Average User Syndrome

Modern computing was kicked off through the embodied positions of many mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and designers. However, it now progresses through an iterative process by established software and hardware manufacturers, with each generation of a computing device inspired by what I have come to call average user syndrome.

Introduction to Average User Syndrome

In early 2016 I wrote the following email to a friend and contemporary, which inspired this post:

The pervasive marketing around the idea that somehow smartphones and tablets are making PCs obsolete. That these devices are replacing PCs. That’s the idea that I reject. Of course, this doesn’t decrease the usefulness of the features mobile devices already offer to many people. Having a camera, phone, music player, email client, and web browser that can be carried everywhere is still a convenient utility, even if it has obvious computing limitations. What I am particularly incensed with is the idea that certain features or functionality cannot be implemented because they seem too complex for the “average user”. The ability for a tablet to function as a PC is handicapped and these handicaps cannot be removed by the owners of the device. By this measure [smartphones and PCs] are unequal devices.

As for the cloud, many of the processing and storage tasks, at least the ones that benefit advanced users, could be performed by PCs one would have in the home. The capabilities of the CPU, memory, storage, and network on the home PC could power most of the centralized services people rely on in a decentralized and distributed way. With faster home connection speeds this is possible. Very little work is being done to make this more accessible. An Apple iOS device connects to Apple’s App Store and Apple’s iCloud services and these cannot be replaced. Google’s Android device, once connected to Google, transmits data, including: addresses, emails, phone numbers of contacts, photos, calendar events, GPS coordinates, all without asking permission to do so–these are opt-out services only. Once signed in to Google accounts, such as the Google Play Store, one must race to the application settings in the phone to disable the transmission of personal data to Google’s servers. Even after disabling this data sharing, it often surreptitiously re-enables those settings to begin transmitting the data.

Running an email server for one’s own email has arguably gotten more difficult over the past 20 years. Meanwhile in the past 10 years it has become standard to sign up for a free email service from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, et cetera, while running your own email server makes it more likely that your emails will not be received by these services, and end up being flagged as junk or spam mail. Since the emails are stored in plain text format, though encrypted in transmission, it decreases the privacy of data. This allows the email provider to scan, profile, and categorize private communications of its users.

This highlights current computing trends working against user agency, autonomy, and puts a greater degree of accountability in the hands of the central service provider. The situation regarding the difficulty today in running a self-hosted email server is a step backwards in the ethical value of informed consent. The user has given the legal go-ahead for this loss of privacy and autonomy in exchange for the free of cost service. Instead of improving the accessibility of running one’s own email server and providing tools to better encrypt email, e.g. asymmetric key encryption with PGP, these services have been taken away from the user and provided as a service with a biased value proposition. The rapid iterations of software and hardware releases that have come in the late 2000s, and exist today in 2016, have catered to what is deemed to be the typical user’s behaviour in using a computing device.

Defining Average User Syndrome

Average user syndrome can be informally defined as justifying the avoidance of adding comprehensive features to a product out of fear that the average user will not understand them. The argument is that most users will either find the feature too difficult to use or negatively react to the feature because they won't use it themselves. This is in spite of niche users of the software or device that may find such comprehensive features indispensable. I also state it another way more formally:

The Average User Syndrome Hypothesis: Improvements in a system's usability are targeted only at the most commonly used features of the majority of users.

After successive iterations of this emphasis, the system denigrates. Hence the residual feature areas outside of the most common overlaps in use become overwhelmingly overlooked. Thus the average user now finds the system inadequate or lacking. Moreover, the power-users who use a system extensively, using a wider range of features compared to the average user, will eventually stop using the system entirely in favour of alternatives.

The evidence of this phenomena is primarily seen in mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. Personal computers are increasingly going this route as well. There are a number of specific ways that modern mobile devices function that highlights this trend of limiting user autonomy. These include:

  • Abstracting away traditional file systems from direct access by the user.
  • Sandboxing many individual pieces of software that cannot interact with the system as a whole or communicate with other programs on the device.
  • Executable programs cannot be compiled on the device itself.
  • Hardware components are not interchangeable nor upgradeable.
  • The operating system is not interchangeable nor upgradeable.
  • Many software components and online services provided by the hardware and software manufacturers operate surreptitiously, “phoning home” without the user knowing.
  • The device can be remotely disabled, often called being “bricked”, by the manufacturer.
  • Voice, text, and other data from the device is sent to the cloud without the user knowing.
  • The devices exclude imaginative engineers and hackers from direct access to it to modify or extend.

This results in declining autonomy with our computing systems. The ability to use a device in imaginative way drove innovation in previous computing eras is being lost. The attitude is that the software and hardware makers always know better than the users. Users must be limited in what they can do. Hackers, imaginative engineers and experimenters as JCR Licklider would have called them, are increasingly being shut-out of computing hardware and software.

In spite of this seemingly negative view, it is not all doom and gloom. There is light at the end of the tunnel. There are alternatives. The GNU/Linux and BSD operating systems are still under active development and continue to reach higher levels of accessibility, while maintaining much of the user autonomy and ownership of its original ideals through openness and freedom. Many others see this too.

It is my prediction that the more time people spend with computing devices, the more it becomes ingrained in human activity, more will want to learn how to extend them through customization and programming. Whether it be modifying code or creating new programs themselves, or exerting enough pressure on the manufacturers to adopt and add particular features. Awareness of these computing values become more apparent to society as it progresses with symbiotic relationships with computing devices.

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