The Myth of The Average User

Beyond The Average User!

Averages are everywhere in digital marketing. Mobile designers use average thumb size to determine button height and project teams often base decisions on the average user. Many metrics are also based on averages  such as click-through rates, open rate, conversion rate and average basket value. Whether we like it or not most websites are designed for the average user. But is there really such a thing as an average customer or visitor?

Should we use averages for design purposes?

Well, back in the 1940’s the US air force had a serious problem. For some unknown reason pilots were frequently losing control and crashing their air craft. This was of course a period of tremendous change with the advent of the jet engine. Air craft were getting much faster and more complicated.

Initially pilot error was blamed as planes seldom suffered from mechanical breakdown. But attention soon turned to the cockpit design. This was based upon the average physical dimensions of hundreds of male pilots measured in 1926. Was it possible that the average dimensions of pilots had got bigger over the past twenty odd years?

Data informed decision-making:

In 1950 they decided to find out. Researchers at Wright Air Force Base in Ohio measured over 4,000 pilots on 140 dimensions of size, including average torso length, arm length, crotch height and even thumb length. Almost everyone thought the new measurements would result in a better designed cockpit that would reduce the number of non-combat accidents.

However, a 23 year-old scientist, Lt. Gilbert Daniels, who had recently joined the Aero Medical Laboratory from college had a different theory. He had studied physical anthropology at college. Daniel’s thesis had involved measuring the shapes of 250 male Harvard students’ hands.

Although the students were all from similar ethnic and socio-cultural backgrounds, he noted that their hands were very different in size and shape. Further, when he calculated the average hand size he found that it did not match any individual’s measurements.

“When I left Harvard, it was clear to me that if you wanted to design something for an individual human being, the average was completely useless.” – Lt Gilbert Daniels

To prove whether or not he was right, Daniels selected ten physical dimensions that he thought would be most important for cockpit design.  Using the data from the 4,063 pilots who had been measured, Daniels defined someone as average if their measurements fell within the middle 30% of the range for each dimension.

He then compared each individual pilot to the average he had calculated.  Most of his colleagues expected the vast majority of pilots to be within the average range for over half the dimensions. But in fact Daniels analysis discovered none of the 4,063 pilots measured managed to fit within the average range of all ten dimensions. Even when he selected only three dimensions fewer than 3.5% of pilots were within the average size for all three dimensions.

Implications for digital marketing:

Daniel’s concluded that any system that is designed around the average person is doomed to fail. There is no such thing as an average user and so we need to stop creating users or personas based upon averages.

This creates a problem for website designers and optimiser because websites are normally designed for the average user. Most websites display identical content for all visitors and yet people have different intentions and goals they wish to meet. Treating everyone the same based upon some illusionary average person is highly toxic and dangerous when it comes to design and conversion rate optimisation.

How do we individualise the user experience:

If one hundred users go to the Amazon website they would each see a different version of the Amazon homepage. This is because Amazon understands the benefit of adjusting the customer experience in according with the user’s past behaviour and intent.

Amazon uses real-time content personalisation and behavioural targeting to serve a version of their site that responds to each visitor’s unique needs. This generates huge benefits for the likes of Amazon because visitors are much more responsive to a website that adjusts to their intent and interests than a generic site that does not respond to their individual needs.

Personalisation can take many forms, but the main criteria often used include demographics (e.g. gender or age), purchase history, device, media consumption, source of traffic, service history, browser, engagement and psychographics.

When I mention using these criteria to web developers they often tell me that it’s “difficult” or “complex” to target content using such characteristics. This might be the case if you rely on developers to build content, but if you have an enterprise web analytics platform or an A/B testing solution it can be relatively straightforward to set up and test personalisation criteria.

With the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) based personalisation tools there is scope for even greater sophistication. Companies that invest in AI are likely to benefit from first mover advantage because the technology lends it so well to personalisation. Don’t be left behind, start investing now as Amazon and Booking.com won’t wait for their competitors to catch on to the potential benefits of using AI for personalisation.

Personas:

Many organisations like to use buyer personas to help their teams visualise real customers. However, if these are based upon average users they will again be potentially highly misleading. Ensure your buyer personas are based upon real customer segments using research and analytics to guide you. Although personas do have their critics, they can be useful if organisations go through an evidence based process to create relevant  customer personas.

What about analytics?

When it comes to tracking digital performance many organisations still rely on measuring averages. But just as averages are dangerous when designing a website, they are also meaningless and potentially highly misleading when it comes to measuring performance of a website. Let’s take the average conversion rate that many companies monitor on a daily basis.

  1. Not all visitors are able to buy: 

When I was asked to set up conversion reporting for an online gaming brand I noticed their web analytics were tracking all visitors, including from countries that were prevented from signing up.  No one had thought to set up filters to exclude visitors from outside the company’s business area and so the conversion rate included many visitors who were unable to sign up.

BJ Fogg’s behavioural model point’s out that users will only complete a task if they have both the motivation and ability to complete a conversion goal. In addition, there also needs to be a trigger to nudge the user towards the goal. If any of these criteria are lacking a user will not convert.

When considering a web analytics report consider if these criteria are present. If possible remove those users where they clearly lack at least one of the criteria. For example if there is no prominent call to action on the page for an individual customer segment (e.g. logged in users) exclude these visitors from your analysis.

Image of BJ Fogg's behavioural change model
Image source: BJ Fogg

2. Users access your site in different ways:

Your conversion rate is highly likely to vary significantly according to how visitors access your site. The type of device used often reflects different intent and behaviour.  Unless you analyse your conversion rate by device and browser you will probably be missing large variations in your key metrics that may provide valuable insights to help improve sales or lead conversion.

Image of Blackberry smart phone and other devices

3. Source of traffic matters:

Similarly the source of traffic often has a massive impact on conversion rates and it is fairly common for the average conversion rate to plummet if you pump lots of money into a new untested source. Affiliates and paid search (PPC) can promise large amounts of extra traffic to a site, but the intent of these visitors can sometimes be very poor.

