Why is usability important for security management?

Why is usability important for security management? Is it even important? Obviously for a lot of people, it is not. And that’s a problem. But what is usability anyway?


According to Wikipedia, and I find the definition pretty accurate, usability is “the ease of use and learnability of a human-made object such as a tool or device. In software engineering, usability is the degree to which software can be used by specified consumers to achieve quantified objectives with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a quantified context of use”.

In other words, usability is the process of designing things so they can be easily used and mastered by their end users. Usability is not just about design, it is a science. It is about making our environment optimized for our brains and our bodies. As an example, usability is when you put handles to a box so it is easier to lift. Google, the most visited website in the world is an example in terms of usability: straight to the point, one field and you get what you need in one click. It even completes the words for you, as you type. There’s a reason they are number one and it’s called user experience (UX).

Nowadays, usability, neuroergonomics and even neuromarketing are at the heart of successful designs. Whatever you are selling, you better make it easy to use and even sexy. The traditional KISS (Keep it simple and stupid) design requirement has gained an additional “S” for sexy (KISSS, Keep it simple, stupid and sexy). The article I wrote about the ineffectiveness of SPAM awareness session was also an advocacy for the use of cognitive sciences insights in order to design more effective awareness material.

Why do I care?

If you are a product manager for a startup, you are probably already aware of all the usability requirements for your products. That’s were startups win the war against the old dinosaurs: “better engineered products with better usability and even sexiness”. We all learned from the master’s success: Apple. Steve Jobs knew the rules to make something usable, less buttons. Sleek design is all about simplicity.

But if you are working in security management, or as a security project manager, or even as a security architect, it seems it is more likely that you won’t care about usability. You might think that your job is to make your company secure, not sexy. And you’re right about that. Except that, when it comes to humans, you’re probably failing (in a large part). You may think: « These stupid end-users still don’t get it. » Of course, they still manage to use weak passwords. If you force strong passwords, they write them down or they use the same everywhere. They still don’t know the security policies. They watch you’re very nice slide you showed them during the mandatory security training during their induction but the next day they are already sharing their passwords with their colleagues. Don’t speak about their inability to spot a fishing attempt! Let’s not speak about your system administrators. These fools who believe they are the kings of the realm and have left so many vulnerability open in their system that the latest vulnerability report you received was so long you couldn’t finished it in one day. Hopefully, you will make a strong point during the next security steering committee to ensure these operation guys’ boss understands he must bring them back to the righteous path.

Ring a bell? Not even a little bit? I think so.

If we believe an old saying, wisdom is being able to differentiate between what you can change and what you can’t. The goal here is to focus your energy and your efforts where it matters. So, think again about your problems. What did you do? You made awareness sessions? You wrote very thorough policies and standards? You made sure they were obliged to read them, to sign with their blood that they had read your literature and that they will abide to your rules?

Did it work? How well? Be honest, some miscreants continue to refuse to follow the rules of the holy god of security. They are probably psychopaths! Or could they be just humans? What if you could increase the probability they will read your policies. Even better, what if you could improve the odds of having them changing their behaviours and embracing your security culture? You don’t believe in Santa Claus? Me neither, but I do believe in sciences!

Neuroergonomics & neuromarketing of security!

Neuroergonomics and neuromarketing are the catchwords to refer to the use of social psychology and neuro-cognitive sciences to improve your desire to use a product and to improve your ability to handle concepts, to remember things or to become addict to some applications (think about Facebook or Twitter). If people can influence what you eat, what you drink, what you wear, what you watch or what you read, why couldn’t we use this knowledge to change your people’s attitude towards security?

Does it worth it? Well, are you already paying people to communicate, to make videos, to draw cartoons but you still have too many incidents and non-compliance? Yes, so maybe you should start investing in better designed solution and put usability as a requirement for all the projects and for all the tools or “product” security wants to sell.



  • If you have an Intranet, your security policies must one click away from the first page.
  • You must have a clear organization, a hierarchy and a search engine allowing anybody to quickly find the policy he needs or the procedure.
  • Policies should go straight to the point, from the reader’s point of view, as soon as the first pages.
  • Forget lawyers or technical talks, use common vocabulary.
  • Do’s and Don’t are likely more efficient than long descriptions.
  • Use words and situation your audience are familiar with.
  • Ensure your rules are translated into actions in their process and procedures.
  • Ensure these procedures are pragmatic and easy to read.
  • Use pictures, screenshots, beautifully designed templates. Make it look more like a fashion magazine than an old book.
  • Use positive words. Any command that can be better performed by a dead man is a bad command (example: « Don’t use short passwords« … a dead man can do that very well. Rather prefer « use long secure password« ).
  • Group similar things together.
  • Be consistent. You even better be congruent (use multiple association together) like Red + Triangle to signal Don’ts and Green + Checkbox to signal Do’s. Keep consistency with the colors (Red Negative, Green, positive).
  • Use consistently the same word to designate one thing. Even if synonyms can make reading less annoying, always using the same word to designate one object or concept makes it easier to understand (even more for new concepts)
  • Prefer lists
  • Keep it as short as possible (More than 10 pages, is clearly too much)
  • Use symbols, signals, icons, pictures
  • Keep the rule of 3 in mind: if you want to explain a concept, break it down to 3 parts/steps/components, then explain the 3 sub-concepts (using 3 other steps/concepts/parts) and so on until people can understand it. You can go up to 5 « objects » but not higher.


  • Imbed security processes into existing processes.
  • If a process works, don’t fix it.
  • If you can streamline it, do it, even if it is not you first job. Making people life easier will facilitate the acceptance of the controls and it might even improve the attitude of people towards security.
  • Create links between all processes so they can benefit from each other e.g. ensure Vulnerability scans feeds the CMDB to ensure consistency. (It is supposed to be like that in a perfect world, but that’s just theory)
  • Forget long swim lane drawings or decision trees spanning on 3 pages, keep it short by splitting the process.


  • Changing behavior is something we do out of emotion, not based on rational thinking. Even if rational thoughts can lead to a change, we initiate this change only if we connect these thoughts with some emotion.
  • Use real concrete situation (something that happened or could happened)
  • They must be relevant for your audience (use scenario involving your audience, allowing them to identify themselves to the character)
  • Use as much as possible what they already know well (places, situations, products, application, organization, but also more personal things kids, sports, cooking, walking in the street, …)
  • Show them the concrete consequence on people when they don’t comply with the rules or the secure behavior (its easier to have feelings toward people than organization)
  • Foster self-identification to your character by using little positive details to which your audience can relate to (« Sam likes to take a coffee with his colleagues, Alice likes
  • Songs, rimes, jokes, kittens, anything that will be outstanding will help memorize. So use it when it is important (if you use the same trick too often, its efficiency tend to fade down)
  • Associate non-« sexy » items (like security rules) with more attractive one (a nice place, a smile, a cute cat picture, a beautiful woman – yes, it works for both man and woman -, a good song)
  • Repeat, repeat & repeat the message but change the format so it doesn’t get boring and so you can use various way to reach people.
  • We are all different, what works for you doesn’t absolutely work for everybody.

PS: Yes, I could make this list more « sexy » and it will likely come, but it will be in the (near) future 🙂