Password managers, despite their essentiality to internet life, are unremarkable.
The team at Uno is on a mission to make them more remarkable.
The a16z-backed startup states its mission rather humbly on its website, saying the Uno team exists to “[rethink] how security and identity works for everyone.” Uno is injecting a design-centric approach to the banal nature of internet security, hoping to distinguish itself from its peers with cooler password management software that is easy to use in addition to being secure. Even a cursory look at the Uno website should be proof positive of that ethos. Uno certainly looks the part.
That ethos has been established by Uno founder and CEO Parteek Saran.
In an interview via email earlier this month, Saran told me he’d “never expected to be starting a security company” after collaborating with people such as Lady Gaga in previous lives. Indeed, starting Uno was something he strongly felt he “had to do” in the aftermath of having his email hacked. It was an experience he never wanted to have ever again—nor did he want it to ever happen to anyone else.
“It was scary and felt like a violation of my privacy,” he said of getting hacked. “It had a compounding effect: the services I used most often, including financial services, were also taken over through password resets. Recovering all my accounts took months. The fear I missed something is still with me years later.”
Owing to his background in design, Saran characterized security as a “design problem.” This became readily apparent to him during the recovery phase from his attack, as he started noticing how technically cumbersome security often is. He likened good security to flossing teeth—a good habit, but only if we commit to the behavior. “It feels like a chore,” he said. “If we have the tools but still don’t do it, it’s a behavioral issue then. And to fix that, you have to look at how it’s designed.”
Saran reiterated his company’s ethos to solve security’s design problems.
“This is why I started Uno. The problem needs to be solved through a design-lead approach,” he said. “Our vision is to make the internet easier to use, starting with re-envisioning the password manager. We’re focusing on experiences that easily onboard people to better security, removing friction from the repetitive parts of the internet like authentication, making social recovery easy to use for anyone.”
Saran continued: “Uno is a password app built for people who don’t care about passwords. To reach the overwhelming majority of users not using password managers requires changing how we frame the problem. Rather than prescribing another password manager, the framing needs to be flipped on its head [by] celebrating the conveniences you unlock when you use a password manager.”
Of course, so-called “good” design is relative. A core component of any ostensibly well-designed product, Uno included, is that the design also be inclusive of people with disabilities. As is often said repeatedly by disability advocates and people who work on accessibility in the tech industry, accessibility is not something to put on a wishlist and bolt on later, as if it were some extraneous part. The truth of the matter is, accessibility is a journey, not an endpoint. It isn’t some extra thing.
More pointedly, it’s not a checkbox. Companies, albeit exponentially larger ones with commensurate exponentially deeper pockets, like Apple are so renowned in the accessibility space precisely because they make accessibility part and parcel of the design process. (Incidentally, this also is how Apple’s product marketing group works at Apple Park.) Uno has yet to reach those same heights in terms of resources, but Saran was keen to emphasize accessibility assuredly is an important piece to him and the team. He told me everyone deserves internet security to be safe and easy to use, which involves “taking accessibility seriously.” To that end, Saran said his company has taken that sentiment to heart by taking an approach to “design and build our apps to have a clear sense of navigation, layout, and call to action so that we can accommodate a variety of users.” He cites the use of customizable font sizes, clear navigational hierarchies, a motion reduction option, and much more as a means to a more accessible end for his software. Moreover, other features in Uno like one-click login and keyboard shortcuts are, Saran rightly pointed out, general functions that have applicability in an accessibility context.
“We are constantly adding support for more accessibility features and areas to improve,” Saran said of Uno’s commitment to accessibility.
One feature that builds on that concept is something Uno calls Peekaboo. It’s designed to save people from the cognitive (and motor) load associated with switching back and forth between your email and the browser, or between tabs in a browser, by allowing users to grab a security code or reset link within Uno’s user interface. In essence, Peekaboo is best thought of as a shortcut that consolidates multiple steps into a single action. Again, for someone with cognitive and/or motor delays, reduction of said friction is absolutely non-trivial. Its impact on shaping a positive user experience can be immeasurable, assuming the implementation is done well. Saran is cognizant of such dynamics, saying people are loving seemingly small details like Peekaboo’s support for keyboard shortcuts.
“Sometimes, it really is as simple as reducing the number of clicks people have to do,” Saran said of customers’ appreciation of Peekaboo’s keyboard shortcuts.
Feedback has been positive; the team is “absolutely overjoyed” by the response, according to Saran. People are recruiting family and friends to the app after adding them to their Trusted Contacts database, which Saran explained helps with Uno feeling “sticky” to users, in a way not dissimilar to how iMessage makes the iPhone (and its ecosystem) more appealing to customers. “People are also finding us sticky—they come for the security and stay for the convenience,” Saran said.
Looking towards the future, Uno’s ultimate goal is to be what Saran described as one’s “home for identity.” The first step towards enlightenment is the current password manager, but Uno has hopes and dreams that involve forthcoming products tailored for families and businesses. And like 1Password, Uno wants to do away with passwords altogether; that’s Saran’s primary objective in the far-flung future, security-wise. Uno plans to build a turn-key solution for passkeys on websites, which Saran said includes “some special Uno magic we’re working on.”