A TV campaign can also boost traffic volume significantly, but again the intent of such visitors will be different from existing traffic sources. This makes it is essential to break down conversion rates by source of traffic to understand performance at a more granular level.

  1. New and returning visitors:

In one company I worked for the managers noticed that a majority of visitors were returning visitors and assumed that many of these would be existing customers. They were concerned that including returning visitors in reporting was reducing their conversion rate as customers couldn’t sign-up more than once. So they decided to exclude returning visitors from their calculation of the conversion rate.

But as I pointed out to them when I became responsible for the brand, returning visitors normally convert at a higher rate than new visitors.  This means that you should look at new and returning visitor conversion rates separately, but use new visitor conversion as a guide for paid campaigns. When I looked at the number of returning visitors to the site it was also clear that relatively few were existing customers and so they were not having a significant impact on the conversion rate.

  1. Visitors are at different stages of buying process:

Most websites have a mixture of informational content and transactional or lead generation content. This reflects visitor intent and that visitors are at different stages of the buying process.

Not everyone is ready to buy when they arrive on your site and so it is necessary to create custom segments in your analytics to allocate people to an appropriate group. As a result you should set appropriate success metrics for customers at different stages of the buying process and not expect your overall conversion rate to be identical for all visitor segments.

Conclusion:

Averages are a tidy way of dealing with statistics, but as Daniel’s identified over half a century ago, they are meaningless and potentially fatal when designing systems or interfaces for people to use. It’s time we stopped designing websites for average users and employed personalisation and behavioural targeting to better meet customer needs.

We shouldn’t be a surprised that according to Millward Brown Digital, Amazon Prime converts around 74% of the time compared to an e-commerce average of 3.1%. Even non-Prime Amazon converts around 13% of the time. This is mainly because Amazon is so good at testing and personalising their site to be responsive to individual customer needs.

Amazon runs literally thousands of A/B and multivariate tests a day to achieve this level of sophistication. This is because to find high impact experiments you have to try a lot of things. Most average retailers run a few hundred tests a year.

As a result companies such as Amazon, Netflix and Booking.com also use highly segmented web analytics reports to explore user behaviour. They don’t rely on average conversion rates because they hide real insights.

Thank you for reading my post and I hope you found it useful. Please share using the social media icons below if you like this post.

You can view my full Digital Marketing and Optimization Toolbox here.

To browse links to all my posts on one page please click here.

  • About the author:  Neal provides digital marketing optimisation consultancy services and has worked for  brands such as Deezer.comFoxybingo.com, Very.co.ukpartypoker.com and Bgo.com. He uses a variety of techniques, including web analytics, personas, customer journey analysis and customer feedback to improve a website’s conversion rate.
  • Neal has had articles published on website optimisation on Usabilla.com  and as an ex-research and insight manager on the GreenBook Blog research website.  If you wish to contact Neal please send an email to neal.cole@conversion-uplift.co.uk. You can follow Neal on Twitter @northresearch, see his LinkedIn profile or connect on Facebook.

What Can Brands Learn From The 2017 General Election Campaign?

8 Marketing Lessons From Theresa May’s Campaign

When Theresa May called the general election in April the polls were showing a lead for the Conservative Party of up to 20 points. It looked certain that May would get a much improved majority in parliament.

However, during the course of the campaign the Conservative’s lead almost evaporated as Theresa May’s popularity declined. This resulted in the Conservative’s losing 12 seats and their slim majority rather than gaining the large mandate May had expected.

Why did this happen and what does the result tell us about the nature of marketing campaigns and strategy?

1. Actions speak louder than words:

Before announcing the election Theresa May had repeatedly said she would not call a snap election. May indicated that she had the mandate for Brexit, the economy was strong and even the Labour party supported the triggering of Article 50 in the commons. However, by calling an early election May created uncertainty about her motivations and whether the future was so positive.

The psychologist Professor Alastair Smith from New York University has studied the outcomes of UK general elections since 1945. He suggests that calling an early election is like playing poker with the electorate.

Image of poker chips and cards on the table

Smith suggests that people understand that prime ministers have access to information about future prospects that the rest of us don’t have. Calling an election early may be  a sign that they are trying to conceal information (e.g. Brexit might be a disaster) and expect to see their popularity decline as a result.

He argues that more competent governments are in less of a hurry to call an election and so it is less confident prime ministers who call snap elections. We should not have been surprised then that Theresa May’s popularity and her party’s lead in the opinion polls declined. Indeed, Smith’s analysis indicated that the larger the governing party’s lead in the polls at the time of calling  an election, the greater the likelihood that their popularity would fall during the campaign.

Implications for marketing:

People understand that major sponsorship or advertising campaigns cost a lot of money and take a long time to recoup the investment. This is known as costly signalling. It demonstrates a brand’s intentions to be around for the long term.

Just as calling an election early shows a lack of confidence in future prospects, brands that fail to support their product launches or marketing campaigns with a reasonable level of advertising or sponsorship spend are indicating a lack of confidence in their ongoing success.

2. Messages need to be meaningful:

From day one May used a few core sound bites to communicate the essence of her proposition. ‘Strong and stable leadership’ and ‘coalition of chaos’ were May’s main messages that were almost immediately turned into memes by opposition supporters.

Psychologically people hate uncertainty and so voters might seek strong and stable leaders to manage instability and uncertainty. However, the strong and stable message was purely an emotional appeal to calm and orderliness, while the ‘coalition of chaos’ aimed to create fear of a Labour government.

“If I lose just six seats I will lose this election and Jeremy Corbyn will be sitting down to negotiate with Europe.” – Theresa May, 20th May 2017

The Conservative’s  slogans therefore lacked a rational element. They were further undermined by May’s behaviour including her U-turn on their social care policy and her refusal to take part in  live TV debates with other leaders.   In addition, May communicated her messages in an almost robotic way and so struggled to demonstrate emotional intelligence. This resulted in May being referred to as the “Maybot” in the media.

