Usable User Accounts

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User accounts. Every site under the sun has one nowadays. What do you need to do to make a users experience as elegant and simple as possible? After all, fitting a users mental model (that is, meeting their subconscious expectations of how something works) will increase member retention and keep your guests happy. So let’s start with the basics:

Google describes a user account as:

(A User Account is a) representation of a user in an information system. A user account can be linked to a person or a group of persons.

While Wikipedia says:

Users in a computing context refers to one who uses a computer system. Users may need to identify themselves for the purposes of accounting, security, logging and resource management. In order to identify oneself, a user has an account (a user account) and a username, and in most cases also a password (see below). Users employ the user interface to access systems.

Crystal clear, eh? It may be easier to take a step back and focus on what a user account isn’t.

What a user account isn’t:

A User account is not a profile. Users expect to see their personal information but they also expect to edit that information. There’s a fine line between telling users what they already know about themselves, and informing them as to what the site knows about how they access it. If you’re planning an account section of your site, don’t repeat information that they will find elsewhere on the site. Users are looking for information regarding themselves, but not generic information.

A user account isn’t session-specific information. A user doesn’t expect to find the contents of their shopping cart or any other transient piece of information associated with their account. Could it be? If it’s possible, you could have your web application save that kind of information to a users account. Then if a user happens to walk away from the computer while using your site, they could pick up where they left off later, even from a different computer. uses a dashboard to give their users all of the pertinent information regarding a users primary objective: to buy goods.

What does this tell us?

From the above definitions and a little bit of exploring, we can conclude that the following features should be accessible via a user account:

  • Personal Information / Contact Information
  • Security Information
  • Links to member-specific content areas
  • Information users have
 uploaded to the site

Personal Information

A user will most likely look for private information in their account. Users who believe that their public profile is a little *too* public will be inclined to change this via their privacy settings. To this point, personal information should only be required if it somehow benefits the sites ability to serve the user. Keep in mind that only you know what information will help a user as they interact with your site; so try and only ask for this information sparingly. Further, when a user sees information about themselves throughout your site, they will need a way of differentiating what is being shown to them because they are a member of the site (and logged in) versus what is public information available to anyone. Always detail this difference as it can make the difference between a trustworthy application and an untrustworthy one.

Security Information

In addition to displaying and editing personal information, facilitate changing security preferences as much as possible. If a user browses to their profile in a social network and sees their embarrassing photos from the night before were made public, they may wish to censor themselves. Find ways to make this as painless as possible. A user will expect information regarding specific choices they’ve made to be placed in the account section of your site. Allow for the inevitable plea to undo mistakes.

Links to member-specific content areas

Sometimes the entire goal of creating an account on a site it to access information that is available to members only. If so, ask yourself: what is that content? Make sure the user knows what content or features are available to them as members of your service. The account section of a site should function as a sort of “member site map” — one which points users to parts of the site that they can access only via their membership.

Information members have uploaded to a site (photos, videos, reviews…)

I’m presently working for a company that recommends events to members. The recommendations are based upon how a user interacts with the events they find on the site. Users can express their like or dislike for a particular event, invite their friends, and more. In turn to interacting with the site, we would provide that user with personalized event/venue recommendations. As a user of this service, they would expect to find information about why the site is recommending them these events contained in their account. What information has/can the user provide to make the site work for them? This is the kind of information that should be asked for (and provided back to the user) in a user account: Information that helps the site and the user help one another.

So now that we know some of the things that should go in a user account, how can we help users access their account?

Provide access to a users account globally

A user expects for the choices they have made to propagate throughout the application. If a user changes their avatar in the account section, then anywhere else that user posts or interacts with the site, they will expect to see that moniker along for the ride. Keep this in mind. You may wish to employ inline editing to allow users to change their account information on the fly.

As a rule of thumb, allow users to quickly change any erroneous input they have made in the account section of the site. For example, consider the case where a user changes their home address to an incorrect one and then goes to a checkout page. The site in questions shouldn’t assume a user’s new address is error proof; it should read the user their new address back to them and allow them to change it at that time. Moreover, after this first error-proofing has occurred, that address can now be considered a safe destination for future orders. It’s small changes that like that make the difference between a website that “knows” it’s users and one that gives them the digital cold shoulder.

Dedicate a link to the account

Most users expect to access their account information via the top right or top left corner of your website, with the preference being the top right. Of five sites surveyed, all preferred the top-right-hand corner of their website.

Either use a “Hub and Spoke” architecture (have a landing page that links out to individual sections), or use a drop-down menu to give the user all of the choices at a glance.


User accounts provide a user with a “command center” from which they can administer their interactions on your site. When designing and planning the feature set of your user’s account, keep your users’ goals in mind.

The following practices make your user accounts more usable:

  • Inline Editing
  • Safe Editing (Undo features)
  • Reading a users account information back to them later.
  • Delete/Save/Export/Import Options
  • Security Features
  • A User’s history
  • A User’s content submitted into the system (reviews, comments, pictures, etc)

About the Author

Andrew Maier

Andrew Maier is a lifelong student of the design community who believes that creation and learning are synonymous. His current interests include security, law, cities, and autonomy. He lives in Washington, D.C., in Dupont Circle.


  • huwaw69 Reply

    1st to comment hahaha… where do the accounts made being saved?

  • Pieter Reply

    I am a fan of OAuth or Facebook Connect. These services let me manage my information for a lot of sites in 1 place. These features really should get implemented more often.

    Nice article.

  • Mauro Reply

    I’m currently at work and I’m defining the user preferences flow for an application.

    I had several assumptions and thanks to your article, now I do know that I’m in the right track.

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