Filling in the "request more information" form on a university website is the first interaction that many students have with an organisation. If the process is easy then that student, and potential customer, will move quickly and seamlessly to the next stage of the application process. If the process is difficult then they're likely to abandon it. They may return at a later date, or they may engage with another learning organisation.
The competitive nature of the educational sector means that converting potential customers into paying customers is more important than ever.
I carried out this analysis in November 2017. I created a persona that was used across all the forms, meaning that the information I entered was standardised across all the forms.
In my analysis I counted only the required fields, so optional fields were noted but not included in my numbers.
Finally, when an average number is stated in this report it is a median average unless explained otherwise.
I reviewed and marked the "request information" forms and processes for key US universities
My research is focused on every aspect of the form, from the form elements, to the timing and mobile usability.
I scored each process based on the critical factors that will increase user frustration and decrease conversions
The best-performing universities cut the number of fields down to the minimum. Reducing the number fields means less effort, and less abandonment. The top five sites have a mean average of 4.6 fields, compared to 12.4 fields for the bottom five.
Showing errors next to the fields is critical. Displaying error messages next to the fields that contain the error makes it easy for the user to see where they need to make a correction. Making it easy for potential customers is important, and especially so when you're informing them that they've made a mistake.
Nearly half universities have no inline validation. 43% of forms have no inline validation, with just 9.8% notifying the user of success and mistakes in fields. The remaining 47.1% notify just on mistakes. Guiding the user through the process will help you get more potential customers to convert, and notifying users of issues as they complete the process will help reduce abandonment. Notifying users when they have successfully completed a field will give them more confidence in their efforts, and have a positive impact on conversions.
Your customers will be browsing on mobile, let's make the forms easy for them. 37.3% of the "request information" forms that I analysed did not use mobile friendly keyboards for the email field, making it more difficult for customers to enter that information on a mobile device. This also makes it easier for the customer to make a mistake in their email, meaning that communicating with them becomes harder.
Each step or block in a process is a new page or new section for a potential customer to absorb. There's no magic number of steps that will lead to a higher conversion rate but there's likely to be drop off if the process gets too long.
If you're looking to optimise and are considering changing the number of steps that a user has to complete, then firstly take a look at the market. If everyone else is doing something different, then you're either beating the market or performing worse than it. In my research you can see that almost all universities have a one or two step process. The average number of steps is 1.3, with 76% of universities having a single step. Considering the information required, it's questionable whether there should be any more than a single step.
Over my years of optimising forms I've seen that splitting, or combining steps, can have both a negative and a positive impact. It's an unpredictable optimisation, and often the changes require significant development resource.
Decreasing the number of fields in a process is a predictable optimisation. There's likely to be a relationship between the total number of fields and the conversion rate. Predictability is critical to an optimisation process, as most organisations have limited resources.
In my research the difference between the highest and lowest number of fields across all the forms is significant, with Western Governors University requiring the user to complete 15 fields, and Abraham University, Grantham University, Colorado State University and Liberty University requiring just 4. That's a large difference in time and effort required to complete the form, for what is ultimately the same process.
The average number of fields across all forms is 8. A potential customer who sees a shorter form is more likely to start, and complete it, and the time required to complete a shorter form is less. Aggressively reducing the size of the form, and reducing the effort required to complete it, will have a positive impact on conversion rates.
If reducing the number of fields that a user has to engage with is key, then how do you achieve this? The first pass is to remove any optional fields, unless they have significant value. Next, consider fields that are useful, but not vital to the process. Understanding what information is absolutely needed will highlight the fields that can be removed.
Reducing the number of fields can be achieved by changing the way you ask for information. An address lookup will reduce, for most users, the address process from around six fields, to just two. Advanced address lookups that ask the user to start typing their address in a single text box, then use pattern matching to find the address, reduce the six fields down to one for almost all users.
These examples of field reduction are just a starting point for the process. As you reduce the number of fields in your form and see the correlation with conversion rates, you will likely spend a large part of your optimisation time on field removal and simplification.
The longer it takes to complete a form then the greater the chance of abandonment. Potential customers will get bored of a long process, or they may have time restrictions, and then they may give up.
On average it takes a student 39.8 seconds to complete a request more information process, with the best performer (Abraham Lincoln University) taking just 21.6 seconds and the worst (Western Governors) taking 76.2 seconds.
Apart from the time that it takes the user to input the information there are other factors in the total time to complete a process. They include the time to read and understand the questions, and when a form has more than one step, it will take additional time for that step to load, and then for the user to understand the mechanics of the next step.
The main factor in form completion time is the number of fields, with a general trend of a lower completion time when there are fewer fields. A secondary factor in time to complete is the type of fields used: text inputs take up the most time, followed by drop downs, then radio buttons and finally tick boxes. Radio buttons take an average of 2.8 seconds to complete (from absorbing the question, to selecting the answer) compared to 3.6 seconds for drop downs. Not only does a higher number of fields mean more time required entering data in the field, but also time between the fields, as the user completes one question and moves to the next one.
Comparing the average time per field for the University of Phoenix and Colorado Christian University shows the importance of choosing the right field types. Both forms have 8 fields, but the University of Phoenix has an average field time of 5.24 seconds, whereas the Colorado Christian University takes an average of 4.66 seconds per field. The latter is using field types that are faster for the customer to complete, and their form is 4.6 seconds faster to complete than the University of Phoenix process.
Radio buttons trump Drop Downs for two reasons. Firstly all of the potential options are visible and readable by the user on a radio button. A drop down requires the user to click and then read the options.
