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AskTog, November-December 2009

How to Achieve Painless Registration

Czech Translation:

I'm about to give you a number of ways to increase sales on ecommerce sites and increase sign-ups on service sites, but first, raise your hand if you personally, when surfing the web, enjoy registering to use a site.

That's what I thought. Yet, so many sites either demand registration where none is needed or torture excess information out of users where so much could be inferred.

We'll look at a number of ways sites are driving away visitors, along with some proven fixes, but let's begin at the end, with the particularly amateurish, as well as damaging, practice of demanding registration before checkout.

Registration at Checkout

Users come to your site to buy a product, sign up for a service, or otherwise improve their life. They not only don't come in the hopes of registering, they'd really just as soon not have to type in any information at all.

Let's look at how two different websites handle gathering customers' information. In both cases, the customers are trying to buy a product, and in both cases, the websites need the exact same information. As the scenes open, the customers have dropped the products they want in the shopping cart and are ready to check out.

  • Site A: Register-First

Site A demands that all customers must register, after which checkout will be a breeze. The customer is then expected to fill out several screens-full of information.

Site A is throwing away business with both hands. The customer wants to check out now. The customer doesn't want to have to get out of the virtual checkout line and go all the way over to that virtual card table in the corner to fill out a bunch of registration forms before they can check out, no matter the promises of easy check-out later.

  • Site B: Checkout-First

Site B has the customer immediately launch into filling out the checkout form, at the end of which the site offers the user the chance to register by just selecting a password.

Most sites that operate like Site B offer the vague promise of "if you ever want to buy anything else from this lovely site you never heard of until ten minutes ago, we'll make it easy if you'll only give us a password." Site B, however, understands that such promises of "pie in the sky by and by" is not that compelling, so they offer something immediate: "Give us a password and, in addition to your next order being a snap, you'll be able to use tracking to follow this shipment all the way to your door."

Site B is not only increasing orders by not getting in the way of the user that wants to check out, they are driving up registrations even higher than most such sites by increasing the "value proposition."

There are two approaches to increasing the "value proposition"—offer a bigger benefit or offer a more immediate benefit. Small immediate benefits can have the same impact on the user as big long-term ones. They save you money.

(Note that there's no technical reason to require a user to register in order to track an order; Site B could just have users come to a site and enter their order number. Site B wants registration for Site B's own long-term growth, knowing that registrations build customer loyalty.)

If you are demanding registration before checkout, you need to cease this practice immediately. It is costing you a fortune. If your site is handled by a web-design or ecommerce-engine company that is demanding your users register before purchase, I would strongly consider switching vendors. Any professional developer carrying out this practice this late in the Internet game is probably doing other horrible things as well.


A small percentage of sites may need information "in front." These would include sites like newspapers that survive on advertising, wholesale sites that don't want to reveal their prices to the general public, professional sites such as those catering to doctors, and service sites such as data aggregators.

Your job is to minimize the impact of registration because any kind of registration will drive off potential good customers. The first line of defence is to avoid it entirely. When you can't do that, require as little information as possible. When you can't do that—and you usually can—go for staged obligation.

Staged Obligation Solution

Using this technique, take what would be a lengthy form with twelve items and break it up into small pieces. For example:

  1. Ask for name and email only
  2. Ask for another four items
  3. Ask for a final six items

The user may well infer they only have to enter name and email when they first see your page with only the first two items on it. They are very likely to fill thos two fields in.

When they then click continue and are confronted with your demand for another four items, their response will likely be, "Darn it! I thought that was it, but, oh, well, I may as well do these last four." They are mildly irritated, but, having already gone to the trouble of giving up their name and e-mail address, most people will surrender to your new demand.

Of course, a percentage of users will bail out when they see the second. The question is whether more will bail out on this second step vs. the number that would have bailed out immediately if you had hit them with all six at once. Experience shows that fewer will bail with Staged Obligation.

At the end of the four, you then provide a final six. This time, you state very clearly there will be no more items. The user will go through a similar mental process as before, usually ending up providing you with the information. After all, they've already gotten this far.

This technique works. Millions of sites use it for one particular process: Checkout. Beginning with the least obligating information, each subsequent screen builds on the last, with money always at the very end. Users just keep rolling along no matter how long the total form.

When you apply this same technique in other situations, you'll likewise discover that you have a higher sign-up ratio than otherwise, but there is often a cost: You're going to have a customer, for sure, but a customer who is less than thrilled with you right now for putting them through all this. Better to avoid at least those last ten questions to begin with. Here are some techniques that can be used for various types of sites to reduce registration only a sprinkling of fields, usually two.

