It was all going so well. I was running a forms workshop and we’d found lots of things to think about in the selected form. Then one participant said, sadly: “But we’ve got hundreds of forms like this”. Which led to me thinking “When there are so many somewhat broken forms to choose from, how do we pick?” – and here we are.
To fix a form, start with watching people
However you pick the form to fix, you’ll be doing the same sorts of things:
- Watch someone who has to fill in this form as they fill it in. Take notes. Do something about what you find.
- Watch someone who has to deal with this form when it reaches your organisation. Take notes. Listen to what they say about forms that are easier to deal with or harder to deal with than this one. Do something about what you find.
- If you absolutely cannot find a real person in either of those categories, find anyone to help you. Write a ‘once upon a time’ story together of why someone would have to fill in this form today and how they might feel about it. Then fill in the form together, as honestly as you can. Take notes. Do something about what you find.
If you can, try to repeat with another 3 to 5 people – ideally, some of them will be people who have disabilities or some other reason why your form might be tricky for them. And mix and match: watch some people who have to fill in the form in real life and some people who have to deal with it.
Now we’ve worked out what we’ll do with the form we choose, let’s think about how to pick.
“But we’ve got hundreds of forms like this.”
1. Pick the form you happen to be working on now
My first choice is always the one you’re currently working on. Maybe it’s having an annual update. Maybe it’s new. Whatever. Forms are tricky and I’ve rarely seen one that couldn’t be a bit better. Why not this exact one you happen to be working on today?
2. Pick the form that has the highest usage
You can only work on one form at a time, so another obvious choice is the form that gets used most frequently. Improvements to that one will help the largest number of people.
3. Pick the form that creates the biggest problem for support
Sometimes the form with the highest usage happens to be relatively easy. For example, on many websites the login form gets used far more often than any other – but (providing you have a sensible method of helping people to find a lost username or password), it’s a straightforward form that doesn’t create too many difficulties for the people who use it.
So another option is to find out which form is creating the biggest hassle for your support team. For example, go to listen to support calls – and while you’re there, you can watch people dealing with your forms (remember ‘the sorts of things you’ll be doing after you pick’ at the start of this post?) so you’ll already be ahead.
If you already know something about support – maybe, the number of calls to the call centre but not the exact topic – then go ahead and pick the form to fix on what you already know. It’s better to get started on fixing any form, getting it launched, and then picking another one than spending ages perfecting your “call centre data model”.
The advantage of picking according to support problems is that you’ll start to get cost savings really quickly. Those support folks are expensive – we want them to be able to use their time helping people solve real-world problems, not dealing with difficulties we’ve created with the design of our forms. And, the people who have to fill in those forms will be a lot happier.
4. Pick the form with the worst conversion rate
“Conversion rate” is the percentage of people who successfully get to the end of the process that the form is part of compared to the number of people who start. Let’s say you’ve got a specialist e-commerce website for broken watches. People put broken watches into their shopping basket and then check out. If today 257 people clicked ‘check out’ but only 176 ended up with an actual order, the conversion rate for that check-out today is 176 divided by 257 which is 68%.
To choose by conversion rate, you’ll have to do some thinking and some investigation:
- Think about what length of time to measure. A day? A week? A month? Three months? A year? Some complex forms have an annual cycle of use, so you’ll really need to go for ‘a year’ for your measurement. Mostly, a week or a month is good enough.
- Think about what ‘start’ means. Is it downloading a form? Clicking on a particular page or button? Getting a form sent out in the post? Collecting it from an office?
- Investigate: How many people started the form?
- Think about what ‘get to the end’ means. Is it submitting the form? Making a payment? Getting delivery of something? Starting something else, such as starting a job? Receiving a payment? Making use of something, such as actually playing a game or using an app?
- Investigate: How many people got to the end of the form?
The advantage of picking according to conversion rate is that nearly always, conversion rate problems line up with your support problems. So you’ll make your support team happier and save costs along the way.
5. Pick the form with the biggest policy gap
The “policy gap” is the difference between the number of people who ought to fill in the form and the number of people who successfully get to the end of the process. Let’s say that you’ve got an e-commerce website where you sell an exciting new tool that every professional antique watch-repairer ought to buy, and you define ‘every professional watch-repairer’ as ‘people who subscribe to this website’. Your policy gap is the difference between the number of subscribers and the number who buy the new exciting new tool.
To choose by policy gap, you’ll have to do the same thinking and investigation that you did for conversion rate – PLUS, this extra thinking and investigation:
- Think about what ‘who ought to fill in the form’ means. You’ll see that I made a rather massive assumption in my watch-repairer example. Do people who repair watches even use websites? How many of them subscribe to this one? Do they do the type of watch-repair that’s relevant to this tool? There are many things that might affect who counts as someone who ought to fill in the form. It’s a worthwhile thing to think about.
- Investigate: How many people ought to fill in the form?
The advantage of picking according to the policy gap is that’s your “bottom line” as business people sometimes say. It’s the service you’re running, or the reason you (or your employer) is in business. This is the one that truly looks at your overall organisation and your costs.
Sometimes I’ve found that managers are a bit surprised that something as simple as a form can have an influence on their policy gap – but believe me, it can. For example, sometimes people aren’t taking out a subscription because they can’t find the form to subscribe with. Or because they found the form, but it had a question they didn’t understand that was ‘required’.
Don’t pick the form by using a readability formula
Ginny Redish and I wrote “7 reasons to avoid usability formulas and what to do instead”Readability Formulas: seven reasons to avoid them and what to do instead. We pointed out that readability formulas are unreliable and don’t work. Whether you agree with us or not, one thing is for sure: Readability formulas are intended to be used on continuous prose, and are irrelevant to the way that words appear in forms – as questions, instructions, and declarations.
Summary: the five ways
Here are five suggestions for ways to pick a form to improve:
- Pick the form you happen to be working on now
- Pick the form that has the highest usage
- Pick the form that creates the biggest problem for support
- Pick the form with the worst conversion rate
- Pick the form with the biggest policy gap
If all this choice is too much for you then flip a coin. The most important thing is to get started on the ‘fixing the form’ part.