By contrast Jeremy Corbyn ran a more enthusiastic and engaging campaign around changing the status quo and looking after the majority rather than the wealthy minority.  His slogan ‘for the many, not the few’ was an anti-establishment message that may have benefited from recent  political movements.

Although his message was criticised by some commentators as potentially turning off the more affluent voters, it resonated with natural Labour supporters and clearly reflected Corbyn’s own political principles. No one could accuse Corbyn of not living according his slogan as it is something he has campaigned on since he first became a Labour MP.

Implications for marketing:

Emotional arguments resonate strongly with our fast intuitive mind and can be very persuasive. However, this does not mean that rational argument should be forgotten. It is important to align more emotional and implicit motivations with rational benefits to avoid conflicts between our different decision making systems.

When brands create slogans and messages to support the value proposition it is important to provide evidence to support such communications. However, it also necessary to create policies and behaviours within the organisation that demonstrates a commitment to these same values. Otherwise customers are likely to see such messages as soundbites that don’t reflect the real values of a brand.

3. Linking your  brand to an individual is a risky strategy:

Theresa May decided to make the Conservative campaign primarily about her leadership. This presidential style campaign meant that at rallies and in ads the headline was  ‘Theresa May’s Team’ and the Conservative Party was relegated to a small footnote at the bottom of the banner. This was a big departure from the norm in the UK and highlighted how she wanted to focus on her leadership compared to Jeremy Corbyn.

Image of Theresa May's Team at campaign rally

However, as the campaign developed and U-Turns and wobbles were observed this back-fired on the party. Positioning it as a presidential campaign highlighted that May was not as nimble or empathetic as she needed to be to play this as a strength.

Marketing Implications:

Brands that strongly associate themselves with an individual person, whether they are a celebrity or a business leader, run the risk of being damaged if that person’s popularity or reputation declines.  Celebrity endorsements can be a powerful marketing tool, but few brands successfully build themselves around a single individual. Richard Branson has achieved this with Virgin, but he clearly demonstrated that he had the necessary charisma and personality to develop such a brand.

4. Position your brand around what is important to your customers:

Theresa May positioned her campaign on the basis that it was about Brexit. However, what she failed to understand was that Brexit was largely a protest vote. It reflected many issues, including concerns about immigration, being left behind by globalisation, a London-centric economy and declining incomes.

In contrast Labour focused on policies that directly influence people’s lives such as the NHS, education, police numbers and rail nationalisation. These issues resonated much more strongly with people and took the focus away from Brexit. As a result Labour were able to project a much more positive and meaningful campaign.

Marketing Implications:

Listen to customers and conduct research to understand what motivates them. Don’t assume you know what is important to customers as often this is off the mark because of our own perceptions of the world. We get too close to our brands and products and can fall foul of the echo chambers we construct around ourselves.

5. Diversity is your friend:

When Theresa May created a manifesto only a small inner circle of was involved in the discussions. Small groups that lack diversity and insulate themselves from dissenters are very prone to groupthink.

When all think alike, then no one is thinking - Walter Lippman - The danger of groupthink

This is a psychological phenomena whereby groups make poor decisions because there is pressure to conform and ignore information that contradicts their decision. This creates an illusion of invulnerability and over-optimism which means they are willing to take unnecessary and extreme risks.

Marketing implications:

Ensure diversity in group decision making by recruiting people with a wide range of experience, cultural and gender backgrounds and cognitive ability. Re-frame disagreement as a necessary and helpful characteristic of teams and encourage all team members to contribute their thoughts, ideas and opinions.

Don’t be too prescriptive when briefing a problem and avoid quickly criticising other ideas and attacking other team members for ideas that contradict the consensus. Use market research and data analytics to provide scrutiny for ideas and generate fresh insights.

6. People are loss averse:

Prospect theory tells us that people prefer a small, but certain loss to a small risk of a much larger loss. Thus, people prefer an 80% chance of a certain small loss against a 5% chance of losing everything.

Because of this bias, the dementia tax as it become known was political suicide as it attacked the property owning class, many of whom are natural Conservative voters. It created a concern in voter’s minds that if they were unlucky enough to get a long term illness and needed care they might have to give up all but £100,000 of the value of their house after their death.

It was almost irrelevant that if they didn’t need long term care their assets would be safe. After he resigned, Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s special adviser admitted that it had been a mistake not to include a cap when they launched the policy. This would have limited the potential loss and may have made the policy more acceptable to voters.

Marketing Implication:

Focus more on avoiding losses rather than making gains. Guarantees and money back offers help to eliminate the concern that a choice may lead to an unacceptably large loss.  In spread betting for instance automatic stop losses eliminate the potential for unlimited losses that would probably prevent most people considering this kind of betting.

 

7. Provide a positive reason to choose your brand:

Theresa May failed to communicate a positive reason to choose her campaign. The campaign was characterised by warning voters about the consequences of not giving May an increased majority and the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn getting into power. There was little to promote in terms of positive benefits for voting Conservative.

Remain voters in particular who weren’t in a constituency with Liberal Democrat candidate capable of winning were faced with all options being bad (see prospect theory). When people are in a situation where all outcomes involve a loss people become risk seeking.  The status quo is usually perceived as the safer choice and so Corbyn would have been more appealing as he represented the riskier option.

Marketing Implication:

People buy benefits rather than features. Position your brand positively with a compelling proposition rather than trying to undermine your competitors. Identify important implicit (psychological) goals to differentiate your brand and get an emotional response. But don’t forget a strong rational benefit is also important.

8. Consistency is a valued personality characteristic:

Before the EU referendum Theresa May had been on the remain side, though some had criticised her for a lack of enthusiasm. After the referendum result and especially once she became prime minister May become an ardent advocate of Brexit. Further, May had repeatedly said that she had a mandate for Brexit and there was no need for a general election before the end of the fixed-term parliament. Of course she then called a general election.

