I’ve spent almost 15 years of my life helping companies to get their visitors to fill out and submit forms online. Forms to request information, to attend events, to sign up for a service, to complete an order, all sorts of forms.

Web forms are a transaction. You need to look at them as an exchange of information and value in exchange for something of value you promise in your offer. When you don’t look at it as an exchange you fail.

Despite all the innovation we have seen online, there’s been very little innovation with forms. No one likes filling out forms online or offline. Filling out forms online sucks! And on mobile devices it sucks even more. Even worse, if your online forms look like a form from the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) you are creating even more suckiness.

This week while I read the Illustrated History of Web Forms and then 6 Captcha Alternatives to Improve Conversion I realized that online form optimization begins with diagnosing the three most common problems:

  • Forms that fail to reduce fear
  • Forms that fail to build trust and credibility
  • Forms that fail to reinforce benefits

How to Identify Your Form Issues?

How forms fail to reduce fear:

  • Do you ask for more information than required?
  • Do you ask for sensitive information before your visitor is comfortable?
  • Does your form look intimidating? Does it look like it will take too long to complete? Do they know how many steps it will take to complete?
  • Do you create doubts and uncertainties by not closing the loop of questions your visitor has? For example, when a visitor sees a form field for a coupon code and does not have one they fear they are not getting the best deal possible. If they fill in a lead form or a form to sign up for a service do they know what will happen next?
  • Do you handle errors and field validation graciously?

How web forms fail to build trust and credibility:

  • Do you establish that you are a credible and trustworthy business?
  • Is it obvious that that they are in a secure browser environment? Have you checked it in a mobile browser?
  • Do you leveraged your trust messages at the point of action?
  • If you’re collecting information for a lead-generation program, let visitors know what you’re going to do with that information. Remind them at the point of action that their privacy is valued, and let them know when and how you’ll respond to the lead. Studies have shown that leads lose their effectiveness by 6x in the first hour of not being responded to.

How forms fail to reinforce benefits:

  • Web forms often don’t include benefits or make them explicit if they’re there. This is critical. Remind your visitors what value they will get in exchange for the information in the form. E-commerce sites should display cart details throughout checkout but not get in the way of each step.
  • If they responded from any particular advertising offer, do you reinforce that message throughout the form completion process?
  • Do you give your visitors options on how to convert? Can they complete a form online, call, or use any other methods.
  • Do your forms show you care about the visitor experience by looking friendly? Does it show how simple it is to do business with you? Have you shown that you care about the little details? Do you make form filling auto-complete seamless?

Once you have identified the problems, you can start testing ways to improve your forms’ condition. Start by working through the seven form factors that increase conversions:

  • Size
  • Fields
  • Labels
  • Benefits
  • Prominence
  • Call to action
  • Confidence building

Need to see some great forms to inspire you and your team? First download a copy of the form design crib sheet. Then check out some of these forms online:

For ecommerce checkout I would certainly look at CafePress.com. (Example, below.) We helped Maheesh Jain and his team redesign their checkout in 2004 and in eight years it has barely changed since it had only a 15 percent abandonment rate.

For a service website, one of my all time favorites is BaseCamp from 37 Signals. See how they show they care about the little details, reinforce benefits and address fears and uncertainties. GotoMeeting is another great site to be inspired from. (Example, below.)

For lead generation, here are a few that caught my attention recently:

Best of luck with testing your own online forms and optimizing them for improved customer experiences and conversions. Please let me know how it turns out.