Forms are used for all sorts of reasons, be it obtaining payment details; submitting passport applications; or providing a way for you to report a dangerous pothole. What all these forms have in common is that they gather information from you, and if you decide not to provide all the information required, the process is usually considered to have failed.

There are many things you can do to improve the design of online forms in order to decrease the failure rate. These include small details such as invoking the correct keyboard on mobile devices, providing helpful microcopy at the right time, and using progressive disclosure so users only see what they need to see. But the biggest effect you can have is to ask the right questions, and only the right questions. Every piece of information you ask for is another hurdle for your user to get over before they complete the process.

The question protocol

When designing a form, you can ensure you are gathering only pertinent information by always invoking the question protocol. The question protocol forces you – and your organisation – to ask yourselves why you are requesting a piece of information from a customer. Getting to the bottom of why you’re asking a question means determining precisely how you will be using the answer, if at all.

Sometimes, questions have been added to a form because somebody needed the data at some point in the past - it may no longer be relevant to gather that information. In many situations, questions are asked because it might be ‘nice to know’ the answers, without a clear idea of how those answers will be interrogated or used. There are other times when information is asked for that could have been inferred or more usefully gathered in another way or on a more appropriate occasion.

The question protocol asks the following of any information that is collected:

  1. Why do you need this information?
  2. Who will use the information and what for? What decision will be made based on the information collected?
  3. How will you validate the information that is submitted?
  4. What happens if the submitted information is false or made up?
  5. What’s the impact of the information not being submitted?
  6. What happens if the information goes out of date?
  7. Can a customer update their submitted information? Should they be able to?
  8. Are you allowed (legally and ethically) to collect this information?
  9. How is it shared? What are the privacy implications?
  10. How securely does it need to be stored?

Asking those questions should ultimately lead you to answering the ultimate one: “Is the question really necessary?”

Finding the right person to tell you whether they really need the answers to specific questions takes time and persistence, but in the long run can save money and improve conversions. Each piece of information you ask for has two costs: firstly it is an impairment to accurate completion; secondly there is a time and money cost of collecting, storing and processing the additional information, and handling situations where the information is false or inconsistent.

Using the question protocol can help you and your organisation understand the the true business value (or detriment) of each question you ask. This will give you the opportunity to slim down your forms, minimise failure, and increase the completion rate.