Well, fuck you too, you asshole! Don't show up here on my blog cursing out people you pathetic little shit. It is quite obvious to anyone who can rub more than two brain cells together that there are always exceptions on both sides of the argument. If you don't get this, you are just as much part of the problem. Get lost.

Comment by Michael Barton, on 25-Sep-2008 09:23

People are stupid.

Like how I ignore my "check engine" light. It's hardly ever anything important, why should I keep bothering to take my car in?

The real problem is that we've created interfaces with so many high-volume, low-value dialogs, users have been trained to just click "OK".

Understanding how people behave creates an opportunity to improve.

Author's note by foobar, on 25-Sep-2008 09:36

@Michael Barton: I think you are stating the problem very well: We have created interfaces with high-volume, low-value dialogs, consequently users have been trained to click Ok.

The problem is not only that there are these dialogs, but also that we have produced systems that actually require those dialogs in the first place.

Comment by AdamR, on 26-Sep-2008 14:09

Amen brother!

Good use of analogies to illustrate the blindingly obvious.

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New Zealand

  • Who I am: Software developer and consultant.
  • What I do: System level programming, Linux/Unix. C, C++, Java, Python, and a long time ago even Assembler.
  • What I like: I'm a big fan of free and open source software. I'm Windows-free, running Ubuntu on my laptop. To a somewhat lesser degree, I also follow the SaaS industry.
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