If the Forms Don’t Work, Nothing Works
Digital marketing today is a mixture of systems and habits. The right technology alone won’t get you the opportunity you’re looking for, nor will just the right habits in creating content. And the single most important element that connects the two are forms.
Without forms, no prospect can engage with your content or with you directly. But a good form is not simply a matter of tacking a widget on a page. In this episode of Expert Marketing Matters, Chris is joined by User Experience Designer, Lauren Clarke, and Director of Technology, Dave Mello, to discuss how forms must be designed, built, and integrated to have the greatest measurable impact on your marketing, and how interaction design as a discipline must adapt to elevate forms in priority…
You can listen to the episode using the player embedded above, or you can read a full transcript below.
Chris Butler: Welcome to Expert Marketing Matters, I’m Chris Butler.
Lauren: I’m Lauren Clarke.
David: And I’m David Mello.
Chris Butler: And I’ve got about 80 percent of my voice back, so you’ll just have to roll with me on it. David, Lauren, back to the table.
Chris Butler: It’s been a while.
Lauren: It has.
David: It has, thank you.
Chris Butler: What I thought would be interesting to do with you all is to talk … I had this flash thought after the last episode that we recorded where the idea of the work behind the words, as a concept, just came to my mind because we talk so often on this podcast about what we and our clients need to do or what anyone who’s in the expertise base needs to do in order to make their expertise known to prospects.
Chris Butler: So we’re talking about generating opportunity in the marketplace through a variety of what, as we say, systems and habits. But on the systems side and the habits side, there’s a bunch of stuff that tends to happen, especially with your involvement, Lauren and Dave, that isn’t really that easy to talk about. That we tend to not talk about that much on the podcast and that certainly, people who are thinking proactively about these types of things don’t tend to think about. Lauren, on your side, something that I’ve been saying to clients over and over again recently, is that it doesn’t matter how good their content is or how good their website is or how great their CRM is or how thoroughly it’s been set up or how tight the integrations are between all these things. Fundamentally, if the forms don’t work, then nothing matters.
Chris Butler: Right? That’s where it all comes together. And Dave, the thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot with your input here is data integrity. Where data comes from, how we store things, what we store, constantly asking the question of what’s relevant, what’s necessary and how we elevate right things. So I thought, in terms of our conversation today, we could look at those two topics. And I know you all have some thoughts in particular about things that we know over and over again, our clients don’t tend to be aware of until we bring it to the table.
Chris Butler: So I thought for the purpose of our audience, let’s talk a little bit about what are those unforseens. Where are those things that it would be good for people to know about in advance that may not be that exciting sounding, but actually end up having a huge impact on whether or not digital marketing efforts work or don’t work. So who’d like to go first?
David: Well I think I can say that really, at the end of the day, it’s all about collecting data. That’s basically what we’re doing here and the best way that we can do that is through forms. That means making sure that you have them in the right places, basically having them on the right pages, but also having them set up in such a way that the data that you’re collecting is serving you the best, so that you’re not just asking for the same fields over and over. So that you are making sure that if you really need to know someone’s title, you’re making sure that that’s something you’re gonna capture for them as soon as possible, as they basically come to your site. I think that’s basically where we’re starting, right?
Chris Butler: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Although, something that’s interesting about when we say “the data” is that I think immediately, anyone listening might envision, “Okay, well I know the things that I need to know from a prospect in order to properly vet them.” So, whenever we talk about progressive profiling, for instance, that’s how we frame that conversation. What are the things that you need to know in order to properly vet your prospects so that this approach, this progressive profiling engine serves business development and marketing teams properly. It actually saves them time so that on the bus-dev side, when they think about who to get in touch with, they can spend their time wisely.
Chris Butler: In addition to those fields … Let’s say it’s arbitrarily 15 to 18 fields, there’s a mountain of other data that we are collecting that are not those fields. Right? Actions, events, incidental details. And that’s sort of what I’m thinking of in terms of what you have built behind the scenes in terms of a system to best manage that material. You know what I’m saying?
David: So all of that information that we gather through the site is kind of our first line of defense inside the insight engine and then that’s where we gather all this data and we’re able to display it in a really interesting way and we’re able to see some patterns about our site visitors that you wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. And as Chris said, that pulls from a lot of different sources. The first source that it comes from, the one that we know to be most true is basically what they’ve told us. And that could be what they’ve told us in terms of a forms submission, but it could also be what they’ve told us in forms of what email campaigns they’ve clicked through.
