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Geni: Slickest trial-to-signup path yet

A few months ago I came across Geni, a genealogy site that offers the slickest trial-to-signup path I’ve seen yet. I wanted to post on Geni, but to appreciate how good a job they do, I thought it was useful to look at old school sites, where signup is one of many hurdles to site usage, and new school sites that avoid some of these hurdles through the use of anonymous accounts. Geni goes beyond all the rest in creating what, in my opinion, is the most inviting initial user experience for a site to date.

Right off the bat, you’re cleverly dropped into a family tree that’s already partially started: there’s a place for you, and obvious points to add your parents. No fanfare is needed to introduce the site or explain what it’s for. The very nature of the task’s UI makes it obvious that you’re building a family tree:

You’re asked for an email address, and in the most compact text imaginable, they define the key points of their privacy policy (“never spammed, never shared”).

It’s not advertised to the user at this point that the email address they enter for themselves will become their user ID on the site. This is revealed the first time the user tries to return to the site. At that point—the second visit—the user is asked to sign in with their email address and a temporary password that was emailed separately to that address.

The second visit also includes a minor but noteworthy detail: the user is asked to agree to the service’s “Terms of Use”. This strikes an elegant balance between the ease of use and legal risk. Terms of use generally come in two flavors:

  1. Browse-wrap. The act of browsing the site implicitly signals agreement. Because a user could argue that they didn’t notice or were unaware of the site’s terms of use, this form of consent is considered comparatively weak. This is generally used for sites that don’t require the user to sign up at all.
  2. Click-wrap. You must explicitly check a box or comparable control to indicate that you agree to the terms. This presumably confers stronger legal protection for the site, because it would be harder for a user to claim that they were unaware of the terms.

DISCLAIMER: I’m not a lawyer, and you would have to be a complete idiot to base a legal strategy on the content of this blog without consulting an attorney.

Most services that require accounts go for click-wrap terms, hence the ubiquitous “I agree to the terms and conditions” check box found on service signup pages. The site feels obligated to obtain explicit agreement because the user and site are forging an ongoing relationship, and each future interaction could increase the likelihood a legal issue might arise. The downside is the “I agree” check box becomes just another hurdle in the way of the user trying out the service, and creates another opportunity for the user to decide they’d rather just walk away.

Geni’s approach to terms of use strikes a nice balance. You can try out the site once under a browse-wrap agreement, but for future visits you must accept the click-wrap agreement. By that second visit, of course, you’ve clearly indicated your interest in what the site has to offer, and you’re motivated to regain access to the family tree you’ve already begun to create. So, agreeing to terms of use at that point seems like a trivial matter. In their approach to terms of use, Geni has managed to move one more hurdle from the entrance of the site to somewhere deep within. This incredibly careful attention to detail pervades the Geni user experience.

The Geni site is worth checking out for their signup experience alone. The other thing to marvel at their intensely viral proposition. Genealogy lends itself to reaching out to people you know, and they make it drop-dead simple to enter a relative’s email address and invite them with a single click. The beauty of this is that you get to offload all the data entry tedium to the one or two relatives in the family that actually enjoy that sort of thing. Everyone in the family receives the benefit of their work—as does Geni.