Office Details: Choosing a guest WiFi password

As some of you may know, we moved into our shiny new office at 133 Park Street at the beginning of the year. Over the course of a couple of blog posts, we're going to talk about the big and small design decisions that we had to make around building an office where collaboration can thrive.
A couple of days ago, I got an email from our IT support guys - they were coming to set up a set of brand new WiFi access points, and wanted to know what the network name & password should be. Network names were obvious - we needed something descriptive like "Webcredible Staff", "Webcredible Training" and "Webcredible Guest". But when it came to thinking about passwords, especially for the our public guest network, I had to pause & think. Entering a guest WiFi password is a one of these classic examples in user experience where you really need to distinguish between the user's ultimate goal and a specific task they're trying to perform at the moment. The users of our guest WiFi network are typically clients who visit our office for a meeting or to watch user research sessions, and people who attend one of our training courses and events. Their goals might be to check their emails, download a presentation or tweet about one of our events. The specific task of entering a WiFi password is only one thing that stands in their way of achieving their goal. If we manage to optimise this task, we get happier visitors who waste less time fiddling with their laptop and more time getting work done. So what are the requirements for having an ideal WiFi password? To think about this, we need to consider about the different contexts where a password will be used. Our guest WiFi password will be:
  • Printed and posted in the walls of meeting rooms & public areas around the office
  • Shown on-screen in presentations at the beginning of public events
  • Recited verbally to visitors who ask for it by members of staff
  • Entered on a device (phone, tablet, laptop) that may or may not have a physical keyboard
Thinking about all of the above, a guest WiFi password must be:
  • As short as possible (so that it's easy to enter and remember). WiFi standards require a password that's at least 8 characters long, so anything much longer than this is a no-no. Some devices also allow you to view the password unmasked while typing it, so having a short password lets you see & verify the entire password at once without wrapping.
  • Easy to remember in your short-term memory, so if you see or hear it once, you don't need to check it again. Memorability isn't just about length. Because our memory works with chunks of information, it's easier to remember the same number of characters if they're made of 2 words e.g. "RedArrows" rather than random letters e.g "idpleqysd"
  • Easy to read. In practice, this means avoiding characters that can be easily mistaken for each other, e.g. 0 (zero) and O/o depending on the typeface
  • Easy to pronounce. Again, real words that people can say beats "Ksfhqd74!"
  • Easy to type. In most small-screen devices, it takes a few more taps to switch to a keyboard mode where numbers and symbols can be entered. To make things easier, the password shall contain only letters.
  • Meaningful. A bonus rule, not directly related to usability but what if we could make the WiFi password something with a UX-related meaning? Then we could turn the dull moment of entering a password into something that gives out a useful hint, principle or nugget of information.
There's one thing that's deliberately missing from the above list, and that's "Secure". We don't really care if our guest WiFi password is very secure. We hand it out to every visitor so it's not exactly a secret. The only reason there is a password is to prevent everyone in the neighbouring area who's not our visitor from using our bandwidth for free. Besides, our guest WiFi users connect to an isolated network and can't access our internal systems so the risk is minimal. And the NSA probably knows all our passwords anyway! You'll have to come and visit our office to find out which password we chose in the end (we're not going to post it here for everyone in the neighbourhood to see!) but one of the choices that came second was "AlwaysIterate". As it's just two common words, it's easy to remember, read, say & type. We used capitalisation to separate the two words so they're easier to read on screen/paper than "alwaysiterate". And people typing these words are already learning one of the driving principles behind user-centred design. Does your guest WiFi password work for you or does it drive you nuts? Let us know in the comments. In the meanwhile, we'll be testing the effectiveness of our password by observing if our guests succeed or fail in entering it. I'm also trying to find out if our WiFi system can log cases where people try to connect with an incorrect password, so that we can have an accurate success metric! Because in the quest for a great experience, no detail is too small to research, design & test.

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