"Users will sign in..." Will They? Identity, Trust and Your Idea

With nearly every idea submitted to 4iP comes the requirement that our future user "will sign up for the service". Having seen the complexity that comes with getting, storing, using and reusing that information, I've found myself on nearly every occasion asking myself (and the startup or indie): "Why?".

The reasons provided boil down to two incredibly loaded words: identity and trust. Identity is seen by the creative or web developer as the means by which they will be able to provide you the service they had envisaged. Trust is all too often interpreted the wrong way around - if we know who everyone is (and they know we know) then they will play nice, more nicely than if we just let any old anonymous hobo into town.

Trust can start with anonymity

Anonymity has for long been seen as the evil, or more likely in practice, "potentially" evil side of the trustworthy/sign-up/"safe environment" argument. The thought that we might let people start taking from our service without telling us who they are and giving us a means of spamming/marketing to/contacting them makes most service creators shudder. But anonymity can be a great leveler in the right place.

Take Channel 4's Sexperience or Embarrassing Teenage Bodies sites, both award-winning and hugely successful. The Sexperience site, despite the obvious thrusts of traffic around the television show, continues to generate thousands of questions and answers each week, about the things that in the real face-to-face world we couldn't dream of broaching. Anonymity is the only means through which one could ever get large numbers of people having frank and honest discussions, and, converse to most people's logical DNA, anonymity has also bred a culture of mutual respect between these participants; no tittering in the classroom here as we discuss bodies and bits, because anonymity gives us power.

Now, for most sites and services you will want to know, eventually, who the people in your community are. Landshare's a good current example from Channel 4 where anonymity would not help garner the confidence and trust of users who are going to be growing fruit and veg on another user's land. And although some pseudo profiles can be found on SchoolOfEverything, my gut would tell me that for lessons where I have to meet the teacher I'll want as much of a 'true' profile as possible. The default has been the creation of the profile, but this is nearly always a pain the neck for users and, after the initial house-proud rendering of one's cutesy profile pic, gleaming resumé and links to every other profile we've ever created, we rarely return to it. And neither do other users. So why create one so early on in the process of our online journey?

Let me play first, register second

Some sites have done incredibly well at coaxing us in, asking for minimal information but, importantly, giving us some 'delighters' in return for all that juicy information. A recent discovery thanks to a presentation from Daniel Burka on this very topic in 2008's dconstruct was Geni, "yet another" geneology website but one with a delightful twist - you don't have to tell it who you are to get started. How counter-intuitive is that - a geneology website that doesn't require you to sign up and tell it all that personal information to get you off on your family-tree-building journey?

The key, says Burka, is to get people to participate first, register second or, shock and horror, not register at all. The trick is to offer a delighter for every piece of registration information that's added. So, in return for sharing your name and email address you can keep your nascent family tree for the next time. Joshua Porter, also at dconstruct in 2008, reflects on how the language of loss is more powerful a motivator to get us to share our information in return for what we might lose if we don't:

"If we frame that stuff in terms of a loss, for example on Netvibes, you go to the website and you can play around in the website. They have a really cool instant engagement thing where you can start using widgets and stuff. "Well, in the top right hand corner they have these texts "Not a member yet, register now to save your page". "Oh! Wow. You mean it’s not saved. I have to do something to save it. I might lose it." So they are starting to kind of go down the road of framing it as a loss."

By letting Geni into your Facebook account with Connect then Geni will save you some time by adding all your family details in one click for you. Make it as easy as possible, using the OAuth of Twitter or Facebook Connect or RPX's potential to register that user and bring in any other friends on the service (or ping them a mail to get them on board). Email confirmation of your registration, though, is a big no-no - you lose too many users. Just trust them to get it right and they'll come back to sort out their email typos if they have to.

Seth Godin has, true to form, come up with bountiful bullets on reasons people will use to give up on your registration - ignore it at your peril.

Delight me

Digg, Burka encouraged that initial participation by also offering delighters without any registration having to take place - if you Digg 15 more times then we'll make the Upcoming list more relevant for you. He's also not too concerned with getting people's real names, something that is pursued with relentless pointlessness by so many sites and services where, frankly, most users just want to be "FunkyGal78xxx": "Even if it is not a real person, it is amazing how much even a nick name, once you start recognizing it, you can build up that trust."

Where you do need to 'waste' your users' time to go and fetch personal information, make it an enjoyable experience:
"There are very small things. If you know that a piece of your site is a real potential for conflict, just little tweaks of a copy, writing something…Like during the submission process on Digg, I know people get frustrated that we are going off and we are pulling the other website, spydering for images, and doing dupe detection, that kind of thing. "But just a little bit of fun copy in there, don’t be flippant, but just some casual copy like "Oh we are just grabbing that information. Hang on a second while we get it." Stuff like that can really take out a lot of the potential for animosity, particularly really in potential areas where people interact with each other, like in the submission process."

