October 20, 2013

Hey healthcare.gov, your username requirement is wonky

I can't figure out how to actually submit a bug report to healthcare.gov, so I'll just talk about it here as an example of poorly phrased instructions (and suboptimal user interface).

I decided tonight to go looking around healthcare.gov, the new Healthcare Marketplace with information about the new ACA (Obamacare) policies and, if you live in a state like Virginia, also the marketplace itself. The "outer" part of the website seemed fine for finding out what applies to you, what the different rules are, etc, but if you want to get a quote, you have to create an account. (Aside: I'm not really shopping for a new health plan---the one I get as a Commonwealth of Virginia employee isn't bad. But I'm curious about the ACA and trying to be an informed citizen, so I'd like to know what I could get if I were shopping for an individual plan.)

Once you've entered some preliminary information, you have to pick a username, and you're presented with this screen:

['Create your username' form]

on which it tells you that your username should be at least 6 and at most 74 (!) characters in length, and that it has to have "a lowercase or capital letter, a number, or one of these symbols _.@/-". Those symbols are apparently not "special characters", which the earlier instruction says not to enter; but more importantly, that's a bit of a strange instruction, right? Telling you that it has to have at least one of those four categories of characters?

And of course what they've written is not what they meant. As you can see from the screenshot, the username "asdfgh" is 6 characters long and contains a lowercase letter, but is not considered a valid username. Playing around a bit, the following are all considered invalid:


while these are considered valid:


So from what I can tell, the actual logic of this system (or at least, of the validator running on this form field) is that a username must:

  • contain at least six characters (and no more than 74, but I didn't test that part)
  • contain only numbers, letters, or one of the five given symbols
  • start with a number or a letter
  • contain at least one letter
  • contain at least one non-letter
This is really wildly different from what the instruction actually says.

Of course, they probably didn't want to provide a bullet list of rules, and so someone tried to boil that down into a "simple" instruction which is, unfortunately, quite wrong. And not wrong in an acceptable direction---if they specified a rule that was more restrictive but accepted some usernames that violated it, that's not perfect but it's ok from a UI perspective. But people can follow this rule they've given and still get rejected.

Here's a fairly simple phrasing that would be (afaict) correct: "Choose a username that is 6-74 characters long. It must start with a letter or number, but cannot be all letters or all numbers. It may contain these symbols: _.@/-" This phrasing has the added benefit of being syntactically simpler (thus accessible to people with lower levels of reading comprehension---an important accessibility concern for government websites).

(Separately, they're in for a nightmare if they really mean that about it being case-sensitive. It won't be long before someone signs up with MyName and then tries to log in using myname (or vice versa), and then they're just angry at the system. Even worse if the system will grant the username MyName to one person and myname to another! Perhaps they just mean that it's case-preserving, i.e. that when they print your username out it will always preserve the case that you first typed it, but it will match case-insensitively, so that e.g. the person with MyName could type myname and still successfully log in. This is generally considered a UI best practice.)

I should point out, too, that for all the complaining above, there are actually a fair number of good UI choices on the website---not least that they do validate your input immediately and tell you if you've chosen an invalid username the moment you navigate away from that form field (by hitting tab or clicking away). So the possible scope for confusion is at least relatively limited... but they should still probably fix it. Even if only 1% of visitors got tripped up by this, with literally millions of visitors to the site we're talking about tens of thousands of people that could be better served.

"The next time you... find yourself talking to a linguist, ask them about their research (definitely!), but please don't ask them how many languages they speak. That would be like asking a wedding planner how many spouses they have." --DS Bingham

Posted by blahedo at 7:59pm on 20 Oct 2013
They are validating the username against several validation rules. One of them is 'eeUserName', which must match the following regex: ^(?=.*[0-9@_./-])(?=.*[a-zA-Z])([a-zA-Z0-9@_./-]){6,74}$ See if you can make heads or tails of it. I can't. Posted by Bob at 12:21am on 2 Nov 2013
I'm going to have a nightmare about that regex, I just know it. Posted by lee at 7:48pm on 23 Oct 2014
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