Collecting the Internet So You Don't Have To

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The Smaller The Web Form, The More Likely It Will Be Used

Wil Alambre
Wil Alambre Senior Programmer
Visual Lizard
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As heavy internet users ourselves, we encounter forms all over the place. Registration forms, contact forms, payment forms, etc. Usually, getting to the form is a quick trip, a short easy-to-find link that appeals to our impulses. But as most web traffic analysis will show, only a fraction of the people who visit a form actually fill it out. What's happening?

Recently, Luke Wroblewski did a presentation at An Event Apart Austin. Though it focused on the growth of mobile applications, he covered a lot of good points on web forms and usability. His thoughts on the current troubles and recommended practices mirror the advice we regularly give to our clients...

The key is to reduce effort.

Studies have shown that smaller, simpler forms have resulted in an increase in submissions by site visitors. The shorter the form, the easier a form is to fill out, the more likely a visitor is to submit it. The more people fill out and submit forms, the better your form is at doing its job.

When constructing forms, we try to reduce them to their bare essentials. We take a look at the form and take out anything that doesn't have to be there.

Example of two contact forms, with a long one on the right and a shorter, concise one on the left
Which would you be more likely to fill out?

One good indicator is multiple fields marked as "optional". What these labels are saying is that this form is asking for more information than is actually required for submission. So if those fields do not need to be filled in what are they doing there?

Also, some information collected is broken up into multiple fields, such as names (commonly separated into first and last) and phone numbers (separated into area code, extension, etc). This is less convenient for a visitor, so why are they set up that way?

Sometimes it is done for validation in order to ensure good data is being collected. Sometimes it is done so the collected data can be easily filtered and sorted and listed in different ways. Sometimes it is to support some other system or process, either computerized or otherwise, that wants the collected data in a specific way. Sometimes it is to collect as much data as they can up front, because there is little guarantee it will be collected later on down the line. And sometimes, it is just to make the form look "right" or "standardized".

The trouble with all the above reasons is that they prioritize the needs of the owners and operators of the site over any benefits to the visitors actually filling in the form. We want to reverse this thinking. Prioritize for the visitors.

A person browsing to your site and filling out your contact form will not be interested if whether or not you can export all the form submissions as an excel file and sort them by last name alphabetically. Their priorities are not your priorities. They care that the contact form is asking for their first, middle, and last names as three separate fields, and that the contact form complains if any of those three fields are left blank. Do not make this an issue that prevents someone from contacting you. Prioritize for the visitors.

An eye-tracking study on four familiar, existing registration forms found that most visitors were "blind" to almost all "required" or "optional" indicators. People went into a form expecting to fill in everything. Oddly enough, some developers try to alleviate this issue by adding more text and more instructions and more design. They end up solving the wrong problem.

An example of this came to light in 2010, on one of Expedia's "buy now" forms. It seemed the optional "company" field was not only unnecessary, but was actually confusing their customers. The solution wasn't to make its purpose more obvious, but to recognize that it could be removed entirely. This minor change lead to more successful form submissions and a $12 million increase in annual profit.

When building web forms, we need to strike a balance between client requirements and general usability. We try to skew it towards the visitors needs since they are the target audience. The easier it is for them to fill out forms, the more likely they will fill out forms. Remeber this and your site will generate more submissions.