Let’s talk UI

…and by that, I do not mean my alma mater. UI, user interface, or user interaction. Or we might talk UX, user experience. Stick an X on anything to make it sound sexier, like X-rated movies or Xtreme sports. Or just X.

User. That’s me. That’s you. That is anyone who has used a tool, a machine, or a system, and your experience with it.

By now, we are all familiar with the concept of usernames and passwords and security questions intended to ascertain your identity as you interact with a database. All databases are not created equally, however, and some security questions are better written than others.

Insert anecdote to illustrate:

I recently switched my rapidly dwindling funds from a national bank to a local credit union. Perhaps one or two other Americans have similar UX. That story is for another journal entry, but how it applies to this one is an analysis of my UX with the credit union’s UI.

To start with, their online bill pay opens in a second window. Well, okay. Although since you’ve mentioned it, the predetermined size, which is smaller than my preferred browsing custom, feels a little confining.

Their passwords are limited to alphanumeric characters only, not case sensitive, and no symbols allowed. Which does not seem very secure to me, but okay. If you insist. When my first attempt at a password, containing both letters and numbers, receives a “weak” rating from their system, I click on the hint link (which opens in still a third window).

The hint window informs me that my password should be difficult for anyone to guess.

Maybe I’ve just spent too many years in school, but before I receive a “weak” grade, I like to know the course expectations. I like those parameters specified so that I am not left to guess what my final grade might be.

Onward to the security questions.

My new credit union requires no fewer than five security questions from one list of only fifteen possible choices. My answers must: Be at least four characters, not contain repeating characters, and, I quote, use only the following symbols: . ? @ ! (endquote).

What is the middle name of your mother?

If I follow their instructions precisely, my mother’s middle name might be ?@!? or @?!. or perhaps ?@!@.

Unfortunately, my mother’s middle name is not at least four characters long. I could add a symbol or a number to my mother’s middle name, but then I will not be able to remember my answer. Which sort of defeats the purpose of the security question.

I’ll skip that one, come back to it.

What is the name of the hospital in which you were born?

I was small. My memory was not yet fully formed. And what about those people not born in hospitals? Should this interface also be designed for those users?

What was your first job?

Filling my diaper. Oh, wait, the UI probably means the first job for which I was paid. Well, in countries forbidding child labor, that was quite a chronological leap from one question to another, and for a moment, I cannot remember whether serving pizzas and dodging ass grabs came before or after folding clothes in the high fashion section of the local discount department store.

For longer than a moment. Apparently, that is one memory I successfully blocked.

Until the UI reminded me.

What is the name of the city in which your parents live?

My parents are dead. Shall I put deceased? Hades? Mount Olympus? Here’s the kicker, though, will I remember my answer later?

And how do those poor orphans answer this question? What about children who grow up in a series of foster homes, or adult users whose parents are divorced, and have moved to separate cities? Or users whose parents spend their retirement in a mobile home, ever on the move?

What was the name of your first pet?

At last! A question easy for me to answer. I latch onto it gratefully. One down. Only four more to go.

A bit like locking one’s door. Then adding a deadbolt. Then adding four more deadbolts. And throwing that little brass chain that everyone knows would never survive a good, swift kick anyway, should anyone want to bust in here to steal my chipped stoneware or unwashed underwear.

What was your first car?

Why am I getting the feeling that this interface was written by a young suburban male, who grew up in a house behind a white picket fence with a father, a mother, a sister, and a two-point-five-car garage, but who was deeply traumatized in childhood by the sudden, inexplicable disappearance of his first pet, a dog named Rover?

What is the name of the school you first attended?

Good question for a security question, as this one does not move around or change over time. Unfortunately, I do not remember. Kindergarten was a long time ago. Hmm. If it were college I could tell you. Or grad school. Well, I’ll come back to that one too.

And by this time, I am beginning to worry that I am going to run out of security questions before I have been able to fill in five answers.

What is the name of your childhood best friend?

The problem with any superlative – bestest, mostest, favoritest – is that the question demands that the answer never changes, but most of us do change our likes and dislikes over time.

Problematic for a security question for me, as my childhood was splintered with numerous moves, and my best friend in first grade was not the same in fourth, nor again in sixth, so how do I pick a childhood best friend, or more to the point for a security question, how do I remember my answer?

What was the name of your high school mascot?

So what if the world is run by white men? Who cares about the multiplicity of other beings anyway? What does it matter?

Just answer the questions!

What is the name of your favorite teacher?

Another superlative.

Along my intellectual journey, I have been fortunate to meet many excellent teachers. Picking a favorite is an impossible task.

What sports team do you love to see lose?

About this time I wonder if I should stop worrying about giving the correct answers to the security questions, and instead write a story, fill in the blanks that way. Of course, then I will not be able to remember the story. I will need to write it down. I will need to keep it in a secure place. Good thing I’ve got those five padlocks on my door.

What was your telephone number and area code when you were a child?

Luckily, the memory chip in my cell phone works better than the one in my head. Otherwise, I cannot remember my current telephone number, let alone pick any one of a variety of numbers from my childhood!

What was the name of the street where you grew up?

And your mother stayed home and baked cookies, didn’t she? And your father left for the office in the morning, and returned home to dinner on the table every night at six, and you never once moved from that house that looked like all the others on that cul-de-sac where you grew up.

What is the birthday of one of your siblings?

Built into the phrasing of this question is a multiplicity of answers, thereby negating its usefulness as a security question.

Unless you happen to have only one sister.

Where does your nearest sibling live?

And Jane moved into the house next door to her brother Dick, who bought a new dog to replace Rover. Dick decided to name his new dog Spot. See Spot run!

Guess what, Dick?

Your father was an alcoholic. Your mother was addicted to antidepressants. And Rover didn’t run away. He was run over when Daddy backed down the driveway one evening after he had a few.

And here is why it is important that our databases be designed to more than the myth of the suburban white male. Out of fifteen possible questions, this user can reliably provide answers to only two or three, not the five required. The database requires that the user fit its parameters.

I wonder if our databases might be better designed to fit humanity, instead of humans conforming ourselves to the database? What would that look like? Might the whole of UX expand to include the full range of human experience, instead of privileging the experiences of just a select few? What would we call it? HX? That’s like human, only sexier.

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