Improving the usability of access codes | by Maria Panagiotidi | Sep, 2021


7 suggestions from recent studies

Maria Panagiotidi
gift cards

Access codes are a series of letters, numbers, or combinations of both. They can be used in various settings; from giving users access to a particular system to reducing the cost of an online purchase. A common use of access codes is in gift cards where the user enters the code before making a purchase. If entered correctly, the value of the code is then reduced automatically from the final amount.

Even though in some cases access codes can be passwords, they are fundamentally different from them. Passwords are usually created by users, are associated with a specific application, can be reset if forgotten, and can be used multiple times. Access codes tend to be for single-use only (e.g., gift cards) and are generated by the entity providing the code.

How can we improve the usability of access codes?

Even though access codes are widely used, there is almost no research or guidelines suggesting best usability practices. Recently, Nichols and colleagues (2020) tried to address that gap in the literature by conducting two experiments and investigating the following:

  • Do shorter access codes improve usability?
  • Does the addition of letters to a numeric-only access code affect usability?
  • Does the display (i.e., capitalization) or input (i.e., case-sensitivity) of the letters have an effect on usability?

The researchers used error rates, speed of entry, and ease of use as measurements of usability. Their main findings and suggestions are discussed below:

  • Opt for all numeric access codes (whenever possible): Using all numeric access codes resulted in lower task times, high accuracy, and high ease of use. Increasing the number of digits to improve security did not affect user experience. No significant user experience differences were found when the number of digits increased by two, three, or five digits when using chunking.
  • Shorter codes do not improve usability: Research did not support the claim that shorter codes improve usability. In particular, in all conditions (numerical, alphanumeric) Nichols et al. showed that “there was no evidence of participants taking more or less time to enter longer or shorter codes”.
  • Avoid using case-sensitive code: Case insensitive codes have higher usability than case-sensitive ones. Research suggests that case-sensitive access codes are perceived as more difficult by users and lead to more data entry errors. As a result, they should be avoided whenever possible.
  • Present code in lowercase: If an alphanumeric code is needed (e.g., in order to increase the number of possible combinations for security reasons), this research suggests presenting the letters in lowercase to the user, instead of uppercase improves UX by increasing efficiency and ease of use. Users spend more time on the task and report lower use of use ratings for all-uppercase alphanumeric codes.
  • Chunking could be another way to increase usability: Breaking long strings of digits into smaller segments can improve user memory. Presenting the access code in chunks or/and promote chunking the entry fields can take advantage of this (see example below).
  • Find the right balance between operations and usability for your use case: According to Nichols et al. “Small gains in usability always have to be weighed against operational issues”. For example, in cases where security is paramount and a great number of codes need to be generated an all-numeric code might not be feasible.
  • Test access codes with actual users: recruit participants from all appropriate age groups and conduct experiments on different devices. Research has shown that device type and age can affect user experience. For example, in Nichol et al.’s study users took longer to enter a code on a mobile device. Furthermore, older users often need to spend more time on the task but report higher levels of satisfaction with their overall experience.

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