"Lou Rosenfeld: Now that your book has sold thousands of copies, you probably don't need to answer the obvious question—"why is web form design important?"—any longer. But given that it is so important, why has web form design been ignored for so long?
Luke Wroblewski: I'd guess it stems from two things. On the one hand, data storage is quite frequently handled with name/value pairs. By that I mean a typical database or recordset contains any number of named entities like "first name," "last name," "gender" and the values for those entities like "Luke," "Wroblewski," and "male". When it comes time to let people manage that data, the simplest solution is just to output the names with an input field to capture the values. That's our friend the Web form. He's often just a function of how a database is set up and, as a result, that's how people think of him.
The other reason is many people think "web form? oh yeah I know how to make one of those, just layout the labels, put in a button, and I'm done". It's clearly not as sexy as designing the home page. Since many people assume Web form design is so routine, it's likely they don't feel it’s a very fulfilling part of the job. Who can get excited about some labels and a button? As you point out, though, web forms are really important—they can streamline sales or key customer actions, build communities or conversations, and more. Yet the design considerations required to optimize forms haven't really been a big part of the way people do form design. Now all that information is getting out there so people are getting excited about the impact forms can have and all of sudden form design is no longer dull. It's powerful.
Lou Rosenfeld: How important are aesthetics to making web forms successful? Or is a form's success solely a function of its usability?
Luke Wroblewski: The presentation layer of any interface—be it a form or a not—has the potential to answer a lot of key questions for people: what is it? how do I use it? why should I care? But the visceral considerations of the presentation layer can instill trust, encourage participation, or just put people at ease. In the case of Web forms that can go a long way. The Stanford Web Credibility guidelines published a while back emphasized that people "quickly evaluate a site by visual design alone." Since we know most people do not like filling in forms, anything you can do to garner a positive evaluation when putting a form in front of people can help!
Lou Rosenfeld: You mention gradual engagement in your book, where users and site owners engage in a growing dialog via a series of web forms. Is there a standard sequence or syntax in such a dialog, as there often is in a conversation between two strangers?
Luke Wroblewski: What I try to encourage teams to do is reflect the core essence of their service with a few lightweight interactions. If you can make people successful along the way—even better. Will Wright, the creator of the Sims & Spore, has a belief that games should allow people to succeed within the first five seconds. That's a great philosophy to bring to gradual engagement. In fact, I think if you can use lightweight actions to allow people to accomplish something relevant to the core of your product within their first one or two interactions with your service, that's gradual engagement at its finest.
Let me try to illustrate with an example. A while back I worked with PatientsLikeMe. Their core objective is to allow people with serious medical conditions to find and learn from each other. To emphasize what the service does and give people a really lightweight way to get engaged, I advocated letting people simply enter a symptom they had or treatment they were taking as a first step. Basically a simple one input field form. Once they entered this very small amount of information, they'd get a response that told them how many patients on the site shared that treatment or symptom. These would be the people they could find and learn from—which emphasizes the point of the service. From there, people could expand the amount of information they want to share in a similar manner and create a proper account. Compare that process to a registration form that asks people to hand over a lot of personal information without getting anything back. That's a more typical approach and not really in line with gradual engagement.
Lou Rosenfeld: Fast forward five years. What will be different about how we design web forms then?
Luke Wroblewski: In About Face 2.0, Alan Cooper stated "allow input wherever you have output". That's a great way to envision the future of Web forms. Instead of focusing on labels, text fields, and buttons, focus on how people can provide input and allow that to happen wherever there's content or actions that can be enhanced by people's contributions. As we deepen our ability to identify specific entities online through richer indexing and semantic mark-up, we'll be able to know what kind of "things" we're dealing with on a regular basis. For instance, if we clearly identify an object as a restaurant overview we can allow people to input their opinions or experiences at the restaurant. Yahoo!'s Search Monkey project is beginning to present some of this structure as output to people already. I'm looking forward to when input is part of the mix as well." (Continued via Rosenfeld Media) [Usability Resources]