9th Sep 21 2:00 pm

Common Application Security Flaws in UX Design

September 9, 2021 | By: Alex Hewko

The colours, the fonts, the buttons, the beautiful pages. Being able to scroll, click, experience. Designing an application’s user interface sounds like a wonderfully creative job with little to no risk to the security of the application.

The same people who trust their UX designer to freely plan their application without regard for the security implications are likely the same people that have some hidden security vulnerabilities. A good UX designer will have a solid grasp of security, and understand the way that data can be transferred, accessed, stored and displayed in each element of an application. And with that understanding, they will be able to thoughtfully curate a secure application design that doesn’t pose any cybersecurity threats.

As the demand for UX designers increases, and as more companies adopt low-code and no-code tools for application design, it is important that businesses continue to prioritize application security.

Security is Part of a Quality UX

Security, quality and ease of use can go hand-in-hand in application design. In fact, meeting security standards is one way to make the user experience that much more high-quality. The user will knowingly be able to use the application without worrying about potential risks to their personal information. 

Some regulations such as PIPEDA, HIPPA and PCI DSS are in place to guide data privacy standards, and are important for all UX designers to be aware of.

Potential Security Risk Areas in UX

Insufficient User Authentication

User authentication verifies the identity of the user who connects to a network or application. Authenticating the user (through passwords, facial recognition scanning, or similar) prevents unauthorized access. Unauthorized access is when individuals gain access to an organization’s data, networks, endpoints, etc. without permission. This is probably the single most important part of ensuring a secure UX.

Increasingly, organizations are relying on cloud-based platforms for their everyday business functions, meaning they’ll contain a ton of data. Though, not all of this data is for everyone to see. A quality UX should be able to separate the experiences of users with different authorization levels, through user authentication. 

For example, a CFO will need to access detailed financial information on their company for all regions and departments. In contrast, the regional sales manager may only need to access their own budget information. 

For a UX designer, there are many good practices to use to ensure user authentication. For example, applying inline validation for the email field ensures that the email format is correct. Require strong passwords or strong password alternatives like biometric authentication. However, avoid spelling out what the requirements are for authentication. Otherwise you would be helping the hacker refine their requirements for breaking into the application. 

For when a user logs in, incorporating on-device authentication and multi-factor authentication (MFA) is extremely important for ensuring the security of the application. This year, the United Nations experienced a breach in their project management software due to lack of MFA. MFA should be included in every application that contains sensitive data or payment information. See here for more ways to improve the user sign-on experience.

Non-Intuitive App Navigation

Having an intuitive application means you’re more likely to have a secure application. As in, if users know what to do, they can do it properly. Thus, you’re going to ensure accurate & responsible app usage. 

Intuitiveness is not just something that will benefit your app security either. More than 80% of users expect a flawless, usable experience on all devices. 

Minimizing the complexity of the application means using basic, specific terminology that makes it clear what the goal of the action is. Make it clear to the user what data is required and where it will be used. This transparency helps the user to understand the application and can improve security in the UX design. 

Having defined options that are easy to understand, clear password requirements and simple navigation (on both web, mobile and tablet) through the application means that users will be able to intuitively use the application in a correct manner. 

Running frequent GUI tests on an application is an ideal way to ensure that navigation is efficient, secure and free of regression bugs. Regression bugs are any issues that appear after a code or design change. Testing for these bugs needs to happen as frequently as changes are made to the application, to ensure all elements of the site work as expected. 

Easy to Spoof

Applications and websites with minimal branding, spelling errors, or non-responsive content relay a lack of quality. They are also much easier to copy, as a user may have difficulty differentiating between the real and fake versions. Having a unique UX in every application with a well-established, recognizable sense of brand identity can be an important step to preventing spoofing and malicious phishing. 

Also making users aware of what a phishing attack looks like can be beneficial in improving UX security. A subtle pop-up is a great way to inform users of what to be aware of, without disrupting their experience. 

Long Log-In Times

Cookies track the frequencies and lengths of an individual’s sessions on their device. It is a small piece of text data that identifies the individual everytime they use the network. 

Setting automatic log-out timers (for example, after 24 hours) may help ensure security in an application. Breaking into the device and breaking into the application are two separate things. In the case of an application that has a log-out timer, the hacker may be able to break into a device repeatedly, but they may not be able to access the application unless they also have a separate means of doing so. 

It’s a small, additional layer of protection that can ensure UX security. 

Threat Modeling Identifies Secure UX Design Flaws

Not all applications have the same security requirements. The design, flow, and management of an application is based on specific business logic and use cases. It is important to build a solid understanding of the application’s goals before development as fixing a UX problem after launch costs up to 100x more

Learn more about challenges of integrating threat modeling into your SDLC or talk to us about running an advanced threat model on your application(s). 

We help DevOps teams at SaaS companies to build confidence in their application security.
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