When it comes to filling out an online form, it’s usually the moment we sigh and ‘do it later’. We’ve all looked at what looks like a mountain of a task that lays ahead, filled with mandatory fields, confusing requests for irrelevant information and error messages that leave you scratching your head.
Now, put yourself into the shoes of a prospective student navigating your website thinking about booking an open day, enquiring about a course they’d like to explore or requesting some more information about your institution. Are you giving them the same reasons to ‘do it later’?
We’ve worked in collaboration with our colleagues at our creative agency Ponderosa to identify the top ten user experience tips that you can implement easily – giving your prospective applicants a seamless journey from interest to enquiry.
1. Ensure your form fields are easy for prospective students to navigate
Clarity is key. When you have multiple fields, in multiple columns, users are forced to apply extra logic to understand if they should complete the entire left column first, or work right to left in horizontal lines, like they would when reading a book. Though it may seem minor, forms with a clear path from one field to the next are far more engaging and reduces the chances of incompletion. If a prospective student, for example, automatically begins typing their surname after their first name, only to find they’re completing the email field, this can be frustrating.
The more linear the form feels, the less energy an enquirer need to spend on completing which is always a bonus in today’s fast paced digital world.
2. Clear field title placement
Aligning the title of a form field to the left of the field may seem like a no-brainer at first, but when you’ve got different length field titles, it can quickly appear complicated and untidy. Because of discrepancies in spacing, you’d need to either align everything in line with the start of the longest title (giving shorter titles huge spacing before the form field appears) or align backwards from the form field (meaning each title starts in a different place).
Putting the titles above the relevant form fields and not to the side will ensure the form appears tidy, professional and leaves no room for misinterpretation about which title applies to which field, leading to another simple and clear submission.
3. Asterisk – Optional or Mandatory?
An asterisk alongside a form field in many cases means that the field is either mandatory or optional – but which works better for a seamless experience? Whilst some people reserve asterisks exclusively for optional fields, the more of these fields you have, the more the asterisk becomes less of a differentiator, and more like just another part of the form layout. Our top tip would be to go with whichever you have least of – if you have 10 fields, 3 of which is optional, then simply flag the three and leave the rest as they are.
The presence of an asterisk should indicate that there is an irregularity, so only apply it to the most irregular fields within your form and make sure its purpose is clear.
4. Explain why data is relevant
If you’re filling out a contact form, there are certain types of data that you’d expect to complete: your name, your email, your phone number – these are all understandable enough, but what about ‘course of interest’ or ‘intended study year’? Both are an example of a piece of information that might not be immediately apparent to a user why you’d need. This can be off-putting for some, which is why we recommend adding a simple line of text with the field to explain to enquirers why the information you’re asking for is necessary, and that you’re not just collecting data for data’s sake.
People will be far more trusting if you are transparent about why you need the data you’re requesting, and therefore less likely to complete your form without hesitation.
5. Automate address completion
In the age where postcode search is the norm, there is no real need to force students and parents into manually entering every line of their address. You’d be surprised how many of these we still see – not only does it add unnecessary length to your form, but it also forces enquirers to spend unnecessary time and energy in filling out their full address and leads to far more data entry human error.
It’s easier for both you and your users to rely on automation to keep the time to complete as low as possible and data accuracy as high.
6. Think about form field length – don’t just opt for the default
When you input an email address into the email address field and it’s not long enough to fit without scrolling, then your field can add friction to your form. This way forces students and parents to scroll using their keyboard to check for errors or encourages them to just move on, compromising on data accuracy. Similarly, having unnecessarily long fields for the information that’s required leads to feelings that something is missing, causing unnecessary doubt during completion.
Making sure the length of your form fields is as optimised as it can be will mean that your enquirers will find it easier to trust and validate their answers – leading to a positive experience and more accurate data.
7. Optimise your field validation messages
A crucial part of any good form is giving prospective students heads up that they’ve gone wrong on their form, ensuring data is accurate and formatted as it needs to be. However, delivering the right error message at the right time is key to making this feel like a pointer in the right direction, rather than an aggravation. In-line validation is a great way to ensure the information inputted is validated as users are completing the form, instead of waiting for the dreaded red text after pressing submit.
However, it’s important to remember that this can work in the opposite way for some form fields, if they’re validating as the data is being inputted (think email fields that tell you you’re missing an ‘@‘ from the second you start typing).
8. Make sure error messages are clear
Just as importantly as validation messages, error messages need to direct users to exactly where and how they’ve gone wrong to rectify a mistake. By just telling them that ‘something went wrong’ gives users neither clarity nor direction.
We recommend ensuring that the field(s) with errors are highlighted with a brief but specific description of how to get their submission back on track. This will ensure that those engaging with your institution can do so with ease.
9. Keyboard navigation is important
Accessibility in form submission is just as important as efficiency. If your fields are unable to be navigated using a keyboard, you are excluding users who may prefer or need to navigate in this way. These could alienate a prospective student who is ready to enquire, purely because they cannot easily submit the relevant form on the website.
Remember: Your form must be functional, for all of your users’ accessibility needs to give everyone the best possible user experience.
10. Optimise for mobile
Much like I’m sure you are, we are seeing higher and higher amounts of mobile traffic and engagement with the digital space. By factoring in the different methods that different devices require, it will be a sure-fire way to make your form stand out and allow users to complete with ease, at their own convenience. As a practical example, if the input requires a number (like a phone number), if possible present users with the numeric keyboard, instead of the standard QWERTY.
Mobile devices allow for far more flexibility of input, so making the most of this will keep your enquirers happy on any device.
So there we have it – our top ten tips for you to keep in mind when creating or optimising those all important forms online that can really mean the difference between an enquirer or a ‘I’ll do it later’. If you’d like to talk to us about how we can support you in improving your user experience, do get in touch – we’d love to workshop some ideas and explore how we can help.