At 4iP I'm regularly tempted to hire one top-flight web copywriter to cover a variety of my projects, for the simple reason that the detachedness from the project will lead to more fun around it (it's too easy to take one's own baby too seriously). Erika Hall's Copy As Interface presentation might just make you want to hire your own Erika, too. So, the developer that insists we really do need to know if the new community member is male or female can find themselves influenced and seeing the pointlessness of this information by Pownce's writer that realises the following drop-down menu tells us something much more useful about how that person perceives not only their gender but the makeup of their personality: male, female, guy, girl, dude, chicky-poo, bloke, bird, lady, gentleman...:



Think hard before asking me for anything
Social technologies and, arguably most of all, email have made asking someone for something insanely easy. Think, if you can, about life before email. It was such a hassle to ask someone for information that most of the time it was going to be easier to find it out for yourself (if the information was of the 'stuff' variety) or go without (if the information was personal). Now, it's not uncommon for my inbox to have at least 40 requests from as many people seeking information I might know or information about me that is Google-able or, at the very least, guessable.

If you're going the whole hog and having your users create that public profile then spend some quality time looking not at what you want users to do on your profile creation area, but what humans actually do when they are on, say, MySpace or Facebook. The one thing that you will not be able to do is tell people what they are "supposed" to do with their profile space, so checking out existing "abuses" of profile creation is a good way to design something new, more suited to the ways we actually operate.

But creating a public profile is not always necessary, and not the default position from which you should start. Taking a look at my own use of Last.fm, the music preference site, I'm increasingly aware of how unaware I am of the site or even its app. Most of my Last.fm action actually takes place day-in day-out on my iPod when I'm traveling to work or out at the supermarket. On the rare occasion that I'm in front of an internet-connected Mac long enough without work coming into the Inbox, I might end up dipping my toes into some new sounds through the app. But the delight of using Last.fm is, in fact, that I don't have to go there to give my identity in order to then reap the benefits of the offering. It is, as the Matts of Dopplr would have put it, a site that I don't have to visit.

"Commissioning for Attention"

Finally, it's worth at this point opening up your Firefox tabs to C4 Education colleague Matt Locke's posts on "Commissioning for Attention" (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3), posts which share some of the reading, talks, conversations and insights behind this long 'un, but which also help us understand better why we really can't risk asking for more than we need. Check out his principles for identity, too, which provide some food for thought for anyone about to whack in a log-in page to their product.

What do you think of being asked for information on login? Do you lie about your birthday? Have you ever not taken up a service because of its asking you for more profile information? Are you a web developer who wholeheartedly believes that full-on signup is necessary?

Cross-posted from the 4iP blog

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Comment by Stuart Cosgrove on May 20, 2009 at 13:34


I've always favoured the multiple identity approach, preserving anonimity via either psuedonyms or noms de geurre. 38Minutes is the only site that I regularly blog under my own name, becasue I see it as a creative business forum.

In most other sites I would use concealed identity although I tend not to try to 'trick' or 'deceive' people.

When I was a kid my dad met Yuri Gagarin the Russian space cosmonaut so when my dad died, I felt this special bond to the image of the space man and have used it as my profile in sites away from 38mins.

I guess my only reservation about log-in and identity protocols is that is can mean I don't visit sites if its of marginal interest and the process is too laborious.

I like the option of anonymity as long as the forum rules or 'community culture' doesn't descend into unacceptable behaviour.

In some of the sites I'm on a lot - football, soul music, hip-hop etc, people use log-in anonymity as another way of 'identity-creation', in one site you sense that people have almost wholly invented 'characters' with behaviour traits, and back narratives.
Comment by Darcie Tanner on May 20, 2009 at 12:00
The fact that most site's now days require you to become a member, even uplaod location and other various profile information is not only annoying, but also off putting. A larger number of iPhone apps require you to have a log in, but many for many of these it's beneficial to the user to gain access both on your phone and your desk/laptop. However when they don't sync anyhow, you begin to wonder why you have another password you need to remember.

However, there are quite a few sites that I either never upload my profile info, put a different name or an alt email address to specifically get one feature from the site and then either termniate my account or never return. They have nothing for me apart from what I've already received. My part in that is done and I don't have any desire to be updated on their announcements.

Then there are sites, like 38minutes for example, and even Twitter, that you can browse through, get information, but not achieve the full benefit until you become a member, give, recieve and communicate with others.

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