Gadgets: part 2

XIII.5 September + October 2006
Page: 26
Digital Citation

The reality of ICT use is failing to meet the user’s requirements

Anne Clarke

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The evolution of the global information society continues. Suppliers of devices, services, and infrastructure regularly point to the high levels of penetration of, say, mobile phones or broadband in countries around the world. While this is indeed true in many societies, the levels of penetration are less extensive in others where the reality remains stubbornly less than the hype. Many people view the products of information age and the knowledge economy as troublesome intrusions, expensive luxuries, or, at worst, irrelevant to their daily lives.

The tools of the current information age are badly designed, wide open to misuse, and, for some users, a tool for abusive behavior. The precautionary principle is ignored in the rush to market by suppliers of ICT products and services. Terminals and services are so feature-rich that users who are not technological adepts find them difficult to use. The lack of systematic training and investment has created digital divides between those who can cope with the explosion of ICT products and services and those who cannot, whether for reasons of age, ability, or economic disadvantage.

To see the full reality of today's information revolution in microcosm, one must simply examine the use of ICT products and services by young children. From four or five years of age they now have mobile phones, and both in school and at home they use the Web every day. Young people are routinely using ICT products and services that were originally designed for use by adults. Their ability to pester adults to buy products and services is clearly being abused.

It is hardly surprising that the use of the current information-age tools by young children is causing problems for these children. They suffer from the poor design of keyboards and screens [1]. They misuse text messaging and Web services such as "Am I Hot or Not?" to bully and abuse others [2]. Guidelines are so weakly enforced that young children can easily gain access to harmful images and video material [3]. ICT products and services are being used by suppliers of products such as unhealthy food and drink to target young children [4]. Services, such as mobile location, are open to abuse by those dysfunctional elements in society who seek to prey on young people [5].

This is the reality of today's information society. To the problems experienced by young children can be added the thousands of examples of the difficulties of others. Broadband services that do not work properly, or which are not available where people live, is bothersome for many. Virus-, worm-, and "denial of service"-type attacks on systems and services cause misery and increasing mistrust for millions of users every day. Bluejacking and happy slapping show the real social consequences of improper design and inadequate appreciation by designers of the difficulties of the majority of nontechnical users. Design for All principles have in practice become Design for Some—the technophiles, nerds, and geeks among us.

The root cause of all of these problems is the inadequate design of ICT products and services.

* The Problems Are Getting Worse.

There is a general user perception that the risks of using ICT products and services are increasing. This perception comes from the many examples of misuse experienced firsthand by users, and also which is brought to the users' attention through various media reports. There are many types of misuse, including fraudulent emails, text-message bullying, security lapses in electronic transactions, and virus and worm attacks on networks and terminals. A report on security and trust by the IST project SIBIS in 2003 [6] showed that 80 percent of users in Europe felt enough concern about data security to prevent them from buying goods and services over the Internet. This report also showed that 46 percent of business users do not have any formal ICT security policies.

The security difficulties caused by virus and worm attacks on systems and services are increasing. For example, Clusit Associazione Italiana Per La Sicurezza Informatica, in a report dated August 31, 2005, states that "2004 has witnessed a higher number of virus alerts, more than the sum of the two previous years in terms of gravity" [7]. A study released by Symantec, the Internet Security Threat Report [8], states that the "overall rate of attack activity rose by 19 percent" per annum, with severe attacks increasing by 23 percent. More than 994 new Win32 viruses were documented in the first six months of 2003, more than twice the number for the same period in 2002. Reporting in April 2005, Cybertrust's ICSA Labs states that the frequency and effects of virus attacks continue to rise, and that virus disasters and recovery costs are increasing.

Even more worrisome is the escalating nature of the attacks. Symantec notes the mounting prevalence of blended online viruses, which use a combination of malicious code and software-security vulnerabilities to launch a cyber attack, as one of the most significant security issues companies face.

Email Systems [9] says that "just under 90 percent of all email" is spam, and that most of the spam contains viruses. It reports that one engineering company received 12 million spam emails in January alone, of which less than 0.5 percent were legitimate emails. "Denial of service attacks like this are becoming more frequent." Over the last six months of 2005 Symantec detected an average of 1,402 denial of service (DoS) attacks per day. This is an increase of 51 percent from the first half of 2005, when Symantec detected an average of 927 DoS attacks per day.

* The Design Problem.

Efforts to repair the social deficit of technologically led systems development and deployment center around various schemes for the inclusion of user requirements. Socio-technical systems design [10], user-centered design [11], rapid prototyping, usability testing [12], and other similar processes seek to place the user at the center of the design processes. These schemes have indeed experienced some success, for example in areas of human computer interaction (HCI), in the ergonomics of device design, and in some areas of systems analysis of relatively small systems [10].

Even if these design paradigms are implemented during development, the financial cost of large-scale longitudinal trials is prohibitive in most cases. Thus, suppliers, driven by economic motives, rush to market with a bells-and-whistles approach. ICT products and services are deployed feature-rich, but usability-poor. Users then find ways to use the add-on features in ways never envisioned by the original designers. Text-message bullying of young children, happy slapping by teenagers, and bluejacking are particularly pernicious examples of this.

The trickledown effect, in which old products are handed on to a new generation of users, is another example of inadequate design. Sometimes these products are reengineered slightly to meet some particular marketing need—adding Mickey Mouse ears to make a mobile phone for a young child or sending old PCs to Africa for use in solar-powered cabins [13] are examples of this. Such use of ICT products and services may meet the perceptions of some marketing people, but it does little to encourage responsible use or to meet social-inclusion targets. In fact, it has the opposite effect.

* Basic Design Guidelines.

