Dear Social Security Administration … I am me.

Dear Social Security Administration website

In general, the difference between the good and the great can sometimes be a matter of how effectively you sweat the little things, the things that actually matter to people at the human-level interface. We call this the tactical user-level interface. Sometimes this is the difference between a positive experience and a negative one. This difference matters for any brand.

Today’s brand example is the US government. Specifically the Social Security Administration, a part of the government I have never harbored any animosity toward … until last week.

I am me.

I was asked to retrieve my social security benefit amount and retirement age. The Social Security Administration no longer mails out statements. That’s a good thing, since a few hundred million statements equate to a LOT of paper. Instead, they recommend that you obtain this information from their website,, which I proceeded to attempt to do. A banner headline greets me on a responsive, seemingly newly minted website with words like “just how easy it is to apply online.”

Please understand, I have registered on many (too many) websites before. I use the web. The web is a big part of my business. More than one hundred thousand people read this blog last year. I am not a newbie … and I failed to successfully register. Twice.

I failed not because the website was poorly designed or hard to use. It’s actually very good overall. I failed because I could not answer all the security questions they asked in order to verify that I am me.

I called the Social Security Administration and got the information I needed over the phone from a very friendly and personable representative. This was relatively easy and did not require that I divulge much information.

Phone easy. Website hard. I don’t see the efficiency in this.

Phone easy. Website hard. I don’t see the efficiency in this. And yet, a clearly stated value of their website (and your website) is to make things easier for me (as well as to save paper and money through the efficiency that is a fundamental benefit of doing such things as obtaining your records online instead of through the mail.)

In the call, I also asked about the website and whether she knew of other complaints. She was not forthcoming on this. I felt responsible to tell her they were being inefficient by making me call her. When I went on to tell her that I think the information they have about me—the information that I needed to know in order to satisfy them and prove that I am me—might be wrong, she told me I would have to contact the credit bureaus to correct anything. When I asked if I could register a personal complaint about the website not serving me well, she said no. They were recording my call, but I wonder if they are tracking the volume of failed attempts to register on the site?

She was kind enough to unlock my account so that I could try again to register on the website.

I did try again, being VERY careful…to…get…every…thing…right. I even looked stuff up on Google about myself to ensure its veracity.

I am not me enough to access my social security data.

I failed. I got locked out a second time.
I am not me enough to access my social security data.
Okay, maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m the only one who does not, off the top of my head, know the model year of the car I once owned while in grad school.

My wife also needed data from them, so she gave the website registration process a good college try (she does have a graduate degree).

She got locked out … and she was done. She was not going to bother with that ever again.

How much is such animosity worth?

Social Security is a good thing. The Social Security Administration is a government agency that I should have positive feelings for.

So why this?

The lady on the phone said it was for security. In this case apparently, to protect my data … from me

The lady on the phone said it was for security. In this case apparently, to protect my data … from me.

I wonder what percentage of potential accessors of their data have tried to pass through this particular security gauntlet and have, like my wife and I, failed and then just given up. Admittedly, this is not a critical service like obtaining healthcare coverage through a government exchange, but still, this is something I should be able to easily obtain … of the people, by the people and for the people and all that. Is—as this hot new Princeton study (PDF) suggests—democracy as we thought it existed in America just wishful thinking? Is my situation just a byproduct of poor user-testing on a well-intentioned and generally well-designed website, or is it a symptom of something larger? I hope it’s the former. I hope it’s just something they haven’t gotten to yet.

In general, the difference between the good and the great can sometimes be how effectively seemingly minor things are attended to.

To reiterate my opener: I believe that, in general, the difference between the good and the great can sometimes be how effectively seemingly minor things are attended to. On the positive side, these things can be a trim tab. On the negative side, they can be an incitement to animosity and even brand disavowal. This is an example of one of those places. I want us to be great. I want government to work. I want to believe it exists to serve, desires to be efficient, and is supporting the greater good. Perhaps this is why this situation upsets me. It’s an affront to my sense of pride.

The Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? effect

In case anyone is interested, here is the problem with the Social Security Administration website’s registration security protocols from a usability (UX) standpoint: It’s something we could call the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire effect.

Many of you have seen or heard of the TV quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? It was popular in the early 2000s and from its origins in the UK, eventually spread all over the world. It’s even the context of the Academy Award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire.

The game was simple. Fifteen seemingly easy multiple-choice questions were asked of contestants who, if they could answer all of them, would win $1,000,000. Part of the entertainment value of the show was how easy many of the questions were. The trick was that getting ALL of a series of fifteen—even relatively easy—questions correct was actually much more difficult than it sounded. To spice things up and enhance the gameplay, the game also had three “lifelines” to help the contestants. These were call a friend, ask the audience, and half the options.

The fact is that no, I don’t remember the model year of the car I bought in 1996.

My thought during my second unsuccessful attempt to get all the security questions correct on the Social Security website was this: I need a lifeline. No, I thought, I do not remember the model year of the car I bought in 1996, but I do know a lot of other things about myself! Maybe I could call my college girlfriend about the car …

My more serious point is that The People’s relationship to their government is actually a very important matter in a functioning democracy. So is access to our own publicly held data. Even if I don’t stand to collect a million dollars at the end of my working life, I do want to be able to learn what my Social Security income will be, and I should be able to do so without inordinate and unnecessary frustration.

Nothing is worse for a brand than to be hated or misunderstood because of a poorly executed or thoughtlessly designed tactical user-level interface.

I’m about twenty years from my official, gradually rising retirement age, and it’s natural for me to be thinking about it more as the year approaches. I asked a few of my friends to try their luck with registering on the Social Security Administration website (please try yours and tell me how it goes). My suspicion is that the older you are—and the more you actually need the information—the less likely you will be able to get it from the website. Among my friends and colleagues, the failure rate so far has been 66.6%. This is no joke if you extrapolate that out across the entire working-age population of the United States.

So what flower of wisdom has grown out of the ashes of my frustration? Other than an inferior product, there is almost nothing worse for a brand than inattention to the tactical user-level interface.

Now, excuse me while I attend to my civic duty as US citizen and web user …

Dear Social Security Administration:

Please sweat the details. Please make the online wall between me and my data easier to climb over. I grow tired quickly, as I am getting older now.

James Heaton


View All Comments


  1. Ari-Veikko Anttiroiko says

    Absolutely vital points, James! If public authorities were just more ready to listen to this. There are severe problems in “tactical user-level interfaces” in practically all public services. And, as your story implies, this has a lot to do with brand problems of public sector organisations.

  2. says

    I attempted to obtain Medicare Part D Prescription coverage. After experiencing similar frustration, I blocked out quiet time, phoned, and waited on hold. I too was greeted by a friendly, proficient woman on the phone call. When I apologized for not being able to utilize the website, she responded, “Oh no. You could never do that. We had three weeks of schooling to learn this”. These programs are simply too large for we the people to navigate. :)

  3. B.Chester says

    There is a list of optional questions. You DON’T have to make it hard on yourself, UNLESS, of course, you want to. I only have a High School education and I didn’t have any problem at all, I also watched a buddy of mine accomplish the same thing with no issues. Move to a question you know the answer to, and your problem will be over.

    • James Heaton says

      B Chester: Thank you for your note, and I’m glad you were able to get in.

      On hearing your response I was hopeful that maybe they had made a change to the process to make it easier, so I went back and tried again (my third attempt)…and I was blocked. There were NO optional questions for me. Just as the first two times I tried, there were four questions seemingly pulled from my credit report, ALL of which I had to answer correctly in order to verify that I am me. This time the third question was one I could not answer: It asked for the date I opened a credit card from a particular bank. Unfortunately for me, I happen to have multiple credit cards with that bank, opened over the course of the last 25 years, so on that question I could only guess which of those credit cards they were referring to. I was thrown out for 24 hours.

