If there’s one thing I’ve done more than anything else in my adult life, it’s move.

I’ve lived in Florida for 12 years now, and I’ve moved 12 times.  Twelve different domiciles. Twelve different apartments, condos, houses, rooms.  Twelve different instances of gentle persuasion of my closest friends (with trucks).

I’ve learned  a thing or two about getting people to help me.

You’ve got to butter the bread before you take that bite.  The whole, “you catch more flies with honey” argument.

You ease people into it, feel them out a bit, introduce the idea slowly.  Warm them up to the day, the event, the desire to help you out. Their good feeling or alcoholic/pizza-related reward.

Asking folks to sign up for your web service is very much the same.

Your visitors are a little wary when they first show up. They’re familiar with (and exhausted by) the dozens of junk emails that come with filling out that “email address” box on any web form, so they’re going to require a little get-to-know-you time before they give it up.

Their trust has been hammered by spam, by pop-ups and endless e-newsletters.   They want to trust you, but you’ve got to show them that you’re worthy.   Lead that horse to the water, and hope that they’ll drink.

Warm them up with gradual engagement

Gradual engagement offers a way for you to introduce yourself to your visitors slowly, without offending or scaring them off too soon.  It can take a couple different approaches.

First, if you’ve got an app that offers behaviors and functions, you show them the best pieces of your app – or the essence – of your app. Give them a taste.

If your app requires input from the user, like a travel search site or accounting software app, you only request from your visitors what you absolutely need to be able to introduce the core functionality of your service.  Reduce their cognitive processing requirements and the perceived complexity of your app.

Get rid of the sign up form, and give users a way to get engaged.

Yes, the goal is still to get as many folks signed up as possible.  That hasn’t changed.  But the approach ensures that your registrations are qualified, eager and ready to use your product.

Before a user is even asked to register, they are able to understand how they can use your app and why they want to do so.

That’s right: gradual engagement doesn’t just get people using your app right away, it also shares with them the features and benefits of your app, while they’re engaged.  It’s not about streamlining or refining the process, it’s about actually moving some of the useful, fundamental aspects of your app outside the registration gate.

How to define the essence of your app

Grooveshark is a great example – and most of the other music services have followed suit.  Without asking for an iota of personal information, Grooveshark offers new users the ability to explore their web app, play music, discover popular playlists and get to know the service.  The essence of their app is the ability to share and discover music, after all.

When you want to start saving songs to your own playlists, when you’re ready to start sharing your own music, you’re asked to register for a free account.

When you’re fully convinced that the app is your very favorite and you don’t want to hear any more ads, or perhaps you want to use their mobile services, you’re asked to sign up for their very affordable monthly service.

Kayak offers a very simple form to get you deep into their search results quickly, while knowing that there are dozens of other important decisions you’ll need to make before they even get to their sign-up form.

They only ask for the very bare minimum they need to show you what they can do.  See how easy it is?  There’s literally nothing else on the page to confuse you.  You’re there for one purpose:  to book travel, and that’s what they’re offering you.

Many apps allow you to create or play to your heart’s content, but if you want to save that work or share it, you’ll have to register.  Some allow you to browse and explore, but reserve premium features (the true value of their unique web service) for registered users.  This is truly a question that depends on your service, your revenue model and your information architecture.

Where to begin?

Think about what the very core functionality of your service is, and then move your registration process somewhere halfway into that functionality.  Give users enough ability to actually get familiar with your app, but make them register before they get access to the full value of what you provide.  Or, if your app is dependent upon user input, ask for the very bare essentials before showing your hand, and only ask for registration once the user has committed to your service.

Gradual engagement is less of a development issue than an information architecture issue.   Determine the very bare minimum amount of information you need from your visitors to give them a taste of what you have to offer, and move your sign up process behind those functions.  Let them create something and before saving it, show them your registration form.  Let them buy something, and ask them to register during checkout.  Let them browse, but withhold valuable, premiere content for those who register.

I’m glad that in 2012 (4 years after Luke Wroblewski’s Sign Up Forms Must Die article on A List Apart), web service developers are starting to understand – but now it’s time we sell the idea to our clients, who are so blinded by the almighty “registration” (read: email capture) that they have a hard time seeing the bigger picture of long-term sustainability.

Facebook and Twitter connect buttons during the sign up process have certainly helped simplify the sign-up form, but I think we can do better in many cases – and most notably in mobile apps where sign-up can be cumbersome.