UX

Don't Get Clever with Login Forms

As time goes on I find myself increasingly annoyed with login forms. As password managers like 1Password (which is what I use) and Chrome’s password manager (which I also sorta use) become more popular, it’s important for websites to be aware of how users go about logging into their sites.

Let’s walk through some login patterns and why I think they’re not ideal. And then let’s look at some better ways of tackling login. TL;DR; create login forms that are simple, linkable, predictable, and play nicely with password managers.

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I think this may have started with Slack, but I’m seeing other digital products like Notion (which I love by the way) send users a temporary password to their email in order to login. I can appreciate the cleverness of this pattern as it avoids the rigamarole of users having to remember yet another password and building out all the “Forgot password” flow stuff. But.

  • This pattern is incredibly tedious. 1. Enter email into login form. 2. Open new tab or switch programs. 3. Open your inbox. 4. Find message from service (if you don’t get distracted by other emails first). 5. Open message. 6. Copy gobbledygook password. 7. Go back to website. 8. Paste in gobbledygook password. 9. Submit login form. Holy shit.
  • This doesn’t work at all with password managers, which is incredibly annoying as I want to lean on password managers to, uh, manage my passwords. With the advent of design systems we talk a lot about consistency. But it’s not just about creating consistency within your own ecosystem, it’s about being consistent with the rest of the internet.

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Shopify (another service I love) annoyingly splits its login across three separate screens. Again, I can appreciate the intention here: they’re not trying to overload a user with too much info at once. And while I agree with this pattern for certain contexts (like in an e-commerce flow you typically see billing information, shipping method and address, credit card info, etc chunked out into discrete steps), this is overkill for what’s essentially a three-field form.

  • Adds unnecessary steps to login – Again this is a three-field form, but now users have to slog through three screens to log in. This no doubt slows users down.
  • Doesn’t work with password managers – While they sort of work, password managers are only able to fill in the one field on the page.

Do

So what should web designers do instead? I think having a boring old predictable login form is just fine. Here’s Harvest:

Simple, concise, predictable. Works with password managers. Good stuff. Here’s some considerations:

  • Have a dedicated page for login – Customer support people can direct people to a URL (domain.com/login) rather than having to spell out a bunch of instructions on where to find the login form on the page. Password managers can store that login page and with a click of a button open that page and pre-fill the form.
  • Expose all required fields – If you need to enter your last name in order to log in, expose that field!
  • Keep all fields on one page – login should be a swift process, not an unnecessary slog through multiple pages.
  • Don’t get fancy – There may be something to the whole magic link thing and other inventive login patterns, but I think it’s important to recognize how users are used to logging in across the internet. Lean into that boring, predictable settled science.
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How My Brain-Damaged Mother Changed How I Look at Interface Design

My mom is an O.G. console cowgirl, a real-life hidden figure. Working for Ma Bell in the early ’70s, she was responsible for administrating some of the most powerful computers then in the country, the ones that drove our telephone systems. “I’m one of only seven people who know how to program these,” I remember her once bragging as she swept her hand across a clean room the size of an aircraft hanger filled to the ceiling with blinking, whirring mainframes.

But Sally Brownlee isn’t so good with computers anymore. Last March, she was hit by a car while walking her dog. Everyone survived, but Wally lives with another family now (he’s happy; I hear they have a beach house), and as for Mom, who suffered permanent brain damage, she’s not the same in innumerable ways. But in no way is the change more quantifiable to me than when I watch her stares uncomprehendingly at the keyboard of her laptop, or try and fail to use her iPad for the umpteenth time. This woman’s technical expertise launched a billion phone calls, yet now, she is routinely thwarted by what many hail as one of the most accessible UIs on the planet.

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[T]he older we get, the more we act like we’re cognitively disabled: Again, according to Nielsen, people’s ability to use websites effectively declines 0.8% every year over the age of 25.

“It happens naturally,” [Lisa Seeman, a member of IBM Accessibility Research and the editor of the World Wide Web Consortium’s standards for making designs for individuals with cognitive disabilities] explains. “We get older, and even without having something like dementia, we become less capable of figuring new things out.” And this isn’t true only for seniors. Cognitive ability is a spectrum, not a binary switch: It goes down when you’re stressed, tired, depressed, hungry, or in pain. “Everybody has the same cognitive impairments when they’re stressed or depressed,” Seeman says.

In other words, cognitive accessibility isn’t just relevant for people with brain damage, like my mother. It’s relevant to everyone, from people with migraines to neophytes in emerging markets who don’t have software translated yet into their local languages.

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So what’s the answer? A system-level toggle you flip to tell software you’re cognitively disabled, which then dumbs down your interfaces accordingly? Nothing so gauche, laughs Seeman. Where the industry needs to go, she says, is dynamic UIs: Interfaces that aren’t built on an assumption of computer literacy but adjust to a user’s capabilities in real time. “What we need are interfaces that meet the user where they already are,” she says.

Brutalist Web Design

The term brutalism is often associated with Brutalist Architecture, however it can apply to other forms of construction, such as web design.

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The term brutalism is derived from the French béton brut, meaning “raw concrete”. Although most brutalist buildings are made from concrete, we’re more interested in the term raw. Concrete brutalist buildings often reflect back the forms used to make them, and their overall design tends to adhere to the concept of truth to materials.

A website’s materials aren’t HTML tags, CSS, or JavaScript code. Rather, they are its content and the context in which it’s consumed. A website is for a visitor, using a browser, running on a computer [or mobile device] to read, watch, listen, or perhaps to interact. A website that embraces Brutalist Web Design is raw in its focus on content, and prioritization of the website visitor.

