Protecting over 200 million PCs, Macs, & Mobiles – more than any other antivirus

January 24th, 2011

Demystifying ‘standard’ IT security terms – how would YOU do it?

"The Thinker" (Rodin) My boss, Marketing Director Milos Korenko, made a blog post here a few days ago in which he mentioned/linked to an honor received by a book of poetry I wrote. He also said that my job at AVAST is pretty much “crafting IT-terms into words and texts that normal people would understand.” I would argue that my job is not quite so simple as that ;-) but I’ll explain Milos’s point.

I’ve been a regular computer user since buying my first PC, an HP desktop, in 1997. It ran Windows 95, and I think it had McAffee antivirus (the engine for which was provided by avast!). I sacrificed sleep on many nights, to try to learn a new operating system that was NOTHING like the Commodore 64 (complete with cassette-tape drive) that I had taken my only real computer classes on 10 years prior. In 2002, I bought a Gateway desktop with Windows XP… that’s right, from Windows 95 to Windows XP.

I’m probably an average computer user. I use my laptop at home for social (and other) networking, Skype calls, research, and word processing, primarily. My job all day is on a desktop PC, from which I handle various writing assignments, web research, project tasks, and seemingly endless forms of communication.

Aside from what I use PCs for daily, however, I really don’t know much about them – which is, in many ways, good for my work.

As a copywriter for AVAST, my target audience consists primarily of:

  1. those uninclined (or unable) to learn more, perhaps because they only use a PC occasionally and are overwhelmed enough already by technological developments of the last two decades (a group that much of my family belongs to)
  2. those who tend to use Google and do some research, in order to demystify unknowns (a group that I belong to)
  3. “geeks” – that is, the technological avant-garde, who seemingly emerge from the womb like innovation-hungry androids (a group that I’m glad to say includes many of the people I’ve worked with over the years)  ;-)

As you can imagine, it’s tough to communicate – with one voice – to a full spectrum of computer users. Many of the regularly used terms in the computer security industry – like in the cloud, virtualization, sandbox, rootkit, malware, or phishing – are almost nonsensical terms to many people I know, who are even on PCs all day for their work. Conversely, tech-savvy users will read this list and think “What’s the big deal? Those are easy to understand!” These same users likely read “operating system” spelled out above and wondered why I didn’t just write “OS” (in a slower-moving world, we might all be more like them).

What we’re trying to do now with communications at AVAST Software is to explain the actual functions better to average (non-technically inclined) users, while simultaneously not putting our techie audience to sleep. This requires daily brainstorming to determine how much we should explain and why. Does the end user even care about features? Should he or she care? Will a particular feature term be out of fashion or obsolete a year from now? Should we educate users about this or stick to what they know? Etc.

We try to make the jazz axiom “Less is more” our guiding principle. Sometimes we hit the mark, sometimes we don’t. As the avast! Community is what shapes our company, I’m curious… how would you do it?

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  • Laura Roberts

    This sounds like a “user manual” issue. In other words: the people who already know everything won’t use the manual, for the most part, and those that DO need the manual end up being stymied by its presumption that they already know certain basics, making the manual–an ostensibly helpful item–fairly useless for most users.

    My suggestion, having written a few user manuals, is to:
    a) label posts as “intro” or “intermediate” or “advanced” (or something similar, perhaps with a color code or other graphic indicator) so that users can immediately identify whether that piece will be helpful them based on skill level, and/or
    b) include separate pages where terms are defined, with links to those definitions within all of your posts using IT jargon so that n00bs can click if they need to and advanced users won’t feel bogged down by tons of info they already know.

  • William Clifford

    Metaphors and analogies can help explain complicated things, but they take up a lot of space and confuse matters the more of them you have. Computer interfaces are overloaded with mixed up terms. The “non-techie” computer language allows the following sentences to make perfect sense:

    “Click on the desktop icon.”

    “Open the help window from the menu button.”

    “Use the mouse to scroll.”

    I try to write my documentation such that I avoid writing at this level of detail and avoid similar analogizing about whatever I have to write about. I also found if I submitted to the discipline of E-prime (writing avoiding any form of “to be”) it helped clarify the subject. I found writing positive statements helpful in clarifying actions.

    Of course, I usually have to write about activities rather than discrete functions so perhaps you might find this advice of limited value. On the other hand, program functions hardly exist without some activity, so if you don’t write about the function in the context of its expected uses, even experienced computer users may have trouble understanding how to use it.

  • Jason Mashak

    @Laura, right, those who already know how the features function prefer to see only a one- or two-word description of a feature – this is the easy part. I like seeing your “b” idea, as it’s something we’ve been considering.

    @William, yes, space is definitely an issue in regard to website text. Even the examples you gave, however, can need accompanying images for some people, as “the menu button” can overwhelm someone who sees everything as a possible menu. You’re right about the “to be” verbs — those should be reserved for attorneys purposely removing a subject (and thus accountability). ;)

    Thank you both.

  • Fernando Gregoire

    For understand the program, the Avast interface since version 5 has been simplified to a point that although there are no different interfaces (simple and advanced) as in version 4 the controls are understandable for all users.
    Respect to the help, I sometimes like information mixing metaphors and technical information; this allow beginners or medium users read a little of technical information and metaphors to allow beginners better understanding.
    I also like when Avast detects a virus the information present on the alert window have some description about the goal of the virus that has been found as generally the name doesn’t give idea about the virus objective.

  • Jason Mashak

    @Fernando Gregoire
    That’s a good point regarding the goal of the virus, as it’s something I typically like to see, as well.

    But this echoes my question above, as to how to provide messaging for distinctly different types of users. While you and I may be interested in the virus objective, other users want every aspect of their antivirus software to be fully automatic — so they never have to worry or even think about it (hence, “be free”).