Academic argues software needs to learn manners

'Politeness' is a critical success factor for software

Has software ever angered You? Has it made you reboot your machine or made you so upset you had to leave your desk altogether and go and grab a coffee?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions you are not alone. Many computer users feel at war with their software, says Auckland’s Massey University senior lecturer Brian Whitworth. Such users are constantly removing things they didn’t want added, resetting changes they didn’t want changed, closing windows they didn’t want opened and blocking emails they didn’t want to receive.

This is because a lot of software is “rude”. To keep users from walking away, software must be not only useful and usable but also polite, says Whitworth in his article “Politeness as a Social Computing Requirement”, which he has co-authored with Tong Liu, tutor at the university’s Institute of Information and Mathematical Sciences.

Politeness is a critical success factor in modern software, says Whitworth.

Selfish software is a widespread problem, particularly when it comes to corporate programs, where users can be compared to slaves to the software, he says. Software should be an assistant to the user, not the other way around, he says.

Impolite computer programs will, for example, use the user’s hard drive to store information cookies; change the user’s computer settings, such as the browser home page, email preferences or file associations; or spy on what the user is doing online.

In contrast, polite software could make human-computer interactions more pleasant, which could lead to an increased uptake of software, while rude software promises to minimise usage, he says.

Whitworth likens selfish software to a child who feels free to interrupt you, to demand what it wants, or announce what it is doing. Selfish software behaves as if it were the only software running on the machine — it typically runs itself at every opportunity, loads at start-up and runs continuously in the background, eating up performance, he says.

The view that software knows best is hard to justify for the majority of today’s computer-literate users, says Whitworth. But still, some software vendors claim their software can’t be polite because it is concerned about security. Others claim their programs are too complicated to be polite. But these are not good enough reasons to be impolite, says Whitworth.

Whitworth suggests polite software should:

1. Respect others’ rights.

Polite software respects the user, does not pre-empt user choices and does not act on or copy information without its owner’s permission.

2. Openly declare itself.

Polite software does not sneak or change things in secret, rather it openly declares what it does, who it represents and how the organisation can be contacted.

3. Help the other party.

Polite software helps users make informed choices and provides useful, understandable information when needed.

4. Remember the interaction.

Polite software remembers past user choices when it comes to future interactions.

According to Whitworth, examples of impolite software include Windows Update, which advises the user when it starts, as it progresses and when it finishes its update; and Internet Explorer, which doesn’t remember where the user was last time and “acts as if this were the first time I had used it yet I am the only person it has ever known”.

Whitworth also mentions the installation of Yahoo’s IM client, which automatically downloads Yahoo’s search toolbar, anti-spyware and anti-pop-up software, desktop and system tray shortcuts, as well as Yahoo Extras, which inserts Yahoo links in the browser.

On the other hand, by letting users look at the sponsored links only if they wish, Google is an example of software that has succeeded in being polite, says Whitworth. Similarly, EBay’s customer reputation feedback gives users optional access to information relevant to their purchase choice, and Amazon gives customers information on the books similar buyers buy not by pop-up ads but as a “view option below”.

There is a new genre of socio-technical software — including wikis, communities like Facebook, media-sharing sites such as YouTube and Flickr, and online auctions and markets such as Trade Me — which allow people to participate and share information. Politeness is generally covered in this genre, he says.

Spam is an example of one outcome of rude software, says Whitworth. Security software vendors are building stronger and stronger filters but the bad guys keep coming up with new ways to attack. Email is not working, he says. It is giving all the rights to the sender and no rights to the receiver. “If someone wants to send me a message they should have to ask permission before sending the message, and open a channel,” he says.

Politeness is also one way to encourage good social behaviour, as opposed to antisocial behaviour. If software were more polite, people might be more willing to use it and less keen to abuse it, he says.

Whitworth envisages a future where there is transparency in online interactions — the equivalent of video surveillance. If someone behaves antisocially and gets a bad reputation with, for example, Trade Me or YouTube they are kicked out of that community.

Whitworth is currently editing the Handbook of Research on Socio-Technical Design and Social Networking Systems, which is due out next year.

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Tags impoliteDevelopment IDYahoo IMwindows updatesoftwarebrian whitworth. massey university

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