David: We know that that’s an action that they’ve taken, we know when they did it, we then know what pages they viewed and we know if they came back to the site several times. We know if multiple people from the same company clicked through emails or came to the site over the course of a certain period of time. So all of those data points are things that we know. And on top of that, we’re able to glean information based on those people, primarily through their main email address. We can pull social information about them, we can pull information about where they work, there’s basically lots of information on the web that we can scrape that is, I would say, 80 percent accurate, is kind of what we found.
David: Being able to balance that, being able to balance what we know about the visitor versus what we’re able to give our best guess becomes a really interesting challenge because in some cases, we might be elevating data points that aren’t correct. In other cases, we might not be showing information that is very valuable, but we’re not sure about. So that’s kind of a challenge that we’ve had recently, is sort of figuring out, in this massive data that we’re collecting, what’s the best way to actually prioritize it. And that’s actually a fun project that Chris and I worked on this past week, was sort of looking at that and figuring out that, well, actually we have a lot of really good insight here, but we need to make sure that what we don’t know is clear and what we do know becomes really, really obvious.
Chris Butler: Right. And for those of you listening, Dave mentioned something a few moments ago, called the insight engine. What that is, some of you may remember from a few episodes back, we talked about this in more detail, but for those of you that haven’t, the insight engine is what we call a tool that we put together to aggregate a bunch of different information. What we’re really trying to do is synthesize some data points that can be found in a variety of different other interfaces. So we’re synthesizing social data, we’re synthesizing data from other reporting, so might have things that overlap with Google Analytics or things that overlap with reports and Salesforce, or things that overlap with reports in a marketing automation suite or things that overlap with reports within a CMS. And we’re trying to tie that all together so that there can be one place that elevates the information that we know is most actionable to marketing and business development teams. We call it the insight engine because again, we’re trying to extract the insights from what is an every growing mountain of data.
Chris Butler: That’s the challenge here, right? The more we want to know about our prospect, the more we’re capable of gathering. And so those things aren’t necessarily going to lead to the right outcome. Just ’cause you’re gathering more data doesn’t mean that you’re gonna become increasingly more intelligent. What we need is to automate the tools to best sift through this information so that we can say, “Hey, we’ve saved you a million hours, here’s where you put your next moment.”
Chris Butler: Now, on that note, what you’re talking about I think is really fascinating here. We know a bunch of things because we’ve asked it explicitly of the prospect; name, title, company size, et cetera. Whatever is in our progressive profile or one of our clients. Above and beyond that, we can start to take any of that information and start to act on it outside of what we’re being told directly, and find out if that will help us learn more. We can scrape social engines, we can take their email address and make some deductions about them. As you say, all that becomes speculative, so it’s almost like a radiating out. The closer we are to ourselves, the more secure the data is.
Chris Butler: What’s interesting abut this is that … What is the best way to manage the uncertainty? You alluded to the project that you and I just went through to try and do this best. What we found is that the solution wasn’t to actually make any change to the accuracy of the information, right? ‘Cause that’s out of our control.
Chris Butler: So what was the solution?
David: Basically, the solution was more visual. We made sure that when we were showing information about a certain visitor, it was clear where that came from, and we did that with some very subtle visual clues. But things that became apparent as you looked at a list of visitors and that showed you very quickly, basically, what we know and what we don’t know.
Chris Butler: Right. We’re actually taking some guesses that I think are in most cases, gonna be accurate. For instance, someone gives you their email address, right? They’ve done the basic thing of subscribing to content. You can then take that email address and say, “Okay, well looking at the domain itself, can we make a deduction about where they’re working, where they’re coming in from?”
David: Which in most cases we can if we’re gathering actual company domain.
Chris Butler: Correct.
David: One change we made to our site in the past year, is we now require people to fill out any form on the site with a valid non-free email address.
Chris Butler: Right, so no Gmail, no Outlook, that kind of thing.
