At first I struggled to develop a compelling or sensible narrative for the talk — as there is so much to it that I could probably give a dozen or more 45 minutes talks on the subject. With some long-distance encouragement from Brynn, I eventually arrived at the topic I wanted to cover that lead to a conclusion that has largely been implicit in my work so far.
Prompted by posts by Randy Reddig and Tony Stubblebine and a conversation with Elliott Kember, I wanted to address, yet again, the big fat stinking elephant in the room: OpenID usability and the paradox of choice.
Elliott proposed a pretty clear picture of what he thinks OpenID should look like on StackOverflow, given the relative value of each provider to him:
Compare that to how it actually looks today:
I’m with him. I get it.
We’re at this crossroads where it really doesn’t matter which OpenID provider you use — because while it might save you the hassle of creating yet another password — there’s little else that you can do with an OpenID beyond that.
And, if you’ve already got more than one OpenID, not much exists to help you decide which OpenID provider you should use (many people tell me: “I hate OpenID! I’ve got like 15 OpenIDs and I never know which one to use!”).
So on the one hand, we’ve done a poor job of building out the value of using an OpenID, and on the other, have failed to explain what it means to have an OpenID (or several) or how to go about deciding which one to use and why (hat tip to OpenID Explained for taking a crack at it).
Meanwhile, there’s a tension between the convenience of having one reusable and durable identity against the desire to express many aspects of one’s identity with many separate IDs, resulting in complex user interfaces.
Fortunately, OpenID as a technology can serve both needs, but communicating and demonstrating that effectively has remained a challenge.
Putting OpenID in context
For my part, I’ve used the metaphor of credit cards to try to explain OpenID:
- Online identity is moving from its “cash and check” era to the era of “credit cards”.
Before the advent of charge cards, payment systems were decentralized — inefficient, cumbersome, and prone to fraud. There were a number of different, non-interoperable payment mechanisms that took 30+ years to get straightened out. Indeed, the credit card system that we take for granted today (so much so that airlines have moved to relying on them as the sole form of in-flight payment) only came about in the late 90s, a good 70 years after Western Union began issuing the first credit cards.
Imagine OpenID taking 70 years to get mass adoption!!
Taking this metaphor at face value, it’s clear that we’re in the neonatal stages of the build-out of the OpenID network and still have much work ahead of us. Fortunately, adoption cycles have also accelerated — I don’t have the actual numbers off-hand, but I can tell you that it took longer than four years to get the first 500 million credit card users!
- As with credit cards, you can have as many OpenIDs as you like for different purposes. I presume that common divisions will fall along work, personal, and affinity lines:
…and of course there are cases I’ve not even considered yet
- To close out this metaphor, picking an identity provider should be like picking a bank or credit card provider: as a fourth-party service provider that advocates for your interest, since you’re their customer! Today, to Elliott’s point, there are not many obvious differences between providers; over time, I expect this to change and for this relationship to become core to one’s experience on (and enjoyment of) the web.
Instead of agreeing to terms of service that disclaim all responsibility to you, the customer, I hope that competition in the identity space will lead providers to actually take responsibility for their services — charging good money for doing so. If your account gets hacked — no problem! — your identity provider can put back the pieces and make things right again! You could even take out online identity insurance in case your identity is ever stolen — so you can always get back to your life and recover your data without the hassle and interruption when it happens today.
Which credit card company would you give your business to? The one that automatically credits back false charges on your account and investigates them or the one that harasses you when you travel and presumes the worst of you? I know which one I’d pick — and I’d apply the same decision heuristics to whoever provides my online identity.
The OpenID “NASCAR”
Apart from confusion over having multiple OpenIDs, the user interface that has resulted from having many top-tier providers in the space also causes confusion.
Elliott’s criticism of the StackOverflow OpenID interface is really aimed at the noise of the brand logos displayed as buttons — intended to help people sign in using an account they already have. This kind of interface is what Daniel Burka refers to as the “OpenID NASCAR” because all the logos look like a NASCAR racecar covered with brand stickers, all jockeying for your attention.
