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Web Site Usability For Improving Online Forms

You’ve heard it said a hundred times. Search engine marketing leads to a dead end if the web site isn’t designed to deliver what it promises. Many an anchor text, meta description and advertisement text have sent users into a house of horror because the landing page is a complete disconnect from what was marketed. If your data shows visitors stayed on the landing page and entered a conversion funnel, only to get an abrupt bounce somewhere along the line, something has gone wrong. A web site usability audit can flush out most issues. So can user testing. But, many usability testing companies don’t offer forms testing. They don’t test shopping carts, online applications or forms of any kind. Functionality, performance and error message testing are not tested or they’re done on a limited scale. Based on the enormous volume of user complaints, Internet software applications are not tested for usability and user experience.

I’ve debated with site owners the logic of requesting phone numbers and addresses for certain types of web site forms. It’s my feeling that some forms are intended for quick user interaction with the least amount of hassle. However, I’m often corrected by site owners who believe that all forms are sales lead forms and thus, must request personal information. Not even a simple email subscription is spared. Why would anyone want a home mailing address for an email subscription? Marketers do. They have little sympathy for web site visitors.

Some industries are more likely than others to want a blood sample from visitors who stop by. Real estate web sites are notorious for the “tease and toss” type of form. They’ll let you browse and search for homes by price, town or how many bedrooms and show you six glossy, professional pictures from the property as the teaser. When you fall in love with a house and click “learn more,” you’re presented with a form that asks for your name, phone number, address and email address. This allows the real estate agent to call you.

Meanwhile, their phone number appears five times on each page and underneath every picture and house description. If a site visitor wants to make phone contact, they can call when they wish to. Some people will, if presented with enough information beforehand that interested them.

I’m told those forms that require personal information to obtain information are high performance sales lead forms. Conversions are measured by the number of incoming calls. Imagine, I tell them, what could happen if they make enhancements to the form to make it more user friendly? Could they be invited to download home specs or tick an “I’d like to make an appointment” box rather than be forced to wait for a phone call that may come when they’re not home?

One company has a nifty setup consisting of a web based application and a call center. The application itself is presented as a mystery. They don’t provide information beforehand regarding how long it will take, if anything is needed to complete the form or what happens after the form is completed. The first field gets their name, address, email and phone number. If at any time during the application the site visitor abandons the process, the company still has a way to contact the user. And they do. Their call center calls the number and asks for whoever started the form. They inquire as to what went wrong and would they like to finish it over the phone?

Below are some heuristics you can apply to your web sites. No form is too small or too large for abandonment because humans are unique. If you built a web site based on only one mental model, there’s a good chance you’re missing out on conversions because your web site design is limited to one set of end users. The best forms are considerate and helpful.

Findability, Funnels And Functionality

1. Place your form above the page fold. Its size will determine whether it goes into the left or right sidebar or can be worked into the main content.

2. Avoid keeping forms inside a template. This means a form appears on multiple pages within a site, regardless of the purpose of the page or any different tasks a page is intended to focus on. You don’t want “form blindness” (similar to “banner blindness”).

3. A form, application or cart is an activity. They take site visitors away from browsing, searching and reading. Will your form be a distraction?

4. Sometimes a homepage will have a small newsletter or blog sign up on a sidebar and that’s the only moment it appears. Or, it appears on a random page. Site visitors need a lot of help remembering where you put things. Hide and seek forms are no fun.

5. Certain applications call for different funnels that may start on the homepage and branch off into sections of the web site. In the case of online shopping, such as clothing or computer hardware, the browse to order funnel can be highly specific. Communicate “sense of place” to users with comforting content and detailed navigation structures. The longer the funnel, the more chances for abandonment.

6. Upon completion of a form, direct site visitors back to interesting areas of the web site. A surprising number of forms are dead-ends.

7. Error messages should appear at or near where the error has occurred, with clear instructions on how to fix it. Avoid all caps and the color red. Be polite. Errors are usually the web site’s fault, not the users.

8. Avoid errors by indicating how you wish data to be entered. For example, show how phone numbers and credit card information should be entered by offering an example.

9. If you want accurate information, program your forms or applications to accept only accurate information. This means a phone number field should only accept numerical data. Fields like name, some parts of the address and some types of zip codes should only accept alpha data. Try to prevent bogus data from being accepted. Many forms fail this test and don’t display error messages for bad data (I’ve made reservations for alien life on Jupiter and gotten away with it).

