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Hurdles at the entrance to a site

It’s not unusual for a site to position a long sequence of hurdles just inside their entrance. Someone walking in the door might have to clear some or all of these hurdles before they can even try out the site:

  1. Figure out what the service does, and whether it meets their needs. This can be a lot harder than it sounds. The site might describe itself in text, images, or Flash demos. Even assuming the user has Flash installed, sitting through a demo can be tedious. The worst case: the site already assumes visitors know what it does.
  2. Find the entry point for signing up. You’d think this would always be obvious, but on some sites it’s not.
  3. Pick a user ID. Often the first thing the service wants a new customer to do is pick an identifier such as a user name with which to identify themselves to the site later. If the site doesn’t use email addresses as IDs, the user generally picks some variation on their own name. If they have a common name, they might have to guess several times before they find a variation of their name that hasn’t already been picked as an ID.
  4. Enter their email address. If the user ID isn’t an email address, the user almost always has to enter their email address separately. Even if the service can be used without an email address, the site is eager to obtain this critical piece of marketing data from the user.
  5. Pick a password.
  6. Enter the password again to confirm it.
  7. Pick the password several more times to comply with arbitrary security requirements.
  8. Write down their password somewhere before they forget the new variation of their usual password that finally made it past the arbitrary security requirements.
  9. Enter personal data used to configure the service to their needs.
  10. Comply with (or carefully turn down) requests for demographic data for marketing purposes. This may include opting out of requests to be added to email newsletters.
  11. Agree to terms of use and other legal agreements.
  12. Activate their account. The user might need to switch to a completely different application—their email client—and look for a message from the service. They might have to wait for a period of time for this message to arrive. The length of this time period is unknown: it could be a few seconds, or a few days. When the user finally receives the message, they have to find a link somewhere in it that they need to click on in order to verify that they are, in fact, the proper owner of the email address.
  13. Download software. If the service entails client software or browser plug-ins, the user has an additional dozen hurdles to jump through: the browser’s save dialog, progress dialog, "Are you sure you want to run this?" dialog, an elevate-to-administrator security dialog, and probably a firewall dialog—not to mention the software’s own overly long sequence of setup questions.

And finally, after all this, the person gets to try the actual service—and decide whether it’s worth using.

With all these hurdles, it’s a small miracle some web-based services end up with any users at all. Each hurdle constitutes an opportunity for the user to leave. The site is effectively asking the user, "Are you sure you want to use us? Are you really sure? How about now? Are you sure you’re sure? Hmm?" Some users are going to take one of these opportunities and leave. People are growing increasingly leery of starting down the hurdle-strewn path of a new site. They’ve been down similar paths so many times that they’ve concluded the experience won’t be worth their time unless they’re already confident the site will provide substantial value.

Admission: The signup experience for Cozi Central isn’t exactly a disaster in my opinion, but it’s clearly old school in this regard, and puts up many of the hurdles listed above. I can’t say the demo’s great, and our setup experience is, unfortunately, waaaaay too complex (and almost entirely a result of the development framework we selected for building the product). We’ve got a lot to learn, but there are some great sites to learn from.

Next time: A new school of sites that eases users in with anonymous accounts