What’s stopping people using encryption software?

In his recent live SXSW speech, Edward Snowden laid out the main causes of the current breakdown in online privacy as he sees it.

One factor he strongly underlined was the notoriously poor usability of online security solutions – or more specifically, serious data encryption software.

While most people have some kind of security package installed, standard consumer-orientated solutions such as Norton and AVG offer zero protection from GCHQ attacks, as true data encryption functionality is either minimal or non-existent.

But why is this? Why is data encryption seemingly the reserved for uber-nerds only? Let’s look at the main barriers to usage:

Un-cool factor. “It’s too nerdy”.

Data encryption is most definitely not cool. Maybe this will change in the coming years, but for now, this is a huge barrier to usage. Countless films and TV shows have reinforced the ‘computer nerd’ stereotype:

X Files Computer Nerds
“Learn programming and install data encryption… it’s great.”


Whether this is a full-blown government conspiracy or (more likely) just an unfortunate cultural side-effect, the reality is:

  • Your government does not want you to encrypt your data
  • TV and film productions reinforce a nerdy, undesirable computer-literate image
  • This discourages viewers from becoming highly computer-literate
  • This in-turn results in low engagement with encryption software, so a small market size. Which leads on to.

Encryption is not in the public eye. “What’s data encryption?”  /  “It’s probably too hard.”

Data encryption is not mass-market. Your dad thinks Norton Antivirus is it. Your mum knows the difference but wouldn’t know where to start looking.

Imagine the cultural impact if Apple decided to make data encryption their front-and-centre message.

If there were readily-available, mass-market products highly visible in the marketplace, you could justifiably criticise your mum and dad’s apathy. But the big development companies with heavyweight marketing budgets just aren’t delivering anything. No products = no marketing campaigns = no everyday visibility.

Technical difficulty. “I tried installing it, but it was way too technical for me.”

This is Snowden’s point. The few adventurous souls who actually attempt to install a serious package tend to hit a brick wall – painful installation procedures, and nasty user interfaces designed by coders rather than designers.

Snowden’s elegant solution is to build encryption technology into operating systems themselves – so not requiring users to proactively install software to benefit.  I wonder if Microsoft and Apple will step up?

Perceived ineffectiveness. “There’s no point – all vendors are in-league with GCHQ anyway.”

This is a fair point, given recent revelations.

Perceived irrelevance. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”

This is seemingly the biggest barrier to mainstream uptake of encryption. But I wonder how many people are genuinely apathetic, and how many hide their fear of the above points behind a public veil of apathy?

Mobile prototype example: Bear Mart

To help get my head around the brilliant new features of Axure 7, I’ve been building a fictional mobile website: Bear Mart – your one-stop solution for all ursine needs.

Bear Mart: product details page
Bear Mart: product details page
Bear Mart: picnic basket
Bear Mart: picnic basket
Bear Mart: product search results page
Bear Mart: product search results page (filtered)


The major new Axure feature being used here is the Repeaters widget. For the first time in Axure, it’s possible to prototype an on-site search function that’s fed with actual raw data, rather than ‘faking’ it by creating some alternate hard-wired views of search results. In plain English this means you can search & refine  product lists in the prototype just as you would on a real website.

View Bear Mart here (it’s best viewed on a smartphone).

Adwords listings visual change: spot the ad!

Google Adwords ads have always been, shall we say, visually subtle. Their motivation for doing this is obvious enough. This is Dark Patterns 101.

Well Google just changed the visual layout of their results pages again, and now, the top-ranking (centre-column) ads are near-indistinguishable from organic results.

New ad format:

The new ad format. PPC and organic listings blended into one big e-mush.


… compared with the old ad format (for the same search query):

The old ad format. Ads much more distinguishable from organic listings.
The old ad format. Ads much more distinguishable from organic listings.

 What this means for you:

  • Paid listings are even more likely to be mistaken for organic listings. So whatever is at the top of the page, wins.
  • Competitor ads appearing for searches on your brand name (above your #1 organic listing) are likely to be mistaken for your organic listing.

The inevitable, painful-to-type recommendations are:

  • Organic listings have been rendered less effective, so it’s less feasible to rely solely on them.
  • Ignoring PPC altogether is now less feasible.
  • You really need to bid on your brand terms now (a common past bone of contention – this latest change seals it).

Do no evil, eh?

Darkpatterns.org: knights of the web

Have you ever been incensed by a piece of web design which is not only bad, but seems to be purposely so? Typical examples could include:

Near-invisible ‘unsubscribe’ links for  newsletters
Extra fees which only reveal themselves at the very last stage of a lengthy checkout process
• Option to install a useless toolbar during a software installation, which you accidentally select while tapping next, next, next (because the install chekbox is pre-selected).

Continue reading Darkpatterns.org: knights of the web

Data viz: a quick cut through Russia

The world hardly needs yet another blog post about this famous data visualisation, but hey, it’s my blog, so in the immortal words of Jerry Springer: “Get your own show.”

Jerry Springer

 “Hey, it’s my show!”

The beauty shown below (click image to enlarge) was hand-drawn by Charles Minard back in 1869, and progressively reveals the disasterous results of Napoleon’s 1812 Russia campaign :

Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l'Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813 by Charles Joseph Minard
Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l’Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813 by Charles Joseph Minard

Continue reading Data viz: a quick cut through Russia