Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

The OpenID usability myth

I’m fucking fed up with two bullshit myths about OpenID.

First of all, there’s this insistence among ‘‘user experience experts’’ that “users don’t know what URLs are”.

Yeah, they don’t. But they know what web addresses are. And they do actually understand that web addresses map to people.

Listen to any independent musician before about three years ago and you would remember them saying at the end of their performance or on their promos or whatever:

We’re at myspace dot com back slash foo bar music

or something like that. Yes, they said backslash not forward slash.

Look at the dizzying rush when Facebook let you choose your own vanity URL.

And people would remember those things. People are able to remember phone numbers of dizzying length (my mother seems able to recall about 25 different phone numbers from memory and doesn’t bother to use the phonebook function on her mobile). People are able to remember hundreds of names of bloody Pokémon or the names of all the kings of Belgium. People may be stupid, but they aren’t nearly as stupid as user experience people make a living believing they are.

Since when was it okay to design standards and technologies around the stupidest people on the planet? I bought a camera recently and it has fourteen buttons on it and a dial which allows me to access ten different shooting modes. In the menu that comes up when you hit ‘menu’, there are seven different things I can change with names like “EV” and if I go into the menu, it asks me whether I want to have an “AF Illuminator” turned on or not. To get it so the camera GPS would work, I need to download ‘GPS assist data’ every month. By default, that only works on Windows. To get it to work on OS X or Linux, you have to use a ropey little Perl script.

This isn’t some top-of-the-line Canon pro DSLR. This is a Sony Cybershot intended for a mainstream or prosumer level. There are various things in the manual I don’t understand, and I’m a reasonably experienced photographer: I’ve got an A-level in Photography and was admitted to and studied photography for a year at university. I’ve printed Ilfochrome and done various experimental darkroom stuff. Technically, I know what I’m doing and I still need to read the manual. And I don’t really care. I read the manual, I experimented a bit, I now know roughly how the camera works. And once you see that, it’s fine. A bit of a learning curve is fine because it actually improves the overall experience: once you’ve learned how it works, you don’t have to be in simpleton mode forever.

At this point, designers and UX people are furiously grumbling going on about the user experience and this and that. I don’t give a shit. Cameras are complex pieces of technology, and even Sony can’t hide away this kind of complexity from users very well. The camera even has a “SIMPLE MODE” but I don’t use it because I read it as “SIMPLETON MODE”. It hides away half of the useful stuff you need to take a good photograph.

The only way you can make technology simple for users is to make users have simple needs—to turn them into simpletons. But people don’t necessarily have simple needs. If you had no complex needs, you wouldn’t use a computer. You’d buy a toaster or, if you can find one, a manual typewriter and be done with it.

Secondly, there’s the myth that something like OpenID is not necessary. It so bloody well is. The very fact that Facebook and Twitter are offering similar functionality but under a proprietary name kind of shows that. That people install software like 1Password and LastPass and so on in order to make the pain of usernames and passwords go away shows that. Ah, but the mythical “normal person” never does that.

Fuck normal people though. Normal people don’t buy BMWs or laser printers or a whole host of things. Normal people don’t listen to obscure free jazz with twenty-three minute drum solos. That doesn’t mean those things are bad. The reason normal people might not be using something isn’t because it is unusable or badly designed or, for want of a better word, bad. It might just be because they are stupid. Nobody ever goes broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people, to paraphrase the quote. Producing something good may go against that.

The idea that we should only do what normal people want is a refusal to educate. Perhaps the reaction when normal people don’t know how to do something is, instead of designing a way so they can remain stupid, is to help them become not stupid. This is the premise upon which schools, universities, libraries, museums and many other aspects of culture are based. But, apparently, not technology.

People have to learn how to use an operating system, a browser, even a mouse, but if we insist that they learn how to use something, rather than just designing it so they can remain completely ignorant, that won’t have any negative effect, will it? No idiotic mass panics about iPhone location tracking because people are unable to understand that “storing your data in a file on your computer” is quite a long distance from “snooping on you!”. That kind of thing never happens. Lawyers and legislators making a technically meaningless distinction between ‘streaming’ and ‘downloading’ is purely a lack of education.

Further, the complete failure to do security online properly is because people haven’t been taught that, oh, security is hard, and that you need to do things like verify dodgy-looking SSL certificates, not click on “free_britney_spears_getting_tits_out.exe” that just arrives in your e-mail and so on. But free market logic kicks in here: there’s no direct benefit to you to educate users, so you don’t do it. Despite the fact that it would make the world a more secure and less awful place if you stopped making crap designed for simpletons and taught those simpletons not to be simpletons and thus break the cycle of user experience dependency.

OpenID may not be usable if you are a bit of a thicko. The answer to that is for you to stop being such a thicko and not for the rest of the world to try and adapt to your stupidity.