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Web forms: Get them right and make more money

A web form is like a solid wall between you and your customer. The customer wants to buy your product. You want to sell your product. But in between there’s the form… and everyone hates filling in forms.

Making your forms easier-to-use can have a dramatic effect on your company’s bottom line. Jared Spool has written about a form redesign that increased a company’s annual revenue by $300-million. At Flow Interactive we have seen as much as a 125% increase in conversion rates with better form design. And Google thinks form design projects will have a much larger return-on-investment (ROI) than homepage redesign projects.

So how can you improve your forms?

Here are some guidelines, based on the most common issues we see in usability testing:

1. Your form design mantra should be: “Delete, delete, delete”

I have seen users battling through 30-minute forms in usability testing. They sigh. They roll their eyes. Some even break out a sweat. Most of them would not complete those forms if it was the real world. That means you don’t make the sale or get the signup.

There are two common problems:

1. Asking unnecessary questions
2. Asking users to enter the same information twice

You should delete every field that is not absolutely necessary. Do you really need to know whether your new customer is Mr, Mrs, Dr or Rev? Does it matter whether the customer is male or female? Every unnecessary field reduces your chance of getting the customer.

It’s not an easy job to hit that delete button when it comes to form fields. Different parts of your organisation will claim that different bits of information are absolutely essential. We tested a university application form that asked prospective students to enter their full academic and work history twice — because different departments needed the same information in different formats.

That means so much more than just deleting a field — that means you have to negotiate with different parts of the organisation to get everyone to accept a new way of receiving the information. Hard work. But simpler forms increase conversion rates and reduce calls to your call centre, and that is worth the effort.

Gowalla’s signup form: simple, short, and with excellent contextual help information, and it would have been even better without the birthday field.

2. Show the merchandise before demanding money

Imagine you are in a book shop in the real world. You walk through the shop, looking at different books and checking out the prices. Once you’ve decided what you want, you go to the cashier and pay for your books. This is how it should work in the online world too.

We’ve tested forms where users are expected to enter reams of personal information, or even type in their credit card details, before they have chosen what they want to buy. Before they have even seen how much it will cost! It’s akin to paying an undisclosed amount at the cashier before you’re allowed to look at the books.

People are very likely to abandon the form if they are being asked for detailed information before they have seen the merchandise. If you are selling a product, the first page of your form should confirm to the user that you know what it is they want to buy. Only then can you go ahead and ask them for their name and credit card number.

3. Tell people how long the form is

Let’s take an example from the real world again. (I like doing this, because online behaviour ultimately mirrors real-world behaviour.)

You’ve entered a mountain bike race across rocky terrain. You’re not particularly fit, and your bike is rubbish. At any point in the race, you can just abandon your bike and call your wife to pick you up in her helicopter. That’s our scenario.

Now, consider two different options:

1. You don’t know how long the race is going to be. It might be 1km, it might be 100km. There are no signposts to say how far you’ve gone.

2. You know the race is only 5km, and even though you’re fairly unfit, you think you can manage that. There’s a signpost every 500m to show how far you’ve gone.

Once you’ve gone about 3km and you’re gasping for breath, which race are you more likely to abandon? Of course it’s option one – the one that might be 100km, for all you know.

Form progress indication: a classic example from Amazon’s checkout process. It’s easy to see where you are, where you’ve been and where you’re going.

Forms are the same. If people know the form is five pages, they can see the end and track their progress. If they have no idea how long it’s going to be, they are less likely to start filling it in, and if they do start, they are more likely to abandon it in desperation.

Luke Wroblewski, the guru of form design, says you should indicate three things:

  • Scope: How long is the form?
  • Position: How far have I got in filling it in?
  • Status: Can I save it and come back later?

There’s a helluva lot more to form design. But based on my experience, I would say that addressing these three issues will get you a long way towards better forms, and higher conversion rates.

Even better – run a usability test on your forms. I can guarantee you will find it an eye-opener.

Author Bio

Debré Barrett
Debré Barrett is a User Experience Consultant at Flow Interactive. She advises clients on usability, user-centred design and communication strategy. She has a journalism degree from Rhodes, and spent many years as an online news journalist in South Africa and the UK. Before returning to SA in 2007, she... More
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  • Great article – I have found point 3 especially to be important – progress indication is key feedback to give a user whether they are filling in forms or completing any process on a website. You can often get away with much longer and in depth forms if your users feel like they know where they are and how much longer they have to go.

  • It's great to see suggestions that get to the heart of the issue: the amount of effort required by the form needs to be in balance with the reward that you get by filling it in.

    Debre's suggestion of cutting unnecessary questions works because it reduces the effort.
    Showing the merchandise before demanding information works because it shows that there is a reward available.
    Having a progress indicator works because it helps to reduce the perceived effort – less uncertainty, less pain.

    If you'd like more ideas about how to persuade people to fill in your forms, my forms advice web site has free articles and more links.