We live in an age of increasing physical insecurity with epic challenges like the pandemic and climate change to name only a few. It will take abundant human ingenuity and hard work to make significant progress in these areas. But we all understand that progress will be well worth the effort.
Similarly, dangers in the virtual world—web-based vulnerabilities that can come from identity theft, internet scams, and dangerous sources of disinformation—are equally real. Our sense of safety determines the quality of our experience both in the real and digital worlds. Anyone who’s faced years of wrangling with resolving online identity theft would concur: digital-theft is no less real.
Comprehensive and transparent security models vastly reduce online crime, but also encourage a user’s sense of online safety. Protected users are not only more likely to return to a website, they’re also more likely to stay on a website longer. Below are a few areas of focus for embedding digital security into user design.
Promoting the Sense of Safety in the Digital Environment
Generally speaking, we feel safer in familiar, clean, organized, and well designed physical environments. In the digital realm, familiar user interface (UI) components, proper design elements management, organization, and appropriate photo selection can promote similar positive responses. Interestingly, there are strong parallels between the real and digital worlds in terms of psychological dynamics. Moreover, it’s actually easier to change online user behavior than to mitigate human actions in everyday life.
Consider the example of street signage; we depend on our state transportation authority to design signs that are easily, intuitively understood by passersby of different education levels, backgrounds, and cultures. Key variables include shape, color, text, and easy-to-recognize international icons. The same dynamic applies to website users. Colors hit the eye, telling the user how to interpret the beginning of their journey. Warm tones communicate safety; striking color combinations alert the mind. In their first moments on the website, users are assimilating cues in the text and copy, the sizing, the font, and the words’ tone. Professional images, locally and culturally recognizable digital assets, and an engaging human tone—these elements tell the user they’re in a safe and familiar zone. Without them, their experience suffers, even if the user can’t vocalize why.
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User-First Security From the Beginning
Identification is when you claim to be a specific person online. This typically involves entering an email or username. Authentication, by contrast, is proving who you claim to be. This would involve entering a password or using biometric entry, as with scanning your fingerprint. Security flows are the most disliked element of UX. Logging in, remembering your passwords, two-step authentications, Captcha, etc., are not user-friendly—but they are necessary for a user’s full protection.
Logins are the first wave of defense. They’re also easy to hack, especially when interacting with systems that don’t enforce strict password standards and apps that use emails as usernames. Users don’t want their actions under constant surveillance, but they have no idea what happens behind the scenes.
Without disrupting their experience, a number of fail-safes have to be put in place for the user’s best interest. Encourage product teams not to allow a user to use their email address as a username. Logging in with email is generally considered user-friendly, but it’s not security-friendly; one data breach and the entire system is open to attack. Display a checkbox next to mandatory requirements, plus a strength meter to register the security level. Resist intaking more information than what’s needed, and come to an understanding with your sales team during the development phase to understand the minimum information they’d require upfront.
The goal of a product designer is to help users identify and authenticate securely while maximizing their usage and enjoyment of the product. This, in action, requires difficult compromises. Security flowers are not inherently user-friendly, and the best way to view security user flow is through a pain-reward lens. Reducing pain and increasing reward is a pillar of UX, but here it takes on special importance; reward can’t come at security’s cost.
Proper Screening—Step by Step
Proper security practices require a few critical areas of focus—below are some of the most urgent priorities for user-centric cybersecurity.
- Data Decoupling: By decoupling data from individual users, companies can still benefit from valuable consumer insights without sacrificing the user’s privacy. Rather than subjecting their users to constant surveillance, anonymizing the data allows companies to understand and optimize user behavior without invading their user’s personal world. Many vendors on the market offer application decoupling solutions. Alternatively, decoupling architecture can be embedded into the website during the design stage.
- Encrypted Databases: On the back end, sensitive data entered on a website must be stored in encrypted databases. A responsible practice includes the use of a hypertext transfer protocol secure (HTTPS) to encrypt the data being transmitted from the web server to the user, preventing attacks from any bad actors who may be lurking on private or public networks. User data is entered on the HTTPS secure website and stored in the database as random letters and numbers, rather than readable information, protecting the data should the database be compromised.
UX and security can and must work together. It takes careful research, but website developers can provide a product that’s both easily navigated and highly secure. Just like in the architecture of the physical world digital experiences need to be built with the user’s protection as a top priority. It’s not only a matter of ethics, but also of long-term company viability; protecting users will help a company shore up their conversion rate, evade the risk of any potential litigation, and deliver the user experience they’ve always had in mind.
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