Tell me, who do you love?

Something has been frustrating me, lately. When visiting sites, have you ever noticed that the “Sign up” button or link is vastly more visible and eye-catching than the “Sign in” button or link?

It’s intentional. What this says to me is that sites care much more about acquiring new users (and therefore new prospects for monetization) than they care about ease of use for their existing customer base.

What can sites do with new users? It depends on their business model. Let’s say they operate a “freemium” service, in that they offer a way to upgrade from a free, limited product to a paid, feature-rich product, or free users can pay to enhance certain parts of their experience. In that case, more free users means more opportunity to up-sell the premiums. If the service is entirely “free” but ad-supported, then more users means the potential for more ad impressions or clicks, which means more revenue. If the service is entirely “free” yet there are no advertisements, it’s very likely the service is run with altruistic motives monetized by selling the personal information and usage habits to third party marketing organizations. More users means more personal information, which directly translates into more revenue.

So, freemium, ad-supported, and data-mining-supported websites have a clear incentive to acquire as many users as possible, so they use psychology and UI design to push website visitors toward the results that the company desires. In the process, they are stabbing their existing users in the eyes every time one of them attempts to log in. This pisses me off because they are clearly prioritizing people who could generate revenue over people who are already generating revenue for them. In some cases, these are sites I am directly paying or sites that my employer is paying on my behalf. That irks me. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I believe that these sites should care more about their existing user base and customers than their prospects.

Gregory Conti talked about this idea in his 2008 HOPE talk “Evil Interfaces: Violating the User.” The basic idea is that UI designers can induce bias in their user base by the way the user experience is designed. Examples:

  • Gas station pumps can ask a series of yes/no questions which will predictably have a “yes” answer, then ask if the user wants to purchase a car wash. The user may be fatigued enough to answer “yes” by habit rather than because the user actually desires a car wash.
  • User interfaces can ask a series of questions and place the expected, routine answer in the same location each time, then ask another question and place the desired answer in the same location. For the same reasons as above, the user will be biased toward clicking that answer.
  • User interfaces can present multiple options for the user’s consideration, but style them differently, making the actions that the UI designer prefers (the ones that generate more revenue) more attractive, and making the actions that the UI designer wants to suppress appear less attractive, or perhaps style them so differently that the casual user will not associate them as an option. I have seen this many times in Amazon, where the option to upgrade to a free trial of Prime is a yellow button in the lower-right corner of the screen (where options to advance are usually placed) during the order process, and the other option “No, thanks” is a blue link to the left of it, in a smaller font. They’re so radically different I wonder how many people take the time to read and understand that they are both options for the current transaction.
  • User interfaces can offer a (seemingly) one-way path to the desired result. In Amazon, adding items to your shopping cart and removing them are both easy. However, once you move from your shopping cart to placing an order, there is no “back” button as part of the UI of the webpage to return you to Amazon or to your cart. You must either place the order, use the “back” button on your browser (which many sites tell users not to do during order placement–I wonder how that affects their long-term perception of using the “back” button on other sites), or manually return to the Amazon main page by entering “” into the URL bar or clicking a bookmark.

I’m not particularly worried about myself, since I am well-educated and perceptive enough to recognize these situations and know what to do, but I do feel violated a little bit every time I see a site try to use one of these tactics on me, and it makes me want to just stop using them out of principal. Unfortunately, I can’t.

They have what I need, even if they stab me in the eye while they offer it to me.