He’s got a point. Since he’s logging in with his Google account, he really only wants a Google button:
For all he cares, it could look like this:
…and the result would be the same thing.
Indeed, it is this kind of lack of choice that makes Facebook Connect so seductively compelling.
It’s a frigging button. You can’t mistake it. If you argued that reducing choice increases the likelihood that the user will “get it right” and be able to sign in to your site, you’d be correct.
But, that kind of restriction of freedom of choice impairs healthy competition in the marketplace. And lack of competition is, generally, bad for the health of an ecosystem, and ultimately bad for the consumer.
The harmony in the Yin & Yang of Simplicity and Choice
Ignoring your actual preference for Coke, if this were the universal experience for buying soda, one might argue that simplicity and fewer choices are better:
But having choice is a better overall condition. Even when a popular brand is made more prominent, having alternatives means at least maintaining the illusion of control over one’s destiny:
So the question is, how can we simplify OpenID so that anyone can use it without reducing freedom of choice? Well, what if the backend technology was fundamentally interoperable, but every site simply supported a button, like this:
…and upon clicking it, a new window would pop open and you’d be presented with a box, in which you could type just about anything: an email address, a URL, the name of a social network, your phone number… heck, you could even type your name (and if you were signed into a site like Facebook that leaks basic aspects of your identity), you could select yourself from a list of names and photos and then proceed through the typical OpenID flow to prove that you are who you are, completing the sign in process.
One problem that I’ve observed with OpenID input boxes, to date, is that they look far too similar to another solitary but familiar input box. Namely — the Google search box! …where anything goes:
Given the training that people have learned from using Google, we must balance the need for simplicity with the ability to make an informed personal choice about which identity to present to a site. Needs which are, in many respects, at odds. Yet, the future of OpenID depends on us unraveling these issues and developing suitable interfaces that are streamlined and straight-forward that also enhance individual freedom.
With the recently approved User Interface Working Group, headed up by Allen Tom from Yahoo!, and with the involvement of folks from Facebook and other organizations, I’m optimistic that we will make considerable progress this year.
And that ultimately, no, OpenID need not be hard. Making it so just won’t happen overnight.
I don’t buy it. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the omission of vanity URLs on Facebook is an intentional design decision from the beginning, and one that I’ve learned to appreciate over time.
From what I’ve gathered, it was co-founder Dustin Moskovitz’s stubbornness that kept Facebook from allowing the use of pseudonymic usernames common on previous-generation social networks like AOL. Considering that Mark Zuckerberg’s plan is to build an online version of the relationships we have in real life, it only makes sense that we should, therefore, call our friends by their IRL names — not the ones left over or suggested by a computer.
But there’s actually something deeper going on here — something that I talked about at DrupalCon — because there are at least two good uses for letting people set their own vanity URLs — three if your service somehow surfaces usernames as an interface handle:
- Uniqueness and remembering
- Search engine optimization
- Facilitating member-to-member communication (as in the case of Twitter’s @replies)
For my own sake, I’ve lately begun decreasing the distance between my real identity and my online persona, switching from @factoryjoe to @chrismessina on Twitter. While there are plenty of folks who know me by my digital moniker, there are far more who don’t and shouldn’t need to in order to interact with me.
When considering SEO, it’s quite obvious that Google has already picked up on the correlation:
Ironically, in Dustin’s case (intentionally or not) he is not an authority for his own name on Google (despite the uniqueness of his name). Instead, semi-nefarious sites like Spock use SEO to get prominent placement for Dustin’s name (whether he likes it or not):
Finally, in cases like Twitter, IM or IRC, nicknames or handles are used explicitly to refer to other people on the system, even if (or especially if!) real identities are never revealed. While this separation can afford a number of perceived benefits, long-term it’s hard to quantify the net value of pseudonymity when most assholes on the web seem to act out most aggressively when shrouding their real names.