This lack of consistency created anxiety among some voters that May could not be trusted to keep promises. Consistency and the appearance of consistency is a highly valued personality trait. People who are not consistent are often referred to as two-faced or untrustworthy.  This was compounded May’s U-turn on her social care policy when she introduced a cap after it was heavily criticised and then claimed “nothing has changed”.

Marketing implications:

Consistency can be used by marketers to persuade visitors to undertake a desired behaviour.

Lifehack.org is a lifestyle and well-being site that publishes ideas for self-improvement. When a new visitor lands on the site they are served a pop-up asking the user if they would like to “try something different today. Don’t stay stuck. Do better.” If a user clicks on the  “I agree” CTA they are immediately served an email capture form with the heading “We think so, too!” Because these visitors have agreed to the first question they feel almost compelled to provide their email address to show consistency of behaviour.

Example of how to ask a question to get commitment for improving blog sign-ups
Image Source:

Consistency is also important in branding and design. Using consistent branding and design principles can help communicate a professional and user-friendly customer experience. Being consistent with established web conventions also allows users to navigate according to experience and reduces  cognitive load.

Conclusion:

The result of the 2017 UK general election should be a lesson to us all that we should not take our customers for granted. Customers respond to how people in organisation behave according to social norms and expectations that are influenced by many complex factors.

We should avoid behaviours that are inconsistent with promises we make as this creates anxiety and damages trust in our brands. Trust is critical for any relationship or transaction and so we should protect it at all costs.

It’s easy to make assumptions about what we think people want and how they will react to decisions we make. To prevent costly mistakes we should invest in research and insights to improve our understanding of customers.

Take action to avoid groupthink when making decisions. Encourage news ideas and look for information that contradicts your decision rather than just that which confirms it.

People are more concerned about losses than gains. Framing an offer as a potential loss may make it more appealing than promoting it as a gain. Avoid situations where all choices are perceived as bad because this can turn customers into risk seekers.

In digital marketing we have the  advantage of being able to run experiments through A/B and multivariate testing.  By developing a culture of experimentation we can learn how customers respond to changes in the customer experience before investing resources and money into a change. This helps to ensure resources are directed to where the biggest impact can be made.

Thank you for reading my post and I hope you found it useful. Please share using the social media icons below if you like this post.

You can view my full Digital Marketing and Optimization Toolbox here.

To browse links to all my posts on one page please click here.

  • About the author:  Neal provides digital marketing optimisation consultancy services and has worked for  brands such as Deezer.comFoxybingo.com, Very.co.ukpartypoker.com and Bgo.com. He uses a variety of techniques, including web analytics, personas, customer journey analysis and customer feedback to improve a website’s conversion rate.
  • Neal has had articles published on website optimisation on Usabilla.com  and as an ex-research and insight manager on the GreenBook Blog research website.  If you wish to contact Neal please send an email to neal.cole@conversion-uplift.co.uk. You can follow Neal on Twitter @northresearch, see his LinkedIn profile or connect on Facebook.

Web Form Design Best Practices To Optimise Conversions

62 Web Form Design Best Practices

Whether it’s a contact form, registration form or check-out process, forms can be a significant barrier to conversion. Even a simple opt-in form can create friction and anxiety about entering personal information online.

A well designed and optimised form  is an important feature of any website. People usually expect the option of a form to be available on most websites as a way of leaving feedback, making an enquiry, asking a question, receiving updates, opening an account or making a purchase.

In this post I outline 62 best practices for improving your form design and completion rate.  If possible validate changes with an A/B or multivariate test before rolling out to all users. If your completion rate is relatively poor (e.g. less than 40%) then try a total re-design of your form to see if you can achieve a large uplift in conversion. There is no point wasting time with little changes if your form is dire.

Before you start:

Ensure your prospect is ready to complete your form before asking them for any information. Think about the user journey from the customer’s perspective and avoid designing your site around your internal process.

Don’t let your desire to capture data from your customers come ahead of your user’s goals. For instance on an e-commerce site prospects are looking to buy merchandise and so don’t force them to register if you can allow them to buy as a guest. You can collect most, if not all, the data you need in the check-out form.  Offer live chat for visitors wanting to ask questions or request assistance? This allows for real-time interaction with Customer Services rather than relying on email notifications which creates a delay in responding.

Fix basic usability issues before trying to be clever with advanced functionality or psychological persuasion. If your form is poorly designed and is difficult to complete without making mistakes then resolve those issues first as they are likely to swamp any other changes you make to the form.

To make it easy for you to find what you are looking for I’ve structured this post as follows. Click on the section heading that you wish to go to.

A: Mobile Forms:

  1. Mobile first:

To design an optimal user experience it is essential to take a mobile first approach because the small screen size makes them the most challenging to create.  By beginning  with mobile devices it forces designers and marketers to be  ruthless with priorities and to focus on user needs.

Image of definition of mobile first

With a majority web visits taking place on mobile devices forms must be mobile friendly and content should not just be copied over from a desktop site.  Making visitors pinch to zoom into a form is a poor user experience and so check that your form renders correctly on most popular mobile devices using a cross-browsing testing solution.

 

2. Use mobile device’s native functionality:

A couple of years ago I was evaluating a brand’s desktop and mobile user journeys when I discovered that I could only upload KYC (Know Your Customer) verification documents on their desk top site and not on their mobile app. It would have been so much easier to use my phone’s camera to take a picture of my documents and instantly upload to the app without leaving the form. But unfortunately the app did not have the same functionality as the desk top site.

For customers this is a very frustrating and disappointing experience as increasingly a majority of website visitors are mobile only users. Mobile devices have a number of features such as geolocation and cameras that should be fully utilised to minimise the amount of information requested on a form.

For example, incorporate technology shown below that scans credit and debit card details instead of making users manually input the information. This not only speeds up check out but also often reduces checkout abandon rates.

