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Best Practices

Effective Website Forms 101

25. 01. 2009

Plenty of consideration and planning is required in creating successful website forms, even the most straightforward ones. In fact, best forms tend to appear uncomplicated.   No matter the size or complexity, web forms are one of the most important tools of a website and need to be approached as such. Numerous functions can be conveniently executed with the help of web forms.

Gathering survey results, acquiring payment information, or receiving and categorizing inquiries can be a breeze. Regardless of the purpose they serve, same basic best practices apply to all. To ensure proper utilization and ideal performance of your web forms, the following best practices should be implemented. Note that some exceptions may occur.

1. Title it.

Indicate the main purpose of the form(s) with a clear title such as 'Contact Form' or 'Billing Information'.

2. Break up long forms.

Lengthy forms should be split up into sections and/or pages by topic. Structuring a form into categories like 'Billing Address', 'Shipping Address', or 'Payment Information', makes it less intimidating for respondents. In addition, all steps in the process should be identified, including an indication of the step currently in use.  It's also good practice to enable the action of going back to a previous step.  For truly extensive multi-step forms, it is highly advised that you disclose how long the entire process may take. This helps to reduce abandonment rates as visitors are able to gauge if they have enough time to complete the form.

3. Label all fields.

Every field or box in your form should be clearly labeled - no abbreviations. Required fields should be clearly marked.  Fields with common answers can be pre-populated with a list of options to choose from. For example, a list of the countries you sell to should be available under the 'country' field. The state or province field should provide a drop-down list of choices.  Likewise a general inquiry form could benefit from a list of options in the 'type of inquiry' field.

4. Display formatting preferences.

If you require a certain format for data collection, provide a formatting example.  If your form asks for an area code or a long distance extension for a telephone number, show the formatting you prefer a respondent to enter.

5. Provide adequate space.

Create boxes or fields big enough to display the full contents of a respondent's entry so they can easily review it.

6. Use Obvious, Comprehensible Buttons.

Clear, visible, user-friendly buttons are highly recommended. Buttons like, Next, Buy, Process, Submit, help a respondent understand what will happen if they click on the button.

7. Display error messages.

Use error messages to indicate when a respondent has filled out the form incorrectly or missed a required field. Clarify what needs to be fixed to complete the form.  Ideally, data already provided should be saved to alleviate any frustration in having to re-enter it while fixing the errors. Note that clearly labeled fields and examples of formatting help to decrease the amount of error messages a visitor encounters. v

8. Ask only for what you need.

Limit your amount of questions. Only request information absolutely necessary to complete or process your form's request.

9. Save your data.

Avoid sending data to respondents via email. In fact don't send sensitive data via email at all - this can be a hole for a security breach.  Save it onto a database and email the respondent a notification to login to your system and view the data this way.  Saving data into a database will also provide much more flexibility for future reporting, sorting, and filtering.

10. Thank you messages.

Once a respondent has completed the online form it's courteous to thank them and inform them of the next step in the process.  "Thank you.  A customer service representative will contact you shortly…" or "Thank you for your purchase.  Your order will be processed shortly."

11. Track it.

A key component of managing a website form is tracking it with your analytic tool(s).  Get a better idea of what a respondent did before and after using the form.  Analysis of this type provides a clearer understanding of what is working or not working. If you are using Google Analytics, be sure to create your own "Goal(s)".

12. Add credibility.

Show that you take a respondent's information seriously. Use an SSL to encrypt the data provided when sending it from the browser to the server. This extra level of security and the increased confidence it displays is worth the cost of a couple of hundred dollars a year.  Confidence and credibility contributors like HackerSafe that check for security holes within a server, have shown to improve website form conversion rates. Don't forget to include a link to your privacy policy on your form to explain what you do with the information collected; who you share it with and what other data you collect that the respondent may not know about, like a visitor's IP address.

Website forms should never be an afterthought. Even the success of a marketing campaign can be gauge by the number of submissions completed. Once you understand their full potential you'll see that they are definitely worth added effort. After all, a website form discloses an act of intention from a visitor.  It provides a very clear understanding of what they were doing prior to completing the form. Knowing what lead someone to proceed with completing your form will help you to determine the effectiveness of your website.

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