Calling in the Big Guns

Review of Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks

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Discount for Boxes and Arrows readers: Get a 10% discount by purchasing the book directly from Rosenfeld Media. Just use the code WFDBA.

The scene is all too familiar. You’re presenting wireframes of the registration process for a new web application when the discussion veers down a dark alley. The sky has turned the color of black ink, and you can smell sulfur in the air as one team member after another debates the alignment of form labels.

Before you can toss up a quick Hail Mary, marketing says that the opt-in for marketing solicitations has to be defaulted to yes, and you can feel your soul sucked out of your body through your nose as a simple one hour meeting turns into a 3 hour discussion over the pro’s and cons of inline validation while your stomach grumbles because you just missed lunch.

I have heard this war story many times from many interaction designers and information architects, with little variation except in the details. What we need is air cover in this battle to design better forms. Now, it’s here.

“Forms Suck!”

And so Luke Wroblewski begins his new book on web form design with a canon shot, providing just the air cover and ammunition interaction designers need; and every review, including this one, begins with a first impression.

Mine was: Boffo.

(bof·fo (bf) slang, adj.: Extremely successful; great.)

Wroblewski opens “Web Form Design” with a strategic exploration of why users interact with forms. News flash: It’s not because they enjoy it. Interaction designers need to confront the truth that a user’s goal is to get to some successful outcome on the other side of a form – as quickly and painlessly as possible. We want our iPhone, tax return, or account with Facebook. We don’t want to fill out forms.

bq. Forms suck. If you don’t believe me, try to find people who like filling them in. You may turn up an accountant who gets a rush when wrapping up a client’s tax return or perhaps a desk clerk who loves to tidy up office payroll. But for most of us, forms are just an annoyance. What we want to do is to vote, apply for a job, buy a book online, join a group, or get a rebate back from a recent purchase. Forms just stand in our way.

Wroblewski has researched everything from the basics of good form design, to labels and most-direct route, delivering his explanations, patterns and recommendations with a casual urgency that avoids preaching. This book is a useful guide for both the novice interaction designer and the battle tested UX guru, offering salient, field tested examples of the good, bad, and often times ugly forms that have proliferated the web like so many mushrooms after a good rain.

Wroblewski has also invited many seasoned professionals to contribute sidebars, including Caroline Jarrett’s no-nonsense perspective on designing great forms by advising us to “start thinking about people and relationships,” instead of just diving into labeling our forms and choosing where to put the Submit button. I especially appreciated her strategic guidelines for picking what questions should go into a form in the first place, which she aptly titles “Keep, Cut, Postpone, or Explain.”

Wroblewski is aware of how challenging most readers will find good form design. It comes as a relief, for instance, when he writes that we should think less about forms as a means of filling a database, and more as a means of creating a meaningful conversation between the user and the company.

He generally succeeds at adopting the warm tone of a confidant who can win you over with self-deprecating, you-too-can-make-dynamic-forms-every-day enthusiasm. The more subtle points of user-centered design or goal-driven design are not discussed explicitly; only the trained ear will detect them.

What’s In the Book?

“Web Form Design” is part of a wave of User Experience books from Rosenfeld Media – books focused on bringing practical, actionable and well-researched methods to actual practitioners in the field. This literature is going to have a powerful effect on our community of practice, maybe as powerful as the effect the Polar Bear book had on our grandparents’ era. This volume is broken out into three sections:

Section one: “Form Structure” begins with an overview of why form design matters and describes the principles behind good form design, followed by Form Organization, Path to Completion, and Labels (hint: your form design should start from goals). Working quickly through strategy to tactics, Wroblewski gives numerous examples – within the context of usability studies – so that you are not left wondering whether these patterns are recommended based just on his opinion.

