The usability gap

If there’s one thing that last month’s Gawker password leak reminded us, it’s that no password is safe, regardless of how often you use it. The answer is to create stronger passwords. Cryptic passwords. And use different passwords for every site.

But, seriously, how many passwords can YOU remember at once?

There’s a difficult balance between creating passwords we can remember – as in, passwords we can remember in our heads without writing them down on a piece of paper – and being safe consumers.

The answer for expert users is a password manager like 1password or KeePass. But my grandmother doesn’t use password managers. She does one of two things: she allows the browser to save it, or she writes it down on a piece of paper.

Neither is optimal (browser caches clear, paper isn’t secure), but the art of creating and – more importantly – remembering passwords is not designed to be optimal.

And herein lies the problem with technology: the chasm between need and familiarity.

My grandmother uses sites that have passwords. So does my father-in-law. Neither can remember those passwords, so they both have scraps of paper with all of the passwords written down.

They both need a password solution, but neither has the time – or the desire – to learn not only the ins and outs of a password manager, but also the conventions that led to the password manager’s interface.

By writing down their passwords, both my grandmother and father-in-law are undoubtedly putting themselves MORE at risk than if they would use a password manager.

This is one of probably a billion and a half examples of the difficulty in developing usable sites, applications and programs, and it’s an example that will never go away. Because as the population adapts to new technology, that technology changes, assuring that there will always be a group that’s behind the curve.

That group – in need of a solution that they may never understand – will keep usability experts busy. Frustrated, but busy.

Job security, amirite?

This was lovingly handwritten on January 27th, 2011