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Improving Linksys' Security Dialogs

Or, "How to Save Linksys $25 Million in Support Costs and Save the World Along the Way" January 1, 2005

In May of 2004, I embarked on an odyssey to install wireless networking at home and reported on the continuing and utter failure of the software industry to correct its evil ways. Seven months later, with my blood pressure nearly returned to normal, my doctor has finally OK'd me to work again on my computer. In celebration, I will attempt to implement a single security feature on my network. The usability implications? Well, let's just say that wireless networking is not the place to look for good news.

The feature I will activate is called MAC filtering. It lets you ensure that only certain computers, ones you identify by their unique hardware serial numbers, can access your wireless network. I want to activate it because everything I read cautions that the vast majority of home networkers implement only the default security and this is a dangerous state of affairs.

(Before we get too far, I emphasize for the benefit of the uninitiated, that though sometimes dense, I am not dumb. I can solve cryptograms without a writing implement, taught myself 6502 assembler programming, rebuilt a car engine with little more than a butter knife, and happened to have installed about 100 multi-user computer systems in the days when you had to wire stuff yourself. Now with those capabilities, a single network option should be possible, right?)

Those who issue these cautions also seem to be surprised that users could be so careless. They must wonder, is it because users like living dangerously? Or because users just don't understand the risk? Well, did the finger-waggers ever consider that turning on such a simple feature might be the hardest god-damned thing you ever tried to do in your entire life(?)... that it might never occur in the average installation because:

  • ... the documentation is really, really bad. It repeats every mistake made in software documentation since the dawn of time:
    • It provides a monolithic PDF document instead of context-sensitive topics.
    • The monolithic PDF document provides not answers or procedures but reams of reference-wise descriptions of the things one already sees on the screen. This is the most predominant of ALL DOCUMENTATION FAILURES throughout the entire industry, mistaking gibberish (fluff, actually) for authentic value.
    • The descriptions are all circular references built on terms meaningful only to those who don't need the information in the first place.
    • The reference information fails to direct the user to the useful procedures, those either buried on the website as "FAQs" or incidentally shoveled into the appendicies.
    • The documention completely ignores the issue that the addresses you need are actually those of the network cards, not the MAC Addresses shown on your remote computers' Linksys dialogs.
    • Not until you get to the procedure, buried in the FAQs, do you realize that the system will automatically find the required addresses for you. Having been frustrated by using the wrong address, I even resorted to opening my remote computer (!) to see if it had a different identifying number on the wireless card.
  • ... the software interface sucks even worse, repeating every mistake made in user interface design since the dawn of time:
    • It uses industry nicknames ("MAC Filtering") instead of descriptive labeling. The goal of user interface design is to eliminate the need for training (Bellis's Law). If anyone thinks the industry nicknames are important, make "Expert Wording" a non-default option. It's 2005 for crying out loud.
    • It uses inaccurate wording that exactly matches items you see prominently elsewhere in the interface ("MAC Address"), yet these are not the items you need to supply. (You need to find "physical addresses.)
    • For complex functions it uses terse labels (lacking critical noun/verb combinations), so they fail to accurately identify the critical action they will perform. The button, "Wireless Client MAC List" actually opens a panel that automatically identifies the MAC addresses on your network.
    • It uses function cues that fail to accurately indicate the nature of what they afford. Notice in the image below, the "More..." link. It leads to their Help info, yet it looks like it could lead to functionality. That's if you notice it at all. The menu items are OK without underlines or buttons because the user expects them to navigate... but the More link is almost hidden.
    • It mixes up methods for labeling the secondary navigation and page names. As a newcomer trying to unravel the wireless world, you have to really study the left nav and section names on various pages to figure out what the subordination of options really is. The problem is that the 2nd and 3th levels of groupings are mixed up on various pages.

The sad part is that these problem are almost all fixable with simple review and rewording. The functionality is awesome. It's the words that need work. And don't get me wrong... no one could have designed this interface better on any first attempt. Anyone's design—mine, yours, Linksys's—needs to be reviewed and cleaned up from real use. Below are my real-use fixes.

Aside from the bigger, political fixes (hire and use UI/usability experts, spend the time and money for serious docs), are there simple common denominators to the UI fixes? Yes:

  1. Be explicit.
  2. Be perfectly accurate.
  3. Embed the instructions right into the interface.
  4. Strip out parallel words ("wireless").
  5. Use a noun and verb in function labels.
  6. Eliminate the decades-old propensity for terse labels, especially in an infrequently-used beginner's system of complex options.
  7. Make sure clickable items show up as such.
  8. Position controls as close as possible to the items they control (the upcoming Bellis's Law of Control Proximity).

Menus

Before:

After:

The Per-Computer Security List

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The View/Detect Addresses Page

Before:

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"My interest in usability arose from the pain and tears of patching the wounds of suffering interface designs with the inadequate bandages of help files and user guides." — Daniel Cohen

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