Secondly, the user has less total interaction with a radio button than a drop down, a drop down requires a minimum of two clicks versus the single click for a radio. With a form that has a significant number of fields then saving the user fractions of a second will add up to a good time saving, and a greater likelihood of conversion.
From our aggregated timing data on forms (Formisimo tracks engagement with fields with millisecond accuracy) I can see that the time spent on a radio button (taken from the time of the interaction with the last field to the first engagement with the next field) is 2.8 seconds, whereas a drop down is 3.6 seconds.
The field types used in a form can make a significant difference to the frustration that a user feels, and the time that they take to complete it.
Comparing the top five forms (ranked using our scoring at the base of the page) you can see how the top five performing processes have a greater percentage of text boxes than drop downs, radio buttons and tick boxes.
Radio buttons (where the user has a choice between two or more items, presented as items that are clickable) are much easier to complete than drop-downs, they're not ideal for when there's a lot of options but when a user has to make a choice between two to four options it allows them all to be presented to the user without them having to click.
There are three types that should be considered when you want to swap field types: radio buttons, drop downs and tick boxes. In certain scenarios you can change the field type from one to another, with the aim of making it faster for the user to understand the question and all potential answers, and faster to select the right option.
Comparing the UX of a text box (open, requires typing), drop downs (closed list, requires clicking and reviewing) and radio buttons (closed, all options visible) the radio button wins on total interaction required. A radio button requires a single click on the right option, whereas a drop down requires a minimum of two clicks, with an unfurling of the options that will then need to be read and absorbed.
If you see value in asking multiple choice questions then using radio buttons will help speed up the time for a user to complete.
The prevalence of mobile usage presents new user experience challenges for forms. Beyond the way that a form is presented there's a second challenge of how the user enters data, and dealing with the complexity of data entry compared to entering information on a desktop.
The use of keyboard types on mobile devices makes it easier for potential customers to complete a form as it shows them the most relevant keyboard for the data input. As an example a number or telephone number field should show just the number keypad, rather than the full keyboard. A field that asks for an email address can show a keyboard that makes the "@" symbol visible without having to press the shift key. Adding this functionality to a field is relatively easy, and it generally has a positive impact on conversion rates.
Only 62.7% of universities use the "email" keyboard type. Deploying the email keyboard type is one of the easiest optimisation opportunities.
Marking the fields that a user has to complete will save them time. It guides them to which fields they absolutely have to enter information into, and which fields they can ignore (there's a question over whether you should have any optional fields in your process). A simple asterisk or similar notation will help the user understand how they can fast track the process.
My research shows a reasonable number of universities don't mark required fields: 41.2% have no marking, with 58.8% marking the fields that a user must complete.
Inline validation is a good way to highlight issues as a user moves through a form. When you have a form with complex questions this becomes a necessity. Showing errors whilst the user is engaging with a question is better than presenting them with a list of all their mistakes after they click submit.
Just 56.9% of sites have inline validation of some type, with 9.8% telling the user when they have entered data successfully (as well as when they have entered it incorrectly). Looking back at the last eight industries that I have analysed, this is a relatively low update on this important UX improvement.
There is a significant optimisation opportunity for the 90.2% of universities that don't tell the user when they have successfully completed a field. Although a marginal gain, it is a relatively light touch way to impact on conversion and form completion rates.
Website visitors have all experienced frustrating forms and when they start to engage with yours they are carrying baggage from the times when a form has been annoying. The length of most forms suggests that it will be a painful process for them.
A good way to keep users motivated, and to challenge their belief that the experience will be painful, is to use positive validation as they enter data. This is often in the form of a tick box next to a field, and is shown as they exit the field and move to the next one. This positive validation keeps the user happy, and helps them believe that when they click the "submit" or "next" button that they will be successful.
Showing errors in-line is equally important, as the user doesn't have to wait until the end of the step to see if they have made mistakes. A good inline validation process will not only show the user if they have entered incorrect information in a field (and so so as they move out of the field) but it will also explain what they need to do to correct it.
An example of insurer AXA using full inline validation. They highlight when information is correct and also when a user makes a mistake (along with a full explanation of what the mistake is). In the image above I have left the postcode field blank, and then moved to the next field.
Adding customer service information to a form gives students confidence that if they have an issue then they can contact you directly. They're unlikely to need to contact you, although some may have issues that you can help them with. By displaying phone numbers, or a livechat link, this boosts the confidence of the potential customer.
When you want to tell a user that they've made an error in your form the messaging should be around the field that the error is in. Historically errors were sometimes shown at the top or the bottom of the page, meaning that the user had to memorise the messaging, then scroll up or down to the field that they needed to correct.
Alongside the use of inline validation, the way that users are informed about errors is changing. The best place for an error message is right next to the field that contains the incorrect information, however 35.3% of universities don't do that, and they're making it harder for students to understand, and complete their process.
To score each university I generated a ranking out of 68, which took into account the number of steps and fields (related to the median score for each) and scored companies based on the percentage they were above or below this. I also scored companies based on the removal of unnecessary obstacles, and the mobile friendliness of each form based on the usage of mobile keyboard attributes. Other form features that I considered to be critical to conversion rates, such as inline validation, were also part of the final score.
The aim of our scoring was to take into account attributes of the form rather than the look and feel. Some forms were more attractive than others, but as design is subjective I chose not to apply any marks for forms that I felt looked better or worse.
"If you have forms, you need to analyze their performance. Formisimo does a very good job at providing in-depth information that really helps with optimization efforts. Useful data, simple interface. It is form analytics that actually works, especially when compared to some mouse tracking tools that have form analytics as one of the many features."ConversionXL Peep Laja