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Improving Usability AND Security - it is possible?

I believe so, but only if security teams start to listen to what's important to the usability experts and adapt the security provision accordingly. As many have said before, there is no such thing as 100% security and we don't even necessarily want governmental levels of security for everything. Security provision should be appropriate to the systems and the information it protects.

I have worked on several projects with user experience designers and it has really changed my approach to securing systems. One particular project I was brought in to work on was having problems because the UX team were refusing to put in additional security measures and the security team were refusing to let them go live. To cut a long story short, it turns out that there are known drop-out rates for registrations or user journeys based on the number of fields people have to fill in and how many clicks they have to do. So, the requirements from the security team meant that the drop-out rates would be so high the service wasn't going to work. How can you deliver a secure service in this instance? Well we split the registration journey and allowed the first transaction with lighter weight security information. This won't work in all cases, but the idea is the same - what security is appropriate for this system?

The key here is to understand the user journey. Once you understand this, you can categorise the individual journeys and the information used. Not all journeys will access the same level of information and not all information has the same sensitivity. Authentication should be appropriate to the journey and information. Don't make the user enter loads of authentication information all the time or to do the most simple task. Some user journeys won't actually need authentication at all. For those that do, you should consider step-up authentication - that is simple authentication to begin with, but as the user starts to access more sensitive information or make changes/transactions that are high risk, ask them for additional credentials. For example, a simple username and password could be used for the majority of user journeys, but perhaps a one-time token for more high-risk journeys.

It is possible to have both usability and security. In order for this to work though, you have to:
  • understand the user journeys
  • ensure that it is usable most of the time for most tasks
  • categorise the information and set appropriate access levels
  • use step-up authentication for high-risk tasks rather than make the whole service hard to use
  • use risk engines transparently in the background to force step-up authentication or decline transactions/tasks when risk is above the acceptable threshold

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