      I continue to occasionally ask others to try, and sadly the percentage of failures among my peers has held.

  4. Dark Penguin says

    The worst thing about all these questions is that you are SOL if you don’t remember EXACTLY how you entered your answers the first time. Did you grow up on a ST, Street, Lane, or LN? Were you born in L.A. or Los Angeles or New York City or NYC, or New York, NY? Did you graduate from a high school or an HS, or did you leave that part out when you entered the name of your school? You better be sure before you hit enter or else the part of the algorithm which holds the key will cast you deep into Lockout Land.

    And all that doesn’t even touch on the problem confronting many if not most women–that of having used different surnames in the past–a maiden name, then a married name. We’re going through this now with my wife, or at least we were until we–uh–got locked out while trying to register her on the website. No, she doesn’t remember how her name was styled on her SS card, which she hasn’t seen in a decade or two. (Nor I mine. I just have my SSN memorized and rattle it off when needed.) But with a maiden name, my surname, and her ex’s name, which she continued using for professional purposes, then allowing for hyphens/spaces, there are at least a half-dozen plausible versions that she might have used.

    THE SSA *knows* us fine. We went into our local office and got her SSRI set up; we’re expecting a substantial back payment any day now. That piece of business is done. But it would be nice to be able to log into the website, because then maybe we could discover when that payment will go out.

  5. John says

    +1. I’ve been locked out after answering the questions accurately, but apparently, “incorrectly.” Offering a multiple choice for the year I refinanced my home doesn’t work if I refinanced 4 times (yay for low interest rates!). Having a single field for phone number is useless. It would be a little more helpful if they told me what year they got my phone number — at least then I could search through old emails to track down what my number was that year!

    Complexity in software that works is magic. Complexity in software that doesn’t work is torture. If you can’t make it work correctly 95% of the time, then just make it easy — have me enter a phone number and call me when you have an operator ready!

  6. Sandy Klocinski says

    I had the same problem. I did manage to get mine correct the 2nd time. The first time they asked me what year I opened a bank account (about 30 some years ago) and that I no longer have. I then tried to do my husband’s. (Yes, I know, technically illegal.) None of the questions were questions that were prior to my husband and I being married but one thing that tricked me up was that they asked me which street had we lived on…well they gave me 4 choices, one of which said Fawn. Well we lived on a street called Fawn Crest…so was this a trick question or what?

    Anyway, I answered none of the above…WRONG! I didn’t fare any better the next time and got locked out. Stupid system.

    Now I need to change his address since we moved…can’t. They won’t talk to me and he won’t call. You can’t do it by mail so exactly what am I supposed to do?

    I guess I will make my voice really deep and call and tell them I am him. If you think about it, they have no idea who they are talking to on the phone. I could have another man call and feed him the information he needed and they would change the address or reset the account for him but they won’t do it for me….not much security there…stupid, stupid, stupid!

  7. Abbie O'Gallagher says

    Both my husband and I made multiple attempts to establish a My Social Security account online and failed every time. We ARE geezers but are both very computer literate. We failed every time. Our experiences were very similar to the ones the author of this article described.

  8. Dan S. says

    I got my account set up the first time. I was lucky. I then tried to do it for my wife, since she hates stuff like this (as someone else said, technically illegal, but give me a break…) I entered *something* wrong on the personal verification section, and am waiting until 3:35PM today for the 24-hour lockout to expire, before trying again. I was going to call, but someone else has already stated they won’t do it for a spouse. Fooey – what nonsense!

    • Sosecurity RejeKt says

      Ditto to everything posted here except the lucky person who said it was easy. I have a graduate degree and I have been locked out twice. Scary that Big Brother knows way more about me than I do as does any other agency, corporation or computer clown out there. Now if I could just remember the passwords to my other retirement and bank accounts maybe I wouldn’t completely starve to death. :)

  9. Kathy says

    Totally agree with all the comments! Locked out 6 or so times so far over the past few weeks.

