The 3 levels of user authentication

Jan 09, 2012

Table of contents:

  1. Traditional sign up
  2. Social graph
  3. No sign up or pseudo-anonymous

Whilst writing code for Helplist, I began thinking about the different levels of user authentication that have been widely adopted in modern consumer facing web applications. I believe you can generally segment them into three areas; traditional sign up, through an existing social graph, or an open platform like 4chan. Here are my percieved benefits and drawbacks of each user authentication system.

Traditional sign up

The traditional sign up allows you, as the web creator, to build a complete profile of the user from scratch. This could involve real names, email address, user websites, likes and dislikes. The advantage of that is, you start to build up a wealth of valuable data about your users. This gives your web application value as you can then use that data for targeted advertising or various other monetisation methods that rely on data insights.

The main drawback of the traditional sign up is, it has the greatest level of friction for the user. Signing up can often be off putting, especially if you need to first sign up before getting access to the web app. Email verification can often fail, and so if a cold user is presented with a sign up form in order to get access, you increase your chances of losing that prospective user.

Other advantages of the traditional sign up are;

  • Less spam
  • Validation and credibility
  • Community and peer respect
  • History of user actions
  • In depth insight into user behaviour

Social graph

The rise of Facebook and Twitter have created a new form of sign up using “The Social Graph”. This is when you use a service like Facebook or Twitter to sign into a completely separate web application. The advantage for the user is, you don’t have to make a new profile from scratch as your profile picture, email address and friend connections can all be brought straight into the new web app. The advantages for the app creator is that you can piggy back on the success of Facebook and Twitter and use existing user relationships to attract more users.

The disadvantages for using a Social Graph are that you lose the ability to build value within your application around your users. Although it is possible to build on top of the imported data, by standing on the shoulders of an existing service, I believe you lose the big advantage of the traditional sign up.

No sign up or pseudo-anonymous

The Internet has always been a place in which you can create a new identity that is completely separate from your real life profile. For many years, this anonymous type profile was the norm. Facebook, amongst others, have shifted our perceptions of the online profile to reflect our real identity, but there still is that need for services that rely on a username rather than your real identity. 4chan takes this a step further by not requiring you to sign in to post at all. The obvious advantage for this method of sign in is it will appeal to people who don’t want to use their identity, or if you allow people to use your app without signing in, then the lack of friction will greatly increase the likelihood that a new user will engage.

The disadvantages of this method are that you might get more spam, troll usage or generally bad content because the user can’t be held as accountable in contrast with if they were using their real profile.

Philip Brown


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