StackExchange Experience: The OpenID Conundrum

by Krishna on October 26, 2009

Using the new StackExchange platform opened for beta, a few friends and I set up a new cricket question and answer site. The site has been active for a few days now and it has been an interesting experience working with it in an admin role. I am a fan of StackOverflow, the programming Q&A site, but operating a StackExchange site gives you a different perspective and more insight into how other users behave.

One differentiating feature on StackExchange is the use of OpenID for registration. As a technical user, I like OpenID, because I don’t have to keep remembering the password for every single site I visit. A few clicks and I am logged in. What could be easier and more convenient than that? Everyone should use OpenID, right?

Not so fast. Here are some lessons from our experiences with talking to users who tried to use the site.

First, people have no idea what OpenID is. So they are confused and skip the registration step. People would feel less lost if you tell them, “Login with your Google, Yahoo! or AOL account” (and whatever other sites support OpenID). It won’t hurt to leave out the word “OpenID” itself.

StackExchange’s statement “Log in with OpenID” is more technically accurate than “Register with OpenID”, but it baffles users because they don’t understand how to register on the site. They don’t realize that a new account is created when they login with an OpenID account.

The standard expectation for users visiting a website is that they want to see a Login form (User name, Password and a Submit button), a “Remember Me” checkbox,  “Forgot Password” link and a “Register” link. The last takes them to a page where they can submit their information including an email for validation purposes. There is a lot of friction, but this is what users expect. When they see something different, they get antsy and don’t know what to do.

Users have been participating on the site (answering questions) without registering on the site, despite the fact that the OpenID link is available on every answer form. StackExchange (apparently) does not provide the ability to force users to register before they can answer questions.

I don’t have any data for this thought, but I also wonder if users who click through for Google’s OpenID authentication get spooked and wonder if they are allowing another site access to their Google account, which is not true. In the traditional registration mechanism, there is a clean separation between one site and the other and so this issue never comes into the picture.

From an administration perspective, there is another problem. Users who login through OpenID and do not update their profile show up as “unknown (google)”. We don’t have their name, email address or any other information as a means to contact them in the future. Strangely, the system captures more information from the unregistered users who answer questions.

In conclusion, OpenID is good in theory, but may be a little premature for non-technical audiences.


Gergely Orosz October 27, 2009 at 7:34 am

Thanks for sharing your experience. I'm setting up a portal aimed for non-technical users and was debating how much effort I should spend implementing OpenID - I had thoughts about users not really knowing what this is. I think I'll be cautious with this kind of implementation.

Krishna October 27, 2009 at 12:14 pm

Gergely, it is better to implement the standard register mechanism and then give knowledgeable users the OpenID option. Thanks!

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