Monday, May 17, 2010

Login AWOL

How do I log-in? Web sites that demand logins often make it hard to do so. Many make it hard to determine whether the user is logging in once inside the site. Why?

The New York Times gets it right. LOGIN and user session information appears clearly on every page. As a bonus features, a social tool drops down to show who's following you and what other Times readers recommend.

The Wall Street Journal used to be confusing and The Washington Post gets it wrong. It's in tiny type at the Post; LOGIN must be hunted down on the page. The WSJ has finally moved it from mid page somewhere on the right and it no longer disappears completely when the user navigates away from pay-walled pages.

Facebook gets it really right; it's the foundation of the whole business, of course.

The IEEE universe of websites is improving. To be sure, the IEEE relies on volunteers to create and maintain its collection of sites and services. Moving among societies and journals within the IEEE context used to be a LOGIN safari. A universal header and navigation control is helping.

Where is ACM's LOGIN? Buried somewhere under a tab. For a leader in Human Computer Interactions, hiding LOGIN is unfriendly to say the least and belies the mission to improve computing's utility.

Worse LOGIN encumbrances exist.

Some companies treat their customer's logins with contempt. For over a decade I held a login and profile at The Los Angeles Times site. In April 2010 and with minimal warning to its "valued customers", the paper ditched its logins in favor of those established on social networking sites, a cross-marketing play.

In an instant, The Times not only made it harder to log in but also severed the relationship between my identity and my editorial comments, news letters, and other onsite material. The site offered no opportunity to recover. Everything apparently needed to be re-entered and reconnected to LOGINs I may or may not wish to associate with my Times subscription. The frustration is best expressed by Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan. He simply unsubscribed.

The Real Problem

LOGIN offers little value for many sites. It's a step to capturing demographic info which is usually sold and resold to marketers in aggregate. A login's approximate value: $0.37. Less than a postage stamp.

For the end-user or customer, however, LOGIN is a welcoming step. It signifies a willingness to belong and support a service or site, to join the community and identify with it. Signing up implies a social contract: I tell you about me and entrust you with that knowledge, you treat me like a friend and keep my info in reasonable confidence. No one likes a gossip.

LOGIN is a missed opportunity. Web 2.0 social sites and smart(er) vendor sites intertwine a welcoming LOGIN into the fabric of their information. It's not always about extracting maximum sales from a customer, but maximum value. A happy LOGIN tells three other LOGINs how to join; an unhappy LOGIN tells 20 others why they should keep away.

Happily, LOGIN registrations are becoming more streamlined. Instead of demanding names, addresses, phone numbers, birth dates (!), and other details marketers covet, a simple name/email/password triplet has become enough. Customers may volunteer additional info by optionally completing a profile later. People share more information as their trust in friendships and involvement grow.

Fixing the Design

If a website offers no premium for logging in, don't. Don't create user accounts. Don't demand identification or other personal information at all. Use a tracking service instead. Chances are the service is much, much better at it.

To create a customer relationship, optionally offer a login. Don't make it a requirement to complete transactions or find free information. I have abandoned many, many shopping carts because their sites forced me to register before checking out. No one has ever registered at McDonald's in order to get lunch. I have money and am willing to pay, what more is wanted? Pointless registration retards transactions.

Make it easy to log in and know I'm logged in. Don't hide LOGIN. Put it on every page if I'm not logged in. Replace the login box or widget with my name when I am logged in. And put the LOGOUT right next to my name so I know I can close my session, especially if I'm using a public or shared system.

Keep all the LOGIN/LOGOUT/User features in the same, visually-stable location on every page. Hunting for this information on a new page or section on the site is time consuming and annoying.

Last, treat login identities as what they represent: a social contract. They represent people and their good will. Friends never betray friends and a lifetime of trust can evaporate in an instant.