The Current State Of Authentication: We Have A Password Problem

 The Current State Of Authentication: We Have A Password Problem

Written by / Courtesy of Smashing Magazine

We have a lot of passwords to remember, and it’s becoming a problem. Authentication is clearly important, but there are many ways to reliably authenticate users – not just passwords. Passwords are written off as inconvenient and unavoidable, but even if true a few years ago, that’s not true today. Due to a combination of sensors, encryption and seasoned technology users, authentication is taking on new (and exciting) forms.

Most other interaction patterns have been updated over time, but no one wants to mess with password authentication. It’s too serious. Or there’s too much liability. You know, like if you don’t clear the password input after someone types the wrong password, their credit card information is at risk.

I’m here to tell you it’s OK to rethink common password habits, and it’s acceptable to use common sense and due diligence to create usable, secure and error-free authentication – passwords or otherwise.

The Root Of The Problem

Password authentication doesn’t scale well. The more services we use, the more passwords we’re forced to remember. In the name of security, SaaS applications, social networks and other services enforce strict password rules that prevent honest people from signing in. Username/password authentication is apparently so effective that it’s a serious barrier to product and service use.

It’s not the passwords themselves; the problem is the scale at which people have to manage and remember usernames and passwords. It’s too much.

We don’t want to make our products less secure by relaxing our password standards, so what are our real options to safely and securely authenticate people and protect their sensitive information? There are a handful of ways today, and there are more coming. There are even things we can do to make traditional password authentication frictionless and user-friendly. Here are the options we realistically have today.

  • Traditional username/password
  • Passphrase
  • Two-factor
  • Social sign-in
  • Passwordless
  • Biometric
  • Connected device

I’ll rate each method based on a few key factors:

  • Implementation: how easy it is to set up and support
  • Security: how hard it is for the wrong person to authenticate
  • Usability: how easy it is for the right person to authenticate

In the spirit of rethinking obsolete password patterns, I’ll rate them in password strength meter terms (that is, vague descriptors with no stated reasoning).

Traditional Username/Password


I’ll be honest. I have issues with the traditional username and password model. In a perfect world, I’d eliminate passwords altogether. However, in the real world, I use this method on 99% of the projects I work on.

Why? It’s important to remember that username/password authentication is the most understood authentication pattern, and it will feel the most trustworthy for a lot of people. There is a lot we can do better from a usability perspective, though. We can make it easier to create and recall passwords, and we can make signing in faster and less confusing.

Password recollection is mainly why I rated both security and usability as weak. It’s hard to create a secure password in the first place, and it’s hard to remember and use passwords after we’ve created them. Because of that, people create passwords that are too easy to guess, and then security is compromised. Ironically, the more security we impose, the less secure password authentication becomes.

Our industry needs to embrace a modern password authentication pattern. Mostly, we need think realistically about security and what best practices should be today. We can take advantage of technologies that didn’t exist when password patterns were formed, so we should do so in the name of user experience. By throwing away password security assumptions and building new ideas based on real data and modern use cases, there are many obvious improvements we can make to traditional password authentication. Here are just a few.

Limit or Eliminate Password Rules

A capital letter, lowercase letter, a number, and a symbol force people to create service-specific passwords.


In the US and UK, 73% of adults use the same password for everything. If that password doesn’t fit your service’s password rules, the account holder makes a unique password that they’ll promptly forget. Eliminating password rules will instantly increase password recollection and improve usability.

Why do we impose complex password rules in the first place? There are studies that show a long passphrase is more effective than a password with different types of characters, but I’ll get into passphrases later in the article.

Use Password Rule Reminders

If you must use password rules, remind the user of your specific rules when they enter an incorrect password. If you require a capital letter and a symbol, the person signing in should know that as they try to remember their password. This is insanely helpful for users who have to remember a million passwords, and it’s only mildly less secure: a hacker can get the password rules by creating their own account.


This faux security pattern has been killing me for years, because although I keep better track of my passwords than most, I still forget them! Adding these reminders to a sign-in form is an easy way to greatly improve usability and increase sign-in success rates.

Show Password Typing with the Option to Hide It

This is pretty common for mobile devices, but we should do it everywhere (yes, including desktops). If someone is on a screenshare or giving a demonstration, they can hide their typing before entering their password. They’re the minority. Everyone else should be given the respect of seeing what they’re typing as they type it. These tweets about Yahoo’s and Sprint’s successes with this pattern should be proof enough that we don’t need to mask passwords anymore.


Luke Wroblewski gives an excellent overview of the thinking behind showing passwords and different ways to implement this pattern. Everything he describes is based around the idea that masking passwords is an outdated practice.

Be Specific with Error Messages

Tell your customer whether their username isn’t found or their password is wrong. (This has privacy risks, but unauthorized parties can usually get this information in other ways, like attempting to sign up.) At the very least, tell them if they entered a username, but you expected an email. People have multiple email addresses, usernames and passwords. Help them narrow it down a little.

If security is such an issue that you can’t let people know they’re trying the wrong email address, consider two-factor authentication instead.


To take traditional username/password authentication a step further without introducing new use patterns or shaking up the status quo, consider passphrases instead of passwords. Passphrases are more secure than passwords, and they’re easier to remember. This has been written about for more than a decade (Passwords vs. Pass Phrases in 2005 through Why Passphrases Are More User-Friendly Than Passwords in 2015). The key that makes passphrases better for both security and usability is that people are much more likely to recall a phrase containing normal, human-readable words than a cryptic password. Therefore, we don’t need to write our passwords down, and we don’t need to use the same password for everything in order to remember it.

The widely held belief is that capitalization, numbers and special characters make automated password guessing harder, but it turns out it’s actually harder for a computer to guess a series of random (or seemingly random) words strung together to form one long phrase.

Need proof? Zxcvbn is a hackweek project from Dropbox that measures password strength. Other sites can use zxcvbn as an open source password strength meter, but Dropbox’s article on the project has some excellent stats and information about the true strength of different passwords. Read it for yourself, but essentially, “Tr0ub4dour&3” is much less secure than “correcthorsebatterystaple”. Test it out here.

To use passphrases, we only need to suggest the passphrase idea to the user and eliminate password rules. People who want to use traditional passwords can do so if they please, but most people will try a phrase over a purposely unreadable password. It’s a good idea for usability either way.

Simple, the design- and tech-friendly online banking company, was my first experience with passphrases, and they’re kind of delightful. My passphrase is simple to remember and simple to type – especially on a mobile phone.

Two-Factor Authentication

Two-factor authentication (2FA) is another extension of traditional password authentication, but after a username/password combination is verified, a unique code or URL is either emailed or texted to the person trying to sign in. They get authenticated by proving they have the unique code. This verifies access across multiple services, and it also alerts the account holder of malicious attempts to access their account.

Google provides an option for two-factor authentication in all (or almost all) of their services. In the case of Gmail or Inbox by Gmail, a unique code is texted. Other services send the code or link to an email address, which achieves the same goal.

Use two-factor authentication only where it makes sense – as you can imagine, 2FA can really annoy a person whose phone is upstairs or who’s not already signed into their email. If abused, 2FA is enough to make people abandon your service. Google handles authentication well. It uses a “trust this device for 30 days” feature. They also make 2FA an option and heavily encourage it, but they don’t force people to use it.

Another benefit of two-factor authentication is that we don’t need password rules because we’re not relying on the password as the only point of security. So, again, the password part can be more user-friendly than we’re used to.

Continue reading the original article over at Smashing Magazine.