Identity – agents of the little guy.

One of the popular moves in the identity standards war is for one or another player to step forward and announce that they speak for the little guy, the individual. Me thinks we should take these assertions with a grain of salt.

It is a good thing if each participant in the design problem makes a Herculean effort to appreciate the goals, desires, needs, abilities, etc. of the other players. The end users are a hard constituency to satisfy for numerous reasons. Changing their behavior is really hard. Creating a reasonable UI metaphor for the users is hard. Shifting the installed base of phones, wallets, pdas, and personal computers is hard. Overcoming their natural paranoia is hard. Any participant who fails to appreciate that the individual users are probably the most difficult of those players to satisfy isn’t taking the problem seriously.

It is a good thing when each participant is clear about what his goals and constituency really are. It is a bad thing when participants pretend their constituency is one thing when it is in fact another.

When participants in the joint effort of solving this problem assume the role of spokesman for the little guy they become his agents. We do well to look at that agency with care. Absolutely all the players in this design space play this card. I don’t think I have heard anybody outline a design without uttering a phrase like “we put the user at the center, in control of his identity.” Consider a few of the major categories of players in this problem space. The payment’s industry, the telecom industry, the phone/pda/pc OS industry, the server industry, the retail channel industry, the technologists, the governments, the entrepreneurs, anybody with a huge set of account relationships, the privacy advocates. The question arises who elects who king?

What legitimizes that presumption of the role of agency? Market power? Electoral power? Rapid innovation? Strong arguments? Transparency? Interop-testing? Clear IP rights? A process with good checks and balances? The enthusiasm of the right players? A professionally and broadly participatory standards process. Obviously all of these things. What we don’t know is what proportions of each is required.

The rhetoric of putting the user at the center runs the risk of being hollow. At worst it is disingenuous. At minimum it diverts our attention from the complexity of seeing the needs and requirements of the other players in the problem space. You don’t solve the identity problem without bring most of those constituencies along. What we don’t know is what proportions of each is required.

Each time I hear one of the players announce he is putting the user at the center I can’t help roll my eyes. Let me pick on Microsoft, I’m sure it won’t hurt won’t hurt the big old monopoly’s feelings. When Microsoft talks about placing the user at the center what do I hear? First off I hear the echos of the 80s dream, that the personal computer will empower the the under served little guy; ripping power from the hands of the computer center. Then I hear the passion of the UI designer selling his wares. “Ease of use.” “Ease of use, damn it!” He chants, he rants. I hear the a delusion, that the PC monopoly can still set standards like this; that’s not true anymore – the browser war demonstrated that first. That the installed base now includes things like smart cards and telephones only makes it less credible today.

But mostly I hear a classic example of agency. The presumption that a product manager is a legitimate agent for the customers. Product managers aspire to that, great product managers get close. But never ever does a product manager become legit. A product manager is always absolutely the advocate of his product. Microsoft’s product is the OS and when Microsoft says they wish to put the customer first they run very close to becoming illegit and disingenuous. I find myself thinking – great it’s browser war time again; instead of solving the problem we will have the identity version of the HTML tag battles. For example if UI is key, which it obviously is, where is the open transparent legitimate process for getting that widely deployed?

What I like in some of Microsoft’s current rhetoric, well Kim’s rhetoric, is the emphasis on the seeking the “identity big bang.” That should be our common cause. Players in this space should stop pretending they are legitimate spokesmen for other constituencies and substitute in it’s place a clear and transparent statement of what they believe they are doing to bring each and every one of the necessary constituencies into what we hope is the comming big bang.

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