Kevin Hale on the Art of Forms: Stop Asking For So Much!

Being an interface designer and someone that's created a form builder, I'm asked a lot of questions about optimizing data entry and user interaction. Specifically, people want to know why no one is filling out their forms.


kevin hale


Being an interface designer and someone that's created a form builder, I'm asked a lot of questions about optimizing data entry and user interaction. Specifically, people want to know why no one is filling out their forms. They want user feedback. They're ready for it. Stoked. The problem, from what I can tell, is they're asking too much.

Because we have data behind this on our servers, I can tell you definitively that the most actively filled out forms on Wufoo  are the simplest ones. Mailing lists. Contact forms. One-question polls. And it's a very simple long tail curve. Most of the entries are collected by just a few forms. And what you see is that there's an inverse relationship between the most popular forms and the amount of data they want to know. Basically, you dramatically decrease the number of submissions you're going to receive every time you add another question to your survey.

The people asking me questions about their forms, they're building monstrosities with over 100 fields. There's a reason why I (and so many other men) will never sign up for eHarmony. Their 436-question Relationship Questionnaire is completely incompatible with my patience. And the thing is, they KNOW this and they use this very behavior to their brilliant advantage.

The problem is the numbers are running against you even before you put a survey out there for your users. Jakob Nielsen sums it up pretty succinctly in his study on Participation Inequality. In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action. And so really, what you're optimizing for when you're asking for anything on the web is that sketchy 10% of visitors to your site to give you a little love. And the thing is the 90-9-1 ratio is approximate. It's worse for blog participation (95-5-0.1) and abysmal for Wikipedia (99.8-0.2-0.003). With the odds against before you even start, it's crucial not to make your few attempts at outreach to look like an interrogation. On the web, doing more with less doesn't just apply to resources and personnel. It's just another one of those strange paradoxes : the less you ask, the more you'll hear.

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