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Brainy: Improving Online Forms [CONVERSION CORNER]

Posted on 2.03.2014

:: By Tim Ash, SiteTuners ::


Have an online form that just isn’t performing? Wondering what’s wrong? The answer may be simple — you might be designing the form for the wrong part of the brain.

Filling out any type of form, whether paper or online, is a nuisance. People use forms only because they are forced to. So your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to ease the burden of the form-fill process by turning this bothersome task into an effortless experience.

Forms Are Logical, Your Customer’s Brain Isn’t

Most forms are developed to follow a logical sequence, and they presume that the person filling out the form completely understands what is being asked and why that information is needed. This assumption might be somewhat accurate in the case of a medical questionnaire or a loan application, but most online forms are purely optional. Your visitors don’t need to engage with you — they choose to. And this sets the stage for an entirely different mentality.


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To understand this mindset, it’s important to take a brief trek through time to understand the evolution of the human brain. The earliest version of the human brain was designed for survival only, and is commonly referred to by scientists as the reptilian brain. Emotions, preferences, planning and logic all developed later, over millions of years, as a way for humans to interact successfully with the changing world around them. The human brain we enjoy today is actually a mash-up of three evolutionary brains that scientists have come to call the reptilian brain, the emotional brain and the logical brain.

The Reptilian Brain. The reptilian brain, or “old brain,” is shared with all animals and has a single purpose: to help you survive. It is responsible for basic functions like breathing, heartbeat, eating and reproduction. This brain doesn’t learn – it does everything based on automatic reactions and responses, and it does so quickly. Anything too complex to be handled quickly will be ignored.

The Emotional Brain. The limbic system is shared by all mammals and is heavily involved in emotions and memory formation. This is the part of the brain that determines likes and dislikes and stores them as an emotional imprint for later recall. The stronger the sensory impressions and emotions around the event, the more likely it will be remembered. Events that are routine or otherwise non-emotional are usually tuned out by the limbic system.

The Logical Brain. The neocortex is the most recently developed part of our brain and is the one responsible for planning and logical thought. It allows us to weigh choices and examine complex problems. It also enables us to plan and to defer short-term gratification in the pursuit of larger payoffs in the future.

If you are wondering what all this has to do with your online forms, the answer is “a lot.” A surprising 95 percent of decisions are made subconsciously, with the reptilian brain using instinct or impulse rather than logic. When your visitor first encounters your form, he or she may want to tackle it quickly because of the promise of what is on the other side. But once the form becomes too complex, the impulse dies and one of the other parts of the brain has to step in to complete the job. At that point, your visitor’s logical brain has probably kicked in, and it starts weighing whether or not the “prize” is even worth the effort. It also starts thinking about the risk involved in filling out the form. “Will salespeople start calling me?” “Am I going to get a ton of spam because of this?” “Is this company reputable?” At that point, the emotional brain starts remembering how much your visitor dislikes spam, how fearful he is of identity theft, and a host of other emotions he might have around revealing personal information online — dramatically reducing your chances of getting a completed form.

Are you ready to start designing forms that meet the needs of all three of your customers’ brains? Here’s how.

Settle for Less to Get More

Every field you add to your form reduces your conversion rate. The reptilian brain is lazy and will avoid tasks that appear complicated or time consuming. Asking for too much information will not only annoy the reptilian brain, but is also likely to trigger an emotional response from the limbic system. Asking for home address, annual income or marital status could all provoke enough anxiety to cause the visitor to bail. This may be the single most important element in optimizing your form. Be polite and don’t ask for more information online than you would be willing to ask a stranger face-to-face.

Make Your Form Effortless

There’s no better way to convince your visitor that completing your form is worth the effort than simply making it effortless. The reptilian brain — the one that handles 95 percent of decisions — acts on impulse, likes immediate gratification and shuns complexity. Your visitor’s reptilian brain wants to tackle your form quickly and unthinkingly.

Use clear, simple language. A hospital client we worked with had an online form that allowed people to request referral to a doctor. The form had very high abandonment rates, most of which were caused by a single field called “Specialty.” In healthcare lingo, specialty refers to the type of doctor (cardiologist, general practitioner, etc.). But most of their senior-aged patients didn’t know that. Changing the form label to “Type of Doctor” immediately reduced abandonment rates.

Be accepting. Is it really necessary to require a phone number or date be entered with specific punctuation like slashes, hyphens or parenthesis? Of course not, so be flexible and use back-end programming to reformat data how you prefer it.

Be helpful. Use tooltips for any field that might by confusing or raise a red flag in a visitor’s mind. When errors are made, alert the visitor immediately, before he moves on to the next field. Nothing is more aggravating than getting all the way to the submit button before finding out an error has been made.

Be organized. If a lengthy form is required (e.g. for purchases), you can decrease a visitor’s anxiety by simply grouping fields into several small categories. This visual organization will give the impression of simplicity.

Be transparent. Let people know how their information will be used by linking to your privacy policy directly on the form. And make sure it opens in a lightbox “popover” that the user can read, close and then easily return to the form without losing any of the data they’ve already entered.

Speed Up Completion Time

Clunky forms cause delays. And when impulse is delayed, people start to ask questions. Your visitor’s neocortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for critical thinking, will start evaluating whether or not he should complete the form. And his limbic system will likely start assigning emotions or preferences to the options. To avoid all this, make your form fast and efficient with some of these techniques.

Allow social connections. For a B2C company, offering one-click Facebook or LinkedIn buttons can speed up the form-fill process by grabbing the visitor’s information and pre-filling the form fields. Make a clear path to completion. Let users know where they are in the form by highlighting the current field. This is especially helpful for longer forms. Allow users to tab sequentially through the fields, since many people prefer keyboard controls over mouse movements.

Be intuitive. If you know that most of your visitors come from the U.S., don’t alphabetize your dropdown list of countries. Instead, make U.S. the default option that resides at the top. Apply this same logic to any field that you can.

Making your online forms faster, easier and less intrusive can have a huge positive impact on your conversion rate. Carefully address the concerns of all three of your customers’ brains and you will enjoy higher completion rates and happier customers.

About the Author: Tim Ash is the CEO of SiteTuners, Chair of Conversion Conference and the bestselling author of Landing Page Optimization.

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