Monday 30 September 2013

Minimum-viable identity provider

What's required in a minimum-viable IDP (Identity Provider) in 2013?

When I talk about viability I really mean "competitiveness" and I suppose what I'm really asking is what does it take to get RPs (Relying Parties) to integrate and users to authenticate with an IDP?

The list of requirements below was first published in a presentation I gave at Over The Air 2013. It's the result of hundreds of conversations with RPs and user over the last few years.

Valuable accounts. Are the accounts attached to real people who have been SMS verified? Does the IDP fight off attempts to create fake and spammy accounts?

Security. Are the accounts stored using salting and hashing? Do users authenticate using multiple factors? Are precautions being taken to ensure that user accounts are protected?

Rich profiles. Does the IDP offer data that you can use to personalise your service such as profile data, photos and social/interest graphs?

Ubiquitous APIs. Does the IDP offer ReSTful APIs, native SDKs, client libraries in various languages and support for RTL languages?

Escape hatches. Does the IDP lock-in RPs and/or users? Can the RP obtain the user's verified email address so that the user has the option of using a different IDP with the same RP account? Is the RP forced to build their own post-registration flow?

Business model. Does the IDP make money or otherwise benefit from providing this service? Do they have a compelling incentive to stay in this business?

The final and most controversial ingredient is scale. Most people would say that all other things being equal an IDP with more accounts is better than an IDP with fewer accounts. I'd suggest that it's better to have accounts that are appropriate to the service the RP is trying to provide. For instance for Statigram the best IDP is Instagram but for the best IDP is Twitter and, of course, for any service that uses Google services (like Youtube, Android, Drive, etc) the best IDP is Google+.

The items listed above are just the necessary but not sufficient features of a viable IDP. Successful IDPs will still have to identify and provide additional value in order to get widespread adoption by users and RPs.

Wednesday 25 September 2013

Beyond the NASCAR

People in the identity world worry a lot about the NASCAR problem. 

They worry that showing a large set of buttons will hurt conversion rates (because of the paradox of choice) and confuse users who don't remember which IDP (identity provider) they used on a particular site+device combination. 

Stack Overflow NASCAR

I don't think that's a big problem nowadays. 

That's because we're down to a fairly small set of viable identity providers (henceforth known as IDPs). Most of the others are either dead(MyOpenId), new (Amazon Login) or only useful in specific niches (GitHub, Instagram, Tumblr, LinkedIn etc).

If we look at Stack Overflow's data we see that 5 IDPs are used by 98.6% of visitors but everybody has to deal with the cognitive load of choosing between the 12 buttons and 1 form field. 

Reducing the set of buttons to 3 would still give users a choice whilst reducing cognitive load. By cutting down to just these 3 IDPs they'd have covered the vast majority (in Stack Overflow's case 92.02%) of potential users of their site and greatly simplified the experience. 

However if you prioritise providing access for 100% of your users over providing the best possible experience for the majority then you have several alternative strategies available to you:
If your goal is optimising the percentage of users who sign-in and making sure those people get the best possible experience then here's what I suggest:

  • Use Google+ and Facebook buttons (there are also going to be scenarios where Weibo/Renren/VKontakte are appropriate additions). 
  • Then use checkSessionState() and FB.getLoginStatus() to find out if the user is already signed in to Google or Facebook. The mobile SDKs have equivalent APIs.
  • Then suggest whichever account the user is already using by putting that button first and/or making it bigger. 

We've even published a guide to handling the scenario where the user is signed-in to both IDPs and you can automatically bypass the sign-in screen. 

However there's still the situation where a user prefers different IDPs on different machines: for instance if they work in a company that blocks Facebook at the firewall or they prefer Google+ on Android but Facebook on iOS. For those users a naive NASCAR implementation leaves them with one account on your service per IDP. 

The easiest solution to is to ask for the user's email address and use that to correlate all the accounts they use to login to your service. That way the user never has to worry about creating duplicate accounts. Of course this does restrict you to IDPs who can offer a verified email address. 

The only IDP this excludes is Twitter. If you are using Twitter as an IDP then you'll have to either capture (and verify) the user's email address in a post-registration step. asking for email after using Twitter for identity

Sometimes you have to do things the hard way. Usually it's because you have large numbers of accounts with unverified email addresses (for instance if you used a standard OpenID IDP or used Twitter without capturing and verifying email addresses) or you're migrating users from one IDP to another. 

In that case you have to provide a 'connect flow.' This is where the user signs-in to your service with one IDP and you ask them to 'connect' with additional IDPs. Afterwards you know that the same person owns that set of accounts even if they have different email addresses associated with them. 

Connecting accounts on Soundcloud site

The heuristics above mean that the NASCAR anti-pattern doesn't have to harm conversion rates or UX.

If you'd like to learn more about this stuff I'll be attending Over The Air 2013 where I'll be walking people through examples of these heuristics in production and talking about the multi-device multi-platform post-NASCAR future of identity. Join me. 

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Why doesn't this blog allow comments?

Should your blog have comments? That's one of the perennial questions that every blogger faces. Are comments a way to bring in vital feedback from the-people-formerly-known-as-the-audience or are they merely a mechanism for enabling strangers to spew hatred and bile on a page with your name attached?

Not now

Historically my position has been "comments are bad, run away." My reasons included:
  • I really don't want to deal with spam. The only thing worse than having spam on your blog is using moderation systems that mean I have to read every spammy comment in order for you to get a better experience. I like you but I don't like you that much.
  • BuzzGoogle+ is a better conversational network than my blog. Every post on my blog ends up on my blog's Google+ Page as well.
  • BuzzGoogle+ also has the advantage that there can be multiple conversations by completely disjoint communities about the same blog post.
  • BuzzGoogle+ emphasises Real Names and Serial Identity. This means I can look at people's activity stream to see what they've been posting about, commenting upon and sharing. Of course, just because you're using your real name doesn't mean that you won't say or do things that I find objectionable but which your community finds laudable.
  • I agree strongly with Derek Powazek that your right to free speech stops where my territory starts.
  • I think it's a terrible idea to put everybody who has an opinion on a topic into the same room. That invariably leads to name-calling because they have so little common ground or shared vocabulary. For every person who understands the topic and wants to discuss nuances there'll be 10 people who would like a clearer explanation of the fundamentals. 
All of the above are good and sound reasons for disabling comments. So why have I just enabled comments on this blog?

The main reason is that I have new technology and I want to see if, just this once, technology can solve a social problem. The secondary reason is that I'm interested in aggregating the conversations around my blog posts. My hope is that this aggregation will help me discover people who are saying interesting and insightful things about what I've written.

I could be wrong but I live in hope.