Data Entry Should Be Awesome

 0 technology commentary

Forms are boring

This is a universal truth; no one likes filling in forms or surveys. Online forms are only marginally better to fill in than paper forms because sometimes you get the little question mark icon telling you how you’re actually supposed to fill it in. But when was the last time you filled in an online form and afterwards thought to yourself: “that was fun, I’d like to do that again!”?

That has never happened [citation needed].

So what is it about forms that we hate so much?

They can be too complex

If the layout is bad and you are presented with 20 fields at once, it can be overwhelming.

We don’t know how much of it to fill in

You don’t always know which fields are mandatory; often, you only find out once you’ve submitted the form. Or, if you fill in the entire form every time to ensure you don’t miss anything, you might waste time or give away information you don’t need to.

It’s not how we operate as humans

Being presented with all the fields at once is just not the way humans interact. Let’s say you are at a job interview. Online forms are the equivalent of instead of the interviewer asking you his questions one at a time, you have 20 interviewers asking you 20 questions simultaneously. We as humans have a limited attention span and don’t want to see 20 different questions being asked of us at the same time, so why should we gather information online in this way?

 

Why is this so bad?

Badly designed forms also affect us as developers. You can create the fanciest, most complex system in the world but if the users’ interaction with it produces a really bad experience for them, you’ve lost all buy-in. If your job requires entering data many times a day, the difficulties in a form accumulate over time and cause unnecessary resentment.

Anecdotal evidence: we were working on a new version of an in-house CRM system and the new sales director was looking to roll this out across his team, and make the use of it mandatory. The first bit of feedback he gave when looking at the existing system was: “there’s too much here, my team won’t want to fill that form in multiple times a day” and he was right. There is a greater lesson to be learned there about how, as developers, we often forget that people will use our products differently to how we interact with them while testing our own code.

 

working-with-laptop
This user was literally bored to sleep by the form she was faced with

 

So where do we start with fixing this problem?

I have always been a firm believer that any system should interact with people in a way that is more natural to them. Filling in a form should be a conversation, not a struggle. The benefits of this approach are numerous.

Less user training

If data entry fields are phrased as questions, users are less likely to be confused about what it is you’re after.

You’re asking for one piece of information at a time

You will never overwhelm your users by giving them all the required fields on a single, cluttered screen.

It looks better!

This is mostly subjective, but a conversational form will always be more visually appealing than a collection of fields and labels.

Better user experience, more ‘human’

Because it will better reflect the way people interact with other humans in real life, conversational forms will result in a pleasant user experience. Obviously there is a limit to the amount of enjoyment you can get from data entry, but why not at least try to hit that limit?

Forms could even be business-driven!

If forms really are to become conversational, there is nothing stopping business users coming up with the conversation. Never again will you show your first iteration of your app to a user and confuse them with your misguided naming conventions! 🙂

Some examples

Here are some noteworthy data entry experiences that have stuck in my memory as being rather pleasant:

Pact Coffee

I found the sign up process so seamless that I almost forgot I was actually filling in a form. On a side note, if you are a coffee lover in the UK wanting to get your coffee delivered to your door, I recommend trying Pact. Disclaimer: no one paid me for saying that, not even with a free coffee 🙁

Airport security

I have noticed a recent increase in the happy/sad face panels appearing just after airport security. I believe they are provided by HappyOrNot and typically have 4 faces ranging from a red, angry face to a green, happy face where you rate your experience of airport security effectively on a scale of 1-4. This is a much better way to gather information from people than a person with a clipboard. I don’t want to stop for someone (or a paper form) to ask me 50 questions about who I am and where I’ve travelled, but I am more likely to press a button with a face on it as I pass. I can imagine companies implementing this will have seen a rise in survey completion rates.

My contact form!

I practice what I preach; my contact form is conversational. Take a look and contact me!

Man with laptop
This guy has just been through a great data entry experience

 

Great, now how do I start making awesome, conversational forms?

You need look no further than TypeForm. This is what they say about forms/surveys:

The key to a good survey is to make questions feel conversational. Human, even.

Hey, that’s what I said!

TypeForm lets you create an amazing, interactive experience for your users. This can range from a contact form to a full-blown survey and everything in-between. I won’t go into huge detail about using it, I’ll let their examples speak for themselves. What I can say is that along with the forms you’ll get lots of customisation options as well as reporting and analytics on your responses. Disclaimer: again, no one is paying me to say this. I think I should really try to change that! 🙁

So, what next?

I am certain that what I am proposing isn’t new. Others have had the same thoughts as me. TypeForm are making a business out of it. Then why are we (read: a majority of industry) still so reluctant to innovate and make our forms more like this? Perhaps it is more effort, but if your application relies on users entering data correctly they need to buy into the idea and giving them a form that is straightforward to fill in is a good start.

I propose that we make this our default when creating forms in our web apps. I know I will strive to make all my forms more human-like.

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