Design & UX
By Matthew Magain

Reddit’s Flawed CAPTCHA: Adding Insult To Injury

By Matthew Magain

Usability is an inexact science, but I’m pretty sure there is at least one golden rule that is non-negotiable, and that’s this:

Never, ever, insult your users.

Unless your web site revolves around insults, and every error message consists of a purposefully engineered insult for humorous reasons, treating your users with disdain or disrespect is a huge no-no.


Earlier today I decided to sign up for reddit, the popular social bookmarking service. My experience has turned me right off the service. Here’s my rant:


First, I clicked Submit Link, and was presented with an option to register.

I’m personally not a huge fan of CAPTCHAs, for many reasons (there are alternatives, but there’s no panacea), but I do empathise with why people put them in place. Unlike someone who has poor eyesight, I can usually read the letters, and it’s usually only once that I need to type them in, so we’ll let that slide for now. And at least the letters in reddit’s CAPTCHA are relatively easy to decipher compared with others that I’ve seen in use … right?


2. The Insult

Here’s what I was presented with after clicking the Create Account button:

Apparently those letters weren’t as easy to decipher as I thought! Here’s the clincher though — not only was my attempt at passing the CAPTCHA unsuccessful, but I was insulted for my trouble!

3. The Déjà vu

Once I’d managed to endure a second CAPTCHA and finally registered, I thought that would be the end of it. But no! I was immediately presented with another CAPTCHA that I needed to pass in order to actually submit a link.

After having already been insulted, this made me really grumpy. Proving that I’m a human is annoying and somewhat degrading, so getting me to jump through that hoop a second time is downright rude. But, like I said, at least the letters displayed in the CAPTCHA were reasonable easy to decipher, right? (Ahem!)

At this stage my only thought is “If I’m going to be asked to do this every time I submit a link, I’m going to be turned off the service pretty quickly … especially if I’m going to be insulted some more every time I get it wrong.”

4. The false accusation

Hooray, so I passed the CAPTCHA. But wait — I’ve been presented with another hurdle!

This infuriated me. Too fast? What does that mean? This was the first link I’d ever submitted. Was I meant to type more slowly or something?

I’m assuming this is a bug, and should only be presented if a user tries to submit too many links in a given period (which I didn’t). But that aside, even if this had been my second link, why should I be prevented from submitting something within a certain period if I’ve already proven I’m human?

Thoroughly peeved, I went off to lunch and left the submission page in my browser, to tackle when I got back. If I could be bothered.

5. More Insults

Back from lunch, and I’ve tried again — only to receive more insults for my trouble (note the CAPTCHA image changed after it rejected my attempt, hence the discrepancy below).

Argh! Apparently I still can’t read (cos you know, it’s clearly my fault … honestly, can anyone tell me what I’m missing with these damn CAPTCHAs?).

At this point, I decided to pack up and leave. I’d experienced enough friction (and been insulted and falsely accused too many times) to decide that reddit was not worth my trouble.

Am I being too harsh? Is it reasonable to pick on one site when no doubt there are plenty of usability issues that need addressing with our own site? (although we certainly don’t insult any of our customers!) Should I have approached reddit privately first before posting in a public forum about it? Maybe. I figured they’re big enough that they can probably take it.

To be honest, though, I’m more interested in hearing your horror stories with signup processes and CAPTCHAs … does it get any worse?

reddit have just announced that they’re open sourcing their code. Good news, I guess — now anyone can try to fix this terrible state of affairs for them…

  • Good post, and your so right, Captcha’s can be a real pain in the **** especially if your eyesight isn’t 20/20! I was thinking of joining Reddit myself but you’ve successfully convinced me otherwise. Life’s too short to be bullied and insulted by what should be a simple sign up process. I would understand and expect something a little more challenging for opening a bank account online, but a social bookmarking site?

  • Philip

    Agreed. I don’t understand WHY they have to say “your letters stink” to someone who wasn’t able to successfully complete the CAPTCHA when, if it’s really just a spam robot, they won’t be insulted at all. Only real humans would be insulted. Hey wait, mwaybe we could use that as a CAPTCHA? Be insulted?

  • rohilsinha

    Hey Matthew,
    I completely agree with you on this. Nowadays, so many of the sites have such non-sensible captchas , it is a complete nightmare to cross them. These people have forgotten that while captchas are made to stop bots, they instead stop the humans many times. That fine line should not be crossed.

    The MOST HEINOUS & crap captcha of all time belongs to RAPIDSHARE.

    God, how freaked your mind can be to come up with captchas. I use the free user service of rapidshare to upload my files and share with my friends and after they come up with that captcha they have now, I left rapidshare.

    Basically, there are a no. of scanned letters (not even digital) which are very blurry and all. They are crossed by a faint figure of Cats and Dogs. Even the cats and dogs are so small and blurry and similar. You gotta type the letters which are crossed by a figure of CAT. It is complete hell and no novice till date has been able to cross it whithout trying atleast 5 times. Try it out and you will know what I am saying.


  • wesleyh84

    As reddit is now opensource, feel free to fix it.

  • Ben

    I’m not against an initial captcha when you register an account (better than joining a website full of spam, right?), but asking every single time is a bit much!

    The registration progress of any website is usually an annoying experience which you only do if something has really persuaded you to do it. Software can be annoying enough when it behaves – insulting people for what is a fault in the software is going to far!

    Registrations are irritating and require you to hand out yet more personal details to a website which previously stored passwords in plain text – why make the progress even more painful?

