Nobody Wants To Be Your Captive

Posted on November 4, 2016

‘Captive’ is not a happy word. Even within the relatively benign context of marketing, to be captive is to be restricted, to have no choice, to be subject to some kind of force. These are deeply negative associations, although useful in that they help us understand why ‘Captive Portals’ — which remain in widespread use as checkpoints between shared public Wi-Fi and the public for which that Wi-Fi is intended — are such negative things.

They were useful in the early days of public Wi-Fi, when access was largely for paying enterprise users on laptops. But as shared public WI-FI has transitioned towards a free service accessed primarily from smartphones, their continued presence is both anachronistic and inappropriate.

Some of these portals require users to part with personal information, some require questionnaires to be completed; some even ask their customers to login using their Facebook or Twitter accounts, revealing their entire social graph and more. Others ask their customers to part with their mobile phone number, so an access code can be sent back via SMS which they will then need to tap into another portal form.

These data gathering exercises put the ‘captive’ into Captive Portal; they are the point of its continued existence. But — because complexity kills usability — they are ultimately self-defeating.

Instead of dutifully forking over their personal data, as the captive portal requires, customers will often respond — both literally and figuratively — with an exasperated “forget it”. They’ll disconnect from the in store Wi-Fi, telling their phone to forget the network so they can escape the limbo into which the portal has sucked them. They will not be benefitting from the Wi-Fi, they will not be providing any useful information, and the establishment will have squandered an opportunity to communicate with their customers.

The more steps, or the more tiresome the steps, the less likely a mobile user is to bother. Even in the early days of public Wi-Fi the industry quickly realized that manually logging in through the portal web page asked too much of many laptop users (and a standard was developed to allow it to be automated). Yet retailers today still expect customers to tap in their email addresses and more, from their smartphones.

There is yet another type of complexity we are seeing regularly now, too: Some portals have changed from simple web forms into complex Javascript applications. That is a lot of development effort and testing to drive responses to a few simple questions.

Even worse, these applications are often loaded not into the user’s browser, but into a popup authentication web sheet. Those views may not have a cache (so all the Javascript code & other assets need to be loaded each time), and they often don’t support cookies, or other tracking options.

Furthermore, as soon as the authentication is done, that window is closed, and the store’s only channel to the customer is lost. The customer has no way to re-open that view later, even if they wanted to.

Now, you’ll sometimes hear the argument that captive portals — or indeed any kind of personal-data-for-Wi-Fi trade off — are legitimate uses of the ‘seam’ between the consumer and the network owner to exchange value. It’s an argument deployed against the idea of seamless connectivity to these networks, which is what the user always wants.

There’s no doubt that freely shared Wi-Fi provides an excellent communication channel between business owner and customer. But whether the seam is the best place for the interaction is by no means as clear.

Let’s look at another key customer amenity: the public restroom. Advertising and engagement have long been a feature of this amenity. Increasingly (at some venues, anyway) that engagement is multimedia and even interactive. Imagine that, as a customer with a need, you have to navigate the engagement process before you can access the amenity… The only seams you’ll care about then are the ones you’re bursting at. Not a great experience, right?

The same applies to Wi-Fi. Important as it is to the user, valuable as it is to the business, the most important thing is that the customer gets access in as fast and automated a way as possible. Given what they want, allowed to get comfortable, they’ll be more amenable to whatever message the venue wants to give them. Putting up a barrier, or luring them into a captive portal, simply creates a negative situation.

I resent having to give someone my email address just so I can access their Wi-Fi. But if I am connected to the Wi-Fi without any effort I’m prepared to read something which appears unobtrusively on my device —a lock screen notification containing a greeting and URL, for example.

I suspect I am not alone.