Account Sign-in: 8 Design Mistakes

Along with their popular line of high-end networking equipment, Cisco Systems offers something else for Cisco.com visitors to buy: a line of Cisco-brand leisure wear and accessories, everything from wind breakers to golf balls. The only problem is, to see the line of logo-emboldened products, you need to first fill out a registration form.

Yes. You read that correctly. Just to see the available products, you need to create an account by filling out the four-page, 45-question form. (You have to tell Cisco your job role twice, your job title once, and the language you prefer to speak 3 times — all in English.) Then, if you can find your way back to the online marketplace, you can see the selection of laser-light key chains with the Cisco logo.

There are many great business advantages to having users create an account and log into the system. You know who is using your system, how often they visit, and what they do on the site. You can store information they might need later, such as their order history and their billing info for future purchases. And, you can offer them content and services reserved for only your best clientele.

Yet, in usability test after usability test, we see the registration and sign-in processes to be consistently problematic. It's the most common thing that scares users away from shopping on e-commerce sites. It generates the most calls to the customer-support call center.

Designing an account registration and sign-in process that doesn't frustrate users turns out to be very difficult to achieve. It looks easy at the outset, but a pile of subtleties can sneak up on your experience, making something that should be simple become stressful for the users.

Here are 8 common design mistakes we often see as we watch users try to create accounts and sign into the site:

Mistake #1: Having a Sign-in In The First Place

It seems the reason Cisco requires you to log in just to see the golf balls for sale is not all products are available for the general public. Some are only for employees (who also get a nice discount). Some are only for certified Cisco engineers. To know what products and prices to display, the site needs to know who you are.

Fortunately, most sites don't take this approach. On most sites, you can do many things without identifying yourself.

And, that's the way customers like it. They hate having to create an account to do something simple, such as download a white paper or pay for a product they've chosen. As one online shopper said recently during a usability test, "I don't want to develop a relationship with these guys. I just want to buy something."

Practically unheard of in the travel industry, Midwest Airlines doesn't require their customers to register to buy an airline ticket. Instead, customers can make a purchase as a guest. Of course, they still have to enter their name and billing info, but they aren't forced to create a username and password if they don't want to.

Mistake #2: Requiring Sign-in Too Soon

Part of Cisco's issue was requiring the customer to sign in (and new customers to register) before they could see the products. Had they required it later, maybe after clicking on a link labeled "Show me my employee discount" or "Checkout", the shoppers would have been less frustrated.

Amazon set the gold standard by waiting until the last possible moment to require sign-in. Clicking on "My Account", users sees the entire list of account support options before they identify themselves. In some cases, such as one-click shopping, they never have the user sign-in. The cookie on the machine is good enough.

Mistake #3: Not Stating the Benefits to Registering

Creating an account puts a burden on the user. They have to answer the questions, many of which have nothing to do with their current task. They have to come up with a user name they'll remember. They have to pick a password they'll easily recall. They worry about getting email or having their information sent to the deepest, darkest regions of the Internet. Watch users for any amount of time and you'll notice a huge resistance to registering.

What do they get in return for this added burden? At Midwest Airlines, they say right on the sign-in page: access to your frequent flyer account, booking award travel, changing reservations after they are made, and hold reservations for 24-hours, just to name a few benefits.

Mistake #4: Hiding the Sign-In Button

Frequent customers of Netflix usually go straight to their personal home page, showing status information and movie recommendations. Yet, when cookies are deleted or they access the service from a different machine, they need to log in.

The default page, in that instance, was designed to sell potential new customers on the site. It had a very visible registration button. Unfortunately, the member login link was much harder to see. This caused frequent calls to the Netflix call center, until the team made the member sign-in link more visually distinct.

Mistake #5: Not Making "Create New Account" or "Forgot Your Password" a Button or Link

At Spirit Air's web site, the good news is they provide users with an easy way to create account and retrieve a lost password. The bad news is the links to these functions, which appear in a pull down menu, don't really look like links. They look to users like explanatory text. Several users didn't realize they were there and searched elsewhere on the site, to little avail.

Mistake #6: Not Providing Sign-in Opportunities at Key Locations

We've observed many users will prefer to log in at the last possible moment. Maybe its because they don't want the distraction of remembering their login information or possibly because they're immersed in their tasks. It's at the instance when the account can help them, such as preventing them from re-entering billing information, they suddenly desire to log in.

The best sites anticipate these moments and have an easy login capability. Orbitz lets their customers get well into the purchase process, and then has a simple login option to retrieve flying preferences, like meal selections and aisle or window choices.

Mistake #7: Asking for Too Much Information When Registering

A common trap we see site designers fall into is thinking that, once the user starts filling out questions, we want to ask them everything we could ever want to. (Cisco, during their four-page registration process, asks the users to specify the number of items presented in search results.)

Yet, users typically want to answer as few questions as possible. The best sites just ask for a username and password (or just a password if they are using the email address and already have it). They later ask for any profile or personalization information, when the need arises.

Mistake #8: Not Telling Users How You'll Use Their Information

"Why do they need to know my home phone number?" the user asked when trying to download a technical white paper for work. Naturally, the user was quite suspicious.

At Virgin America, the designers explain why they need a phone number, "In case we need to contact you, provide at least one number." While they prompt for a mobile, home, and business number, they are giving a reason.

Midwest Airlines is even clearer: "Please provide a phone number where you can be reached in the event of a change to your flight reservation." Who wouldn't want to have the airline call them for that?

Finding the Mistakes

Creating a perfect registration and sign-in process takes tremendous work. The best way to identify the problems is to conduct periodic usability tests, with regular registered users, infrequent users, and first time users. If your tests are like the ones we've conducted, you'll see these mistakes (and probably others) emerge almost instantly.

Eight More Design Mistakes

If you enjoyed this article, you'll want to read the article, 8 More Design Mistakes with Account Sign-in, where Jared Spool continues to discuss account sign-in design problems.

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