David: Right. If somebody fills out with that address, we’ll then prompt them to fill out a captcha, so we’re making sure that’s not spam. And that was initially to keep the amount of spam down, but what we found is that it increased the sort of good data that we’re collecting, because we’re making sure that for most cases, we know the company that the person works at, ’cause they’re gonna use an actually business address. And from that, we can get all kinds of great information that we’re fairly sure is correct.
Chris Butler: Right. Well, it’s interesting. We had a bunch of debates internally about the merits of putting up some resistance to somebody using something like a Gmail account. I think one of our hunches was that a serious operator is going to come to you from the auspices of their professional domain. If you have John Smith, but he’s the EVP of whatever at this agency, he’s gonna come to you with his agency’s email address.
Chris Butler: Most often, from the data that we’ve gathered, that tends to be true. But sometimes it isn’t true and so enabling somebody to have the freedom to use whatever entry point they want is a good thing. But one thing, that I think you just alluded to that’s interesting, is that if John Smith gives us his Gmail account, we can actually learn way more about John Smith because what we do see is that often when someone sets up a LinkedIn account or a Twitter account or a Facebook account or participates in other places, they tend to use the credentials that are closest to them.
Chris Butler: Now if you are an owner of a company, you might have a lot of overlap there because you see your relationship with the company being forever more. But if you’re not, if you’re just an employee, you might do a lot for professional engagement using your own personal credentials, because you don’t necessarily assume that you’re gonna be at that company forever. We’re trying to make that feasible. We actually, in looking at the data together, saw that one of … A really important prospect for us, someone that we’ve close business with in the last month, actually used her personal Gmail. And that was a pretty good proof of the fact that we don’t want to shut those people out.
David: Sure, of course.
Chris Butler: Right? In thinking about this data, what do you imagine five years from now in terms of other things that we might be gathering that will become useful to us that aren’t really necessarily within our purview now? Is there anything that comes to mind? I know I put you on the spot. We can come back to that as well if you’d like.
David: We can come back to that and edit out all of this awkward silence.
Chris Butler: I certainly can edit out the awkward silence, or I could keep it because it humanizes you, Dave. And me.
David: Oh, fantastic.
Chris Butler: Well, the reason I ask this is because, for instance, LinkedIn is interesting. LinkedIn is a place where some people participate quite actively and some people don’t. The integrity of that data is questionable. For instance, you found in looking through, I don’t know, half a dozen to a dozen or more fringe cases that would help us even out our approach to managing this data … You found lots of cases where people hadn’t tended to their profiles. So when we scraped data about them, we actually got things that weren’t true about them anymore or were confusing at least, or overrode data that we thought we knew about them, like their title, their place of work. A lot of people in this line of work have multiple titles at multiple places.
Chris Butler: What’s interesting about that, is that’s just coming from one source, LinkedIn. But I wonder, as time progresses, if there’s gonna be other sources that are gonna be relevant. Like, would at some point, we start scraping all the podcasts engines to see who’s participating in that place? There’s a whole other realm of additional actionable data that we don’t have.
David: Yeah, I think as getting to the point where we’re fairly certain what organization a visitor is visiting on behest of, is going to become really important and we already see that. Right now, we’re able to make a best guess based on things like I just mentioned, like what email address are they using or what their social information say about them. But I think making that guess will become simpler and simpler. I think in short order, we’ll probably just be able to google where somebody works and you’ll just know and you’ll know where they got the job, when they got the job. That kind of thing will become much more public. And I think what we’ve seen is that, it’s not really the social information that we’re really interested in, it’s what the person does at the organization that they’re visiting from and what the organization is. So getting all the way to the actual company level as quickly as possible and as fool proof as possible becomes really, really important. And that’s where I see things changing.
Chris Butler: Yep. Let’s take a quick break and when we get back we can get to you, Lauren, who you’ve been silently lurking.
Lauren: I know. I’m still here.
Chris Butler: Yeah, she’s still here, looking at me like, “When am I gonna get to talk?” So we’ll take a quick break and we’ll come back and we’ll talk a little bit about forms and where all this stuff really comes together.
David: And you can edit out all the parts where I sound like an idiot.
Chris Butler: No, I’m gonna keep it all. Including this. What you just said.
Chris Butler: You’re listening to Expert Marketing Matters; a podcast about generating ideal new business opportunities by creating and nurturing digital marketing systems and habits that have a measurable impact on your bottom line. This podcast is brought to you by Newfangled, a digital marketing consultancy, focused on empowering experts to do better digital marketing. You can learn more about Newfangled’s digital marketing method at newfangled.com.
