IT Disasters in Focus: User Error

IT Disasters in Focus: User Error

November 12

In each edition of IT Disaster in Focus, we explore some of the biggest, most annoying, and costly IT disasters you can encounter.

A lot can go wrong as a result of some type of user error. Maybe an admin didn’t set up necessary precautions to defend against malware, or maybe a user simply opened an attachment with malware in it. No matter what we do, it seems like we’ll always run into the notorious ID-10T error—it’s really the mother of all IT problems.

Let’s take a closer look at what user error is (or isn’t), how often user error happens, why, and what we can do about it.

What is user error?

Defining user error can be tricky. Is it a user’s fault if a problem happens because they didn’t know any better? Is it a user’s fault if the anti-virus software they used, though fully updated and properly configured, didn’t catch the latest and greatest malware? The user did choose to use a particular solution, right? Is it her failure for not choosing software wisely or the software maker’s fault for not covering every new threat?

There can be gray areas when it comes to user error, but for our purpose let’s say that user error is something a person of average tech knowledge could have avoided. We won’t say it’s their fault if the solution they used didn’t follow through, assuming it was properly implemented and configured (we’ll get to that type of failure in a later edition).

User error, then, is any human action that causes a network or computer issue resulting in downtime, software choices and functionality notwithstanding.

How often does user error occur?

“How often” is a tough question to answer definitively, so we asked a few people who work with computers every day. One source, who asked to remain anonymous, works as a member of the Geek Squad, Best Buy’s service department. She said that of the five or six computers that are checked in for repair on an average day, nearly all of them were brought in as a result of some user error—the majority being brought in for viruses. Around 90 percent of those viruses came from a nefarious website the user had been visiting, and about 10 percent came from some unknown location (note that these percentages were given anecdotally and don’t refer to precise counts).

Oddly enough, she said that nearly all of the units brought in for virus issues actually have anti-virus installed, but it’s either not configured or not updated. The issue isn’t the virus, it’s clearly PEBKAC (Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair). These people didn’t properly update their antivirus, which is certainly an error on the user’s part. We’ll have a lot more to say about viruses and malware in another edition of IT Disasters in Focus.

Best Buy, of course, can only give a perspective on consumer users—people who aren’t expected to be experts. Microsoft, on the other hand, works with many large companies. They found that critical support cases their partners opened were usually the result of user error. In 2011, they polled their internal tech support team (which was about 4,500 people at the time) and found that 80 percent of all downtime was caused by people and process issues.

While we might not be able to say exactly how often it happens, we can say that it’s an awful lot, and I’m willing to bet anybody reading this can think of a few issues they caused as a result of their own error.

Who causes user error the most?

Accidents and ignorance are likely the cause of most types of user error. You’ve probably heard about a friend spilling on his laptop or co-worker accidentally downloading a virus. Both are user errors, but what you probably hear about less are cloud outages that happen as a result of human error.

By tech-world standards, it’s an older tale by now, but in February of 2013, the Windows Azure cloud went down, causing a snowball effect that affected 52 different Microsoft services. The issue happened because they didn’t update their secure socket layer (SSL) certificates. In short, it was a user error. Plus, the people responsible for this type of thing aren’t your everyday user—these are experts working for one of the largest global tech companies. If user error can happen to them, it can happen to anybody.

The lesson here is that even the most experienced IT experts have accidents and blind spots. We can’t know everything and we none of us are perfect, which is a useful thing to remember next time a user brings a computer to you with a “dumb” problem.

What else do we need to know about user error?

It’s going to happen. There are things you can do to curb some instances of user error (which we’ll discuss in our next post), but more than anything, just realize that user error is going to keep happening, so you may as well get used to it.

You’re going to screw up too. As we noted in the last section, everybody messes up. You will too. Be kind to yourself and be ready to fix yours as well as others’ mistakes.

You probably won’t know when it will happen. In some form or another, user error probably happens daily, but you really can’t anticipate when a major problem will occur as a result of user error, so keep on your toes.

User error, or more broadly, human error is just a fact of life. You can complain about it or you can be flexible and ready to fix problems when user error starts causing them. In any case, there’s a lot you can do to make user error less of a problem, and we’ll explore them all in our next post: Surviving IT Disasters: User Error. 

If you liked this post, you might also like our series Natural Disasters in Focus. 

Photo credit: Amanda Tetrault via Flickr