What Users Really Want From Online Forms.

When it comes to filling out forms, people want more transparency and fewer steps.

Rebecca Gordon
January 5, 2016

The idea behind online application forms is simple: Users hand over personal information to get something they want from a company—to set up an account or complete a purchase, for example. It's the most important interaction from the user's point of view. But for brands, the stakes are even higher. At this crucial point of conversion, a poorly designed form can leave users frustrated, confused, and annoyed. The user could even abandon the process altogether.

So as designers, we're always refining our approach to creating these forms so that the user comes first. Does a form appear less intimidating with fewer steps? Would users prefer to know what information they're asked to share all at once? What type of form looks quickest and easiest to complete? 

As part of our ongoing usability research series, we compared two types of forms to get a better sense of which is more user-friendly. We created two prototypes of a credit card application form (images below), with realistic interactions and content: the first, a single-page form with all fields on one page and the second, a multiple-step form that featured fewer fields on consecutive screens. We gave our form prototypes to a test group to gauge their experience and overall preferences. Here’s what the users had to say.

Findings.

The single-page form is slightly quicker.

The average time it took a user to complete the single-page form was 121.6 seconds, compared to the 142.35 seconds on average for the multi-step form—almost a 21-second difference. While not enormous, this difference was significant nonetheless. With these results, any perceived notion the testers may have had of one form being quicker to complete can be backed up with their actual experience. According to one tester:

"[The single-page form] just seemed like it was easier and faster to complete. While neither of them were difficult to complete, the first one just seemed simpler because it was just one page."

The single-page form made it easier to go back and correct mistakes.

When rating on a 7-point scale of how easy or difficult each task was (1 being very easy and 7 being very difficult), participants’ average rating for the single-page form was 1.42, and the average for the multi-step form was 1.75. Based on these averages, we know that both forms were seen as relatively easy, but the single-page form rated slightly better. Several testers noted the ease at which mistakes could be corrected with the single-page form, as opposed to clicking the back button for the multi-step form:

"On the [multi-step] form, I would have to click back three times in order to get back to the personal information page. The second form made it easier to correct mistakes efficiently."

Single-page forms offer more transparency and are overall preferable.

The vast majority—80%—of participants said they preferred the single-page form over the multi-step form. Many of the participants liked the transparency of seeing all the form fields from the get-go rather than not knowing what they were getting themselves into with a multi-step form, in which  the next questions were a mystery.

"What I like about the [single-page] form is that I know up front how much info I will be providing and I can estimate how long it will take."

How we tested.

We tested a sample group of 20 people—half male, half female—aged 18 to 64. All were experienced internet users who had completed forms when shopping or applying for services online before. Each participant completed both forms on their desktop or laptop computers (half started with the single-page form and the other half, with the multi-step form). While the participants read instructions and completed the test on their own, their results and interactions were recorded remotely. After they were done, we asked the participants to provide their results on the following:

  • How easy or difficult was it to fill out the form? We asked participants to answer on a scale from 1 (very easy) to 7 (very difficult).
  • Which form did they prefer and why? 

We also measured a user’s time on task—starting from the moment the participant started the form to the moment they hit the submit button.

One page form

Multiple Step

Conclusions.

These findings apply to the specific study we conducted. There are many contributing factors that could affect the findings—such as the industry and product that the application was for. These findings could also be affected by the type of device used by the participants, or the complexity or sensitivity of the questions in the forms. To confirm these findings, further studies are necessary. 

But given the scope of our research, with credit card application prototypes on desktop and laptop, we are clear on one thing: the one-page form wins the day. And it’s because users want the ease and transparency of a single page of form fields. With these test results and insights in mind, we can apply our findings toward better designs for today’s users.

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