Lauren: You can make anything into a patty. You can!
Chris Butler: And we’re back. Welcome back. In the break, Lauren pointed out that I hadn’t made it known to her that we changed the format. We don’t do the what we’re excited about thing anymore at the beginning, and I think she’s excited about something, so I think we should start there. Lauren, what are you excited about this week?
Lauren: I guess what I had prepared was … One of the things I do at Newfangled is work with our clients to create a prototype as part of the website planning process. And to do that, since I’ve been at Newfangled, we use a home grown tool to create those and over the years we’ve looked at alternatives to that and kind of toyed around with switching to something different. And I think more recently, there have been some things that you’ve sent to me, just some different options out there that are really cool and worth exploring. Digging into some of those is something that I plan on doing in the near future and yeah, I’m excited about maybe developing something new to sort of streamline that process.
Chris Butler: Yeah, I saw an ad on Instagram. I think it was for an extension to Sketch that I immediately sent to Lauren. I think it was probably late at night or too early in the morning or something like that. I either send you cute cuddly animals or funny things about veganism. Veganism. But no …
Lauren: I’m glad you worked that into this podcast as well.
Chris Butler: Well, I’m going to keep all of the other fringe conversation we had at the break as well in to this. But yeah, Sketch is where it’s at. As an aside, relevant to this audience, if you’re not using Sketch, I think you should be using Sketch.
David: You’ve been a convert to Sketch now for many years. You were in the Photoshop camp and you completely abandoned it.
Chris Butler: Yeah. I would have used Photoshop to design things when I have the chance to do that and Dave and I have worked on projects, and Lauren and I have worked on projects where we’ve been using Sketch entirely, which I think it just makes sense. Photoshop was designed to be a tool for photo editing and it became eventually this sort of Frankenstein web development or web design tool. It can’t be really good at both things. It’s got an enormous feature set for photo work and enormous feature set for layered composition work, but web design isn’t just layered composition, it’s this other thing. And so, Sketch is awesome. I’m really excited about Sketch. Generally, when I get to make things, I like to make them in Sketch.
Chris Butler: So that’s what you’re excited about?
Lauren: It is.
Chris Butler: Cool.
Chris Butler: Cool. Let’s talk a little bit about the other stuff you do at Newfangled. This idea that all comes together around forms. It can seem really … It’s easy to oversimplify that, isn’t it?
Lauren: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Chris Butler: That, hey, you got a form in there, people fill it out, you get some info. And that’s it.
Chris Butler: But that’s not really it. It never ceases to amaze me how often we’ll have a routine check in or routine meeting here among our team, and some issue having to do with form submissions comes up. Something that would be great for a client to be a fly on the wall in here and for them to learn, to understand the depth of complexity that’s beneath the sort of tip of the iceberg that they understand with forms.
Chris Butler: So where should we start with that? We could probably do a whole podcast about forms. You could have a formscast if you wanted. We’ve got about fifteen minutes for you to talk about forms.
Lauren: I guess the two things that came up for me as I was thinking about common things that clients may not think about when it comes to forms … There were sort of two different things. One is exactly what you said; just sort of the complexity behind what appears to be a simple element on their site. And the second one was how usability plays into that. I have conversations about that all the time. On the back end, I think those two are linked because really, part of what we want to do is make the experience for the user as easy as possible, on the front end. So, that tends to come with a package that looks simple when they’re interacting with that on the site, but there’s so much that goes in the back end of that, that really impacts their experience and like I said, those two things, those two ideas to me sort of become interwoven in a way that’s difficult to talk about them as separate pieces.
Chris Butler: Right. Can I make it more complex for a second?
Lauren: Yeah, yeah.
Chris Butler: You’re talking about usability with forms. Usability, in and of itself tends to be understood of like, “Oh, can a user fill out that form?”
Chris Butler: Right? But what you think about often … I think there’s three interpretations of usability as it pertains to forms. There is the user experience, but there’s also the user experience on the admin side in terms of, “How do I apply forms to the right context in the right way on a website?” Some of that needs to be automated and how do I create a system, how do I design a system that automates this appropriately for my goals? But then there’s the whole other side of the usability of moving data from place to place and knowing where to look and what things to configure.