 

Image of how credit cards are scanned for mobile apps
Image Source:

 

3. Input fields and buttons should be a minimum of 48 pixels high:

Google recommend that tap targets such as input fields and buttons should be at least 48 pixels high because this corresponds with the average finger pad size of around 10mm wide. As averages can be miss-leading I would if possible allow slightly more height for tap targets for those customers with slightly thicker fingers.

4. Don’t use fonts below 16px:

Even though many more up-to-date smartphones have larger screens (e.g. 4.7 inch), don’t forget that many users still have devices with smaller screens (e.g. 4 inch)  that makes text below 16px difficult to read. As a result use text that is a minimum of 16px in size.

5. Use input masks to display the correct keypad:

Input masks ensure that when a mobile user is asked to complete a field their device displays the appropriate keyboard (e.g. numeric for phone number). For mobile devices this removes a source of friction as it removes the need for the user to select different keypads. The eight input masks that are relevant to form design are:

  1. Text – displays the normal device keypad
  2. Email – displays the normal keypad plus ‘@’ and ‘.com’
  3. Telephone – displays the numeric 0-9 keypad
  4. Number – displays a keypad with numbers and symbols
  5. Password – hides characters as they are typed
  6. Date – displays the mobile’s date selector
  7. Datetime – displays the mobile’s data and time selector
  8. Month – displays the mobile’s month/year selector

B: Design and Structure:

 

6. Multi-step forms normally out-perform single step forms.

In most instances breaking up a single step form into two or three steps will improve completion rates. Single step forms tend to be off-putting to users unless they are simply an email capture form. There are three core reasons for this:

  • Long forms with lots of input fields to be completed can be off-putting to users, particularly if they are on a mobile device.
  • Users are more motivated by seeing how close they are to completing a task than how far they have progressed (see goal gradient effect). Use a progress bar to show progress and how close customers are to finishing the form (i.e. show progress even on the first step of the form).
  • By breaking a long form up into multiple steps you can ask sensitive information (e.g. personal information) on the last step. Once users have completed the first step  of a multi-stage form they are more likely to complete other steps because of the emotional investment they have already made. This is known as the sunk cost fallacy.

Casumo, the online casino, decided to take this approach to its natural conclusion by asking one question per step. To avoid information overload and to allow the user the concentrate on one question at a time Casumo serves each input field on a separate page.

Casumo.com's one question per page sign-up form minimises distractions for the user
Casumo.com 12 step registration form

 

You might think creating a 12 step form would be off-putting for users, but from looking at Casumo’s affiliate page it appears they have a very high conversion rate. Further, usability research conducted by the UK Government’s Digital Service found the one question per page approach consistently worked best for their users.

What we don’t know is if there is an optimal number of pages for this strategy and so some caution may need to be taken when copying this approach.

7. Single column forms outperform multi-column forms:

Most A/B tests indicate that single column forms outperform two-column layouts. This may be because multi-column layouts are more distracting for users as their eyes are drawn to more than one question at a time. However, it is still appropriate to use multiple columns for dates (e.g. date of birth) and time as users expect such fields to be on one line.

8. Remove all non-mandatory fields:

It stands to reason that the more input fields you have on your form the lower the completion rate will be. Removing non-essential fields such as gender, password confirmation and any other fields that you don’t need for any regulatory or critical business purpose can lead to significant improvements in form completion rates. Be ruthless with evaluating each field and if it’s not absolutely necessary get rid of it.

9. Clearly label optional questions:

Although I recommend you remove optional fields or move them to another stage in the user journey (e.g. confirmation page), some organisations insist on them for compliance or other reasons. However, if they are asked use placeholders to make it clear they are optional so that users can decide whether they wish to complete them.

Image of check-out form from LizEarle.com with required fields labelled but not optional field
Image Source:

This example above from Liz Earle  clearly labels the mandatory fields, but fails to label the one optional field (Telephone). This can create uncertainty about whether it is necessary to complete the field or not.  By simply displaying the word ‘Optional’  to the right of the field we eliminate any unnecessary uncertainty.

 

10. Don’t repeat questions:

This is related to the above point as it should not be necessary to repeat any questions. Apart from annoying users, repeating fields just adds to the length of your form.

Image of how to get users to confirm email is correct
Image Source:

Rather than asking users to re-type their email address or password simply display it as the default setting (i.e. Show characters) and if necessary ask them to confirm it is correct using a radio button or other appropriate CTA.

Further, if you also automatically email users their login details there is no real need to ask them to confirm their details are correct on the form.

11. Display password characters as the default:

Most input errors occur because users can’t see what they have typed and so don’t hide the characters of the user’s password. Set “Show password” as the default experience.

Here we can see how Amazon’s sign in form has evolved over time to have show password characters as the default.

Image of how Amazon.com's sign in form has changed over time to show password characters as the default
Image Source:

 

12. Give a clear reason for why users should complete your form:

Research by Dan Ariely found that people are less motivated to complete tasks if they have little or no purpose. Ensure you help motivate users by giving a clear benefit for completing your form, whether it’s a free e-book, regular updates or to redeem vouchers.

In the test below for BettingExpert.com, Michael Aagaard achieved an uplift of 32% by amending the form title to communicate a clear reason why visitors should sign up.

Image of Bettingexpert.com sign up form with clear reason register
Image Source:

 

13. Apply conditional logic to reduce form length:

Conditional logic refers to where a question is only displayed if a visitor has answered an earlier question in a certain way. This approach shortens the form length and prevents users being asked irrelevant questions that could trigger abandonment.

Example of how to ask a question to get commitment for improving blog sign-ups
Image Source:

 

14. Align field labels to the top left-hand side of input boxes. 

UX researchers at Google discovered that labels which were aligned on the top left-hand side significantly  improved form completion. They believe this may be because it reduces the number of visual fixations required by the user.