  • web design company

    As long as it repels digg-idiots, I’m all for it :)

  • Diogo

    But your letters do stink.

  • Paul Annesley

    To add some actual value to wesleyh84’s smartarse comment:

  • Robert O’Connor

    If you think that’s bad, phpbb is flat out unreadable!

  • They aren’t the worst CAPTCHA images I have seen. Though the responses to the “wrong answers” or for that fact the “correct answers” are something a 7-year old would probably write.

  • Chris

    Good Point – I was not impressed.

    In fact can you give us your low down on the whole site?

  • They aren’t the worst CAPTCHA images I have seen

    Normally I would agree with you. But take a look at what I typed for each one, and tell me if you think I was off the mark! :)

  • leoschmidt08

    I found the same bug when trying to add my first article onto Reddit. The CAPTCHA letters I entered were correct even though it told me I was wrong and then I was told I added too many articles too fast. This despite the fact that I had not even added my first one! Personally, I would prefer it if more sites began offering the OpenID option. If I prove that I am human on one site (my base OpenID site) then I no longer need to prove it to the others that utilize the OpenID login.

  • David King

    We thought it was funny. Sense of humour anyone?

  • Latin Philo

    I agree.

    rohilsinha is correct on the RAPIDSHARE captha. That was the first thought that came to my mind when reading your story. If they don’t want people using it for free, just remove the option.

    Perhaps we need scratch-and-sniff monitors. That way I can smell the behinds of the dogs to find the cats. At least that will get me some reasonable chance to get the letters correct.

    There is nothing wrong with captchas per se. It is the idiotic way they are used that should be stopped.

  • simsim

    Great post Matthew.

    I’ve had my share of CAPTCHA insanity and made a rant about it:

  • I think it’s hilarious – and yes, annoying and insulting :) – But Reddit does drive lots of traffic to my sites – at least it was my letters that stink, not me :P

  • Ben

    Instead could you ask a question eg. What is the home stadium of the Atlanta Braves?
    then have a link to the relevant Wikipedia article.

    How hard would it be for a robot to get around that? Vary the questions and you entertain your visitors and help them learn!

    BTW i can’t stand those captchas. Those insults on Reddit sure don’t improve things. I like the way Digg handles registration process. Feels rewarding!

  • twilek

    Hey, it’s reddit. Don’t cry. It’s also not a professional-style site. So just dry the tears, get over it, and get back on. Because Reddit is the coolest.

  • loofelevi

    Sense of humour anyone?

    Yup. I would complain about the whole captcha-for-every-link issue, but the “Your letters stick” is friggin funny.

  • No-one wants a dull, humorless web. I’m all in favor of using relaxed, ‘humanesque’ language when interacting with users rather than the common ‘robot speak’ tone most sites still use.

    However the reality is, when Reddit ask you to fill in a CAPTCHA, they are asking you to do work for them. As a user, you don’t currently have a problem with spam on the Reddit site. As a company, *THEY* have an issue with spam, and they are asking you to perform — like a little mouse in a wheel — to solve theirproblem. Now, that’s cool. They aren’t alone there, but by necessity, this exchange HAS to be one of the earliest exchanges they will have with their new friend, ‘Mr First Time User’.

    So considering humor isn’t a universal constant — something that is widely considered funny in Pakistan or makes yo’ mamma giggle may not make you chuckle so much — this is probably not the time to try out a ‘joke’ that has a pretty good chance (IMHO) of p!@#ing off more than the odd user.

    Why not establish some rapport with the user, allow them build an expectation on the style of language you use, and then, perhaps get a little more loose and irreverent with how you speak with them.

    It’s like trying a dirty joke at a job interview. It’s a high risk, low return play.

  • Alex

    I spent 40 minutes on Reddit trying to submit 5 of my links. I got up to the 4th one and never came back to the site again. If it takes 40 minutes of red tape just to add links it’s not worth it.

  • brett

    Thats exactly why i dont use reddit. I hate their damn site, its ugly and the captchas are a pain in the butt. thank you for blogging about it. Also yahoo’s captchas are just as annoying and often I type stuff in properly and it wont accept it. They also make the kerning of the letters so tight I cant even read it and have to guess what I’m supposed to type.

  • susan

    I’m not fixing reddit’s code, not when they have ads. if they want me to fix their code, they better offer me some money.

  • Freelance website designer

    We have had so much trouble with captchas. We have tried all sorts of solutions including the hidden fields that simply get checked and the form isnt submitted if they contain anything, (because this proves the form was filled in by a bot…) right down to using captchas.

    At the moment we have removed all forms and currently just have a email address displayed.

  • Loren Pechtel

    My first thought on “your letters stink” is that the programmer’s English leaves a lot to be desired and he didn’t realize it was insulting.

  • Comrade in Pissed-off-ville

    THEIR letters STINK! The ‘l’ can be an ‘el’ or ‘I’, an ‘aye’, or ‘1’, a ‘one’, depending on the font THEY chose to present. Their presentation SUCKS! Also, the ‘o’ and ‘0’ are often difficult to discern unless both are present at once. Some of the GOTCHA’s have both numbers and letters.

    I say we punish them! Don’t waste your time with an email. They get too many to read yours and by the time they do read yours it’s been a year or they just are so pissy they’ll flame you back, regardless of how cordial you are. Just pass the word that no on should visit their site or use their product. I’d put a block in my browser against their site too, so I couldn’t accidentally visit it and unwillingly give them traffic count.

    ~Comrade in Pissed-off-ville!

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