Over a nice glass of Rioja in Barcelona in October last year, the ever-hungry Mike Timbers posed an interesting question to me: Why are we still using email addresses to log into websites? Maybe it was the wine, or the delicious tapas we were tucking into, but his question really got me thinking.
For a long time now, a customer’s email address has commonly been used as the unique username for their account on an e-commerce site. It is something that is most often unique to an individual, and we all have at least one of them.
Most of us have probably used websites which ask us to create a unique username, separate from our email address, and this is incredibly frustrating and almost impossible to remember. Using a customer’s email address also makes sense as it allows the merchant to send order confirmation emails, and to continue communicating with the customer through marketing emails.
So using a customer’s email address for login to an e-commerce website makes complete sense, then? Yes…maybe….not always….it really depends.
Email is still the undisputed king of digital communication. It can be accessed at work, at home, and on almost any device. Emails have subjects, can be sent to a group, made to look pretty, and can have files attached to them. Retailers send many billions of marketing emails to customers every year, and this is a vital part of their digital marketing strategy.
But isn’t it time we rethink whether it really is the best way of identifying an e-commerce user? The way we use technology to access the internet has fundamentally changed in the last ten years, but the way a user logs in to a website has barely changed.
The way we communicate with one another differs across each generation. It has been said that kids these days do not use email. This is not entirely true. They do have email addresses, and still use them for certain things, such as signing up to websites, or receiving information from school, but they don’t tend to use it to communicate with one another.
For inter-personal communication they use SMS, Snapchat, What’s App, Skype, Messenger, online games, or any number of other mediums, but email is too slow and not immediate enough. You can’t tell if someone is online, has read your last message, or see exactly when they are replying.
It seems clear that, as the kids of today become the adults of tomorrow, the use of email for interpersonal communication is going to reduce further and further.
Complexity of email addresses
Many email addresses are easy to misspell. As the likes of Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo gain more and more users, new email addresses naturally become more complex, as they need to be unique. Even those of us with uncommon names will struggle to obtain an email address that is short, concise, and simple to remember. The more complex it is, the harder it is to remember and spell correctly.
The other prevailing issue is that email addresses are not permanent. As you move companies, or even internet providers, your email address can change. If you get a new email address, you are not likely to go and update every e-commerce website account that you have. This results in a poorer user experience, and also in the reduction of value to the merchant of that email address.
Most of us are a member of at least one social network, whether it is Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Linkedin, or one of the many others that are available. An increasing number of e-commerce websites now allow users to sign in using a social media account rather than their email address.
The theory is that you can use one single login to authenticate yourself across multiple platforms. This can negate the need for a user to remember separate usernames and passwords, and also helps the merchant socially engage with the customer.
The huge surge in the use of mobile devices for e-commerce should be one of the key drivers to considering a change to the way users log in. Typing on a mobile is harder than on a keyboard, and is more likely to lead to misspelling of an email address. A mobile phone is already a very secure device, and users access it through a pin code or even touch/face ID.
If a user is accessing your website via a mobile device, it should be possible to identify and even authenticate them directly from the device. If it is good enough for banking apps, it should be good enough for e-commerce. Apple touch and face ID does not currently allow authentication on a website, but it is surely just a matter of time.
Another important aspect of mobile usage is that everyone has their own mobile number. It is generally easy to remember and, crucially, very rarely changes. My mobile number has not changed in over 20 years; since my very first mobile.
Whenever you move networks, you take your number with you and it is, arguably, a much better way of uniquely identifying yourself than your email address. Why not start using mobile numbers for e-commerce login as an alternative to email addresses? It is a lot easier for the customer to remember, is always unique, never changes, and a mobile number still allows the merchant to communicate with the user.
Give users the choice
It would be a very brave (and possibly foolish) merchant who would completely abandon email login. Email is clearly here to stay, and a user’s email address still has marketing value to a merchant. However, users should be given a choice of how they identify and authenticate themselves with an e-commerce website.
There is a good argument to allow users to login using a social media account or their mobile number in addition to their email address. At some point, I could envisage using your mobile device to automatically authenticate a website user, using something like touch or face ID. I am a big advocate of user-centred design, and providing choices and making lives easier only leads to a better customer experience, and, ultimately, more sales for the merchant.