The bad case of Hacker News authentication usability design

Update: We made it to the Hacker News front page. Very meta!

Before I unintentionally start a flame war, let me confess that a considerable part of my daily tech news comes from Hacker News(HN). I have at least one friend who is a YCombinator(YC) alumni. So this post is not anti-HN or anti-YC. They are one of the smartest groups in technology that I admire and look forward to meeting them some day.

However, this is a document of my struggles about what, in my limited UI design common sense, seems to be a terrible case of usability design of one of the most widely used tech websites on the Internet.


A couple of months ago, I applied to Y-Combinator’s Work at a Startup event. About the time I almost forgot about it, I received an invitation email from Y Combinator with an RSVP URL for the May 15 event. The only personalized information contained in the invitation was my email address. And that email was my only HN account reference connected to my application, that I could remember.

When I clicked on the link, I arrived at the HN page with options to log in or register.


Now call me a sinner if you should, but I did not remember what HN login I created for applying. I also know that HN allows you to create an account without an email.


My invitation letter was referring to my email id and had no mention of my HN username. HN login page was referring to my username and no option to use my email to login. Not a good idea!


So before contacting HN and facing the ire of cool-dudes and cool-dudettes of the Silicon Valley for wasting their time, I tried what any programmer would - try all options one by one.

Using username


I tried a few username-password combinations that I could remember. Finally, one seemed to be a registered username and gave me the following message.


I clicked on “Email yourself a new password,” kept my fingers crossed and waited for 10 minutes. No email! This username was not associated with any of my email accounts. Back to square one!


As there seemed to be no way to retrieve my username from my email, I tried other options.



The other log in options were using OpenID implemented through Clickpass.

I wondered if I might have registered this way. As I tried logging in using my Gmail credentials, it asked, “Grant access to you Google Contacts?“.


Now call me modest if you will, but I do not like boasting about my contacts to third party websites! It seemed highly unlikely that I would have gone that lane in my senses.

Creating a new account


I tried creating a new account, connecting my email to this account, and hoping even if my email gets associated with this new account unsuccessfully, it might be able to give me some pointers. Whom was I kidding? The email connected successfully but did not pull any data!



Having exhausted all options, I replied to the email from Y-Combinator. *,

Thank you for the invite. However, I do not recall my user login to the  I am unable to locate the link to retrieve it using my registered email address (I have tried to use my familiar login name. However, the password retrieval email does not arrive in my email inbox).

Can you please help in retrieving my credentials to the website, so that I can RSVP for the event.

Thank you for your help.

After about 5 days, when I did not get any reply from Y-Combinator, I started to think that I probably vexed someone from the support staff at YC for asking help on something as simple as an account login.



So when I got another reminder today to RSVP for the event, I felt obligated to point out the flaws in the usability design of HN’s authentication system.

So listed are my two cents of recommendation for HN, YCombinator or any website which deals with people:

  • If you can, hire enough support staff to reply to emails and queries.
  • If you cannot or do not want to keep a large support staff, and want to build a self-help service please, please, please make sure your self-help system is flawless.
  • Make a self-serve system support a priority for your limited staff. It might be affecting your expected outcomes, without you being aware of it.
  • When your users are trying to contact you, it is an opportunity for you to address a real problem in your system, which may not be evident to you. Criticism is the best form of flattery - it means the user cares to spend time helping you find a flaw.

And since I cannot log in into my account or reach them through email, I wanted to thank and let the great folks at YC know about my plans:

Thank you for inviting me to the Y Combinator's Work at a Startup event. I was excited to see your email.

However, I would not be able to attend the event as I'm a couple of states away and preoccupied during that week.

I look forward to an opportunity to make it to a similar event in the future.

Get on my private email list.

Occasional Emails. No Spam.