Prioritizing forms means prioritizing people

Everyone used to smoke in hospitals

This week, a client contacted me to say that we needed to take down an application form we had developed for their website.

We created the form to increase the number of applications the client would receive for a new program they had developed, but the program’s success depended on approval from an outside company. A representative from that company insisted that we remove the online form. He said that we should instead ask people to apply by sending in an email.


Because using an online form would be “different than what every other site is doing.”

Using an online form was simply something the representative hadn’t seen before.

Today, let’s talk about how “everyone does x, so x must be right” is a formula for failure when you’re trying to use the web to generate value for your business.

This is fine

The problem with the rep's advice is that it assumes everyone’s content is operating at peak performance — in this case, every participating organization’s website is gathering all the applications it could possibly receive by not using an online form.

The assumption is that organizations are generally successful at turning digital content into a high-performing business asset.

This is fine cartoon

But that’s just not the case.

Many organizations don’t have the resources or in-house skills to do much beyond copying and pasting word documents and then hoping for the best.

And who can blame them? Content design is hard.

Creating content systems that get people to do what you want in a way that makes them feel good about the interaction can feel like building a sandcastle in a hurricane. 

Forms are a proxy for an organization’s priorities and digital expertise

Can an organization be a digital mess while having smart, high-converting forms? Sure. But forms are often a good heuristic for assessing the maturity of an organization’s digital governance.

That’s because online forms are an expression of a company’s willingness and ability to put its customers' needs first.

The more resources a company allocates to audience needs, the more consideration it will give to key interaction points like online forms.

As organizations evolve toward ever more user-focused content and services, their forms change. 

There are seven rungs on the ladder:

1. No forms and/or “email us”

This is entry level — organizations may remain at this stage because people aren’t aware that there’s a ladder to climb. Forms don’t occur to them as an alternative, or they can’t imagine why the option that’s easiest for them to put forward ("email us") wouldn’t also be the easiest for their audience.

2. A "contact us" form

At this stage, you see a form that asks for basic stuff like name and email address, along with a blank text field.

These forms see fewer conversions (submissions) because a blank field is a lot like asking someone to send an email. The company isn’t being specific about what it or its customers need. This wastes time and the company misses out on an opportunity to start analyzing user needs and optimizing for conversions.

3. PDFs

Here we have forms that are specific to certain tasks, but to complete them, you have to download, print, and mail them in or scan and email. It makes for a poor experience for customers and employees. The organization can’t capitalize on increased traffic from search because PDFs aren’t search-friendly. Also, while you could study submission results to look for patterns of need, you’d have to do so manually, which means lots of wasted energy.

4. Basic digital forms

The organization has digital forms that are customized for specific tasks, which saves customers and employees time. Maybe results are also feeding into a database where they can be assessed and employees can identify patterns. The organization is able to start learning about user needs based on user input and could, in theory, use the data to help make decisions about where to allocate resources for content or marketing development.

5. Smart forms

The organization is using conditional logic in forms to ask only what’s required and what's relevant to particular users. The organization is thinking about real people’s needs, and at least some employees have realized that user-focused design generates more conversions than basic forms that show the same info to everyone.

6. Conversion-focused forms

At this stage, forms are hooked up to analytics. Goals are set up in Google Analytics along with revenue values for conversions. The organization is no longer counting submissions — it’s counting dollars.

This is when a light goes on in people’s heads:  "Our digital properties can be profit centers!”

Now the CEO starts paying attention, and the CFO takes notice. Change is afoot.

7. A culture of kaizen

It’s harder to identify organizations at these later stages just by looking at their forms because the salient feature is a changed culture. At this top rung of the ladder, the organization is committed to continuous improvement — kaizen.

The organization is documenting changes to digital forms — as well as the surrounding content, and related outreach efforts, like newsletters, social media, and advertising — to see how those efforts impact user behavior and conversions. It is using the resulting data to help guide product and service development.

Stealing from the poor

As for the rep who insisted that we remove the form from the client website — we complied. There was no way to move forward otherwise.

We couldn’t tell him that using an online form generates more conversions over having people complete a task via email 99% of the time. We couldn’t tell him that just because other organizations aren’t using a form system, and they’re getting some number of conversions, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be getting more by using a form.

This is why I caution clients to be careful when we start looking at others within their industry for answers. Sometimes you’ll come across a genuinely good idea or two while doing a competitive analysis, but it’s all too easy to find yourself copying answers from people who are failing the course.

Where does your organization fall on the ladder?

And what holds you back from moving up to the next level?

Hit reply and let me know. I really want to better understand the obstacles that prevent this kind of growth — so I’d love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading,


PS. If your company is at or near the bottom of the forms ladder, I’m not judging. We do the best we can, given constraints beyond our control. So hit reply and let me know what you’re facing when it comes to your online forms.

Kyle Bowen