Rub shoulders with leading experts and industry disruptors at TNW Conference →

Inside money, markets, and Big Tech

This article was published on September 17, 2008

    The right mindset for getting people to sign-up

    The right mindset for getting people to sign-up
    Ernst-Jan Pfauth
    Story by

    Ernst-Jan Pfauth

    Ernst-Jan Pfauth is the former Editor in Chief of Internet at NRC Handelsblad, as well as an acclaimed technology author and columnist. He a Ernst-Jan Pfauth is the former Editor in Chief of Internet at NRC Handelsblad, as well as an acclaimed technology author and columnist. He also served as The Next Web’s blog’s first blogger and Editor in Chief, back in 2008. At De Correspondent, Ernst-Jan serves as publisher, fostering the expansion of the platform.

    “If there is one problem that plagues all web applications, it’s the problem of getting people to sign-up.” If a Web 2.0 Expo NYC seminar is introduced with such a sentence, a blogger should know its place. Maybe he thinks other things are more interesting, like hanging around with start-ups. But when he reads about a problem the whole entrepreneurial part of his readership faces, he knows what to do. Go to the seminar, listen to user interface designer Joshua Porter how to fix it, and write about it on your blog.

    It’s not (all) about filling in forms

    Tricycles are Cool. on Flickr - Photo Sharing!Porter kicked off with discussing some sign-up forms and shared some lessons on how to improve them. Like explaining why people should fill in specific text-fields and resisting the temptation of gaining info that’s only relevant for advertisers. He also addressed a problem you might recognize: the captcha’s which keep becoming increasingly difficult. Porter: “In a few months, it will be a square box with just colors and you’ll have to make the letters up”.

    But then Porter quickly switched to the REAL problem. As it’s not about the simplicity of signing up, because – Porter quoted the inventor of the mouse – “if ease of use were the only requirement, we would all be riding tricycles.”.

    Are people motivated enough to care?

    The real problem is best explained as a hurdle between “interested” and “signing up”. Porter: “You need to convince people your start-up is worth their time, energy, and change of their behavior”. That requires another way of thinking. Porter addressed an article by John T. Goodville, which states that people tend to overvalue the software they’re currently using, software makers tend to overvalue the software they offer. “Why would I use a better calendar tool if I’m already happy with iCal?”, Porter said. People tend to love stuff they already own more.

    Three types of visitors

    Therefore, start-ups should adopt another mindset, namely the good old “what’s in it for the customer”. If you want people to sign up, design your page for three different visitor types:

    1. I know I want to sign-up – You don’t have to convince these visitors anymore, so focus on usability
    2. I want to make sure this is for me – Offer these visitors a very simple explanation of your tool
    3. I’m skeptical – Watch out for this one, he or she will need more and deeper information

    Strategies to design the perfect sign-up page

    Porter continued with elaborating on three strategies that will help you to design the best sign-up page possible.

    1. Immediate engagement!
    Show visitors the experience before they sign up. Fine examples of this are Geni and Netvibes. Signing up on Geni equals filling in the first branch of your family tree and when visiting Netvibes for the first time, you can immediately start building your start page. Want to save it for later? Sign up please.

    2. Provide levels of description
    To address the needs of the tree different types of visitors, build a start page that contains different levels of information. Like Freshbooks did on their “almost perfect” welcoming page.


    1. Short description
    2. Bam! Sign up instantly
    3. A somehwat more elaborate description
    4. Dig in even deeper

    3. Leverage social influence
    Show your first-time visitors that other people love you. So put up some testimonials and press reviews and, when possible, show a graph of user activity. If it works for other people, the service might also work for themselves.

    Basecamp has around 90 testimonials on their site, some of which are depicted on the frontpage. Porter: “After reading the fifteenth testimonial it’s really hard to get away with not being positive about it”.

    Jaiku shows a cool graph of their users all around the world. When you visit this page for the first time, you instantly get an idea of how active the community is:

    Jaiku | Your Conversation

    Twitter has a cool way of showing press reviews. They depict them as if they were written as tweets:
    Twitter: What are you doing?

    Do it Dr. Phil style

    The inspiration for Porter’s presentation came from his book Designing for the Social Web. So you might want to buy that if you liked this post.