15. Don’t ask for phone numbers unless absolutely needed:

Asking for personal data is always problematic, but many users are particularly concerned about entering their phone number into forms. Research shows that adding a phone number can reduce form conversion by between 5% (Unbounce) to 49% (Vital Design).

16. Create sections for related questions:

Create a logical flow to your form by grouping related questions together into homogeneous sections or steps. This helps set expectations of the type of information to be requested and should avoid customers being surprised by the questions you ask.

17. Use smart defaults:

When asking questions such as country or phone number you should offer a default country or phone code based upon the user’s IP address.

Image of smart defaults using geolocation
Image Source:

18. Avoid splitting single input fields:

Splitting input fields into separate chunks (e.g. separating post code into two input fields or having a separate field for area code for telephone number). This increases the number of clicks a user has to make and the division may be perceived as illogical by some users. Further, it may also create uncertainty about what’s required.

Image of how to condense multiple fields on a mobile form into a single field
Image Source:

If you must ask for an extension number for instance, hide it behind a form control rather than showing it as a default. Hiding irrelevant form controls has been shown to reduce error rates and improve form completion.

 

19. Clearly state why you require sensitive information:

As privacy is a major concern for many users it is important that you give a valid reason for requesting any sensitive personal information. The reason behind a request should be shown as either a tool tip or supporting text below the field.

20. Enable predictive search when large number of pre-defined options:

When users are faced with selecting a train station, city, country, occupation or something else with lots of predefined options, it’s a much better user experience if there is a predictive search feature to minimise typing and cognitive load.

 

Image of predictive search for train station on virgintrains.co.uk
Image Source:

 

21. Select field types that minimise the number of clicks or taps needed to complete a question:

Generally the more clicks or taps required the lower the completion rate will be. For this reason Luke Wroblewski recommends using drop down menus as the UI of last resort. For a date of birth or time question a drop down menu will require 3 or more separate clicks to open each drop down. If a multiple date picker menu is used instead (see image below) this only requires a single click to access all the columns in the field.

Image of multiple date picker
Image Source: 32red.com

 

  • Use radio buttons when there are multiple options but only one option can be chosen.
  • Use checkboxes when more than one option can be chosen. Always stack radio buttons and checkboxes vertically as it makes it faster to process them compared to displaying them horizontally.
  • Use a stepper for small increments rather than a drop down menu.
  • A table view is good for short lists.
  • Drop downs are more often used for lists with more than six options. However, for long lists (e.g. country) don’t show in pure alphabetical order if most users are known to select an option starting with a letter near the end of the alphabet (e.g. USA or United Kingdom).

22. Avoid Placeholder Text:

A placeholder is the light text that is shown in a field to guide users on how to complete a field. They are usually employed to reduce any uncertainty about the required format or content of the field.

Designers like placeholder text because it can reduce visual clutter by removing field labels. However, usability research by Nielsen Norman Group has shown that it causes many usability problems. For example, it makes it difficult for users to remember what information should be entered into a field and to check for and fix errors.

23. Always show a field name:

A label describing the nature of the information required should always be visible outside the input field and should not be replaced with placeholders. Using placeholders as the field label is problematic because as soon as a user begins to enter text into the field the placeholder text will disappear. This means the user would then have to rely on their memory to remember what information is expected.

To save space some forms use inline labels as these are always visible. This is the only occasion when you may want remove field labels.

24. The length of text field should reflect nature of question:

It is important to adjust the length of a text field to allow for the amount of text the user is expected to enter. A phone number field for instance should be shorter than the address field. For instance in a returns form users can get annoyed if there is insufficient space to enter a full explanation of the nature of damage or other information that has been requested.

25. Use address lookup services for address verification & completion:

Minimise user effort when asking for their address by employing an address lookup and verification service. These tools are now able to suggest addresses as soon the user begins to type their details or the user can enter their post code or zip code to select from the options available.

Image of address finder from http://uk.lizearle.com/
Image Source:

 

26. Clickable images are an engaging way to ask a question:

Leadformly has found that selectable images are one of the most engaging way of asking a question. Below Animal Friends Insurance uses images of different animals to make the process more engaging.

 

Image of form from Animalfriends.co.uk using characters to ask question
Image Source:

 

27. Use the welcome page to direct users towards the next step:

Your thank-you page should be used to direct visitors to the next action you want them to take. Use the thank-you page to clearly communicate the next step in the user journey so that visitors can continue without any uncertainty about what to do next.

28. Use encapsulation to  reduce distractions:

Encapsulation uses formatting, directional cues, boxes, colour  or shading to frame a form to remove distractions and improve prominence.  This often means removing banners, ads, social media icons and other links that might take users away from the form. The primary navigation is also often hidden, though it is worth A/B testing this change as sometimes users can respond negatively to all exit points being removed.

 

C: Usability:

 

29. Don’t use CAPTCHA’s:

CAPTCHAs (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) have been found to significantly reduce form completion rates as they act as they reduce accessibility for many users. In one study it was found that by removing the traditional word format CAPTCHA form conversion increased by 3.2%.

Image of CAPTCHA on wrexhamfc.co.uk
Image Source:

CAPTCHAs also ask frustrating questions like “Are you a robot?” which can create unease and increase the cognitive load on users. CAPTCHAs  are a lazy way of dealing with spam on a form as it puts the responsibility for preventing it on the user. Apart from phone or email validation, there are a number of other ways of protecting your site from spam and bots, including creating a honeypot (using a hidden field).

30. Avoid only using colour to communicate:

One in twelve (8%) men and less than 1% of women suffer from colour blindness which means they can’t differentiate between certain colours. Red-green colour blindness is the most common form. This means that yellow and green appear redder and users find it difficult to differentiate between violet and blue.

When using colour to communicate, such as for input errors and progress indicators, ensure you display text and/or icons to ensure clarity of the message.

