How Puppy Training is like Web Form Design

How Puppy Training is the Key to Creating Better Web Forms

Let’s be clear: People hate filling out forms.  Since most websites are lead generators, however, encouraging users to fill out forms is often not just important but critical.  So how can web designers create better, more effective forms that will encourage their users to buy a product or leave their details?  Training a puppy can offer great insight in to how to build web forms that are clear and concise, encourage users to fill them out, and increase responses and ROI.

Most new dog owners struggle a bit to train their puppy.  New owners have high hopes that the puppy will learn to do its business outside, sit, stay, lay down, roll over, shake, and understand the concept of “no”.  Image0262There are three things that all new dog owners must know about training their dog.  First, if a puppy is skeptical or scared of its owner, then training the puppy will be exceedingly difficult.  Next, if the trainer acts against a puppy’s instincts, the puppy will not be in a position to succeed and likely won’t.  Finally, puppies need feedback to recognize when they are on the right track and spark their motivation to continue to learn. The same principles used when training a puppy can be used to write better, more effective forms.

First, there is no substitute for trust, and trust is built over time.  A puppy is most often skeptical of its owner at first, but over time the skepticism turns in to loyalty.  Forms that request user information before building trust are doomed to fail.  While companies, and thus web designers, have a vested interested in gathering as much user information data as possible, doing so too early in the process will alienate users and reduce ROI.  If, however, a company requests only the minimal amount of data necessary and then builds a user’s trust, then gathering more detailed information later in the process will be much easier.

Next, forms should be built according to convention and natural reading habits.  If your dog’s breed is one that was meant to chase birds, then it will be very difficult to train her to ignore a flock of pigeons at the park.  Likewise, building forms that go against the natural inclinations of the user will result in reduced usability, trust, and desire to continue filling out the form.   As noted here, multi-columned forms reduce usability.  The reason is simple: people read and write from top to bottom.  Creating forms that go against this natural is akin to trying to convince a Rottweiler to choose broccoli over a steak.

Finally, giving feedback lets users know they are on the right track and encourages them to continue.  Training puppies is made much easier when treats are involved.  The concept is simple: If the puppy does what you want, he gets a treat, if he doesn’t do what you want, he gets scolded.  The puppy already knows that treats are better than being scolded, so he learns very quickly to do what you say.  Filling out forms works the same way.  When users see progress bars and data fields that change colors to indicate they were correctly filled out, then they are encouraged to continue.  Offering users feedback, especially in real time, allows the user to know they’re on the right track, just like treats give a puppy an indication he has succeeded.

Done correctly a form can generate a new, loyal customer.  Done poorly, a form can cause the same would-be loyal customer to be discouraged and a disappointed.  This is no different than training a puppy.  When puppies are well-trained, they make great dogs, and when they are poorly trained they can cause continual problems.  Web designers can create better, more effective forms that will encourage users and increase response and ROI if they are able to foster loyalty, work with rather than against user conventions, and offer feedback.  Unlike filling out forms, puppies will be loved and adored, but neither puppy training nor filling out a form has to be a frustrating process.

For more information on this topic: Luke Wroblewski’s book “Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks” and Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney’s “Forms That Work”.


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