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Scott Abel,
The Content Wrangler

by Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler

I don’t like it. Many consumers don’t like it. And, chances are, you don’t like it either. Yet, it continues.

It’s enough to drive perfectly sane people crazy.

Typical website registration, login, and data collection processes suck. The problem is caused by business professionals who hire web developers and put them in charge of things they have no business being in charge of. Things like specifying how humans will set up an account, create passwords, access the site, overcome challenges, and provide information the organization needs to better serve their customers.

More often than should be the case, website developers are set free to “design” the user experience, instead of what they should be doing: implementing an experience designed and mapped out — in detail — by folks who understand how to design exceptional user experiences.

Let’s Take A Closer Look

Evidence of this approach is easy to find. Just compare the login process on several different websites. Chances are good you’ll encounter a different approach on each one.

The first difference you’re likely to encounter is inconsistent user ID conventions. Some sites allow you to use an email address as your user ID. Others require you to use an alphanumeric string of text, 8 characters or more, sometimes, limited to 10, but not more than 16. WTF? And on websites no self-respecting hacker would ever hack into, you’re required to create a ridiculously complex passcode that cannot resemble your user ID (or maybe it can), that contains at least 8 (sometimes more, sometimes less) alphanumeric characters, one of which must be a capital letter (or not). And don’t get me started on why symbols are allowed to be used in passwords here, but not there. Making the account set up and repeat entry process difficult is a horrible way to introduce your website to people you’re hoping to turn into repeat visitors.

Speaking of repeat visits, because user ID and password creation conventions differ, we find it hard to remember them when we return to a website where we’ve previously set up an account. Eventually, we return to those sites but can’t recall which password we were forced to use. We try to remember the conventions required by the site (was this the site that requires a password that begins with a capital letter or the one that I forgot last month that forced me to create a new password that I now have no recollection of at all)? But, we fail to recall our login information more often than not. That helps to explain why the “forgot my password” function is one of the most commonly used features on many websites. As a matter of fact, it’s used as many as 50,000 times a month on the Commonwealth Bank / NetBank (Australia).

Asking For Too Much Information

Web marketers employ site registration systems that prevent consumers from getting to the content they desire unless they are willing to give up an increasing amount of information. Usually it’s a laundry list of all sorts of personal, financial, and demographic information. Too much information.

Publishers are some of the worst offenders, although they usually don’t hand over the information to a sales team that begins cold calling you. Usually. But that’s not the case with product manufacturers and providers of all sorts of services. They treat registration data as sales lead information, which it certainly is not.

Take the software industry, for example. You can bet that if you sign up for a webinar or download a white paper on a subject you are researching, they’re going to add you to a mailing list, send you newsletters, and call you up to try and sell you something. The irony is that marketing and sales people use the web as well. They are consumers, just like the rest of us. They know all too well that the registration process is a giant inconvenience. They hate it, too.

And, they should know better. Actually, they do. But they feel compelled to do it anyway, despite knowing the reasons users don’t like to fill out signup forms. Just ask the folks at The Times. When the online news site decided to require registration prior to viewing news content, readership dropped by 90%.

“I don’t return to sites that require me to submit too much information,” says Sophia Farina, marketing and revenue performance management consultant at Revenue2. “It’s just not worth my time.”

“The act of collecting information from web consumers wouldn’t be so offensive if brands learned to gather it in bite-sized bits, and used it to create an experience that is relevant to each individual,” she says. “But, that’s not what’s happening 99.9% of the time.”

“The way most brands approach information gathering is disrespectful,” says Farina.

Form Design Can Impact Sales Revenue

But, even when the registration process is fairly straightforward, many forms encountered by consumers trying to purchase products and services on the web are so poorly designed that they actually prevent sales. Expedia learned that the reason they had so many failed transactions was due to confusion caused by one optional field. By removing the field from their online order form, Expedia increased revenue by 12 million dollars.

According to a recent study by Blue Research, US consumers agree with Farina and they’re taking their frustrations out on brands by spoiling registration and demographic data collection efforts. The study found among the 86% of consumers who find website registration bothersome, 88% admitted they provide false information or leave forms incomplete. Did you hear that CMOs of America?

It’s not just tedious and often invasive information gathering practices that upset consumers the most. It turns out that the biggest obstacle to a positive customer experience is the seemingly simple act of logging in.

In Search Of A Uniform Approach

What’s the problem, you ask? There’s no uniform approach. User identification fields vary from site to site. Some limit the number of characters user IDs may contain. Others insist that users login with an email address. Still others automatically assign user IDs. Passwords are even more challenging. There seem to be an increasing number of approaches. Some sites require passwords of a certain length (at least 8 characters but no more than 16), while others require passwords to contain one capital letter and a combination of alphanumeric characters. Still others…well, you get the picture.

According to Blue Research, 90% of web consumers leave websites when they can’t login successfully. And, no, they don’t bother to answer the security questions, which are equally as cryptic.

The US National Institute of Standards and Technology provides developers with suggestions for managing security, including password strength. While the organization says that “requiring that passwords be long and complex makes it less likely that attackers will guess or crack them,” it also warns that making “passwords harder for users to remember…increases the likelihood that users will store their passwords insecurely and expose them to attackers.”

The damage done by sloppy login experiences is unacceptable. 54% of web consumers who are unable to login, leave the site and may never return. What’s the solution? “For starters,” says Farina, “marketers need to fight to ensure they create the best customer experience possible. It’s not enough to collect so-called leads and pass them to sales and then pat yourself on the back and claim a job well done. You need to ensure the entire customer experience is equally as good as your content, from start to finish.”

In the book “Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks” by Luke Wroblewski, usability expert Jared Spool makes the case for a clear, no-nonse website login experience. In a study of one major online retailer, Spool found that “45% of customers had multiple registrations in the system, 160,000 people requested their password every day, and 75% of these people never completed the purchase they started once they requested their password.”

“When a shopper couldn’t remember the email address and password,” Spool wrote “they’d attempt at guessing what it could be multiple times. These guesses rarely succeeded. Some would eventually ask the site to send the password to their email address, which is a problem if you can’t remember which email address you initially registered with.” Sound familiar?

The Social Login May Be The Answer

The findings of the Blue Research study indicate that what web consumers want is a single login experience — 77% think websites should allow them to login using an existing online identity like Facebook, Google, or Twitter. 41% say they prefer a social login over creating a new user or guest account.

“Social login continues to dramatically increase in favor among consumers as they realize the benefits of using an existing identity in order to bypass the traditional online registration process,” says Paul Abel, Ph.D., managing partner, Blue Research. “Failing to offer social login is a missed opportunity for businesses to improve ROI of online properties, as fans of the service are more likely to register on the site, influence their friends through social networks, and more likely to return to a site that offers them a personalized experience.”

And, what Abel (no relation to the author of this article) doesn’t mention is the cost of failing to provide a seamless login experience. When customers need to access a site that is critical to them — such as a bank — but fail to gain access on their own, they are likely to call customer support, increasingly call volume and slowing down the customer service process. These burdens come with costs. The irony is that self-serve websites are often sold to upper management as a way to reduce support costs.

Of course, adding a social login can introduce new challenges. Wroblewski offers suggestions how to overcome these new problems by improving the user login experience.

What do you think?

Are you tired of struggling to remember user IDs and passwords? Do you long for a single login ID? Or, maybe a social login? And, what about registration information? Do companies ask for too much? Do you lie? Leave forms blank? Why?

Let’s discuss.