Columnists

Kill the password!

How a lack of technological experience innovation can cripple your business.

TransUnion Africa CEO Lee Naik.
TransUnion Africa CEO Lee Naik.

We've come a long way in the last century. We've put a man on the moon and shot a car into space. We've gone from drive-ins to drones, and from telegrams to Twitter. But we still haven't quite managed to shake one relic from the past: the password.

You'd think that a method of authentication that was rubbish when Ali Baba used it wouldn't still be torturing us today, but the password has somehow survived well into the digital age. It was responsible for the first ever computer data breach, back in the 1960s, and even those involved in its creation and advancement don't think too highly of it.

People have been predicting the death of password protection as we know it for years (Bill Gates said it was heading for extinction back in 2004) but the time might have finally come to bury it in the backyard.

The World Wide Web Consortium has come up with a new browser authentication standard that replaces traditional logins with more intuitive and user-friendly authentication measures such as biometrics, security keys and fingerprint scanners.

It's not laziness, it's energy conservation

Why does Bill's prediction look like it's finally about to come true? It's not like there haven't been advances in password technology before, from hash encryption to two-factor authentication and cryptography. But there's a reason that most people default to terrible, easy-to-remember passwords like "qwerty" or "123456": because experience matters more than anything else in shaping behaviour.

Few people care what's going on behind the scenes of the authentication process. What they recall is the pain of remembering multiple different logins across Web sites and devices, the friction of having to type in a random string of characters to access their favourite services, and the frustration of dealing with lost passwords. Talk about a Rube Goldberg machine!

You can ease the pain somewhat through password managers and UX workarounds, but the alphanumeric password is one of the most poorly designed digital experiences we encounter daily. Compare that to using the fingerprint scanner on your phone; a much more natural and intuitive form of authentication. Why would you ever choose a regular password over that?

You'd think that a method of authentication that was rubbish when Ali Baba used it wouldn't still be torturing us today.

History is littered with the corpses of innovations that didn't quite catch on, not because they weren't technically good but because they were just too awkward to use. It's why VR goggles haven't quite caught fire but smartwatches have: it's not about the technology itself; it's the platform you use to engage with it. Despite this simple truth, organisations all too often get caught up in a tech or spec war, ignoring the way consumers access their products.

The way you make me feel

What's the most beloved brand in the world? Some of the usual suspects that top these lists include Google, Amazon, Netflix and Apple. Unsurprisingly, they also offer simple, yet masterful, interfaces for interacting with their service. Type what you want to know in a simple white box. Search for anything you want and buy it with one click. Choose an interesting-looking movie or TV show and click play. Yes, they offer rich product and service ecosystems, but that came later. First, they needed to make it as natural and pleasurable as possible for people to use them.

Anyone who reads my columns regularly will know that I am a big Apple devotee, so it should come as no surprise that I'm the owner of an iPhone X. Being completely honest, I think the model is kind of gimmicky. But it also works. Having removed the bezel, the way you access the home screen is by swiping up. It's a small change, but it just feels right.

Now the techies and iPhone sceptics among you might argue there are better phones out there when it comes to features or technical quality. One of the major reasons for Apple's love by consumers, though, is that it's the ultimate experiential brand. Subtle interactions, like that upward swipe, epitomise that commitment to perfecting every aspect of the user experience, from purchase to use to support.

That's why I have so much faith that Face ID will be a game-changer. Sure, the implementation might not be perfect yet, but Apple will keep at it until it feels as natural for us as using a mouse or opening an e-mail.

Learn from the best

Most organisations can't begin to compete with the level of experience design that brands like Apple and Google excel at, but they can adopt a more experiential approach to product and service design. Biometric and HMI technologies are racing forward, yet many businesses are failing to keep up with how their customers engage with their platforms and technologies.

Banks have made it easy for us to send money online and via mobile apps, but what if they made it as seamless as sending a WhatsApp message? What if you could have a conversation with your doctor as easily as you have one with your friends? And what if taking out an insurance policy was as fast as signing up for a streaming music platform?

What experiential brands get right is not just an understanding of the technologies available, but how it changes human behaviour. Just because you're not in entertainment doesn't mean you can't learn from the way games onboard users or Disney uses wearables to remove friction from its theme park experiences.

Forcing people into clumsy, inorganic experiences when there are better options available is a sure way of driving them somewhere else. The cyborg age is here. It's time to start designing experiences around it.

Which companies do you think are nailing experiential design?

Have your say
Youtube play icon