Section two: “Form Elements,” is a useful, clearly written exploration of each of the components of form design: labels, fields, actions and messages (help, errors, success). Wroblewski attacks each one of these by defining particular problem spaces, and then shows good and bad solutions to the problems while highlighting how these solutions faired in controlled usability tests, including eye-tracking. He then finishes each chapter off with a succinct list of ‘Best Practices’ that I suggest are good enough to staple to the inside of your eyelids.

Section three” “Form Interaction,” includes chapters on everything from Inline Validation to Selection-dependent Inputs (a barn burner). Here we move from the world of designing labels, alignment, and content to designing the actual complex interactions between the system — that wants to be fed like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors –- and the world-weary user that just wants to get to the other side of the rainbow. As Wroblewski explains in his opening of chapter 9 “Inline Validation:”

Despite our best efforts to format questions clearly and provide meaningful affordances for our inputs, some of our questions will always have more than one possible answer…

Inline validation can provide several types of feedback: confirmation that an appropriate answer was given, suggestions for valid answers, and real-time updates designed to help people stay within necessary limits. These bits of feedback usually happen when people begin, continue, or stop entering answers within input fields.

To establish communication between the user and the form, provide clear, easy-to-read feedback so that the user doesn’t get the “select a username or die” travesty that we see in registration forms all over the web. You know the ones: you type in your name, choose a username, enter your email address, and your password (twice), hit the submit button…and…bad things happen. The username is already taken. Worse, the form is cleared and you have to enter all that information all over again. Wroblewski provides advice for validation (without set-in-stone rules), and a bulleted list of best practices.

The final, and perhaps most interesting chapter in the book, covers the topic of Gradual Engagement. This is particularly timely given the kudzu-like proliferation of Web 2.0 applications and services as well as social networking sites and micro-blogging sites. Instead of starting your engagement with a new company that all your friends are raving about with yet another registration form – as Wroblewski writes:

bq. “We can do better. In fact, I believe we can get people engaged with digital services in a way that tells them how they work and why they should care enough to use them.1 I also believe we can do this without explicitly making them fill out a sign-up form as a first step.”

He continues by highlighting the benefits of moving a user through the application or service – actually engaging with it, and seeing it’s benefits, while registration is either postponed, or handled behind the scenes. He explores web applications like JumpCut, where the user steps through the process of creating, uploading and editing their video — and only when they actually want to publish and share it, does the user encounter a form — at which point they have already learned the service, it’s benefits, and it’s value. This is certainly a more engaging experience than being confronted with a form and a captcha before ever realizing the value of the web application. He ends this compelling chapter by providing some advise and best practices :

bq. When you’re exploring if gradual engagement might be right for your Web service, it’s important to consider how a series of interactions can explain how potential customers can use your service and why they should care. Gradual engagement isn’t well served by simply distributing each of your sign-up form input fields onto separate Web pages.

Wroblewski showed three excellent examples of web applications that seem to very successfully utilize this new strategy for engaging new users while avoiding or at least postponing the ubiquitous registration process. This is certainly welcome news. The key is to rethink how new users become engaged with your company. Does the conversation start with a form? Gradually introducing new customers to your service and it’s benefits – letting them actually use it and learn it first seems like a better way to start the conversation.

I wish this chapter had more to it, as it covers an exciting exploration of web application design innovation. Wroblewski wrote a very compelling article in UXmatters back in 2006 titled, “The Complexity of Simplicity,” which was a predecessor to this chapter of the book. After an extensive search online, this was about the only source I could find other than some blog posts referencing that article. One article on ReadWriteWeb, “Good UI Design: Make It Easy, Show Me You Care” did include two more examples – FuseCal, a calendar syncing online application, and Twiddla, an online whiteboarding service.

Another spot that could have used improvement were in the last chapter. Perhaps this was either my reading of it or the way it was presented. What’s Next, certainly made me feel that he would be exploring his vision of the future of form design, and forms in general — which he certainly does in the section on the disappearing form, and proceeds into a very brief discussion of game-like elicitation methods (GEMS). These are welcome additions, I wish that he had gone a bit deeper into this chapter, especially about GEMS. It’s a fascinating discussion point, and we will see more examples in the coming year.