By shunning vanity URLs for its members, Facebook has achieved three things:
- Establishes a new baseline for transparent online identity
- Avoids the naming collision problem by scoping relationships within a person’s [reciprocal] social graph
- Upgrades expectations for human interaction on social websites
That everyone on Facebook has to use their real name (and Facebook will root out and disable accounts with pseudonyms), there’s a higher degree of accountability because legitimate users are forced to reveal who they are offline. No more “funnybunny345” or “daveman692” creeping around and leaving harassing wall posts on your profile; you know exactly who left the comment because their name is attached to their account.
Go through the comments on TechCrunch and compare those left by Facebook users with those left by everyone else. In my brief analysis, Facebook commenters tend to take their commenting more seriously. It’s not a guarantee, but there is definitely a correlation between durable identity and higher quality participation.
Now, one might point out that, without unique usernames, you’d end up with a bunch of name collisions — and you’d be right. However, combining search-by-email with profile photos largely eliminates this problem, and since Facebook requires bidirectional friendship confirmation, it’s going to be hard to get the wrong “Mike Smith” showing up in your social graph. So instead of futzing with (and probably forgetting) what strange username your friend uses, you can just search by (concept!) their real name using Facebook’s type-ahead find. And with autocompletion, you’ll never spell it wrong (of course Gmail has had this for ages as well).
Let me make a logical leap here and point out here that this is the new namespace — the human-friendly namespace — that Tim O’Reilly observed emerging when he defined Web 2.0, pointing out that a future source of lock-in would be “owning a namespace”. This is why location-based services are so hot. This is also why it matters who gets out in front first by developing a database of places named by humans — rather than by their official names. When it comes to search, search will get better when you can bound it — to the confluence of your known world and the known/colloquial world of your social graph.
When I was in San Diego a couple weeks back, it dawned on me that if I searched for “Joe’s Crab Shack”, no search engine on earth would be able to give me a satisfying result… unless it knew where I was. Or where I had been. Or, where my friends had been. This is where social search and computer-augmented social search becomes powerful (see Aardvark). Not just that, but this is where owning a database of given names tied to real things becomes hugely powerful (see Foursquare). This is where social objects with human-given names become the spimatic web.
So, as this plays out, success will find the designer who most nearly replicates the world offline online. Consider:
Ignoring content, it seems to me that the latter examples are much easier to grok without knowing anything about Facebook or Twitter — and are much closer approximations of real life.
Moreover, in EventBox, there is evidence that we truly are in a transitional period, where a large number of people still identity themselves or know their friends by usernames, but an increasing number of newcomers are more comfortable using real names (click to enlarge):
We’re only going to see more of this kind of thing, where the data-driven design approach will give way to a more overall humane aesthetic. It begins by calling people by the names we humans prefer to — and will always — use. And I think Facebook got it right by leaving out the vanity URLs.
Well, given Ma.gnolia’s recent catastrophe, we decided that episode 11 would dedicated to exactly what went down and why, and what lessons Larry has learned that others should heed in order to avoid facing a similar crisis.
I think the basic take-away is that, four years ago, when Larry started Ma.gnolia, your IT options were pretty much to use commodity shared hosting or to do it yourself. If you used Ruby on Rails — in which Ma.gnolia is written — your options were even more limited. And so Larry chose to do it himself.
Today, with services like Amazon S3 & EC2, Joyent Accelerators and Google AppEngine, reliable, scalable hosting is no longer as much a problem, as these services have risen to meet the needs of applications like Ma.gnolia. But these are services that Larry did not take complete advantage of and the burden of taking care of over half a terabyte of data eventually caught up with him.
All is not lost necessarily, and Larry hopes that Ma.gnolia will someday return, perhaps as an invite-only service to start, in order to give him time to earn back people’s trust and scale the service slowly. I’m also confident that he’s decided to completely outsource his IT, taking the lessons from this current situation deeply to heart.
This episode is also downloadable as an MP3.
Needless to say, it’s been a big week for the open web, with Facebook joining the OpenID Foundation and hosting an OpenID Design Workshop.
