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Explain and Reassure

Before the user fills in any information, you'll want to provide certain information to the user. Here's the type of information that you'll want to include at the top of the form:

  • What the user can accomplish

  • What information is required

  • How the information will be used

  • How long it will take to fill out the form

  • What the user can expect in return

What Can the User Accomplish?

Before your user fills in any information, tell that user what will be accomplished using the form. This is especially useful if the user reached the form from a list of multiple forms; it reassures the user that he's in the right place. If you have a generic contact form named Contact Us, the description could be as simple as this:

Thank you for your interest in XYZ Company. Use the form below to contact one of our departments.

For more in-depth or multipage forms, such as a member registration, provide an overview of what you're collecting, such as the sample text below:

Here's a summary of the information we'll collect from you during the member registration process:

  • New Member Info: You'll begin by establishing your username and password.

  • Personal Information: You'll enter your name, address, telephone number and a few details about your family (number of people in your home, their names and birth dates, and your total household income).

  • Billing Information: On the final page, we'll ask that you provide the credit card number, expiration date, and billing address. (Data is transmitted via our secured and encrypted channel.)

Notice that the billing information entry also reassures the user that the data will be transmitted via a secure channel. This helps to build trust in you.

Won't People Get Scared Away?

Some people argue that if you display a detailed description of what you're going to collect (as shown above), it will overwhelm the user or scare the user away from your site. These same people argue that it's better to either use overly generic terms (such as "basic billing info" instead of "credit card number") or not tell the customer at all, figuring that a user won't back out of the process after investing 10 minutes completing the bulk of it.

Please, don't buy it!

Imagine this scenario: You decide to register for membership on a Web site. You're under the impression that no sensitive data is collected (or there are no fees) because you were never explicitly advised that there were. Then 5 or 10 minutes into the registration process, you're hit with a credit card collection screen.

Based on actual feedback I've seen from customers of all technical levels—and knowing how leery we all are about providing strangers personal information anyway—a significant number of potential customers will feel like you tried to trick them into providing information. At the very least, they'll think that weren't completely honest about the process.

Remember, business is about building relationships and gaining trust for long-term gain. When you're up front with your users, you empower them to make a decision. As a result, you build respect and trust. With respect and trust, users will be more likely to come back and do business with you—and tell their friends about you.

What Information Is Required?

To further build trust and respect with your customers, remember to advise them what fields are required before they begin filling out the form. I have seen many Web forms that have required fields but don't mention anything about them until the very bottom of the page, in a small font, like a legal disclaimer.

By placing the required fields message at the bottom, you run the risk of aggravating the user. After all, by the time a user gets to the bottom of the form, he's ready to click Submit and move on—not to have to scroll back up and see which fields he did or did not fill out and then make sure they're complete.

When you have required fields, make sure you explain this clearly—at the top of the form—before any data is provided. To effectively tell your users which fields are required, use a combination of formatting with a legend.

Formatting

The three most common ways of specifying required fields are listed here:

  1. Make the form field's label bold.

  2. Use asterisks before each form field's label (you can use color, if you prefer).

  3. Add the text "(required)" after each label of a form element that's required, as in First Name (required).

Legend

When using one of the first two methods, display a legend at the top of the form, with verbiage such as this:

NOTE

Fields with an asterisk (*) are required fields.

How Will the Information Be Used?

Before your users fill out any information, you should briefly explain your policy regarding customer data. Providing this information builds trust with your customers and ensures them that you're looking out for their best interest.

Below is an example of the verbiage used on a basic contact form:

The information you provide us through this form will not be given or sold to any third party without your express written permission. Read our privacy policy for more information on how we use your data.

In the second sentence, the words "privacy policy" are linked to the full privacy policy statement.

A good way to display the privacy policy is in a pop-up window: The user can read through it, close it, and continue filling out your form. This options also works well for multipage forms.

The TRUSTe Web site has a number of great articles on building a privacy policy. Visit http://www.truste.com/bus/pub_privacy.html for more information.

How Long Will It Take to Fill Out the Form?

If your form is a basic single-page form that can be completed in less than two minutes, you probably don't need to tell the user how long it will take. Shortly after scrolling down, the user will be able to see the bottom of the form.

When you've got multipage forms or forms that take more than a couple of minutes to fill out, let the user know up front. Have three to five people who are not familiar with the form fill it out. Time how long it takes them to complete the form. Average the time it takes them to complete it, and display that information at the top of the form. Here's an example of the verbiage you could use:

The member registration process will take about 10 minutes of your time.

If a form takes more than 10 minutes to complete (which is very common in the case of a shopping cart that stores data throughout your visit or in a membership application), allow the user to fill out the application over the course of multiple sessions. Doing this adds to development costs, but the last thing you want is the user's browser crashing three quarters of the way through purchasing something and having to restart from scratch.

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