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Which US University Information Request Forms Are First Class?

Form Optimisation

When students are considering where to spend their college fund, they want to be reassured from the first interaction.  In many cases this is the ‘request more information’ form.  

As with any sales process, converting enquiries into paying customers is key.  Make it quick and easy for potential students to get what they need and you’re on the way to securing a new customer.  Make it too difficult and you could lose out.

To find out which US universities and colleges are doing this best, I completed 51 information request forms using a standard persona.  Each form was rated against 52 metrics to produce an overall score and used to create a league table.  Those with the highest scores minimised user frustration and enhanced form completion rates.  Here’s what my research revealed.

Completion Rates Rely on Form Length

The faster potential students can complete your form, the greater the chance they’ll get to the end.  One of the best ways to speed users through your form is to reduce the number of fields.  

Yet my analysis reveals almost a four-fold difference in field number between the longest and shortest forms.

Why is this important?  Because field number impacts overall form performance, giving those universities with fewest fields a significant advantage and those with most room for improvement.

According to my ranking method, the top rated universities ask users to complete 62% fewer fields than those ranked in the bottom five.  That’s an average of 4.6 fields versus an average of 12.4 fields.  For a form that requires basic personal information, plus details about area and level of study, this is quite a variance. 

Those universities and colleges with larger numbers of fields have an opportunity to decrease the psychological barrier that a long form presents.  Too many fields can make the form look like it will take too long to complete or make it feel difficult.  By removing fields, universities can make their forms look quick and easy which enhances the user’s commitment to complete and increases conversion rates.

Divide And Conquer With Steps?

Splitting forms into steps is always debatable, particularly for a relatively short ‘request more information’ form.

I’ve been optimising forms for over five years now and I’ve found that splitting or combining steps can have unpredictable consequences.  In the case of university information forms, there’s a strong prevalence in the market towards a single step, probably because the number of fields is relatively few.

Those forms with more than one step risk increasing completion times as customers wait for pages to load between sections.  This gives users the perfect opportunity to switch to another tab on their device where they’ll soon forget your form. Whether they’ll come back is not guaranteed.  

There are other challenges with splitting forms into steps.  As your potential student takes in the new page they’re required to refocus, absorb the contents and understand what they need to do.  And that’s all before they even begin to complete the fields.

All this adds to the user’s cognitive load, slows them down and increases form completion time.  For a form with an average of 4.6 fields, splitting fields into sections could be a time-consuming step too far.

Life’s Too Short For Long Forms

While applying to university is exciting, nobody wants to spend more time than is absolutely necessary filling forms.

My analysis shows that it takes students an average of 40 seconds to complete an information request form with a high of 76 seconds (Abraham Lincoln University) and a low of just 22 seconds (West Governors).

After number of fields, form completion time is the second most important factor in completion rates.  That’s because every second spent filling in your form is less time your potential student has to do something else.

As the graph below demonstrates, there are many factors that influence the overall time it takes to complete a form, from field type to page load time.

Deciding which field type to use and when is critical in helping your user to complete the form.  But there are no hard and fast rules about what should be used, because it will vary depending on the type of information you want to gather and how your form has been designed.

However, there are some lessons to be learned from the top and bottom five performing forms.  In the case of ‘additional information request’ forms, much of the information being gathered, like name and address, is best suited to free text boxes.

The top five best performing forms capture 86.4% of the information they need using this approach.  The remaining 13.6% of the data is obtained using drop down boxes.

The bottom five ranked forms capture 46.8% of their data with text boxes and almost the same amount again with drop-down menus.  Radio buttons (5.3%) and tick boxes (1.8%) secure the remaining data.

This set-up is likely to be related to the number of questions the lower performing forms contain.  Because they request additional information, they are looking for alternative ways to gather the data.

Assuming that this extra information is required, I would recommend replacing drop-down menus with faster-to-use radio buttons where possible.

A common question on university information request forms is the course level the student is interested in.  As in the image below, the range of options are often presented as a drop-down.

Source: Liberty University

While drop-downs may seem like an efficient way to gather information they can be time-consuming.  The user must click, read the list of options, possibly scrolling to do so, and then click again to to select the right option.

Radio buttons would be quicker and as effective because the answers would be set the answers out on the page, enabling the user to scan the responses instantly and removing the need to click twice.

While radio buttons are great for shorter lists, long lists – like desired major – are better suited to a drop-down menu that can better accommodate a significant number of options.  Form analytics are a great way to test different approaches to see which generates the best conversion rates for your form.

For more detail on field types, visit the full report.

Highlight Required Fields – Or Remove Entirely

Another excellent way to reduce form completion time is to request only the information that’s required. This could mean removing fields from the form completely or indicating to users which fields they need to complete using a red asterisk.

My research found that only 58.8% of universities do this on their ‘request more information’ forms. Before you make any changes to your form, it’s worth considering whether you need any optional fields in the form at all.  Unnecessary fields makes the form look longer, even if the user doesn’t need to complete every field, and could put some people off.

Make Your Forms Mobile Friendly

When your main user demographic is likely to complete your form on a mobile device, mobile friendly keyboards are a must. Most of the universities and colleges I looked at have worked this out.   The majority use mobile friendly keyboards that automatically provide the user with the right keypad for the information being requested.

Forms that provide mobile users with a keyboard that doesn’t contain the right mix of numbers, letters and symbols run the risk of frustrating users.  A keypad with the ‘@’ sign will help customers complete email addresses more quickly and will meet their user experience expectations.

Mark Your User’s Performance

There are two main ways to let people know whether they’re completing your form right or wrong.  One is to point out when they’ve made a mistake with error messaging.  The other is to provide positive inline validation for each field as it’s completed to encourage progress.

Almost half of universities fail to provide any inline validation at all and of those that do only 10% are providing feedback on both success and error.  This is a missed opportunity to use the gamification techniques common to modern forms.  By rewarding users with a tick for each section correctly completed customers are motivated to complete the form.

Of those providing error feedback, 65% let the user know they’ve made a mistake at the time they enter incorrect information.  This is far better than telling users at the end of the form or section because their brain is focussed on the question making it easier to correct it.

The remaining 35% of universities haul users back up the page to correct an error.  Which is annoying once and borderline infuriating if there’s more than one error.  While this may seem like a minor adjustment it is probably one of the major causes of user frustration and can be very easily avoided.

Reassure From The Start

Choosing a university or college is a big decision so adding a phone number or live chat gives users confidence and presents your university as a supportive and proactive institution.  Giving nervous students (and their families) an easy way to get in touch might just put you ahead of other institutions.

If you want to know where your university’s ‘request more information’ form was ranked, scroll to the bottom of my full report.