I also wanted more resources and references to studies that a form designer, information architect or interaction designer could use to bolster their design decisions. Many good designers out there know how to design good forms. The hard part is the politics and the negotiation process with stakeholders — and numbers always help.

I am reminded of a conversation I had over lunch about a month ago here in D.C. The UX professional was giving a short presentation on form design to an in-house crowd and was trying to subtly indicate the value that often times less is more in form design. He wanted to show to stakeholders that the concept that adding one, two, or four more form fields in a registration process has a cost, even if the design and development cost is minimal. I suggested that a simple info graphic that showed how, as the number of form fields increased, user signups decreased. His immediate reaction was that some stakeholders would immediately want to see metrics to back up the assertion.

I am unaware of any numbers about fall-off rates, but from my professional experience tells me less is better than confronting a first-time potential user with a long form to complete. Perhaps it would be sufficient to include a “Further Reading” section divided up into sections like Academic Research, Field Studies, and Conference Papers. The book may not the best place to put something like this — I wonder if the online companion to this book has such a thing. Either way, it would be a valuable addition.

Summary

What is likely to win the most converts, though, is the joy Wroblewski takes in designing. This impression becomes clear as you page through the book. He isn’t just an ardent evangelizer, following the rituals of going to conferences selling snake oil. He’s been there in the trenches, just like you; he’s done this a hundred, maybe a thousand times. He’s tested these ideas and provides a framework for you to use from day one. Half the battle in good form design is defending your decisions to stakeholders. This is your air cover, so call it in!

You can get Web Form Design from Rosenfeld Media or Amazon.com. Just keep in mind that, for the same price, Rosenfeld Media tosses in a nicely formatted digital version which you can use to quote from when you have to sell a good form design to a team that wants to bicker over form labels.

Don’t forget the discount for Boxes and Arrows readers: Get a 10% discount by purchasing the book directly from Rosenfeld Media. Just use the code WFDBA.

Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks
By Luke Wroblewski; foreword by JaredSpool.
RosenfeldMedia: May,2008.
ISBN:1933820241
Buy from: Rosenfeld | Amazon

Posted in Book Reviews, Interactivity, Reviews | 3 Comments »

3 Comments

  • Praveen Kumar Verma

    July 18, 2008 at 8:34 pm

    I am working on a project and web form is one of the screens. I used single column layout for form design as this is what is being followed everywhere. The client however objected on white space in the web form and complained about improper use of screen real estate. The client suggested using two columns of fields to utilize the space. As a good designer I protested but wanted to look for research on two columns approach. Sadly the book does not answer my question. May be, the question is weird but I am in this situation.

    Luke, if you are reading this or Will Evans if you got an opportunity to meet him, please ask him to provide some research on two column layout for form design in next edition of the book.

    The book is very helpful otherwise and provide good insights.

  • Will Evans

    July 24, 2008 at 5:50 pm

    Praveen – actually two column is addressed in the book – look at Chapter 3: Paths to Completion – specifically, look at page 53. There are numerous reasons why 2 column layout is not a great idea for form design. The first is scan-lines. A single column means the user can scan right down the form. Two columns adds cognitive load because, depending on layout – they may go down one column, jump up and to the right for the second column – somewhat jarring, or go across left to right, down to the left – over to the right in a zig-zag. Users that tab from field to field will find either experience nasty.
    I don’t agree that the right side white space is an issue – and if the want to use it – use it for contextual help – or tips. You can also use it for validation messages…. if you are going to make people fill out a form – tell them why the information is needed, and make it easy to correct problems through the use of that space. With 2 column layouts – you lose that real estate to the form. Thats my 2 cents at least.

  • Rakestraw smith

    October 10, 2012 at 4:19 am

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