Designing Usable Authentication Support for Novice Tech Usesrs
UX Designer
2018. 10 - 2019. 4


14% of tech users in the U.S. fall into ‘digitally-not-ready’ user group, who are often older adults, women, lower level of education, often lack access to technology and training resources. Despite of constant increasing Internet penetration rate in the U.S., they are likely to be targets for security attacks and scam calls, having lower self-efficacy on security actions and lower level of trust in online channels.

One of these novice tech users’ challenges is logging in; to transmit their information to Internet service providers. These users face multiple usability problems, which lead them frustration and defensive attitude on online information sharing. As novice users have fuzzier mental models on the Internet than expert users, physical mental models with familiar, concrete metaphors such as locks or fences can support non-expert users to analogically understand security concepts.



Emokey is a emoji-based combination lock interface for tech users who are not familiar with online authentication and basic computer skills such as typing. Emokey aims to yield better usability in web user authentication by leveraging familiar design affordances, and providing visual cues to support users awareness of online security.

Physical Lock Metaphor

Familiarity plays a significant role for participants in password managing; most of the participants have been utilizing paper password manager templates and did not show strong interest in utilizing online password managers due to the extra learning burden and their limited technology use. To provide both a familiar and security-related metaphor for users who voluntarily limit their technology use, Emokey applies a combination type lock shape for easy learnability and resemblance with a PIN-based password system.


Furthermore, Emokey is emoji-based rather than PINs or text considering users’ education level and the simplicity that pictorial cues can provide. A recent study suggests that emoji-based passwords can provide a larger password space and better memorability compared to numerical PINs. While Emokey design focuses on easy comprehension and strong perceived utility and appeal aspect for users, its tangible shapes might create trade-offs in objective security and vulnerability to shoulder-surfing attacks.



I started the project by visiting a technology training event in a community-based organization to get to know the community members. I interviewed total 15 customers who are older adults, with the help of librarians. All of the participants except one were African American, and also most of them were older adults (median age = 53) while the age range were varied (20s - 60s).

Novice tech users prefer visual, graphic cues for easier understanding

All users succeeded in setting and logging in with the setup 4-emoji passwords without an error. Also, The participants mentioned no problem on understanding emojis and also the shape of the device. Meanwhile, the vertical scroll interaction on the on-screen interface was not intuitive for users. This could be a downside of the design compared to the tangible or keypad interface as vertical scrolling might not provide better efficiency than physically rolling the device or touching of the PIN input.

Metaphors are more efficient than actual objects

The participants indicated strong willingness of using the websites with emoji-based passwords than other PIN-based schemes by leveraging stories and favorable objects to recall the password. "It is kind of refreshing to the brain. It is kind of taking a break and I am enjoying these emojis." (Female, age 43) Also, they can reduce user burden that often occurs in high-stress situations such as recovering their passwords or forced change of their passwords. However, there were mixed opinions on the 3D tangible interface. All participants appreciated the reduction of on-screen interaction, however, they also pointed out the inefficiency of carrying a physical device.

Lessons Learned

Emphasize contextually in the user community

User mental model is a compound that is built with diverse user knowledge, experience, and cultural environments. Emphasizing is the key component of design while the users have different mental models. To understand authentic mental models and backgrounds of the users in the community, I leveraged ethnographic studies to understand their frustrations and behaviors contextually.

Use Drawing as eliciting mental models

To engage with participants who are not familiar with design process, it is crucial to make them to understand and emphasize with the problem, and empower their mindset as designers. One of the effective medium was drawing. Each participant drew the logging in page as they understand, and how they think it should work.