Registration: One Chance to Make a First Impression

In building new community sites, I think a lot about the new member registration experience. It is one of the only parts of the site that *every* new member experiences and making it friendly and effective gets things started on the right foot for you and the member. Here are some factors to consider, based on my experiences:

Usernames and Passwords:
The first thing a new member should do is create their own username and password. Don’t give them a random password and then make them hunt for how to change it. Make changing or creating a password part of the process. Once created, send them an email with their login info. This will save you support time later.

Required Info:
Some information must be collected for the site to run effectively. This usually includes a username, password and valid email address. Make the required fields crystal clear and don’t require too much information. People sometimes rebel against requirements and will fill your database with crap.

Optional Info:
Take a page from social networking and ask for optional information that may enable you, at some point in the future, to help members find one another. An example (among many) is zip code. By collecting zip codes, you have the raw materials you’ll need for hooking into a geo-location system or the ability to run statistical analysis on the membership. If you don’t *ask* now, you won’t be able to *act* later.

Make sure that all the registration info is editable by the user at a later date.

Verify email addresses:
You likely want to have valid email addresses in your database. The standard way of ensuring that emails are valid is to send the member an email based on the one they entered during registration and force them to click a link in that email. False email addresses will never be clicked on, so the registering member can be prevented from becoming a member (or have limited functionality). This can help prevent spammers and bots from entering the site.

Terms of Service Agreement:
No one reads them but lawyers and they may not help in court, but to be on the safe side, you should have an agreement and some way of ensuring that the member acknowledged it.

Get Them Started:
At the end of the process, point them to resources where they can get started. What often works is an "introduce yourself" topic. Other things could be the posting guidelines, announcements/news, etc.

Circle Back Often:
It’s easy to have a registration system in place and just let it run. However, you’d be surprised how quickly things can get out of date. Take the time to register as a new member every few months and look out for inconsistencies. What you called “Preferences�? before might now be called “My Settings�?, but never got updated.

Remember, the registration system is often the first interaction a member has with the site. You never get a second chance to make a first impression- think it through.