  • Newspapers, etc.

Newspapers have two sets of customers: Readers and advertisers. Most newspapers and similar businesses have by now learned the high cost of demanding registration. Almost everything you need to know can be gleaned from the customer's use of the site. Your sales department may still continue to demand something explicit. If so, give it to them, but limit it to two pieces of information: Zip/Postal code and age group. That's all a salesperson needs to know to sell an ad.

If they insist on more, it's time to do a small quantitative study: Set up your site to give some people immediate access, while requiring others to register. See how many people registration is losing. Translate that into lost readership and take that number to someone who cares like, oh, I don't know, maybe the CEO.

  • Wholesale sites

Wholesalers don't need the middle name of the retailer's third grade schoolmarm to qualify them to enter your site. Take the most minimal level of information required to allow entrance, then glean the rest when they put in their first order. Do not decide that since you're asking them a bunch of stuff anyway, you may as well get everything. Bad idea. Good way to throw away money.

  • Professional sites

Start out with the Staged Obligation approach, by asking for user name and password. However, then offer the professional the choice of continuing with registration or having you contact their assistant. Accept the assistant's e-mail and send them a message that begins, "Doctor has requested that you follow this link and register for..."

This technique will work for any profession where an assistant may be available. Do, however, let the professional continue on his or her own if they so choose, and do let them into the site before the full registration has been completed, even if you can only offer them somewhat limited access.

  • Data aggregators & other service sites

The best registration is no registration at all., my favorite website of the year, has gotten as close to that as humanly possible.

TripIt is in the business of aggregating all your travel information and delivering it to you in whatever form you want, both on your computers and on your smart phones. Set up a trip on TripIt, and you will not only have immediate access to your entire itinerary on the web, you will have it on your calendars and any caretakers' and family members' calendars you wish to have access. Make a change on your rental car's website, for example, and it will be updated across all devices usually within four minutes, often in under one minute.

Wonder at what gate your plane will be? TripIt will show you. If that gate changes, TripIt, in my experience, will report that to you, via a text message, faster than the airline.

So what's TripIt doing in this article about registration? They have the most clever registration system I've encountered. Here are the two steps:

1) Take any confirmation e-mail for your next trip—airline, hotel, car rental, whatever—and forward it to (Best is something like your round-trip plane reservation as it has the start and finish dates of your trip.)

2) Go to, enter the e-mail address you just sent the forward from, the password of your choice, and click "Sign up - It's Free!"

TripIt will display your trip information that it has already drawn from the e-mail you just forwarded. What's more, you have just completed the full registration process, and by "full," I mean full. TripIt gleans from your forwarded e-mail all the pain-in-the-nether-region stuff like name, address, airline frequent-flyer number, etc., etc., etc. You are good to go.

Want to add more stuff to the trip? Just dump it in by forwarding all your other confirmations to It all just magically gets put in the right place.

I could gush about TripIt for an extended period of time, but I'll let you discover how TripIt can be made to show up and update automatically on you calendar, how, if you have an iPhone, you can access all that information fluidly using TravelTracker Pro, etc. However, this is an article about registration, not TripIt.

What TripIt has done is to make not only registration, but data-entry itself, simply disappear, but they haven't done so by denying themselves any information. They have only relieved the user of having to do all that typing.

The shopping checkout system used by Site B, wherein the user enters a fair amount of information, but with the incentive that this is leading to their immediate purchase, is good, far better than interjecting a registration process between the user and her merchandise, but even better still is coming up with a way, as has TripIt, to gather all that information automatically and completely without any user interaction.

Registration By The Numbers

  1. Eliminate registration unless there's a compelling reason
  2. Reduce registration to an absolute minimum
    1. Infer info from other data entered by user
    2. Infer info from other sources, a la TripIt
    3. Push back against excessive demands for data from other departments in your company
  3. Develop an irresistable "value proposition"
  4. Use Staged Obligation when necessary
  5. Don't throw away any info the user has entered
  6. Support AutoFill

I might have started, instead of ending, this column by mentioning AutoFill. It's that important, and so many sites fail to support it properly.

Your site must support AutoFill for all data-entry forms. IE is now down below 65% of the market; Supporting just it is not enough. You have to support AutoFill across a variety of browsers, but it must be tested and found to work on at least IE, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome. Depending on whether your company is willing to take the loss of, say, 1% of all your sales, you may want to support Opera, too.


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