On Identity

2008-07-18 20:00:00 -0400

I’m going to break up the Rubyfringe blogging for a minute to stump on a topic that’s close to our hearts here at Zetetic.

When it comes to building a new web application our designing decisions related to user accounts should be driven by a common paradigm: a user object should represent a real life human being. That user object can then be associated with any number of other entities. Fun! Flexible!

You can see this at play in our time-tracking app Tempo: every user has only one account, and can be associated with any number of other people’s projects. It’s a simple many-to-many relationship, a social network relationship really, and it seems like an obvious and straight-forward design decision — but that’s not how a lot of web applications work.

Many really good systems out there have made the decision to build their web applications around companies or organization and not people. From there, people are users in the company (as in “assets” or “resources”), and are walled off from other people in other companies using the same web application. In some cases they even log into different sites! This can require a real flesh-and-blood human being to have multiple accounts, one for each company they work with that uses the system.

This paradigm can provide some conveniences (although none of them unique to it other than the feature of company-as-corral), but it can cause issues in the real world when flexibility is severely limited by the “company” wall. If Tempo followed this paradigm, our users, many of whom work with many different companies, client, and subcontractors, would be at a real disadvantage having to maintain numerous accounts and log into different sites just to summarize their full monthly billing!

Many folks who are independent subcontractors or consultants love to use Tempo because it allows them to work with many customers and partners without having separate logins. They can log in and report on all their time from one place.

Social networking applications, however cliché it is to laud their innovation nowadays, are really paving the way when it comes to recognizing that organizations and companies are just groups of people. They are defined by relationships between people, not a fixed hierarchical structure where the organization is the center of the universe and people are bolted on ad hoc (or grown like leaves on the company tree)!

Consider how useful it would be to add groupings or private channels to an asynchronous messaging system like Twitter. Everyone on Twitter has their own account. Allowing people to join groups would be easily implemented (scalability issues aside). Now imagine Twitter being based on organizations primarily, and having to have one account for each organization. Ugly, right? And unnecessary.

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