Asking (very) personal questions in an application process

20 Nov 2015

Personal questions to create a Social Security account

If you create a my Social Security account online, the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses their “identity services provider” (the credit bureau Experian) to get information about you. You have to answer them to prove that you are you. Here’s a sample:

Text: You may have opened a student loan in or around February 1999. Please select the lender that you have previously or you are currently making payments to. If you have not received student loans with any of these lenders now or in the past, please select NONE OF THE ABOVE/DOES NOT APPLY. [Followed by radio buttons with choices]

Example questions in the my Social Security application (taken from a SSA online video)

If you can answer enough of them correctly, you create the account. If not, you have to wait 24 hours and try again. (That gives you time to look up old phone numbers and financial information.)

Personal questions in a usability study

In a recent usability study, participants entered a home address as part of an application process. The site then displayed a list of people who live there and cars that are registered to them. Some people thought it was an invasion of privacy or creepy. Others liked the convenience.

The range of reactions didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me is that no one was upset enough to want to leave the site, although some people wanted to know where the information came from.

Another surprise: Seeing that the website could look up some data seemed to change expectations. A few participants assumed that default values elsewhere in the form were not just suggestions, but other data that the site found about them. That seemed to make them more likely to accept the default values. (This needs more investigation, but it was an interesting observation.)

What do you think?

Have you seen personal questions like these in other situations? Have you created an account at SSA? Was it surprising to see what they could find out about you?