31.Use cross-browser checking tools:

Check that your form works and renders on all major devices and browsers. When I reviewed a major bingo site I noticed that the load speed for the registration page had doubled after the new site was launched. When the developers investigated the problem they discovered that the form was not loading properly in Internet Explorer.

Check out the cross-browser checking solutions in this post: 12 cross-browser tools to boost conversion.

32. Allow users to navigate your form using the tab key:

Disabled users often rely on software that is operated by the tab key to move between questions.

33. Provide an explanation for questions which users may have difficulty understanding:

Many forms have sector specific questions that users may struggle to instantly understand. Some of these questions are mandatory and are needed for regulatory and compliance purposes. Use clear visual explanations such as tool tips that display when the user hovers over the question.

34. Avoid assets or text that flash:

Flashing or moving buttons and text can be very distracting to users because our brains are programed to respond to movement in case it signals some kind of threat. In addition, if an asset flashes more than twice per second it can also cause a seizure in some people.

35. Ask for additional information using milestone submissions:

Milestone submissions give users the option to continue to provide additional information when they get to a certain step in the form. This allows you to remove non-mandatory information from your form, but then give those users who wish to continue the chance to enter additional information.

Image of Jackwills.com confirmation page which allows user to create account at this milestone
Image Source:

Jack Wills effectively uses this approach in its check out form. Rather than forcing visitors to register an account before purchasing, the site asks customers on the purchase confirmation page if they wish to set a password and create an account. This ensures that setting up an account does not prevent the customer from buying merchandise.

36. Ensure high contrast between fields and the background:

As a majority of users on many sites are now on mobile devices it is especially important that forms are designed with good contrast between fields and the background. Otherwise users may struggle to see where to tap in bright sunshine or low-light situations.

37. Don’t auto-advance to the next question:

As auto-advancing (automatically moving onto the next question) is not standard on most forms it is not expected and can be off-putting for users.

38. Don’t have spell checker turned on for all fields:

Having the spell checker or auto-correct activated for input fields such as username, email address or name can be very annoying and frustrating for users. Only activate spell checkers and auto-correct when it is clearly beneficial for the vast majority of users.

39. Allow browser to auto-fill:

Most popular browsers like Google Chrome now retain certain personal information to allow you to use their auto-fill function. This can save users time in entering personal information into your form but you must properly tag fields with terms that the browser recognises (e.g. ‘first name’ or ‘city’).

40. Monitor the load speed of your forms:

Research by Google shows that load speed is important to prevent users abandoning your site. Form pages are just the same, make sure you optimise them for load speed. Use Google’s free developer tool or your web analytics to monitor load speed.

41. Visual cues and recognisable icons can improve usability:

People don’t read text on websites; they scan it to save time. Displaying visual cues can assist users because we process visual images faster than text. However, don’t invent new icons as if they are not already in common use visitors will not instantly recognise them and the icon will potentially slow cognitive processing and confuse users.

 

D: Data Handling and Error Messages:

 

42. Explain formatting requirements:

Don’t be too prescriptive of how you want data to be entered to fit in with your perception of the ‘correct’ format for a field. People use various different formats for fields such as telephone number (e.g. +44 1829 281771, 01829 281771,  + 1829 281771). To make your form user friendly get programmers to use rules to convert data to a consistent format after it has been entered rather than forcing people to conform to the format that your back-end systems has been configured to.

In addition, display tool tips to show users the correct format.

 

43. Use inline validation and display error messages soon after completing the field:

Error messages should be inline (to the right of the field), and should be displayed soon after the user completes a field to prevent them clicking on the form CTA. The validation should not be real-time either as otherwise this will report an error before the visitor has completed the field. It is recommended that error messages should be displayed around 500ms after the user has moved onto the next field.

Image of inline validation on mobile form
Image Source:

E: Persuasive Design:

 

44. First impressions count:

Visitors expect your form to look professional and well designed. Don’t cut corners on the quality of design as first impressions are important and poor design does create anxiety about how trustworthy a site might be.

Image of poorly designed signed in screen
Image Source: Partycasino.com

This welcome page on partycasino.com creates the impression that little thought has been put into the design of the screen. Users  are likely to be less responsive to the offer of making a deposit when so little effort has been put into the design of the page.

45. Use risk reducers to manage expectations and prevent user anxiety:

People often have concerns about completing forms that can significantly reduce completion rates if not dealt with appropriately. This can range from will they pass on my email address to other companies? Will I have to enter credit card details? Will I get sales calls as a result of entering my telephone number? How long will it take to complete the form?

Display appropriate risk reducers such as “No credit card required”, “No deposit required” or “No booking fee” on or below the call to action.

Images of different types of CTAs

46. Avoid negative influences:

Be careful to avoid negative influences like unnecessary graphical elements near the CTA that can cause a momentary pause as the user considers its meaning. Don’t use stop words with negative associations like for example “spam” in your privacy statement.

Image of A/B test for bettingexpert.com with privacy statement variant
Image Source:

Most people would expect displaying a privacy message to reassure visitors that they won’t be spammed would be a good idea. Well, you would be wrong, as Michael Aagaard found that adding a privacy message reduced form conversion by almost 19%. The word “spam has such strong negative connotations that it appears to automatically raise concerns in the user’s mind.

47. Avoid security seals unless you are asking for payment:

Be cautious about displaying a security seal on a form as it may raise un-necessary concerns about site safety. Further, security seals are associated with payment and so visitors may think you are going to ask for payment during completion of the form. I have seen a number of A/B tests where adding a security seal before the payment page actually reduced form completion rates.

 

48. Use live chat to offer instant support to users on your form:

Live chat is a powerful tool to assist users in real-time to answer any questions or deal with problems completing a form. Display a live chat window within close proximity of your form as it helps build social proof and can be used to gather real-time feedback on any problems encountered by users.

Image of live chat on Betfair.com registration form
Image Source: Betfair.com

 

49. Use social proof to establish credibility:

Display evidence of social proof, such as number of customers (if large), testimonials, logos of well-known partners or customers, awards or social media likes/shares close to your form. People have a strong herd instinct and so relevant and compelling social proof can be very persuasive.

