Fake form fields for a better user experience

Being a Sydney-based UX company we do heaps of work in finance, particularly with online forms. Typically an online form, usually comprising multiple screens, will present some design challenges:

- collect all the required data, while being as short as possible

- collect accurate (formal) data, while using everyday (informal) language

- give the user a sense of control, while demanding intricate details (in a linear order).

Modern form design is a creative art to ensure that people (a) complete the process without deciding to give up and (b) feel emotionally positive after completing the process; if the customer feels the process was demanding and tiring, and even, well, *degrading* because of the personal disclosure to an inhuman interlocutor, then chances are your customer relationship is spoiled from the start. 

Recently we were designing a form in a workshop with a client and we discovered a design issue that demonstrated some of these competing demands, and we ended up with perhaps an unusual solution. The form, like many others, required some disclosure of the financial position of the customer. Part of this was their employment details. The form we had sketched had fields for ‘employer’ and ‘job title’. Our client explained that actually they need the ‘job type’ and not the ‘job title’. Job types are selected from a (long) list and are things like:

  • Manager
  • Clerical assistant
  • Labourer
  • Teacher
  • Production manager
  • Warehouse manager
  • Sales minion* 

Whereas job titles are free text entry and are things like:

  • Manager, retail division
  • Senior administration supervisor
  • Granite technician
  • English teacher
  • Head of plant operations
  • Senior logistics manager
  • Sales prodigy*

You can see that ‘job titles’ often carry a sense of identity and can infer status (there’s more Senior and Principal UX professionals than Standard ones ;-) whereas ‘job types’ are averaging. Chances are that declaring a job title leads to a little flush of pride whilst declaring a job type leads to a little bit of reflection. With the form in question, and indeed with any form design, we want to keep the user feeling just chipper whilst they fill it in (there’s always some checkboxes that the client wants them to tick, right?). We felt that swapping ‘job title’ for ‘job type’ would take too much shine off the emotional wellbeing of our customer during this particular engagement. We decided to leave in ‘job title’ so people could tell us something special about their work, and then collect ‘job type’ straight after**.

Asking for data that you don’t need – the fake field – is of course artifice, and maybe could be considered a patronising lie that breaches the spirit of trust that should exist between user and provider… but seen in a different way it is quite usual to gather extra, incidental information. In a conversation, with a real person, without a computer screen and an un-emotional form in the way, people get a sense of dialog and emotional engagement from the interaction. A lot of extra information is transferred in the process of managing the interpersonal interaction. When designing a form, we acknowledge the compromises compared to that proper human engagement, and we look for ways in which we can take tiny steps back towards where we prefer to be. In this case, the ‘job title’ field is not data that gets kept, but it’s still important to ask someone; could you imagine asking someone what sort of job they had but not asking what they actually do? Even though it compromised our key goal of a short, fast form, sometimes satisfaction is more important than plain old efficiency.

Can you think of other examples where a fake field might help the experience?

Fake_fields

* not really

** (we’d love to test this out and see if a form with ‘job title’ has higher satisfaction ratings than one with just ‘job type’ – maybe one day we will – for now we’re just measuring the form against performance goals)

Jon Duhig is a Grand Wizard at Objective Digital

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