Above is the latest episode of theSocialWeb.tv called “An Open Discussion with Facebook”, filmed yesterday on location at Plaxo. John, Joseph and I talk about the week’s news with Dave Morin and Luke Shepard of Facebook, going into some detail about Facebook’s new emphasis on their open strategy.
OpenID Design Workshop
Luke Shepard and Dave Morin introduce the schedule for the day; individual attendee introductions.
Julie presents the design thinking behind Facebook Connect. Slides.
Max presents usability findings from research on connecting MySpace to other sites, like AOL. Slides.
A look at the history of OpenID interfaces, with insights into what people type “into the box”. Slides.
Eric Sachs and Brian Kromrey talk about their work implementing OpenID and present the new popup flow. Slides.
The results of the 2-hour OP breakout session.
The results of the 2-hour RP breakout session.
And there’s now video available from the conversation I had last week with Dave Morin on the inaugural episode of Jelly Talks:
The day after Facebook’s 5th birthday, I join David Recordon and the rest of the board of the OpenID Foundation in welcoming Facebook as our newest member, in rapid succession to Paypal just a few weeks ago. The significance of both of these companies investing in and becoming part of the OpenID family can not be understated.
I’m particularly excited that Facebook has joined after the conversation that Dave Morin and I had last Friday during our Jelly Talk. Dave and I were in vehement agreement about a lot of things, and tantamount was the need for the user experience of OpenID authentication to improve.
The crux of the issue is that with OpenID, choice is baked in, which is a good thing for the marketplace and ultimately a good thing for users. The problem is how this choice manifests itself in interfaces.
Facebook Connect is simple because there is no choice: you click a button. Of course, that button only works for the growing subset of the web who have Facebook accounts and want to share their Facebook identity with the web site displaying the button, but that’s why their experience trumps that of OpenID’s. If you take away user choice, everything becomes simple.
But I believe that we can do better than that, and that we can arrive at a satisfying user experience for OpenID that doesn’t necessarily have to dispense with choice. And from the sound of our conversation on Friday, and with Facebook’s membership in the OpenID Foundation, I believe that we now have a mandate to confront this challenge head-on, as a top priority.
To that end, Facebook will be hosting the second User Experience Summit for OpenID on February 10th. The goal is to convene some of the best designers that leading internet companies can muster, and bring them together to develop a series of guidelines, best practices, iterations, and interfaces for making OpenID not just suck less, but become a great experience (in same vein as the hybrid OpenID/OAuth flow that we saw from Plaxo and Google last week, and in line with Luke Shepard’s proposals for an OpenID popup).
Although Facebook has not announced any plans for implementing OpenID specificly, their commitment to help improve the user experience suggests to me that it’s only a matter of time before all of the major social networks, in some way, support OpenID. If there were any lingering doubts about the competition between Facebook Connect and OpenID, hopefully the outcome of a successful collaboration will put them to rest.
If you’re not familiar with Jelly, you should be. I call it the “gateway drug to coworking” — but it really has its own culture and identity independent of coworking, though both movements are rather complementary. Amit Gupta got Jelly started at House 2.0 in New York City back in 2006 (about two months after I initially expressed my desire to create a coworking space in San Francisco). Since then, like coworking, it’s grown into a self-sustaining movement.
Jelly! Talks is an interesting expansion on the concept — where Jellies distributed throughout the world can tune in to hear interesting and relevant talks and interact with speakers, similar to what the 37 Signals guys do with their “Live” show.
This first show I’ll be talking with Dave Morin about the relationship between OpenID and Facebook Connect — and where the two technologies are headed. This should be a pretty interesting conversation, since I’ve long tried to convince the folks at Facebook to adopt OpenID and other elements of the Open Stack (hey, they’ve got hcard already!).
Apparently the event is physically booked up, but you’ll still be to tune in remotely this Friday at 11am PST.
(Tip: The next Jelly! Talk will feature Guy Kawasaki).