Notes Information Apocalypse

Understanding Uncertainty

Sign Up Forms Must Die

Luke Wroblewski

Understanding Uncertainty was my presentation to the Auckland Webdesign Meetup - an attempt to tie together the various problems with the ubiquitous web pattern of website logins and signups.

During the talk, I referenced a ton of stuff very quickly, and in some cases, in an indirect, rambling, and ambiguous manner. If you're feeling like an impatient infoseeker, you can scroll to the bottom of this post to find the list of links and references that I quoted.

Luckily my jumbly messiness didn't matter so much - the topic seemed to be of great interest to most of the audience and there were lots of smart people present who had insightful questions and good points to add to the discussion.

It's hard to step away from many of our hard-line assumptions about how people interact with websites, and actually consider the experiences that non-technical people have using the web.

The assumption that people want or need to do things on any average website, in my opinion is flawed. Attention is gold in this economy, and as several people mentioned, the whole "build it and they will come" myth is clearly not relevant for this generation of social web technology. It's an uphill battle just to get people to look at a website, let alone take the time to contribute content of their own. Active participation can't be adequately described in terms of innate wants or needs - designers have to create and inspire these reactions from the audience. Rather than see this as detrimental, I think we can flip the perspective and find new opportunities. There is great potential for designers to explore patterns that resonate more with common psychological tendencies. In Leveraging Cognitive Bias in Social Design, Joshua Porter explains how designers can use common (and rationally flawed) patterns of decision making to make web interfaces more effective.

Disappointingly, I wasn't able to squeeze in a better discussion of OpenID. I have mixed feelings about it - I do think it offers huge potential for improving some of these awkward signup issues, but everything I've seen thus far has convinced me that it is neither simple nor subtle enough to influence buzzword phobic non-geeks.

The following recently published resources provide a good summary of where OpenID is currently at in this space: Google's Federated Login Research (details) and Yahoo's OpenID Usability Research (details).

Another point that bears repeating is that web designers and developers need to start taking game design much more seriously. Many websites are starting to pick up on the concept of gradual engagement - this was highlighted when Glen illustrated how TripIt sparks a whole series of useful and fun interactions with the site, potentially extending over many months and multiple people, yet all starting with a single tiny email post to the site. That's exactly the kind of interaction that I think is going to lead the next generation of website design. But the web is still very far behind in this domain.

Games are interesting because of the learning mechanisms exposed through the interaction. If you need certain skills to play through level 2 (whether jumping, shooting, or climbing, etc), the level 1 interaction will teach you those skills. This means that the designer can know for certain, that a player in level 2 will have the skills to perform certain tasks. If not, they would still be stuck in level 1. It also seems fairly self evident that people learn more effectively, have more fun, and get a positive self-esteem boost from exploring and figuring out how to accomplish something for themselves. Games play on this tendency to provide a constant flow of challenges that yield rewards when completed. There's no reason why we can't exploit similar effects through web interfaces.

Another thing I like about games is that the designers refer to their audience as players rather than users. That's subtle but important - the difference between a pimp and a junkie cannot be overstated!

References & Resources

Definitely check out the Huffduffer signup. It takes the boring conventional pattern, and spins it in a refreshing, conversational style. Opinions were divided over whether this was effective or not. What do you think? Personally, I do really like it, but then again, I'm probably just another sucker.