Crashes cost big-time: academic

Fancy earning a dollar every time your computer crashes? Research by an American specialist in human-computer interactions says such a scheme would soon make us all rich.

Fancy earning a dollar every time your computer crashes?

Research by an American specialist in human-computer interactions says such a scheme would soon make us all rich.

University of Maryland professor Ben Shneiderman says viruses, hardware crashes, dropped phone lines, software bugs and slow connections cause computer users to lose almost half of their productive time.

Shneiderman is the founding director of the university’s human-computer interaction lab, which studied 111 savvy PC users and found that time lost due to frustrating experiences ranged from 30% to 46% of the 2.6 hours each person spent on the computer.

“They were mainly students who were used to computers and yet nearly half their time was wasted. People in the industry and our friends at Microsoft say that can’t be true, and yet when I tell public audiences they aren’t surprised at all.”

Shneiderman’s new book, Leonardo’s Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing Technologies, aims to dramatically raise the expectations of the public and push the IT industry to do better.

He compares his crusade with Ralph Nader’s battle for consumer rights and Rachel Carson’s environmental safety campaign against chemical companies.

“These are non-trivial issues and we should expect higher performance.”

He points to as one way in which users can fight back. PC users can download software that records crashes on their system and sends details back to a central database. This lets site visitors see which software causes the most crashes over certain periods.

At the time of writing seven of the top 10 crashing applications were from Microsoft, one was Netscape’s, one was from Opera and one from AOL.

Shneiderman accepts that Microsoft is making the right moves with initiatives such as its secure computing drive, but says it’s not enough.

“It claims 250 useability [specialists], but that’s 1% of its staff. It should be higher than that. We’re concerned about performance, not promises. Bugtoaster shows that Windows 2000 was an improvement over Windows 98 but the evidence so far doesn’t show that Windows XP is better.

“In the book I propose that if your machine crashes you should get a dollar from the supplier if you report the failure. That would start changing expectations.

“The public is frustrated but there are few consumer organisations through which they can funnel their complaints. Suppliers are more attendant to requests for new features. Users need to raise their expectations.”

As well as IT companies, there should be pressure on government and educators to train users more effectively and on journalists to raise public expectations, he says.

“As we move to an era where citizen usage and government services are becoming expected, it’s not enough to have even half a population not succeeding.

“While we’d like the idea of an unregulated industry there’s a need for setting standards and expectations at least for government purchases, but also for schools and other groups.

“The government should specify training and education to include a certain level of proficiency for users. It also has an appropriate role for protecting children on the internet, establishing security for medical records, prosecuting those who develop viruses and protecting individuals on the web.”

Shneiderman says universal usability is also a vital goal. Software should be useable across all languages and devices new or old, and information should be accessible across all connection speeds.

Shneiderman will speak publicly on these topics at Waikato University on Thursday.

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