28th September 2022
Avoiding anti-patterns in forms
Out of order...
Cursor Curated Issue 4
How many times have you ever filled out an online form, only for it to crash and force you to start again? This common frustration in UX forms is the bane of your customers’ experience. In technical terms, we call these “anti-patterns”.
Design anti-patterns are well-established patterns or methodologies that work in theory. In practice, they can encumber user experience and cause unwelcome friction.
The result? A drop in user engagement, particularly on forms, which can affect purchase rates, re-engagement, sign-ups…and ultimately, revenue. Just ask the team at Expedia. One teeny tiny extra data field proved to be catastrophic for them – losing them $12 million.
Where do anti-patterns come from in forms?
Without appropriate user testing and feedback, there are multiple points of failure in UX forms. These include:
Relying on gut instinct or limited feedback
If your form design is based purely on guesswork, it’s open to user friction. Likewise, if you’ve only tested it on one high-profile customer, their feedback may not be representative.
Lack of ‘psychological safety’
As we’ve discussed before, companies need UX champions. If people don’t feel confident speaking up about UX issues, forms can go live with preventable problems.
Design anti-patterns usually emerge over time when new functionality is added without iterative testing. If you’ve launched a new feature in a hurry, it will be open to errors.
The cardinal sins in UX complex forms
By choosing to ignore some of the best-known design anti-patterns, we can turn users off straight away. Following UX forms best practices will avoid issues like:
Ambiguous calls to action
“Click here” as an anchor text means nothing if a user doesn’t know what’s coming on the next page.
Limiting options such as gender or title does not allow for diversity or self-expression. It may also lead to frustration or reputational damage if your brand is seen as non-inclusive.
Cumbersome password policies
Security is essential but passwords that require a special character, number and extreme length will all frustrate users. Likewise, those using password managers will appreciate being able to copy and paste.
High number of fields
We’ve seen what happened to Expedia. Too many fields, or multiple columns on mobiles, can alienate users. Focus on essential – not desirable – information.
Errors without explanation
Things can go wrong on UX forms, but if there’s no context on why the form validation failed, users will become frustrated. Language is important here – people who aren’t developers might not understand “field is empty”.
Not saving user information
As above, if users have to start from scratch after an error, they’ll soon drop off. Saving answers as they progress encourages engagement. You can even take it one step further and include options for following up unfinished forms.
Issues with form validation
Another potential error is validation of phone numbers. Your forms should be able to handle international codes, leading zeros and spaces. We have made huge strides in credit card numbers – so there’s no reason why phone numbers shouldn’t be the same.
Again, security is paramount but is possible without tricky CAPTCHAs. Instead, use reCAPTCHAs. These are more effective at detecting bots, and all they need is a simple box ticking.
UX forms best practices: how can we avoid anti-patterns?
Design anti-patterns don’t spring up at the design stage – they lurk much earlier. This is why we need a culture of feedback and conversation before projects are even launched.
This starts with a simplicity-first mindset. Encourage a culture of sharing UX form best practices, including reCAPTCHAs, clear calls to action and simple data fields. If you spot an anti-pattern forming, make a log of it – use it as an example of something not to do for your next project. No bit of feedback is wrong; it is offering insights from one user’s perspective and can affect a whole lot of others.
Remember diversity, too. Your team should include a whole spectrum of talents, from engineers to designers. Each can share their technical knowledge – but it doesn’t stop there. We’ve discussed user feedback before. Make sure you’re testing with a wide range of users throughout your development and design processes.
This cannot be an afterthought. You need to ingrain these processes from the discovery stage right through to the testing.
Dos and don’ts
While it’s essential to promote good practices in UX, we need to veto the bad ones! Remember the dos and don’ts:
- Test a vast range of users
- Be clear in error messages and CTAs
- Validate country codes and spaces
- Save user progress
- Use reCAPTCHAs
- Log anti-patterns for future reference
- Make decisions based on instinct
- Use multiple columns (mobiles hate them)
- Pigeonhole users by gender/title
- Overcomplicate passwords
- Use complex jargon
- Be afraid to speak up if you see an error!
Take it from the Expedia team: even one tiny change can make a world of difference to your conversions. Keep it simple. Don’t be out of order.