10. If a form generates an error, only that specific area and page should be presented for correction. Don’t erase the entire form and force your site visitor to start all over again.

Tease And Trust

I’ve been testing forms and Internet applications for years and sometimes programmers crack me up. My favorite stand-out was a functionality and user interface issue with a reservation site that claimed to book hotels, motels, vacation rentals and camping reservations. No matter how hard I tried, every time I tried to book a camping trip, it would send me to hotels. Were they tracking camping conversions? Did they do any functional testing?

11. A surprising number of forms or applications don’t do what they say will do. Or, they seem to until you try to enter data. Be sure your form does exactly what you claim it will do.

12. If your form requires phone numbers because the intent is to call the user back, be honest and tell them so. This is a sign of good customer service.

13. “All fields required” can be overused. Is it necessary to require Mr/Mrs/Ms? Or request a fax number? Be sure any required fields are marked as such. Error messages are not a polite way to let anyone know what fields are required.

14. Confirm email and password fields are known frustration points. Most people cut and paste, so requiring someone to enter data twice may not catch errors.

15. Offer a choice for means of contact. Don’t require both an email and phone number. This is an abandonment issue. Ask “how would you like us to contact you?” and let them decide. If you must require a phone number, ask “when would be a good time to call you?”

16. Time is precious to web site visitors. Don’t underestimate time constraints. If a form takes over a minute to fill out, let users know how long it will take. Shopping carts should indicate steps in advance and tabs should appear during the process indicating where they are and what will happen next.

17. There’s something fishy about a form for an email subscription that asks for a home address and phone number and people know it. Don’t ask or require personal information you have no use for.

18. Site visitors are smart. Some know to look for “https,” read privacy policies, want privacy statements and will jump off any online activity that spooks them. Add comforting content and user instructions. Place your contact information close by for those who are nervous.

19. Some of the most frightening form-entry experiences are online reservations. The more functionality that is added, the more chances the user will get confused or lost during the process. The better ones break the process up and take it step by step by step, and then tally all information up at the end. They offer signals back to the user to show when something is happening. Remember that human behavior online is different. There’s a lot to remember in some of the longer forms, and many choices to make. People are often distracted, on dialup, sight impaired or in a hurry.

20. If you offer catalog, brochure or newsletter orders, subscriptions or downloads, offer an example of what a user will get. Forms don’t miraculously convert. Help people along with information. Is it a PDF download and if so, how big? How often does the catalog come in the mail? What does it look like? What format is the newsletter? Are there archives?

Fancy And Fuss

I’m going to direct you to an article I really enjoyed on the topic of forms design. It’s called Fashionable Web Forms: Traps and Tips by Jessica Kerr. In it, she addresses the latest fads in forms design and how sometimes “clever” design interferes with the user experience.

One of the most common layout issues I find during testing is the lack of alignment of fields, field labels and buttons. Many times the submit button is far off and away from the data entry area, or a tiny button is used to activate a form. The best forms are short and have one purpose. In the case of one form fits all, it’s best to offer a drop down menu of related topics. In one recent case I tested a contact form that was to be used for customer service, sales leads, various types of specific information and web site problems. The form required name, address, email and phone number. I cited this as an issue because when submitting trouble with a web site, there is no reason to require someone’s home address or phone number. That type of feedback form should be separate, brief and non-invasive.

Testing Forms

Abandonment is tied to user needs. Can users pay by credit card, or will you accept PayPal instead? For some online forms, documents are needed to complete the form. Do you let users know in advance what they need so they don’t need to leave during the process?

If you’ve invested hundreds or thousands of dollars into PPC, ads, paid links, search engine optimization and social media marketing and have high bounce rates it’s time to test sales funnels. If sales are dependent on the completion of a form, cart or application, be absolutely sure it passes usability, user interface and performance testing. When hiring for user testing, be sure people complete tasks that require interaction with applications.

There are all kinds of online application forms, from government forms to shopping coupons to online services like tutors, nannies and freelance workers. Application forms are works in constant motion, so there are rollbacks, corrections made, new sections added, another rollback, and if communication falters at any point, the end result is a form that presents users with challenges. Be competitive by making sure your forms perform as best they can.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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