28 December 2008 ~ 8 Comments


As stackoverflow grows in popularity, I’m seeing it as frequently as Yahoo! Answers when asking technical questions.  Doing a bit of Rails lately, there I found the answer to my question-of-the-moment.  Stackoverflow is about us helping one another, so I had a look at the front page to see if I could return the favor, when I noticed this question:

There are some great examples in there, tinged with frustration – the same motivator that is responsible for this blog.  I pointed the OP towards this site, as I have about a years worth of gripes saved up :-)  Before posting, I noticed that it’s possible to get credit for responding.  In order for me to login (to get credit), I have to choose an OpenID provider.  OpenID?  What’s that?

From OpenID.net, “What is OpenID?”

OpenID lowers user frustration by letting users have control of their login.

Less frustration?  More control?  Let the healing begin!

Here we are at the OpenID login prompt.

I’m not quite sure what to enter in this field, though I do know how to use a drop-down.  Let’s see what happens.  Note though, that I’m interacting with the components in reverse order, using the drop-down to fill (or understand) the contents of the login field.

I have Yahoo!, Google, Technorati, Flickr and Blogger accounts and maybe an AOL account from 10 years ago.  Which of these is the right choice?  What are the ramifications?  My Google and Yahoo! addresses contain a lot of personal information; will it be visible on the site if I choose it?  Will stackoverflow have access to my personal information?  I choose Google (for no reason really) while feeling a sense of empowerment and control like never before.

Next, the “login field” appears as below:

Is this correct?  Or a bug?  What does this mean?  Should I replace this with my Gmail address?

The only two things I know about OpenID so far:

  • I should feel like I just landed on the moon having ridden a rainbow of non-frustration.
  • The administrator at stackoverflow knows that “OpenID is awesome” and that it belongs with at least one person.

That posting at uservoice (a request to not require OpenID) has many comments: should stackoverflow be using OpenID?  Will it limit site adoption?  My guess is that it would have many more comments though it was declined as a feature request and cannot be voted on.  Understandably so, as OpenID is quite contentious.

Jeff Atwood, author of codinghorror and the founder of stackoverflow has this to say:

…which means the real question is not whether or not stackoverflow should be using OpenID.  It is this:

How can stackoverflow increase satisfaction with its OpenID implementation, such that the purported benefits of less frustration and more control are realized?

One would start by learning from others, such as Yahoo’s OpenID Best Practices:

Promote the utility, not the technology. To reach the majority of users who aren’t familiar with OpenID as a technology, promote the ability to log in using an existing account, not “OpenID” itself.

Or even uservoice.com.  In order to login and reply at uservoice, Jeff would have had to go through their OpenID sign-in process:

An OpenID login process, with no mention of OpenID.  Clicking on “Google” sent me over to Google and voila!  I’m logged in, all the while completely unaware of OpenID and its empowering effects.

Stackoverflow gets a lot of things right.  The site is responsive, the UI is slick, sharp and minimalist and if you get as much of your technical help from message boards and blog posts as I do, you’ve got to love the idea behind it.

What Jeff should keep in mind is that if he’s going to evangelize, he’s got to do more than the bare minimum.  Simply stating your opinion and creating an implementation-model UI isn’t going to win him any OpenID converts.  In fact, quite the opposite – provably so from the momentum of the aforementioned uservoice posting before it was locked.

I do hope stackoverflow nails their OpenID flow, at least for my sake because I’d love to get credit for my responses ;-)

8 Responses to “Irony”

  1. Willie Wheeler 28 December 2008 at 9:47 am Permalink

    Good post. After reading it, I have pretty much the same reaction that you have, though to their credit they do have a “Why OpenID?” box that explains briefly what OpenID is and gives you the option to learn more.

    I think the challenge they have is this. On the one hand they want to evangelize OpenID, which I can appreciate. On the other hand, few people know what it is or how it works, which is a problem in particular for the SO audience since geeks will usually want to understand how something like that works before using it. So in effect they’ve inserted this crash course right before the login task, which for most users represents a distraction from what they’re trying to do. So users end up being distracted (if they actually read the OpenID information) or else feeling a little confused about what they just did.

