Do Not Give Users Reason to Uninstall

Before I begin, I want to point out that this post is not about some evil method of user-retainment nor is it about uninstalling software on an operating systems level. This post is fitted within the scope of any single piece of security software and its owner.

During the development of my first piece of security-related software, No-CSRF, I began to notice that there were a lot of thoughts that crossed my mind which were in the same vein as “But what if the user forgets to re-enable after they disable?”. I was spending a lot of time making a Chrome extension that would make the user more safe as they browsed the World Wide Web; however, the extension was only useful if the user had it enabled.

I never did anything about this issue, however. The only attempt I made to solve the problem was to ensure that the user could re-enable the extension just as easily as they disabled it. When they disabled it, they would know that they could also re-enable it. [1]

When the first version of the extension was released, however, it was a little too strict. Sites that posed no security threat had their functionalities broken and some sites were blocked completely. In fact, one of my colleagues, who was excited to try the extension and make his browser a small bit safer, found many of these cases. After complaining that he was unable to pay an online bill due to the extension, he uninstalled it from Chrome completely and urged me to fix it.

This isn’t an issue in itself; however, it exemplifies a problematic attitude amongst users – something along the lines of “If it breaks what I need, then I don’t need it.” Even if No-CSRF was protecting users from many dangerous Cross-Site Request Forgeries, users chose to uninstall it, essentially choosing convenience over security.

Much like users uninstalled the extension, other users will take far more drastic steps in order to make things more convenient. I had another friend who, upon having port issues with a dedicated server, decided to disable his firewall. These choices, which jeopardize a user’s security, are made without much thought.

Thus, when it comes to security software, a careful balance should be sought after. Although the security-software developers would probably like their software to protect users from many different attacks, they should instead choose to balance protection and usability. A security protocol that will be used by many users is also one that allows the user to become more secure without a change in workflow.

If the developer chooses to make their security software too secure, users may uninstall, making the benefits of the security null. If the users didn’t uninstall a software with less protection, but protection nonetheless, then that is the software that should be produced.

As soon as users have a reason to uninstall, they will. Do not give them that reason.

Finding the balance between security and usability is difficult. Although it may be tempting to solve the problem by making it difficult to disable the security software as a whole, users should never be stripped of this freedom. Thus, I propose that the following tenants should be followed when making security-related software:

  1. Do not alter the difficulty of disabling/uninstalling. User freedom is just as important as security.
  2. Do not give the user an unavoidable reason to uninstall your software.
  3. Make disabling on a per-case basis easier than uninstalling.

If these three points are achieved, the user should choose to disable the security in any case where a broken workflow is not worth increased security, but should not disable the security software as a whole.

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1. This is referring to a custom in-extension disable rather than the browser-level disable

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