What is authorization and why is it important?

Authorization determines what users can see and do in a particular system. It’s a major part of an Identity and Access Management system (IAM) and is often a critical differentiator for medium to large enterprises. What differentiates the solutions in the market is the level of granularity involved in those authorization decisions.

What is authorization and why is it important?

Insufficient authorization leaves the door open for unauthorized individuals to access sensitive data or carry out unauthorized actions, potentially leading to security breaches or other operational complications. Beyond security concerns, authorization is vital for upholding the integrity, reliability and usability of an application with the potential to enhance customer experiences. Benefits include enhanced productivity through streamlined access to resources, improved user experience by tailoring access levels to individuals and facilitating compliance with regulatory requirements by ensuring appropriate data access and usage.  

Authorization has experienced many different approaches and models over the past few decades. Skip ahead to learn more about the most common approaches here.

How does authorization work?

Authorization grants or denies access to systems, resources or actions based on an individual's permission level within an application.

A standard onboarding to authorization journey often follows this flow:

  1. Initial authentication: Individuals confirm their identities, by using passwords, multi-factor authentication, single sign-on (SSO), etc.
  2. Authorization request: Once authenticated, they can request access to a particular resource, or functionality.
  3. Access control evaluation: The access control system receives an authorization request and verifies if the user has permission to access the requested resource / perform action. This usually entails examining policies or rules that specify which users can access resources / perform actions and under what circumstances. 
  4. Authorization decision: In accordance with the access control policies, the system issues a determination, either permitting or refusing the individuals request.

Simple authorization use case

Let’s look into a simple use case of staying in a hotel. 

  1. Arriving at the hotel, you first check-in presenting your identification, to prove that you are who you claim to be (this is also known as authentication).
  2. At the end of check-in you receive your keys authorizing access to your room. Without a card, you’re not authorized to enter the room.
  3. You use your card in the elevator or to the door of your room, which allows access. Your specific room number determines where you can access and which accompanying services you can enjoy. If you do not have a card to access the presidential suite, you’re unfortunately not authorized to enjoy that experience and will have to stay in your standard room.

This describes the extent of most popular authorization approaches, however consider:  the more information the hotel has about what you prefer - the more they can provide a personalized experience that will keep you coming back. This is where advanced authorization can provide compelling advantages.

How authorization can improve customer experience

Authorization has traditionally been thought of in the context of enterprise IAM (trusted users gaining access to restricted documents and systems), however for customer facing interfaces, authorization is a critical enabler of services and can be far more complex. Not only does it ensure secure and appropriate access, but it can greatly impact the customers’ experience as well. 

There are a range of authorization policy approaches in use and these policies (and the data they depend on) determine how clunky or smooth the customer’s journey can be. 

The more control, granularity and data employed in an Authorization approach, the more flexibility an application developer has in designing user journeys. This covers the breadth of one-size-fits-all models to tailored and personalized models. As seen in our own purchasing experiences, the more personalized a product feels, the more satisfying the experience becomes. The less friction we have to deal with, the easier the application is to use. 

With the right authorization approach, we can tackle both personalized experiences and seamless, frictionless journeys, unlocking value by retaining customers and gaining market share.

Having discussed the importance of authorization both for security and customer experience, let’s delve into some traditional and more modern authorization approaches.

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