The Evolution of User Experience (UX) in Cybersecurity: Past, Present, and Future

30 May 2024

Due to the rapid changes in technology over the last few decades, we have become reliant on technology for almost everything we do today. In my opinion, this trend will only continue to grow. However, living in a digitally connected world also means increased cybercrimes. Our devices and data are far more vulnerable to cybercrime today than even as early as the last decade.

Irrespective of whether it is an individual, a small business, or a large organization, everybody is prone to some sort of security threat on a daily basis. But as with every problem, there is a solution; there are cybersecurity solutions for all of our security needs as well. Cybersecurity products like antivirus software, security information and event management (SIEM), firewalls, and virtual private networks(VPNs), to name a few, are security products that can help every individual or organization stay on top of cybercrime.

However, it is not enough for these products to only have advanced cybersecurity capabilities; their UX(User Experience) and overall usability play a crucial role in how users are able to leverage these tools to maximize their full potential.

In this article, we will explore how UX has evolved in cybersecurity, discuss a few key current factors that have contributed to its growth in cybersecurity products, and discuss what the future looks like. But before delving into that, let us understand what UX (User Experience) Design is.

What Is UX (User Experience) Design?

UX refers to the overall experience of interacting with and using a product, in this case, a cybersecurity product. It encompasses how functional, efficient, and user-friendly a product is. The Interaction Design Foundation defines it as both a verb and a noun, where a UX designer designs (verb) and influences the user experience (noun) - the perceptions and responses to a system or service.

Sometimes, several terms are used interchangeably with UX design, such as User Interface Design (UI Design) and Interaction Design, but it is important to understand that all these are integral subsets of UX Design.

An easy way to think about it is to consider UX Design as a big umbrella and suggest that UX Research, Wireframing, UI Design, Prototyping, and Interaction Design are the subsets that make that umbrella. Now, with a clear definition in mind, let’s start by understanding the past of UX in cybersecurity products.

The Past

Historically, cybersecurity products have primarily focused on technical aspects with a prevailing mindset of advanced capabilities over user experience. Early cybersecurity products were developed for security professionals who were habitual to these conventional products, as UX wasn’t even a key aspect of product development until the last decade.

This bias in security products has made every other user with little to no technical knowledge vulnerable to cyber threats, especially in this digitally connected world. Cybersecurity products, in general, are complex, and in the past, core functionality took precedence over usability.

But therein lies the beauty of UX, which focuses on usability and experience without compromising core functionality. Moreover, since cybersecurity has become an essential aspect of our lives, not just security professionals but everyone interacts with some sort of security technology. This is why prioritizing UX Design in cybersecurity products has become more critical than ever to provide everyone with a safe and secure digital experience.

The Present

UX has gained much traction in the last decade, as have cybersecurity products. Creators of cybersecurity products are starting to understand the critical role UX plays in the product development cycle and how UX can be leveraged to design products for every different type of user without compromising functionality. There have been several exciting factors that contributed to this change:

Growing user knowledge about cybersecurity: With all of us being exposed to cyber threats in one way or another today, there has been an increase in the knowledge about the importance of cybersecurity and how security products can help us mitigate cyber threats. Growing knowledge has led to an increase in the usage and acceptance of cybersecurity products, which, in turn, has compelled cybersecurity products to implement good UX designs to cater to a wide range of users.

In many ways, this has made it essential for us to utilize some type of cybersecurity product and, in turn, push products to have better UX to cater to a wider audience.

Better UX Design of other digital products: Our phones, computers, and other digital devices surround us. We use multiple applications on these devices to complete daily tasks, either for business or leisure. All these applications, like Netflix, Instagram, Microsoft Office, Google Sheets, etc., have great UX design, which makes them intuitive and accessible.

These household products have forced cybersecurity products to implement good UX into their products to satisfy users' needs without promising core functionality to keep up with the current user being accustomed to so many other products with great UX.

Good UX is Good for Business: User Experience has come a long way, and there is evidence of how much of an effect it can have on a business's growth, business terms of revenue, and user adoption. It is a notion of the past that if a product has good features, it will always be successful; a product with even great features and bad UX can adversely impact its success in today’s digital age.

A great example is how bad UX cost Citi Bank $500 Million, where three employees, using a poorly designed software, accidentally credited $900M instead of $7.8M, and when the creditors refused to return most of the money, a judge ruled in favor of the credits and not the bank.

Increase in Integration: Cross-platform and product integrations have been important factors in driving user adoption for many widely used products and services. Systems supporting an increased number of integrations have also helped cybersecurity products increase their user count. With integrations, the UX of cybersecurity products needs to adapt constantly to provide a seamless experience for users.

For example, let’s take the example of two-factor authenticators like Google Authenticator. Google has multiple products like Gmail and Chrome, and it was essential for Google Authenticator to also have a good user experience and integration with other products to be successful.

The Future

With technological advances every day, the future of UX in cybersecurity seems exciting and challenging. It is exciting because these new technologies have the potential to significantly improve cybersecurity products both from a functionality and UX perspective.

However, designing products for these new technologies can be challenging due to limited available research on user patterns and ever-changing user behavior. According to me, two key trends that have immense potential to elevate the UX of cybersecurity products are:

Artificial Intelligence: Artificial Intelligence(AI) and Generative AI have been the talk of the tech town for a few years now, and from what we have seen so far, it seems as if products that don't integrate AI capabilities will be left behind. AI can analyze past threats or cyber incidents to predict threat patterns, and generative AI can essentially help security professionals generate security policies or threat summaries to reduce the overall time to mitigate cyber threats.

UX designers will have to conduct thorough research to understand how to design for AI safely and reduce user error probabilities with clear communications. We are still in the early years of AI and with the technology growing at such a fast pace, designs of these AI-powered products will have to adapt as well.

Augmented and Virtual Reality(AR and VR): Although augmented and virtual realities are widely accepted in the gaming industry, they also have immense potential to improve cybersecurity products. For example, security professionals can be trained using stimulated cyber threat scenarios with the help of AR and VR to handle a real-world threat situation better. This can help organizations analyze how these professionals react to cyber threats and allow them to identify training gaps.

UX designers would have to design VR and AR experiences that allow for a seamless experience to optimize security training. It particularly would be challenging to design experiences that mesh with the real and the virtual worlds catering specifically to cybersecurity threats.

In conclusion, UX will only grow to play an even more important role in cybersecurity in this ever-changing realm of cyber threats as the industry evolves. We have come a long way from cybersecurity products only focusing on functionality and features with complete negligence of usability to current products with amazing UX design that solves user problems whilst providing a delightful experience.

Going forward, UX design will be a necessity rather than an option, especially for cybersecurity products. UX designers have a key role to play in designing experiences that not only create products to protect from cyber threats but also empower users to navigate the digital world safely.