Biometrics and NatWest: an accessibility challenge

Posted by Lucy Collins on Jul 13, 2022 4:54:36 PM
Lucy Collins

The use of biometrics is becoming increasingly prevalent in our modern lives. 

Whether its our fingerprints or our faces, more and more our phones and laptops are using our physical characteristics to overcome security features, rather than pin numbers or passwords.  

This shift is heralded as more secure, convenient, and flexible, doing away with the need to remember complex passwords and making our data harder to hack.  

However, biometrics do not always work flawlessly, as Web Usability Director, Peter, recently discovered.  

The accessibility challenges of biometrics: a personal story 

NatWest, like all good, modern banks have an app through which you can manage your account and authenticate payments. This uses facial recognition. According to their instructional video you simply place your face in the blue oval, blink once and voila, payment confirmed.  

Unfortunately, this was not the experience for Peter (and many other users judging by these  TrustPilot reviews). After 40 attempts to verify his payment, twice being locked out of our business account, he still had no success.  

Once the frustration had abated, helped by a quick response to a formal complaint and £100 compensation, we took some time to reflect on his experience and explore why he had such issues. I believe there might be three key reasons the biometrics did not work for him: 

  1. Inability to hold the app still 
  2. His hooded eyes 
  3. Wearing glasses
Peter suffers from a minor hand tremor that makes it challenging to hold his mobile device completely still. This combined with slightly hooded eyes meant the app seemed unable to recognise his face or the required blink.  

Peter, being slightly more advanced in years, also requires reading glasses. However, the authentication did not seem to work with glasses on. This means a repetitive routine of putting on and taking off glasses as he moved through the process.  

Throughout his twenty attempts, Peter tried all manner of techniques to improve the chances of the authentication working: holding his phone steady against a wall, standing against a plain background, and performing a comically exaggerated blink. But with no success.  

Although this biometric authentication feature can be turned off (catch 22, this requires biometrics too!), Peter was reluctant to do so – his other experience of using biometrics, Apple FaceID, had been without issue, making processes quicker, easier and more secure. Why should NatWest be any different? 

The wider impact of biometric accessibility 

The issues Peter experienced could be faced by anyone, with their impact likely to be felt most by those more mature in years or individuals from disabled communities. 

So, when considering facial recognition, we believe there are some considerations to be made: 

  • Allow for some movement – Peter’s tremors are just one example of physical condition that impact the steadiness of hands. Many other disabilities will have a similar impact or prevent users from manipulating the device in the required way. Using the app in a moving vehicle or while on the go will also impact how still you can hold a device. Allowing for some amount of movement will improve the success of facial recognition for many users in all manner of environments. 
  • Allow for the variety of human formshooded eyes are a common facial feature affecting individuals of all ages and ethnicities. An authentication process that relies on blinking will negatively impact anyone with this characteristic. There are plenty of other ‘liveness’ indicators that could be considered, such as smiling, turning the head or nodding, some of which would better allow for the variety in human faces.  
  • Allow for common assistive devicesaround 60% of people in the UK wear glasses. If facial recognition requires glasses to be removed, you are negatively impacting the ability of over half the population to use the app. This is just not necessary. As Apple FaceID proves, glasses are not a barrier to using facial recognition (neither are masks, scarves, hats or darkness!).  

Finding a biometric solution that works for everyone is always going to be difficult. Humans come in all shapes and sizes and a single solution may just not be enough. Considering there are multiple biometric options out there (fingerprints, facial, voice, iris, and palm or finger vein patterns) why limit users to just one? 

Read more

Facial recognition in usability testing

Accessibility: universality not disability

Website accessibility


Topics: Accessibility

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