This is a report on a pilot usability study. The authors ran five
journalists (there aren’t any more details than that) through the process of installing, activating, and using the Tor Browser for a small number of canned tasks, identifying a number of problems:
… people did have difficulty with installing Tor Browser (principally because of the Gatekeeper code-signing feature on OS X), did not understand what many of the many options meant, and were confused about why certain things were happening.
They are going to do a much larger study, and were soliciting feedback on experimental design. I have only two things to say. First, the proposal is to do a large test of 200 users and then, presumably, start making changes to the software to improve usability. The problem with this is, it is very likely that subtle (yet serious) UX issues are being masked out by the more blatant ones: no matter how many people you experiment on, you won’t detect the subtle problems until the blatant ones are fixed. Therefore, it would be far more valuable to do a series of smaller user studies, improving the software based on the results of each study before doing the next one. This strategy also ensures that the research results do get incorporated into the product, rather than being lost in the shuffle once the paper is published.
The other point is more of a hypothesis about what would be good to aim for. To use Tor in a way that genuinely improves your security outcomes, you need to understand what it is doing and why, and to do that you have to wrap your head around some concepts that may be unfamiliar—especially if you haven’t previously needed to understand the Internet itself in any kind of detail. (For instance, the fact that every IP packet is labeled with its source and destination is
obvious once you think about it, but I never thought about it to a lot of people.) There probably needs to be a training manual, and this manual needs to take the attitude that yeah, this is a little tricky, and you have to think about it some, but don’t panic, you can understand it. Shoot for the
we understand tone said to characterize Rust compiler errors (warning: Reddit). The place I’ve seen this done best, personally, was the
tutorial and concepts guide for GnuCash, which took just this tone with regard to double-entry bookkeeping—also somewhat notorious for its inscrutability. (Note: I read this a long time ago, and I don’t know whether its current edition is still like that.)