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Luke Wroblewski on the Most Common Web Form Mistake

03/03/2012

Web Form Design remains our best-selling title, and it’s not surprising—Luke Wroblewski took a topic that sounds painfully dry and made it a joy to read. And powerful too: poorly-designed web forms can negate much of your site’s value, but Luke’s book is packed with straightforward and often easy fixes.

We’re pleased to have Luke teaching one of our full-day UX workshops on web form design in Mountain View, CA, on March 6. This is your chance to learn with Luke in an intimate setting (capped at 50 attendees) at a reasonable price (the $495 early registration rate is good until February 10). For a preview of what Luke will cover, check out his workshop description and read the brief interview below.

RM: What’s the biggest mistake people make when it comes to Web form design?

Luke Wroblewski: Focusing on the layout or technical implementation of Web forms instead of their role in a conversation with people. In most cases, it’s the questions we ask and how we ask them that make or break form conversion, not a fancy layout or technical solution. Yet many teams will spend months designing and developing new Web form designs that ultimately don’t move conversion. A lot of this effort is probably better spent taking an outside-in look at the requirements in your forms. That is, seeing things from your customer’s point of view—not yours.

You can even go so far as scripting or acting out what an ideal conversation with your customer might be. For example, if you are offering home loans, a useful conversation might go something like this:

“How can I help you?”
“I’m trying to see if I can afford a home.”
“I can help you with that, is this your first home purchase…”

Whereas, a typical Web form conversation goes more like this:

“First Name”
“Umm ok I guess”
“Last Name”
“Phone number”
“Wait why do you need my phone number?”
“Agree to my terms of service!”

Clearly there’s a big difference between these two approaches.

RM: Are users really willing to have conversations with us? Don’t they take some comfort in the anonymity of interacting with faceless organizations through forms?

Luke Wroblewski: They are if they want what’s on the other side of the form and the conversation is clearly helping them get it. No one’s going to take the time to hand over a bunch of information unless they have some reason for doing so. The key to turning the process of collecting that information into a conversation is understanding that motivation: they want to buy something, they want to get a rebate, whatever it happens to be. When you know why people are there you can ensure your questions align with their goals or explain situations where people may think your requirements don’t. Even better, you can align your visual and interaction design with those goals too.

But if you are asking if people want to have actual back and forth conversations with personified paper clips, the answer is probably no. Thinking in terms of a conversation doesn’t mean you literally design it that way (though you can and I’ll be discussing that in the workshop!). It means you’ve thought about your requirements & process in human terms. Not just in terms of databases, marketing requirements, and legal mandates.

RM: So what’s the second biggest mistake people make with Web form design?

Luke Wroblewski: I may have been too kind in my first answer because I assumed that an organization actually takes the time to think about and carefully design their forms. More often, though, forms are just a label/input field version of the name/value pairs in a database. Many people don’t realize how much you can do to improve critical interactions like checkout, registration, and so on. They simply assume “a form is a form” and that’s it. There’s a world of optimization, science, and art that can be applied to forms to great effect, which is what this workshop is all about—not only what’s possible but the details behind how to do it.

Hope to see some of you at my workshop!