Brutalist Web Design is honest about what a website is and what it isn’t. A website is not a magazine, though it might have magazine-like articles. A website is not an application, although you might use it to purchase products or interact with other people. A website is not a database, although it might be driven by one.

They list the following principles:

In defence of boring UX

The Pale King, the late David Foster Wallace’s final novel, was published in 2011. It’s about IRS employees in Peoria, Illinois

And it’s incredibly boring.

I’m not being cruel — The Pale King contains an intricate description of a traffic jam, a long list of tax forms, and an entire chapter devoted to mundane office tasks. As Michael Pietsch, the book’s editor notes, “David set out to write a novel about some of the hardest subjects in the world — sadness and boredom.”

Defending boring UX is a slightly easier task. I just want to get you excited about the invisible, unsung work required to build useful and understandable digital products that truly satisfy user needs.

Boring defined

Boring user experience is clear and straightforward content, design, and code that solves key pain points. No surprise. No delight. It’s the non-design of IA Writer or the simple poetry of plain language.

Unboring is an error message that requires a PhD to unpack or Microsoft Word’s everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach to software.

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Boring UX emerged in 2012 with the launch of GOV.UK, a government site that proved straightforward digital design can improve the lives of millions of people. As the jury who awarded the site Design of the Year 2013 put it, “It may not look particularly exciting or pretty, but that is not the point. This is design in the raw, providing vital services and information in the simplest, most logical way possible.”

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Boring doesn’t always save lives, but it usually improves them. The titans of the web — Wikipedia, Reddit, Google, Amazon, Dropbox, GitHub — look boring when compared to Snapchat, The Outline, or Bejeweled. But boring companies have millions of repeat users because their products actually work.

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“Only when a product is functional, reliable, and usable can users appreciate the delightful, pleasurable, or enjoyable aspects of the experience,” notes Fessenden. In other words, boring underpins delight — and sometimes boring is delightful. Popular apps like Pocket and Instapaper, along with Safari’s reader view, turn exciting into boring by rescuing content from the evil clutches of hyperactive design and indestructible retargeting ads.

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If you’re truly user-centric, admit that the most meaningful life stuff happens beyond the borders of tiny glowing rectangles. UX folks are brokers and intermediaries, not rock stars or ninjas. Your job is to swallow some boredom so people can live better lives.

And if that sounds a bit dreary, remember the words of David Wallace in The Pale King: “If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

When text truncation fails

I understand that it’s tough to get people excited about boring tools and approaches, especially invisible things like semantic HTML, edge cases, and truncation. But without foundational, behind-the-scenes work, products and features can break in terrible ways. Just ask Karen McGrane. She’s an accomplished digital strategist who has spent the past few years warning the UX community that truncation is not a content strategy. But people continue to ignore her, even though she’s written not one, but two great books.

Why? Because solving for truncation is low glory work. To be blunt, it’s a pain in the ass. But Karen is right. And when truncation fails, it can be far more painful:

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The Perfect Paragraph

Walking down an aisle in a library, I no more than glance at the vast majority of books shelved on either side of me. Only a madman would suggest that my disregard of these books should sanction their pages being torn out. Nonetheless, because research has shown that visitors don’t read the average Web page in full, and because the “success” of a page is more easily measured by user action than cognition, we are often encouraged to marginalize our writing in favor of visual signifiers or action cues.

Sure, most people will “bounce” your content, but if you really have something to say, don’t alienate the people who are willing to give your writing a chance. Good typography does justice to your words, and good wording does justice to your ideas. If readers are comfortable reading your type, then they will more likely be comfortable with what you are writing about.

Users Don't Hate Change. They Hate Our Design Choices.

For years, we studied teams rolling out new designs, to see if we could mitigate negative reaction to new releases and design changes. We studied hundreds of product and service rollouts. We watched and learned from the reactions of thousands of users.

When we dug into what those users’ reactions [were], patterns emerged. The users told us the changes inconvenienced them. They had no idea the change was coming and suddenly it was in their face. Users were upset because they were surprised.

They also told us the old version worked fine. Even when it took a while to get comfortable, they learned it. Many users mastered difficult-to-use designs.

Everything was different when the new version arrived. What they’d mastered before didn’t help them now. The company said it was an improved design, but they couldn’t see the improvements. Why should these users learn something new that doesn’t help them? Users were upset because they couldn’t see the value.

We also saw many instances where users didn’t react negatively to changes. Often, they didn’t react at all. We saw new designs that didn’t affect the users’ behaviors and they didn’t pay attention to it.

In these cases, the changes were often not noticeable. Sometimes the changes were small and isolated. Yet, we also saw users seemingly not notice several updates with extensive changes. (In more than one instance, an entire application’s infrastructure had been rewritten without a single user noticing.)

In cases when the design changes were noticeable, the designers gave the users control to switch when they wanted. The designers showed why the change was valuable to the users. And the designers made the transition easy by taking the knowledge and experience their users already had with the product into account.

Reader Mode: The Button to Beat

A reminder of why reader modes exist in browsers and to embrace them as a user’s right:

Good design isn’t about forcing someone to walk a tightrope across your carefully manicured lawn. Nor is it a puzzle box casually tossed to the user, hoping they’ll unlock it to reveal a hidden treasure. Good design is about doing the hard work to accommodate the different ways people access a solution to an identified problem.

For reading articles, the core problem is turning my ignorance about an issue into understanding (the funding model for this is a whole other complicated concern). The more obstructions you throw in my way to achieve this goal, the more I am inclined to leave and get my understanding elsewhere—all I’ll remember is how poor a time I had while trying to access your content. What is the value of an ad impression if it ultimately leads to that user never returning?