Along with its popular line of high-end networking equipment, Cisco Systems offers something else for visitors: a line of Cisco-brand leisure wear and accessories, everything from windbreakers to golf balls.

The only problem is... to see the line of logo-emblazoned 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 three 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, making something that should be simple... instead stressful for the users.

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

Mistake No. 1: Having a Sign-in in the First Place

It seems that the reason Cisco requires users to log in just to see the golf balls that are for sale is that 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 whitepaper 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."

That's why Midwest Airlines doesn't require its customers to register to buy an airline ticket—practically unheard of in the travel industry. 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 No. 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 the sign-in been required 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 No. 3: Not Stating the Benefits of Registering

Watch users for any amount of time, and you'll notice a huge resistance to registering.

Creating an account puts a burden on users. 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.

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 holding reservations for 24 hours, just to name a few benefits.

Mistake No. 4: Hiding the Sign-in Button

Frequent customers of Netflix usually go straight to their personal homepage, 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 No. 5: Not Making "Create New Account" or "Forgot Your Password" a Button or Link

At Spirit Air's Web site, the good news is that users are provided with an easy way to create and account and retrieve a lost password. The bad news is that 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. In testing, several users didn't realize they were there and searched elsewhere on the site, to little avail.

Mistake No. 6: Not Providing Sign-in Opportunities at Key Locations

We've observed that many users prefer to log in at the last possible moment. Maybe it's because they don't want the distraction of remembering their login information or possibly because they're immersed in their tasks. However, it's at the instance when having an account can help them, such as by eliminating the need to re-enter billing information, that they suddenly desire to log in.

The best sites anticipate these moments and have an easy login capability. Orbitz lets 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 seat choices.

Mistake No. 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 should ask them everything we could ever want to. (Cisco, during its four-page registration process, asks users to specify the number of items they'd like 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 No. 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 whitepaper 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.

Want to learn how to prevent these mistakes?

At the Web App Summit 2008, Jared Spool, along with the innovators and world-class designers behind today's most successful Web apps, will present on today's most pressing topics surrounding great Web application design and implementation.

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Jared M. Spool is a leading expert in the field of usability and design since 1978, before the term "usability" was ever associated with computers. He is the Founding Principal of User Interface Engineering (, the largest usability research organization of its kind in the world.