DEV Community

loading...
Cover image for 9 Best Practices & UX improvements for the two-factor authentication  (2FA)

9 Best Practices & UX improvements for the two-factor authentication (2FA)

thedaviddias profile image David Dias Originally published at thedaviddias.dev ・7 min read

In 2023 alone, cybercriminals will steal 33 billion records. It takes 196 days on average to identify a data breach. The cost of a data breach will reach $150 million by 2020...
These numbers may be scary but they are only previsions. Things could be much worse in the near future. Security has become a hot topic these last years, almost everyone on the planet has already heard about a company data breach or even a friend that lost his Facebook account because someone hacked it! No one is completely safe nowadays.

I've recently spent multiple hours ensuring that all the accounts I possess use a unique password, complex and long with at least 20 characters and with the two-factor authentication (2FA) enable if present. I've discovered so many disparities between companies and so many issues in terms of features and user experience. I wanted to share with you in this article, what I believe are the best and recommended features for any website or company that takes the security of its users seriously.

1. Offer two-factor authentication options

That is the starting point.

If you care about your users or customers, you should give them the choice to activate the two-factor authentication. On around 800 websites where I have an account, only 5% offer a 2FA option. Some may argue that if you don't have highly sensitive information, it may be overkill to offer the 2FA. But any personal information could be considered sensitive.

If you care about your users and their security, give them the option to enable the 2FA. Period.

2. Don't force the users to choose only one 2FA method

Google, Facebook, Twitter... they all offer simultaneous ways for 2FA: text message, authentication app and security key. More commonly, at least in a text message and authentication app, the security key seems to be set up only on certain services.

But I've been surprised to see Etsy, even they use toggles on their UI, to force you to only choose one of the options. I'm not even sure if it was originally designed to work like that.

The two-factor options on Etsy

Bit.ly and booking.com in other hand only allow you to use your phone as a 2FA device. So if you lose your phone and your email access, you could be screwed.

The verification code view on Booking.com

Mailchimp and Tumblr, on the contrary, only offer 2FA using an authentication app.

Zapier has an awesome step by step 2FA setup, probably one of the best I found. They offer multiple complementary ways and specifically tell you "in the event you get locked out of your account and have lost both your authentication device and recovery codes". The user understands that providing his phone number is an additional way to ensure he/she can access his account in case he/she lost the other ways to connect to their web app.

The two-factor step by step setup on Zapier

3. Make the QR code an image

I have been using 1Password for quite some time now and the modal that scans the QR code doesn't always find the QR code. In that case, I found myself drag and dropping the QR into that modal to be recognized. But it only works when the code is an image.

I would recommend having it as a format image that can be saved / drag and dropped.

Reddit for example doesn't have their QR code as an image. Fortunately, everyone offers the text version of the QR code that you can use in your authentication application.

4. Keep the code you send by email in the same format as requested in your app or website

This one only happened to me once. It happened with Instagram.

When Instagram sends a "verification code" by SMS, they included a space. If you copy-paste that code where it's required, first the input doesn't want the space and the last digit is not included in your paste. It's an annoying issue that could be fixed easily!

Instagram verification SMS code

5. Give the option to have recovery/backup codes

Sounds weird when said at loud but a lot of websites don't offer backup/recovery codes when you enable the 2FA. This was a surprise for me at first, 2FA means you will always have backup codes in case you lost access to your phone, email or the app you use to generate the random number. Nowadays, some websites don't offer that option. I tend to be really careful with those.

Kickstarter and WPEngine are examples of websites that don't offer you any recovery/backup codes. I hope they could improve that.

The Kickstarter security modal

6. Always give the option to download the recovery codes

Most of the websites propose to copy the recovery codes. This is not the best option.

It's nice to have it, sure, but it's not enough. I personally store all my recovery codes in multiple places: one is the vault from Dropbox. Having just to drag and paste a simple text file is easy and fast.

If you offer only the option to copy, then you could be forcing the user to:

  • 1) open the text editor
  • 2) paste the codes
  • 3) give a name
  • 4) save the file on your device Technology is there to save user's time.

Slack for example allows you to "Print codes" but not download them. Why not? I have to generate a PDF instead of my simple text file. Not the best user experience.

The Two-Factor Authentication Backup Codes modal on Slack

7. In the recovery code text file, always write which platform these codes are coming from

Even Facebook can make mistakes and this one is important for me. Currently, if you download the recovery codes from Facebook, you open the file and you can't find any mention of Facebook or the name of the account. The file name facebook_recovery_codes is helpful but in my opinion, not enough. The name of the account and the name of the platform should be a minimum.

And to make it more useful, adding the date when the codes were generated could also be added.

Google which is a good example, uses your username in the name of the file, and also adds:

SAVE YOUR BACKUP CODES
Keep these backup codes somewhere safe but accessible.

LIST OF CODES

(email@gmail.com)

* You can only use each backup code once.
* Need more? Visit https://g.co/2sv
* These codes were generated on: Date, 2021.
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

8. Allow the user to regenerate recovery/backup codes

It's essential to give the user the ability to regenerate recovery codes. Some don't offer this useful option.

9. Offer more than one code (maybe?)

This one is less important but I still wanted to mention a key difference in terms of recovery/backup codes.

Most of the companies only offer one code vs a list of multiples codes that can be used. It's hard for me to defend one approach vs the other one. I just know that I feel better when I have more than one code.

About security keys

Security keys are the less common way to secure your account. If you are a public figure or someone with a high level of responsibility, having a security key could give you a little bit more peace of mind. But for a normal user, it may be overkill. Nonetheless, I wanted to maximize the security of my accounts and recently bought the Titan Security Key from Google. The USB version works on any computer and I use the Bluetooth version in case I'm on my iPhone or iPad.

The box of the Titan Security Keys by Google

They both are not cheap, but security should be part of your "unlimited budget", the same as for food.

Conclusion

I'm not a security expert and have limited knowledge in terms of security. But as a Software Engineer and particularly a user, I believe we have a long way ahead until most of the platforms implement all the best practices and features to ensure secure access for all users.

Recap:

  1. Offer two-factor authentication options
  2. Don't force the users to choose only one 2FA method
  3. Make the QR code an image
  4. Keep the code you send by email in the same format as requested in your app or website
  5. Give the option to have recovery/backup codes
  6. Always give the option to download the recovery codes
  7. In the recovery code text file, always write which platform these codes are coming from
  8. Allow the user to regenerate recovery/backup codes
  9. Offer more than one code (maybe?)

Thanks for reading, I hope these suggestions would help you to have a better UX and improve your 2FA implementation.

Feel free to ask me anything in the comments below!

Discussion (0)

pic
Editor guide