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The path to completion

From: Web Form Design Best Practices

Video: The path to completion

It's time for me to level with you guys. Nobody really likes filling in Web forms-- well, maybe the guy who does my taxes. But in general what people actually want is to get to what's on the other side of the form. They want to buy something; they want to join a site. Filling in a series of questions in linear order through labels and input fields is not on their favorite list of things to do. So, the goal of many Web forms is to get out of the way, but to also show what I like to call a path to completion. That is how do I get through this as fast as possible? Where do I start and where does it end? And this principle applies to how we layout our forms.

The path to completion

It's time for me to level with you guys. Nobody really likes filling in Web forms-- well, maybe the guy who does my taxes. But in general what people actually want is to get to what's on the other side of the form. They want to buy something; they want to join a site. Filling in a series of questions in linear order through labels and input fields is not on their favorite list of things to do. So, the goal of many Web forms is to get out of the way, but to also show what I like to call a path to completion. That is how do I get through this as fast as possible? Where do I start and where does it end? And this principle applies to how we layout our forms.

Let's look at an example. This is the form on PayPal as redesigned by a company called 37signals. Now what they have tried to do here is insert a series of hierarchical blocks that point you to the most important information first. Problem is when you try to scan this form and see everything that's required in order for you to actually send this money; it's a bit of a complicated path. So let's start at the top. We are about to confirm this transaction of $37, that will send to this e-mail address, from this source of balance, with this e-mail subject that will ship to here and then well, let's finally hit that button and make it happen.

As you can see the path to completion isn't necessarily clear and while the hierarchy has been attempting to actually bring you to the most important information first you don't have this clear flow-through... boom boom boom boom. Here is what I need to consider. Contrast that too in the same exact form with a very clear scan light. Here once again you're about to pay this person $37 from this source of funds with this e-mail subject. You are shipping it here and there's a very big primary call to action that ends everything for you. So from the top, to the bottom a clear path to completion has been illuminated and I believe it's actually accentuated a bit the visual strength of the button on the bottom.

That's your shining light, the light at the end of the tunnel the thing that gets this form out of your way and gets the payment details sent on their way. When we look at eye tracking data of how people use Web forms, we will actually see this path. So here is a simple form of just asking somebody for their contact information. The dark red areas are where people gaze the most. Where there are green spots people looked maybe just once for essentially just a single eye flicker. In other words the more heat the more visual attention on this form.

And as you can say it's a straight linear shot from top to bottom, until they smack on that button at the end and this is the path of completion that I am talking about. The more we can help people move the way their eyes naturally parse this type of information, the better off we are. Let's look at the way this PayPal payment form looked not too long ago. So now to complete our payment we are going to start up here, check our shipping address, see the item we are actually paying for, see the quantity and the total price, leave a note to the seller, figure out how we are going to pay for it, make sure there is no promotional codes, and then jump all the way to Pay.

Really looks like the input fields have just been scattered all over the page and the problem here is, it's really easy to miss something when it's not aligned in this path to completion. This design doesn't take into account that what people actually want is what's on the other side of this form. They don't want to spend their entire time playing hide and go seek with all your form elements. They want to start, go through everything they need and get on their way. There is one more counter example. I don't know if you are familiar with the HTML5 Attribute Bomb. What it basically does is it scatters all the input fields across your page.

I am teasing, but it really does look like that's what's happening here. Down on the bottom there's a random checkbox at the end, all the information about your drivers license, the make and model of the car is scattered all over the bottom part of this form. Once again, hard to really parse what's required. Now the examples that I have showed earlier are relatively simple forms, sending a payment, registering, providing your contact information, but this principle of path of completion applies much more complex forms as well. So here we see setting up a series of network scans for a series of computers on your local network. And the addresses that you scan the details of that, the schedule and your credentials once again are really aligned to this clear path to completion.

This isn't a simple e-commerce or registration form. It's a relatively complex task but the path to completion principle applies as well. Show people what's required through this tightly well lit path and again ending on this primary call to action on the bottom. There is another example we can look at the process of buying a home online. Obviously buying a home online is a pretty involved thing, but again making sure that you dot all the i's and cross all the t's in that process can be aided through a clear path to completion.

A mobile device is a clear path to completion also plays a role. Let's look at a really simple form. So this is a two column form just for indicating your interest in a particular source of information. Now when we tap on that first field inside the form, here is what we see. Not really clear what question we are asking, so let's jump over the next field. Oh, let's try that again. Next field please, Next flied please, Next field. Really a lack of a clear path to completion here and part of this is due to the fact that this form has really been optimized for a desktop layout and rather designed for a desktop layout.