50. Display progress indicators on multi-step forms:

Research by psychologists has shown that people are more motivated by how close they are to completing a task than the progress they have made (see goal gradient effect).

Image of progress indicator on animalfriends.co.uk
Image Source:

 

Progress indicators have been shown to improve completion rates because they reduce a visitor’s anxiety by communicating how close they are to completing the form. Further, starting your progress bar with some progress already made has been shown to also improve completion rates.

51. Clearly signpost number of steps together with progress:

To benefit fully from the goal gradient effect make sure you clearly display the total number of steps and which step the visitor is currently on to eliminate any uncertainty. In this example below you can clearly see that the progress indicator shows the number of steps and the CTA text reinforces this by saying what the next step is.

Image of partypoker.com registration form which shows number of steps and the step the user is on
Image Source: partypoker.com

 

52. Take care with transition speeds:

Be careful not to have too fast a transition speed as users may not notice the form has moved to the next step if it is too fast.

F: Call to Actions:

 

53. Call to actions should complete the sentence “I want to ….”

Use verbs that match what the user is looking to achieve by clicking or tapping on the CTA. Avoid ambiguous and generalised text such as “Submit” or “Send” as these do not inspire action.  Ideally the text on a button should answer the question “I want to” from the customer’s perspective.

For example, if the form creates a new account the CTA copy could be “Create my free account”. Making the copy more personal by using the word “my” rather than “your” has also been found to sometimes improve conversion.

 

54. Make your call to action look like a button:

Designing your CTA to look like a button removes any uncertainty about it being clickable and makes it stand out from your input fields.  Hyperlinks have been found to significantly reduce click through rates. Further, by giving your CTA the same width as your input fields it helps to ensure it is prominent and easy to locate on the screen.

Image of examples of call to actions

 

55. Call to actions should stand out from the page:

The colour of your call to action can make a difference to your conversion rate, but normally this is due the lack of contrast between the button colour and the background. To avoid this problem use a colour that has a high contrast with the background colour and ideally is not already is use on the page.

56. Use logical sequence for questions:

Order questions logically to assist with form completion and do not automatically follow the sequence of your back-end systems. For example, use the same order that information is shown on a credit or debit card (i.e. card number, valid from date, expiry date and security code). For field values consider the frequency of usage and list the most common values first when possible. To assist keyboard users test the Tab-key navigation to check that it follows the correct field sequence.

57. Don’t use ‘reset’, ‘cancel’ or ‘clear’ buttons:

Avoid including CTAs that cancel or clear your form as they are un-necessary and create a risk that users will accidentally delete all of the information they’ve input. This is frustrating for users and most people understand that they can clear a form by refreshing the page.

This registration page from e-commerce site Liz Earle has a ‘Cancel’ button on the bottom left-hand corner. It’s unnecessary and runs the risk of users clicking on it by mistake.

Image of registration form on Lizearle.com with cancel button
Image Source:

 

58. Don’t automatically opt-in users to your mailing list:

Auto-enrolling visitors to your mailing list forces users to make an extra click to opt-out and can create anxiety that you will be spamming them. You should also avoid tricking users into agreeing to receive promotional material as this can also harm trust in your organisation.

Image of unclick to receive marketing communications on Littlewoods.com
Image Source:

I came across this example from Littlewoods.com which attempts to automatically enrol users into their mailing list.

 

59. Avoid complex legal messages adjacent to your CTAs:

Displaying long and complex legal disclaimers next to your CTA can create anxiety and be off-putting to users. Where possible combine them into a single message and keep them as concise as possible.

Below you can see how William Hill have used links to minimise the amount of text for accepting terms and conditions. Betfair on the other hand have much more text which could be quite off-putting.

Image of legal messages from Williamhill.com and Betfair.com

 

60. Disable form submission CTA after it has been clicked once:

Disable the form submission CTA immediately after the first click. This prevents duplicate clicks on the CTA leading to data being re-submitted and/or multiple charges being made on the user’s credit card.

61. Send a confirmation email:

A confirmation email should be used to reinforce key messages and actions communicated by your welcome or confirmation page. This is your opportunity to establish your authority in your customer’s email inbox. Ensure you have an email autoresponder cycle set up to build a long-term relationship with your new customers.

62. Re-target visitors who abandon your form:

Don’t forget to have a re-targeting strategy in place to deal with those visitors who abandon your form. There are solutions available to send emails in real-time to users who abandon forms and on-site re-marketing techniques to capture email addresses for those customer who are not logged in. It is also worth considering re-targeting ads.

Conclusion:

Forms are ripe for testing. For any site with a reasonable amount of traffic I suggest you regularly A/B test your form designs to improve their performance. Validating changes with A/B or multivariate tests helps to ensure that the changes you make are improving your success metric and not just pushing through more unprofitable users.

For this reason don’t just set your success metric as form completion, but  also measure your most important conversion metric (e.g. sales or average order value). You can then identify if the changes made are impacting upon your bottom line and are worth implementing.

Thank you for reading my post and I hope you found it useful. Please share using the social media icons below if you like this post.

You can view my full Digital Marketing and Optimization Toolbox here.

To browse links to all my posts on one page please click here.

  • About the author:  Neal provides digital marketing optimisation consultancy services and has worked for  brands such as Deezer.comFoxybingo.com, Very.co.ukpartypoker.com and Bgo.com. He uses a variety of techniques, including web analytics, personas, customer journey analysis and customer feedback to improve a website’s conversion rate.
  • Neal has had articles published on website optimisation on Usabilla.com  and as an ex-research and insight manager on the GreenBook Blog research website.  If you wish to contact Neal please send an email to neal.cole@conversion-uplift.co.uk. You can follow Neal on Twitter @northresearch, see his LinkedIn profile or connect on Facebook.