Front Doors and Side Doors

by Todd

The design of an interface for account access sets the for the way we welcome someone into our work. Obviously that’s an important moment, yet across many sites we see an uneven treatment of first time and returning visitors that always frustrates but never gets fixed.

I’ve been calling this gray pattern (as in not good but not evil like a dark pattern) the Front Door/Side Door treatment.

New members get the front door: big generous buttons, inviting fields, helpful validation, and often fun quirks. Front doors are just so keen to have you come in. This is the right way to welcome people, but it’s usually reserved for those making new accounts.

Returning members are shown the side door: a hard-to-spot text link, usually crammed in the top right corner. It takes work to notice and get to. Then you usually get to wait for a page load to actually enter credentials.

The difference between joining and returning shows a serious demotion of status, and it’s common even on prominent sites with reputations for decent UX:

Basecamp sign-in

Basecamp does it

Mailchimp sign-in

Mailchimp does it

Dreamhost sign-in

Dreamhost does it

Stripe sign-in

Stripe does it

emusic sign-in

emusic does it

Compare that with Twitter, where returning members are given an equally strong welcome:

twitter sign-in

So why does this matter?

The issue isn’t so much a spot of questionable usability. Rather, it’s that it’s a symptom of taking for granted the people who already decided to throw in with you, to trust you, to use your service, maybe to recommend you, and even give you second chances when you slip up. Can there be any better reason to give them a first class welcome when they come back?

Making return visits better means giving a front door treatment to those people, and there are a few easy things we can do to make a return experience better:

These are small touches, but little things add up in ways that are hard to notice and measure, like ants at a picnic: if you don’t get on the little things quickly they’re suddenly everywhere and out of control and ruining your day.