I use fingerprint recognition for logging in to my laptop. This has two advantages.

Firstly I don’t have to remember which of the various passwords I use is correct in this context and, more importantly, I can login on the train in full view of other passengers without being concerned that they are seeing my password. 

But there are many other biometric recognition systems including:

  • Face image.
  • Iris image.
  • Signature.
  • Vascular image and hand geometry.

As you might imagine, there are several potential user experience issues and I would like to flag up five.

1. Privacy or more importantly, the invasion of privacy

Biometric data is very personal and many people do not feel comfortable sharing such data. The recent revelations about the Prime project in the US further fuel our concern that governments and big business already know much more about us that we might like (or indeed know about). 

In the commercial world where users have choice, many will simply choose not to divulge such data and go elsewhere. 

Even though such technology may seem to offer user benefits for example for loyalty schemes, concerns about privacy may make biometrics a non-starter in some environments.

2. Reasonableness

Whilst it might be reasonable for strict controls to be imposed at border crossings or for access to secure environments, other controls may be seen as a step too far.  In the US, biometrics have been suggested as appropriate for controlling the access of children and others to school premises or even school buses. 

It may be that this is just an opportunistic response to recent school shooting tragedies but I find it hard to believe that many people will think it reasonable to go to such lengths. 

And for many, fingerprinting is inevitably linked to crime thanks to the success of forensic TV shows like CSI.

3. Proportionality

Whilst we may be willing to wear a wrist tag or accept a rubber stamp on the hand as proof that we have paid and can re-enter an event, biometric data says far more about us. 

I already reject shopping websites that insist on registration before telling you the price of delivery so I’d be very reluctant to provide them with even more unnecessary and disproportionate data. 

I doubt that I am alone in this.

4. Fear

Placing your eye so that a laser can scan it frightens many people. It doesn’t matter that there are labels claiming it’s safe – after all they used to claim that smoking was good for your throat. 

This is one reason why non-invasive techniques such as analysing facial images are becoming popular. But fear can also apply to how the data is used and who else it might be passed on to.  There is the argument that innocent people have nothing to fear but that’s not totally convincing at present. 

Biometrics may give the impression of infallibility and I can imagine extreme action being taken because someone’s profile wrongly triggers an alert.

5. Behaviour

Tomorrow’s World, the BBC science programme of the seventies and eighties regularly got into trouble when the stress of live broadcast kicked in. 

In one example, an early voice recognition system, which had worked in rehearsal, failed miserably on live TV when the presenter’s voice rose in pitch as a result of stress. 

People frequently behave differently from what system designers expect and biometrics represents a rich arena for confusion and error.

Given the huge growth in fraud, biometrics has an important role to play. 

However, as with many new technologies, it will not be accepted widely unless the user experience is designed and tested as part of the development and implementation process.