Log In or Sign In? What I found surprised me.

Log In or Sign In? What I found surprised me.

I’m opinionated about technical vocabulary. Whenever I see login used as a verb, it’s like nails on a chalkboard. Log in is an action, while login should only be used as an adjective (“login information”) or a noun (“your login was unsuccessful”), if at all. When I wrote a documentation style guide for my organization, this was the first rule I thought to address.

This distinction seemed obvious to me, but what about log in versus sign in? My interest was piqued when I noticed that Google, along with other notable customer-focused brands like Slack and Apple, used sign in. In Homepage Usability (2002), Jakob Nielson and Marie Tahir expressed a preference for sign in. Were companies finally catching up?

My gut reaction was that log in had become old-fashioned…Was I right?

My gut reaction was that log in had become old-fashioned. Occasionally, while writing documentation, I thought it sounded overly technical, or I felt like I was summoning the Log Lady from Twin Peaks.

Was I right? Is the tide turning? Should I consider switching to sign in? Let’s take a look.

What’s the origin of these phrases?

Wikipedia has an informative summary of the origin of both phrases, and they are surprisingly similar:

“Computer systems keep a log of users’ access to the system. The term ‘log’ comes from the chip log historically used to record distance travelled at sea, and recorded in a ship’s log or log book. To sign in connotes the same idea, but based on the analogy of manually signing a log or visitors book.”

What do companies use, and is there a trend?

My quick observation:

  • The “Sign In” camp: Gmail, Apple, Amazon, Slack, Skype, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Stitcher, Workday, Uber, Adobe, Expedia, Hotels.com, Orbitz
  • The “Log In” camp: Facebook, Twitter, Trello, Jet, Basecamp, Instagram, Reddit, Pinterest, WordPress, AirBnB, Lyft, Snapchat, Tumblr
  • The “Login” hall of shame: Salesforce, Feedly

Going into this exercise, my hunch was that newer companies would gravitate to sign in. Not so! a quick count showed fairly even representation for both phrases. Even Snapchat and Instagram, darlings of younger generations, use log in.

My hunch was that newer companies would gravitate to  sign in. Not so!

I also suspected that companies might have switched from log in to sign in over the last ten years, but that too was false. Digging through web archives reveals that most picked a phrase and stuck with it.

What do people prefer?

While it can be useful to rely on the wisdom of the big players, what do their customers think? I briefly polled more than a hundred friends and coworkers, randomizing the order of the phrases to avoid a bias. The result surprised me: my respondents were overwhelmingly in favor of log in at a ratio of 7:3!

My respondents were overwhelmingly in favor of log in at a ratio of 7:3.

I thought younger respondents might prefer Sign In, but it was just the opposite: my 18-25 group all voted log in. My study was less than scientific, but the results were relatively consistent among age groups and sources.

In conclusion…

Given the even representation of both phrases among newer companies and my contacts’ preference for log in, I don’t see a reason to switch from log in to sign in.

In fact, I even found an advantage of log in: it’s easier to distinguish between log in/sign up than sign in/sign up. Several survey respondents pointed this out, and it’s more obvious when you see it in action (at left: Twitter and LinkedIn).

Of course, if I were choosing language for a new effort, I’d go with register/sign in as this 2011 article astutely recommends.

I’m going to stick with log in…for now.

In conclusion, I’m going to stick with log in…for now. To me, sign in still sounds more friendly, and if I were working with an organization starting with a blank slate, I’d recommend it. But currently, I don’t see a compelling enough argument to switch language in hundreds of articles. It’ll be interesting to check back in coming years and see if preferences change.

As a writer, have you made a conscious decision between these two phrases? As a consumer, do you have a strong preference? Why?

Originally published on LinkedIn

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