“Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors”

Outlook password changeAt my organization, Aalborg University, it is a requirement to change the campus account password once every 90 days, a security imitative implemented last year. This is a widespread security policy used in many organizations, but also a policy whose significance has been questioned for more than a decade. I have very mixed feelings about this security measurement. A major advantage is of cause that leaked passwords will be unusable at some point (not considering the option that backdoors etc. can have been installed.) However, this approach is also associated with several obstacles from a user perspective. These include: coming up with a new easy to remember secure password and the hassle of changing password on all associated services requiring authentication. At Aalborg University, this applies to basically all IT-services such as access to WiFi, e-mail, printers, databases, etc. The new password has to be changed manually in several of these services.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a Mac user, but no notice is given about the upcoming expiring password. When I suddenly no longer can access different services I know it’s time to create a new password (after some frustration about trying to figuring out what the problem is.) Our passwords are changed through the Outlook Web App. To make sure that the password meets a certain security standard some requirements are in place. If the new password does not match this standard, the following error message is displayed:

“The password you entered doesn’t meet the minimum security requirements.”

Unfortunately, this error message does not tell anything about what the requirements are or how to get this information leaving the user in the unknown. This is a textbook example of a usability problem directly linkable to one of Jakob Nielsens’s ten heuristics:

“Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors”.

I’m surprised to find this classic usability problem in software such as Outlook managed by a large organization with thousands of users. This must make the support phones glowing (update: after talking to our IT support department it actually does increase support requests.)

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