Many of the social consequences of poor design described above could be solved if a number of key guidelines were followed. The first of these is that the target of all design and development activity should be the majority of users, not the extreme end of the technologically able spectrum. For example, designers of commercial Web pages should remember that the majority of users are accessing that Web page at relatively slow speeds, typically 56Kbps dial-up, up to a maximum 1Mbps. This is far less than the speed of the office LAN used during development (which typically is 10Mbps or more). This means limiting use of, for example, Flash banners, multiple scrolling side bars, and other bandwidth-intensive features.

The next generation of technologies will make the user an integrated component in a World Wide Web of interacting communicating devices.

Another basic guideline is that by default only the most basic functionality is enabled at startup—i.e., all other features are, by default, turned off. Users who understand the add-on features can then switch on what they want, once they have been told the consequences of doing so. The consequences must be clearly explained to the users. Bluetooth is a particular example of this. Users of Bluetooth technology need to know that Bluetooth leaves a communication channel open, which potentially could be misused [14]. Alternatively, should the designers of Bluetooth technology have built in better security features at the outset?

Finally, new ICT products and services should not be deployed without a social-impact assessment. Impact assessment is required in many other fields, such as housing development, before deployment of new medical technologies such as drugs, and for new social policies of governments. It also should be required for new, large-scale deployments of ICT technologies. This would give formality to processes and procedures which would examine the possibilities for misuse of, for example, insecure communications protocols. Surely, it cannot be the case that suppliers of ICT products and services deploy, and the rest of society has to deal with, the consequences, however unpleasant these might be?

* Future Shock.

If current practice in ICT product and service design continues, then the social problems of misuse are going to get much worse. A new generation of pervasive communications technologies is under development that will profoundly change the way we communicate. The communications power of the next-generation technologies will go far beyond the limited functionality of today's devices. The current emphasis in research and development for future ICTs emphasizes pervasive and ubiquitous networking capability [15, 16]. There are three main technical drivers: wearable communications devices, embedded and ambient communications devices, and ad-hoc networking. The intention is to use these devices, together with enhanced versions of today's communications technologies, to create a new paradigm, "an internetworking of all things, regardless of device or platform, or whether the information is delivered via wired or wireless means." ("Next Generation" definition used in publicity for the conference "The Future Generation: Technical, Social and Legislative Implications of Standardization" 2/3 December 2004, ETSI, Sophia Antipolis.)

With today's technologies, users are in a sense external to the system. The next generation of technologies will make the user an integrated component in a World Wide Web of interacting communicating devices. The pervasive ability of these devices to create ad hoc subnetworks in social settings will increase the scale and functionality of the communications pathways across our society. In a real sense, the user will start to become a part of the Web. Beyond the Next Generation, the integration of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive technology, the so-called NBIC convergence, will make every human a node in the World Wide Web of information [17].

* Conclusions.

Designers need to go back to basic principles and guidelines. Design must meet the needs of the majority of users, with Design for All protocols being invoked to ensure adaptability to the wide range of possible users, including young children, the elderly, and people with special needs, as well as the technophiles. Suppliers must be more aware of the social impact of the large-scale deployment of their products and services. Users must have better information from both designers and suppliers about the use, and potential for misuse, of new features.

ETSI and other standards organizations are beginning to recognize the important issues being raised in this article, and to act [18]. Future work of ETSI into the issues of how service providers engage with young children who are using ICT will be very important. (An ETSI Specialist Task Force on "specification and guidelines for service providers on the provision of information services to children" is expected to start mid-2006, with funding from the European Commission and EFTA—for more information see In addition, education and training for young children in the proper use, and consequences of misuse, of the tools of the information age are developing. This will hopefully mean that the next generation of users and designers is more aware of the importance of human factors.

back to top  References

1. ETSI Technical Report 102 133 "Human Factors (HF); Access to ICT by young people: issues and guidelines. February 2003

2. Clarke A M (2006) "Current issues in the provision of ICT technologies and services for young children " Human Factors and Telecommunications HFT 2006, Sophia Antipolis, France

3. Which? Investigation: Kids' mobiles porn loophole. February 2006.

4. Which? Report: Childcatchers report — The tricks used to push unhealthy food to your children. January 2006.

5. Anon "Danger alert on mobiles" Sunday Express April 9th 2006.

6. SIBIS, Security and trust, Topic Report No 3, March 2003




10. Eason K D (1988). "Information Technology and Organisational Change", Taylor & Francis, London

11. ETSI EG 202 116: (2002) "Human Factors (HF); Guidelines for ICT products and services; "Design for All""

12. ETSI EG 201 472: (2000) "Human Factors (HF); Usability evaluation for the design of telecommunication systems, services and terminals"

13. Helmersen P (2006) "Human Factors in Emerging Markets: First World Solutions Addressing Third World Needs" Human Factors and Telecommunications HFT 2006, Sophia Antipolis, France

14. Independent newspaper, Tuesday 21 February 2006, Michael Connellan and Martin Hickman

15. Raman S et al (2002) "Access-Controlled Resource Discovery for Pervasive Networks" MIT-LCS-TR-870

16. Briscoe R (2004) "The implications of pervasive computing on network design" BT Technology Journal, vol. 22, no. 3, (July 2004)

17. Pearson, I. British Telecom Research Centre, TV interview, 13 February 2006

18. Clarke A M (2006) ETSI White Paper No 2. "Young Children and ICT"

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Anne M. Clarke
European Management Services

About the Author Anne M. Clarke is one of Europe's leading researchers into the human factors of telecom products and services. She has worked with developers from most of the major industry players on the design and development of new services. As an international consultant she has been leading Specialist Task Forces at the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), funded by the European Commission's eEurope Program, to develop guidelines for the design and deployment of ICT products and services used by pre-teen children.

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