    Anyway I agree with you that from a user perspective the focus should be on the login task itself and not on the OpenID technology. At the same time it may be that they’re trying to strike the balance between the user perspective and OpenID evangelization. The rest of the site is so good from an interaction and usability perspective that I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one.

  2. Rob 28 December 2008 at 12:48 pm Permalink

    Great comment Willie, and it touched on a lot of points.

    Because login is something you do infrequently, many are likely to give SO a pass on this as the hassle is worth it. It’s a great community and if my entry free is stumbling through the OpenID process, then so be it.

    I actually did notice the “Why OpenID?” while going back to take my screenshots. It could come after the flow due to the issue you highlighted (“crash course right before the login task”). For example, once you’re logged in, a banner item such as “You just logged in with your OpenID, thanks! I did?! Wow! What’s OpenID?” That sort of modeless feedback would have a much better chance of being read and accepted than before the login process when I’m frustrated being forced to learn something new – taking my medicine so to speak.

    I’d rather have my bowl of ice cream and then find out all the great things that were in it =)

  3. Jeff Atwood 28 December 2008 at 6:39 pm Permalink

    Honestly, the minimal OpenID login barrier helps us, as it requires a certain level of commitment and understanding to get beyond. The types of users that get turned off by this barrier are not really our audience.

    Bear in mind this is a site for *software developers*.

    Also, a small tip: all you usually need to type in is “google.com” and click login. Try it!

  4. Jeff Atwood 28 December 2008 at 6:44 pm Permalink

    Also, as an aside, the “I just typed something magic in, and it worked!” is pretty much the essence of programming.

    Y’know, for programmers. :)

    I just want to emphasize how important the audience is in making the decisions we made. I absolutely would not pursue OpenID for a site targeted at older users, for example.

  5. Rob 28 December 2008 at 7:28 pm Permalink

    Hi Jeff,

    I dig your motivation for including OpenID. If not now, when, right?

    So there’s really two questions here:

    — OpenID?
    That’s cool, the underlying login technology is really independent to the means by which one interacts with it. Elves could verifying my ID while stealing the $9 in my wallet for all I care.

    — OpenID @ Stackoverflow?
    If your contention is that you’ve purposefully implemented a less-than-stellar OpenID login scheme to speed bump new accounts, we’ll have to agree to disagree on the usefulness here :-)

    If you plan on securing investment, removing roadblocks to getting that DAU count up there will be the first order of business. Speaking of that, where’s the Facebook app to show off my SO badges? ;-)

    I would suggest to consider this more in the context for someone coming to stackoverflow:

    It’s the end of the day. I’ve been struggling with Rails and has_many :though. Sure I could stop using Rails, though I’m a sadist. I’m frustrated and want to ask a question. And when I’m done, I’ll feel better and perhaps contribute back to the community. According to Emotional Design, this is the least appropriate moment to challenge me mentally with an unfamiliar concept – my focus is narrowed and I’m done with problem solving.

    I tend to agree that hey, it’s a site for software developers – they’ll figure it out. And they have, obviously. Though I was surprised to find so many votes and comments for the OpenID request @ uservoice.

    Thanks for stopping by and best of luck with SO!


  6. Jeff Atwood 30 December 2008 at 12:33 am Permalink

    No worries, really an excellent and well written article overall, Rob!

    I do greatly fear an influx of one-click Facebook users, though. Note: I’m not kidding.

  7. Jeff Atwood 30 December 2008 at 12:36 am Permalink

    > Though I was surprised to find so many votes and comments for the OpenID request @ uservoice.

    I view this as the “who moved my cheese” brigade. These are people who have a sort of Stockholm Syndrome; they actually *like* having unique usernames and passwords on every single website they visit.

    In short, these people are sick, and need help. OpenID help.

  8. james 22 April 2009 at 1:59 pm Permalink

    I would love stackoverflow if it didn’t require OpenID. OpenID is just stupid. It’s stupid for a site to require users to run through hoops just to register. We’re not interested in openID so dont’ make us use it.

    If we want to have the same login and password on every site, don’t you think we could just do that ourselves? Duh? It’s called using the same email address and password everywhere. And this is a problem that OpenID solves?

    What a joke. If you wan to know how to make a good registration/login system look at Reddit. Those guys know how to do it.

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