Resistance isn’t futile

Ellen Rose isn’t afraid of using computers, but that doesn’t mean she wants to be called an end-user.

As the director of a graduate program in instructional design at the University of New Brunswick, Rose knows all about the benefits of

IT, but in her latest book she takes a closer look at the individuals it leaves behind. In User Error: Resisting Computer Culture, Rose punctures popular perceptions about how necessary certain applications are and to what extent users are pressured to give up the rights over key processes.

“”Even companies where there is so much time put towards usability research, what happens is the divide persists because the people doing the usability research are still not the people who are in software development,”” she says. “”There is still this lack of connection between the (uses and IT industry). That’s not the fault of anybody, necessarily, but it’s the result of the kind of structures we’ve put in place to do software development.””

Rose recently spoke with about User Error and her recommendations for change. What kind of experience did you have in the industry that helped fuel the ideas in the book?

Ellen Rose: I started out as a documentation writer and moved into instructional design. I had one foot in the camp of the software developers but was also liaising with the users. I was often the user representative on the team. I kind of got a sense early on of what I call in the book a hierarchy of computer knowledge — the sense both from the software developers and the users that this hierarchy exists. From software developers, I hear the joke that forms basis of my title — “”replace user and press any key,”” “”problem exists been chair and keyboard.”” On the user side there was this sense that they were accepting blame when things went wrong. They didn’t have any knowledge about (IT), and they occupied the bottom rung of this hierarchy. I started to ask myself what this is all about, who exactly is the user that we talk about, and what does it mean to be a computer user? That was really the genesis of this book.

ITB: Was this hierarchy something that was bound to happen, then?

ER: It was really about the struggle over who was going to have control over computing power. The idea of a user emerged from the struggle to assert power over this new information technology universe. It was not inevitable by any means, no.

ITB: Is there any way IT managers or CIOs could build a bridge to the user base and begin to end that power struggle?

ER: Yes, I think it has to start there. It really does, because I don’t think the culture of software development is going to change unless software developers are given more opportunity to interact with users, and often that’s not happening, just because it costs money to do that . . . that has to be built into the process more.

ITB: Why do you think there may have been a lack of a representative voices from the user community until now?

ER: I do talk about the apathy of users, that users have accepted the status quo. The critics who are speaking up are the people like (social theorist) Neil Postman who are not users, so aren’t really good representatives. We don’t even feel that it’s possible to contribute, to have a voice. We form user groups, but those are not to help us change things, but cope with the status quo.

ITB: To what extent could these problems be solved by a demographic shift from a generation that didn’t grow up with IT to one that now uses it in the classroom?

ER: I talk about that too, and there is a sense we now have a generation that are growing up online, so to speak. My concern with that is because they use these systems that construct them in a certain way to be passive users. They’re just buying into that role. I could be wrong, but they don’t seem to be taking an active role as users, they just seem to be adapting, being trained to take on this passive, voiceless role. Studies of how children use computers show that they’re using computers to play games and send e-mail to each other, but they’re not using them necessarily in creative ways.

ITB: What should they be doing?

ER: I think the kinds of things we should be seeing is people speaking up if things aren’t working. The other thing is, people should start to maybe group together for reasons of gaining power as users, not just to help each other accept the status quo. People starting to use technology in ways that are not just for the sake of using it because it’s out there, but because it’s going to improve life or the human condition in some way. The example I often use is e-mail, because it’s such an obvious one, of how we fall into this e-mail trap — or as Scott Adams in a Dilbert cartoon calls it, the e-mail “”monkey on the back.”” Many people now spend up to two hours a day, sometimes more, dealing with e-mail. That’s in addition to everything else. It’s making life more complex, more demanding. We need to start confronting situations like that.

ITB: There might be those at the other end of the spectrum who say users who try to assert more control over IT might threaten IT security.

ER: That’s an interesting point. I’m not advocating any kind of a Luddite response, obviously. It has to be something that’s done jointly, not something that users do to managers, but something that everyone works together to accomplish.

ITB: Why do you think society tends to stigmatize those who resist IT?

ER: It’s really the mythology of technology — the whole idea that computers or the latest, greatest technology makes us smart. It really is this sense that the people who don’t use these technologies are dinosaurs, and we’ve seen that very word used to describe these people. Advertisements capitalize on that mythology and we’ve sort of bought into this story about technology which persuades us to believe that to be functioning, empowered, contributing members of society we have to use technology.

ITB: What kind of response has User Error generated?

ER: I knew that the book would strike a chord with users, and I get all kinds of stories from them — it’s all very familiar, and it’s kind of putting into words what I think a lot of people have always known. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the response from the folks in the IT industry. I tried not to demonize, but I did think that there would be a lot of negative response. In fact, I’ve had e-mails from people from the IT industry saying, “”I agree with you wholeheartedly, and that this has got to change.”” That’s really encouraging, that both communities, users and software developers, see a need for change.

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