The Sign-Up Problem

Thu, Aug 26, 2010 - 10:50am -- Isaac Sukin

Finding the Balance between “Contribute Now” and “Register First”

People don’t like to sign up for things. Signing up is mentally equated with receiving spam marketing emails. For example, at a blood drive event near me last year, only a handful of people signed up ahead of time, but almost six times more people showed up.

Web designers face a similar dilemma. It’s important that users sign up for websites where users contribute content, both to reduce spam and to track and identify users’ contributions. But often users don’t want to sign up, even though they want to contribute – and the barrier of signing up will keep some people from contributing. I’ve experienced this personally; especially when dealing with something contentious, people often don’t feel comfortable giving an unknown website their identity in this age of limited privacy.

OpenID is supposed to help solve this problem. The idea is that users sign up just once, and then they can use OpenID to sign in pretty much everywhere else. That’s all fine and good, but there are a number of problems with this idea. First, it’s harder to remember an OpenID login than a standard login for many people. (Was it at Yahoo or Google or myOpenID? And why do I have to care?) Second, many implementations require an intermediate stage where the user is brought to a different site than the one they intended to log into to ask for confirmation. (“Did you really want to log in there?” Well, yeah, that’s why I was logging in. Why aren’t I there anymore?) The third problem is that OpenID tends to be very poorly implemented, such that even once users log in to a site using OpenID, they are then still required to basically go through the whole standard registration process over again. That is a deal-killer.

But here’s the thing: there’s often no need to force users to register immediately in order to accomplish the goals that registering is supposed to solve. Signing up has long been the standard, but as far as I can tell, it’s the standard just because it has always been that way. It is very possible to reduce spam and keep track of users’ contributions without registration.

Stack Overflow has an interesting solution that I’ve been thinking about for some time. Anyone who comes to Stack Overflow can use most of the site’s features: they can ask a question, leave comments, and vote on posts. They can even have a user profile, which they can edit. And they can do it all without registering or logging in. Each distinct user who takes an action on the site is given a unique ID and a session key, and that user is then identified in the future via a cookie. Obviously if the user switches computers or clears cookies then the association is lost, but most people don’t do that very often, and at least the user can participate on the site using a uniquely identifiable username immediately, without the delay or obstacle of signing up. Once the user has used the site and gotten hooked, they have the option to register normally – to claim their profile and history permanently – which they are much more likely to do once that initial value proposition has been established.

I want this in Drupal. I think it’s an awesome way to lower the barrier to community participation. I don’t think anything like this exists. While I definitely don’t have time to create it right now, it’s something that I’d like to look at for a Drupal 7 module, if someone else doesn’t get to it first!


I finally wrote a module to solve the problem!