Letters and Numbers

Web security is paramount. User accounts on the internets (like banking, and social sites where credibility and fidelity can ruin companies and destroy households) are to be revered more sacred than social security numbers.

Yet, in almost every login form I use in a given day, I’m asked for my “password.” If there was anything legacy still lingering—holding back the next-gen web culture, it is the mindset that was around when “password” was built into the foundations of this world.

“Let’s see… I need to create a ‘password’ that includes upper and lowercase letters, at least one number, and at least one symbol. Oh, and it needs to be longer than 5 characters. Maybe I’m just unlearned, but I’ve never seen a ‘word’ that fits those parameters…

We are faced with one of the fundamental problems the web has been fighting to overcome since Joe Mosaic-user called a file of information that loads in a browser “window” a “page.” I’m talking about terminology. Khoi Vinh has a great post about terminology issues. And I’m thinking beyond the basic anatomical titles of a website’s most fundamental unit here, down to the UI experience. Good UI is more than nice looking buttons and pixel-perfect grid layouts and awesome navigation systems. Great UI is also text—using the right words to help the user continue their quest as effortlessly as possible. Words have meaning and they invoke certain expectations and when a not-so-fitting word is used to explain something, we end up with misconceptions. And misconceptions lead to misinformation, which in turn eventually leads to someone like me who ends up catching grief from much needed potential clients who don’t understand (and don’t really want to understand) why a “page” costs that much.

So… in reality we don’t use “passwords” anymore. Those can be cracked in seconds milliseconds most likely. That’s why sites have mixed-case, alphanumeric and symbolic requirements on our user accounts. We are really using “passcodes” that we inappropriately refer to as passwords. But try fielding all the customer support inquiries when our users panic at the technical nature of the word “passcode.” It’s a good thing we’re not rallying around terms like “user authentication string,” or “security credentials.”

So now I’ve backed my thinking into a corner where the thought of using “passcode” in a world that already gets the passcode concept but calls it a “password” would make for a not-so-good UI experience. Enter a real-life situation:

My very first experience with the internet was at my friend Justin’s house back in 1994ever-ago. Well, it used to be my house, but that’s a story for another time. So he’s showing me this thing that I thought he called a “wet page” using this program called Netscape. It was amazing. There was no limit to the length (or width for that matter) of the “page”. Right from day one, the word page made no sense to me. But because I thought he said “wet” instead of “web”, my deductive reasoning kicked in forcing “page” to make sense in the context of the term “wet”—meaning like water; fluid, assuming the shape or limits of its container or pouring beyond the edge. The information on the page moved and shifted as he re-sized the window.

Just for a second, think of how our memory retention might be positively affected if we went into an online account experience right from the beginning thinking of our login information as a code instead of a word? Or think of how further along the web would be if no one thought of this thing you are reading as a page, but rather something fluid, dynamic, responsive and transformable? What would that even be called?

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