I would argue that the two column layout isn't really an optimal solution. And instead when you move to the mobile form all of a sudden you are really quickly lost. The path to completion is gone. Now just as a little side note, I want to call out this little feature, Yes, I would like to receive e-mail updates. This is a single button radio that is default checked. Those of you who are familiar with these types of controls know, there is no way to say No here. Little devious, Isn't it? Now, maybe this problem with two column grade on a mobile device can be solved by flipping into landscape mode. So here we go.

Now we have got more screen real estate. Let's try the same process again. Oops, didn't work here. Now, path to completion is about more than strictly aligning your input fields in a way that shows start to finish and let's people get through the process. It's also about letting people know where they are within a process. So going back to our example of buying a house online, we would like to show people where they are relative to the scope of their efforts. So this first arrow indicates your position in a series of seven steps.

The overall scope is indicated by how many steps they are actually are. So your position is two of 7 steps. And last but not least there is also an indication of status. Here it's saying the last time this draft was saved was 10:18 AM, and that saving process is ongoing. So it let's you know that even though you're making progress through the scope and your position is kind of in the early stages, everything is being saved, don't worry about it. Now the site that built this form originally Redfin recently went through the redesign and they have really simplified their flow, at least the progress indicator of the flow.

As you can see now they have three sections: Introduction; Offer Information; and Fine-Tune Your Offer. While this seems easier, the problem is that a lot of these types of progress indicators actually lie about where you are in the path to completion. What do I mean by that? Well, let's take a look at an example. On Fidelity there's a real simply laid out series of arrows at the top, Getting Started, About You, About Your Account, and Finish. So we can see we are on step one, Account Type, as indicated by the checkmark, and it looks like the next step that we will actually need to deal with is Personal Information.

So we click Next, and here's the step that's not listed in that flow. Do you have an account or you are new to Fidelity? If you're new to Fidelity, all of a sudden there is a series three more steps that you need to go through before you can get to step that was promised to you in that progress indicator. Progress indicators of this type generally do better when they are actually more generic. So look at the example on Amazon. Here: sign-in, Shipping and payment, gift wrap, place order. There are no promises being made of how many steps are in this section because there is no numerical labeling.

In fact shipping and payment could be a single step if you're going to ship to the address you usually ship to. If you want to add a new address and you want to save it to your address book for later use, well that could actually be two to three steps. When you move to payment, if you are just going to use the credit card you have on file, it's a single step. If you want to pay with a third party service like PayPal, well, then you might have to select PayPal, jump over to PayPal, pick your source of funding, if you don't have a source of funding you may need to add an additional credit card and there by the time you get back five or six steps may have passed.

Sites like half.com that promise a simple one, two, three yet have the same kind of nonlinear paths I just described are essentially setting you up for failure. It's not through easy steps as this indicates. It could be up to eight. So progress indicators either should be really generic and we are really tuned in to the fact that they can't lie to you. One of the things however to go back to Fidelity that these guys are doing right is telling you upfront to a start page of what you'll actually need to complete this process. When there is a situation where things are required that you're not likely readily to have on hand, let people know upfront.

For example, my bank account information, my account statements for any securities I wish to transfer, my driver's license number. Let's say I get going and I make it to step five of the form and realize I need my driver's license, which is in the car, back somewhere else. That's not a great experience. Letting people know upfront what it's going to take to get through the form, through start page can help gear them up for success, as they make their way through the path to completion, as opposed to frustration and failure as they go along. To wrap up what we think about when we think about a path to completion, the big idea here is to really illuminate that clear path.

Again people have personal goals. They want to buy something, they want to register for a site, they want to chat with somebody, they don't want to fill in your Web form, so making it clear where that Web form starts and ends, gives them the confidence that they can get through that process, quickly and easily. Usually multiple column layouts break that process and random column layouts as we saw on some of these examples are even worse. On a mobile device or something with a small screen, this problem is even worse. So, to avoid that, we will use a clear path to completion.

We also can lean on progress indicators to communicate the scope, position and status of your progress through that path to completion. Now be careful to not lie to people through making it look like a series of explicit steps, when there is a lot of nonlinear path that they can take. If you are going to require some substantial time or very specific information to fill in your form, start page might be a good idea, to help lead people onto that path to completion. Those factors altogether will really help shine a light on what it takes to get through that form and give people more confidence as they encounter the labels and input fields that you put in their way.

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Web Form Design Best Practices

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Luke Wroblewski
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