Yahoo!: Mainstream Has No Idea what OpenID Is

By Josh Catone
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Yahoo! today released the results of the OpenID usability study (PDF). The good news, says Yahoo!, is that after being explained the idea behind OpenID, most participants saw the utility of being able to sign into multiple web sites using a single sign-on and not having to sign up for more than one account.

The bad news, though, is that not one participant — who were “several experienced Yahoo! users (representative of [their] mainstream audience)” — had heard of OpenID. Several didn’t notice the additional option of signing into Yahoo! using OpenID or using their Yahoo! username and password as OpenID credentials elsewhere and didn’t understand what that meant until it was explained to them. Yahoo! has supported OpenID since January of 2008.

Users were also confused by Yahoo!’s implementation, which asks them to choose their OpenID provider when signing then, then auto-populates the login box with that provider’s URL. Users were confused when they weren’t presented with the password box they’re used to.

Despite of seeing the upside of OpenID, some respondents to the Yahoo! survey expressed concern over the security of having one set of login credentials for a multitude of sites. “I’m a little fearful about global stuff. I prefer to have different passwords than one global one. Once someone gets that one password, they have free access to roam,” said one. Others thought that the process of signing up for an OpenID account was so cumbersome, it didn’t sell them on the convenience of the concept.

The key takeaway here is probably that even if OpenID is ready for the mainstream, the mainstream doesn’t seem to be ready for OpenID. It could definitely benefit from being simplified (in terms of both signing up and signing in), but the main thing that needs to happen for average users to begin to adopt OpenID is that it needs to be pitched in a completely different way.

Yahoo! advises that publishers “promote the utility, not the technology. To reach the majority of users who aren’t familiar with OpenID as a technology, promote the ability to log in using an existing account, not ‘OpenID’ itself.” Further, says Yahoo!, there needs to be strong partnerships between OpenID providers and relying parties in order for OpenID to work as a broadly accepted login paradigm. “Users are focused on tasks, not technology; undiscoverable or confusing experiences directly impact the success” of the providers and relying parties, says Yahoo!

The test results were disappointing for Yahoo!, said Yahoo! Membership Architect Allen Tom, but helpful. “Observing these tests was more than a bit frustrating for the Yahoo! OpenID team, and the test subjects may have been distracted by the sounds of the groans and head-pounding coming from the other side of the one-way mirror. Certainly there is a lot of work to be done on the OpenID user experience front,” he wrote in blog post.

OpenID is fundamentally a sound idea, but these test results demonstrate that for most users it is not an ideal solution and has not been explained to them very well at all.

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