    First 2 times was before I realized that you need to unlock your credit history with Equifax before trying to obtain the my SS account. Unlocked my credit and even ran both Experian and Equiax reports to help answer the questions. It locks every time even though I am answering the questions correctly.

    At some points it was not even getting me to the page of questions (just locking me out on the first page for name and address). Tried different browsers and different computers. Deleted cookies and browsing history. Closed browsers. Rebooted computers. (I too have many accounts with many different websites and never have issues like this). Got to the questions page again today and am locked out again. This even though I had two credit reports (Experian and Equifax) next to me to help me answer the questions.

    Now need to take off 1/2 day to go to the local Social Security office to prove who I am so I can get a copy of my social security report for my financial planner because they won’t mail me this information. Talk about design issues. Geesh….

  10. James says

    My wife needed her Social Security statement for her financial advisor. She attempted to retrieve it from the Social Security website and was asked questions from her credit report. She answered all of the questions with answers that were 100% true. Some of the answers were “none of the above.” The result is… “We have suspended your electronic access to your personal information. …Please verify your personal information again before trying to use this online service.” So…because is seems that some detail logged by someone somewhere at a credit bureau (we are not told which one) is wrong she cannot access her Social Security records. She is asked to verify her “personal information.” Is this instruction to go gumshoe all her credit reports to find out what they have gotten wrong, and figure out how to fix that, then fix it and when all that is done come back and try again? Is that verifying her personal information? Or is this just an existential admonishment: “You must know your true self better.” Your genuine truth not being relevant or of value in this case. Sigh.

  11. Sue says

    I too – became locked out from failed attempts. The questions were so nebulous! They all sounded like they could be right, but I wasn’t sure. Each question asked a number of things, so any one of those things could be inaccurate. The name of the mortgage company from 17 years ago, the month it was acquired, and the exact year. Yes or no? I spent the better part of the afternoon (on more than 1 day) trying to get this. I, ended up calling and they seemed very skilled at helping people run the gauntlet over the phone. Government at (not) work?

    • yonatan solberg says

      My frustrating experience led me to seek ‘company in misery’, which you have provided, and thanks.

      A 20-year resident and citizen of Israel, I ‘called’ home’ last week to innocently learn what might save me from poverty since arriving at 67.

      The multiple-choice questions were so far from specifically-irrelevant to any details of my life; ex: a list of streets I’ve perhaps lived on? Never even heard of any of them, so ‘None of the above’. Same story for the other two questions. Paranoid, I suspected that they had an entirely different guy in their files.

      Locked out, of course. Twice. One detail, the ‘prepare yourself’ list includes email address, yet there is no field for it in the form, at least as far as I saw. Whas up with dat?

      Once again, thanks for documenting that I’m not a lone gun-man in this episode.

      J. Solberg, Israel

  12. Jim Madura says

    Same issue, not able to register/access my own account information on The kicker is, before they made the “enhancements” to the website, I was able to access it.

    • Jill Ann Adams says

      I tried to access my account too. I forgot my password, but when it goes to the window to get your password that you forgot it doesn’t like my answers. I used things that I could remember and it locked me out. I tried again to sign in after that and it locked me out again in less than 3 times trying. I need to check my account. I need to see if I need to renew my Extra Help. This is frustrating and pissing me off.

  13. Bob Schwartz says

    Glad to see this is not unique. My answer to most of the questions was NO — addresses at places I had never lived, phone numbers I never had. I also said no to a vague question about “bank” accounts that MIGHT have included a credit card that I did have — was that incorrect, and lock me out of everything? OR has my account been hacked, and someone else receiving payments. After the 50 minute wait for telephone, only help was to let me try again in less than 24 hours — with same result! I can’t believe there aren’t more widespread complaints. Fortunately we have a meeting scheduled in a couple of weeks — but for now must live with possibility that somebody else is sitting there collecting our money ….. And yes, I am computer literate.

Post a Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *