Guest Post: Context is Everything – Part 2

Hi there! Welcome to part 2 of a guest post by Jessica Enders of Formulate Information Design. Looking for part 1? Read it here.


Get to know your respondents’ context (continued)

In part 1, we talked about the importance of context and getting to know who your respondents are. What other contextual information do you need?

How will your form be filled out?

Another important thing to have a sense of is what’s going on at the very moment your respondents are filling out your form. For instance:

  • Where might respondents be?Are your respondents at work, home, school, shops, in transit, or somewhere else? What is that environment like: noisy or silent; busy or quiet; hot or cold; wet or dry; comfortable or uncomfortable?
  • What device will respondents use to fill out the form?It used to be that we knew most online forms were filled out using a desktop computer, or at least a laptop with a fairly large screen. Now we often have to design for a whole range of screens, from a small smartphone right up to a cinema display.Get to know what devices respondents are likely to use when filling out your form. Is your form something that often gets completed “on-the-run,” and thus probably via a mobile device? Or is it a long form that most people won’t attempt on a screen smaller than 1024 x 768 pixels? When you know the likely screen sizes, you can design accordingly (e.g. put labels above the fields for forms that will be used on mobile devices).
  • What time of day will they be filling out the form?Research shows that people behave differently depending on the time of day (the phenomenon is related to energy and concentration levels). For example, one study found prisoners were granted parole more often in the early morning than in the late afternoon.Moreover, while it can be a little disappointing to realise, the majority of respondents don’t care about your form nearly as much as you do. Your form is just one of many things they need to get done, and at particular times of day there may be more or fewer tasks — like cooking dinner or answering the phone — competing for their attention.
  • What situation are respondents in? Related to time and location are other specifics of the situation the respondent will be in while filling out your form. In particular, think about whether, when filling out your form, the respondent is likely to have everything in their head or otherwise with them. For instance, a payment form might require an invoice or purchase order number, which is available in the office, but not while the respondent is on the road.If respondents are likely to need information they may not have, let them know this up front, so they at least have the opportunity to prepare (or decide to do the form at another time).

The common thread here is attention and distraction. You always want to make your form as quick and easy to complete as possible, but if you know the respondents may be particularly unfocused, or need to stop and start, you can help them by splitting your form into smaller chunks (sections or pages).

What motivates your respondents?

By this point you should have begun to form a neat picture of who your respondents are and the ways in which they fill out your form. But we mustn’t forget the less tangible stuff — which also has a big impact — like interest, reward/punishment, and mood.
People’s emotional state plays a significant role in decision-making and information processing (two things central to filling out forms). If you can make your form relevant, polite, and engaging, you’re likely to get higher response rates and better quality data.
Aside from ensuring the form suits the context of use in ways we’ve already discussed, you can increase and maintain motivation by:

  • respecting the views of the respondent (e.g. not assuming that all customers will be happy, and so providing opportunity for constructive feedback);
  • explicitly acknowledging the value of the respondents’ time (and making sure the form is efficiently structured, worded and laid out, so your actions match your words);
  • providing rewards for progress and/or completion (which can be as small as saying “thank you” for the information submitted); and
  • preventing errors as much as possible, by doing things like: choosing the right type of fields (e.g. radio buttons for a single choice); writing clear questions and tips; performing calculations for the respondent; and allowing the respondent to review their answers before they submit the form.


Walk a mile in their shoes

Before designing any form, you need to know what it must deliver to the organisation. But once you’ve worked that out, do as much as you can to really get inside the lives of your respondents. The more you understand their needs and wants, their perceptions and opinions, the more you’ll be able to design a form that your respondents can use with efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfaction. And that means with your forms, everybody wins.

Jessica Enders, Principal and Founder of Formulate Information DesignJessica Enders has suffered from a life-long condition known as a love of designing forms, transactional applications, and other interfaces for collecting information. She is attempting to minimise the adverse symptoms by running her own form consultancy business, Formulate Information Design.
Formulate is based in Melbourne, Australia and consults worldwide. Services include:

  • reviewing and redesigning existing forms;
  • designing new forms;
  • conducting user research; and
  • training in form design best practices.

The staff at Formulate also regularly post detailed and practical articles and research pieces about good form design. You can subscribe to these by email or RSS or follow them on Twitter.

Don’t just collect data — leverage it.