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The Benefits of Showing Progress

Form Optimisation

Progress indicators are a powerful tool to help your customers complete their form-filling journey. They inform, reassure and encourage.

They play an important role in reducing the anxiety many users feel when faced with a long form: how long is this going to take me? Will I manage to finish it before I need to go out? Is it just going to be a waste of my precious time?

If they can see that they are progressing through the form, these questions will be answered for them. Less chance of form abandonment, more chance of a conversion.

There are several ways of showing progress within a form, including progress bars and inline validation, and they both have valuable benefits:

  • Provide feedback: communicate with the customer and encourage them to continue
  • Provide reassurance/reduce uncertainty: we have your information and this is how much more we need
  • Increase satisfaction levels: appeal to a user’s drive to complete a task
  • Personalise your brand: we care about your time
  • Supply customer insight: set up the right analytics and you’ll see when customers most frequently abandon your form and which ones might need help

Research: shows that 75% of people want a progress bar. So what have you got to lose?

The Psychological Power of a Progress Bar

Progress bars can appear either inside or outside the form. There are three main types:

  • Percentage bar – this displays how far a user has progressed through the form in percentage terms. Starting fast and ending at a slower pace will reduce drop-off rates as satisfaction levels spike quickly. The perception is that most of the work has already been done.
  • Steps left bar – this option indicates how many steps have been completed and how many are left. Again, this is a numerically-pleasing method of showing progress which is often designed to look like a path to completion.
  • Checklist bar – similar to the steps left approach but the fields don’t need to be completed in a specific order. This gives the customer the freedom to move through the form in their preferred way, for example completing the most complicated fields first to get them out of the way.

All of these options provide feedback on the users’ actions. What they’re inputting is being taken on board, the interface reassures them that the system is working: the computer says yes.

Informative and honest guidance likes this reduces uncertainty and creates the impression of speed, progression and achievement. It humanises the process, harnessing the emotional rather than the technical journey a user is on and making it a positive experience.

Taige Zhang, senior product manager at online grocery delivery service Shipt, states in his blog The Power of The Progress Bar: “If I had to pick out the most effective tool for onboarding a user, it would be the progress bar.”

But why are they so effective?

It’s all down to psychology. Specifically, gamification.

Incorporating game design elements in non-game contexts – in this case, points that take the form of the stages in a progress indicator – can dramatically improve user engagement.

Described by Peep Laja, Chief Conversion Officer at conversion marketing agency Markitekt, as a “path to mastery”, gamification encourages users to engage in desired behaviours via reward-based methods.

And it can give your forms the boost they need to make it to the next level.

The technique plugs into several psychological theories:

We are driven by having goals and accomplishing them

Human beings want to achieve. Whether it’s climbing Everest or completing a credit card application form, the need to succeed is irrefutable.

1. We can feel stressed by incompleteness

Incomplete tasks – and an incomplete progress bar – can stay stuck in your customer’s memory. Focusing on it, and only being able to imagine completion, can lead to tension: when can I finish it? Will the information I’ve already inputted still be there? Can I remember the password I used?

2. We all respond to operant conditioning

Doing something to resolve this tension – returning to the form to finish it – is a form of negative reinforcement. You’ve silenced the nagging voice and can enjoy the bonus of positive reinforcement: form is filled in, tick is made on to-do list.

3. We find completeness intrinsically rewarding

We inherently feel good when we achieve something and this is backed up by neuroscience. Zhang quotes an article written by Dr Hugo Liu from MIT and hunch.com in which he says: “It turns out that when you finish a complex task, your brain releases massive quantities of endorphins.”

The reward for this “need to complete” is powerful: you know that when you complete a project, your spirits will be lifted. This knowledge spurs you on to keep going.

Harness this effect within your forms and you’re much more likely to be successfully cheering your customers over the finish line.

Playing the Inline Validation Game

Another method of showing progress is through inline validation: as the user moves through the form, a succession of green ticks appear within or alongside each successfully-completed field.

This also embraces the idea of gamification. The reward is a green tick, followed by another green tick and another. The immediate indication is that the customer is reaching their end-goal; accomplishing small goals to reach a big goal is what makes playing a game addictive.

Seeing that green tick leads to a sense of satisfaction: I am progressing, I am achieving. The icon appeals to people’s natural desire to master and to complete. It creates a sense of rapid progression and accomplishment, as well as powerful visual feedback.

Any deviation from this progress can be highlighted with a red cross and/or a friendly, conversational error message to quickly get them back on track.

The positive green ticks soon fill the screen again and motivate them to continue. This evidence of progress eliminates any potential sense of failure, frustration or anger. The chances of form abandonment lessen and those completion endorphins are ready to fizz.

Play the progress game well to see your conversion levels soar and you’ll soon be enjoying your own endorphin rush.