Chris Butler: For instance, you help clients broker all the time; where’s this form going to live, what is it going to do, how does it play into the overall complexity of your system? Is it a smart form or not? Does it know what it’s going to do next or is it something that’s standalone for a standalone purpose. But then what happens if they want to create a new one and add it into that ecosystem? How usable is that experience for them? Usability in and of itself is not longer what it used to mean.
Lauren: Yeah, yeah, definitely. And I think what I mean … The recurring themes around that that feel like they come up often, is this idea that at one point … Certainly, while I’ve been at Newfangled, so I guess it’s a relatively recent development, is that I think people used to think about forms as static elements on their website. And that was true in a lot of ways and as we move towards a system that sort of abandons that idea for the sake of being able to collect more relevant data and all these other things that we’ve talked about. I think it really needs to change how we think about those elements and how we design for them and how we even think about things as minor as what it takes to add a field to a form on your site. All of these things that feel like very simple and straightforward things become much more complex as you sort of make the back end experience of what forms do on the site more complex.
Chris Butler: Right, so for the listeners benefit, what you mean by “static” would have to do … Let’s take for example a subscribe form. That form might … Its title might be subscribe and it might ask for a first name, last name and an email address and have a submit button. When you say “the back end,” the administrative side of this, you might create that form and that form is the canonical structure by which we get those fields for that purpose. It’s the central way that we say, “Oh, Lauren Clarke has subscribed to receive our newsletter.” But on the user’s side, that might show up in a side bar, it might show up at the bottom of a page, it might pop up in a modal overlay, it might be in a side bar that when you expand it you get the fields or it might show the fields right away. So there’s the way that the design expresses that form. So, a form like a subscribe form could have six different incantations on a website and it might play different roles depending on what kind of device you’re on. So that’s what you mean by “non-static.”
Lauren: Yeah. Even to add onto that, the idea that depending on what the user has done on the site previously, it may not be a form that just has three fields. They may see additional things. So, as we think about designing those, we have to account for that; that these aren’t sort of finite elements anymore, that we can know exactly how much space they’re gonna take up on the page. There’s so much that changes and when we think about that, it starts to bring to mind, well, if that is also true, then it may be the case that when someone sees that form, there’s information that prefilled and how does that change their experience and how does that change how we need to think about the design to make things more or less obvious to the user?
Chris Butler: I have two thoughts to that, one that I think Dave, you’ll have something to say about. But first, it’s really interesting that you mention that because I just had a conversation recently with a client where we were talking about this idea of the relationship between forms and the [bi-cycle 00:24:02], right? As well as how progressive profiling plays a role in that.
Chris Butler: So we often talk about subscribe for instance, is a researcher based form. It’s the kind of form that essentially makes it easier for somebody to know that, “Hey, this is a valid source of information for this thing that I’m interested in, I don’t want to have to bookmark it. I’d like to just receive updates.” We assume that that is a first touch point because it’s the lowest barrier. We’re not putting up an info wall to ask them for more personal information. That user gains more than they give. It tends to be what we assume is gonna be the first entry point.
Chris Butler: But that’s not always the case and so it might be the case that actually somebody fills out a more extensive form on the site first, and then by the time they go to subscribe, yeah, we already know their first name, last name, and email and all of a sudden the subscribe form has four other fields in it. The reason that is problematic to your point is because when people design websites, they often assume that that’s gonna be the first touch point and so they design these super minimal subscribe forms.
David: Right. One line only or three fields at the most.
Chris Butler: Right. Or one that even if it expands, it’s gonna start to buckle the page in some interesting ways. You’re absolutely right about that, not just in terms of the fact that that could happen at any stage, but specific to that one, we make a lot of assumptions about the manner in which a prospect starts to get more involved in our marketing experience. It simply isn’t the case that subscribe is always the first thing.
David: It’s typically content that’s basically put behind a gated form, that I think we’ve seen is our most popular form.
Lauren: Yeah, and then the other thing that I mentioned that ties into that, is just really the types of systems that we’re building to manage the data we’re collecting is just more complex than it used to be. So, having an understanding of that and how that impacts the site, impacts what it means to create a new form or add a field and go through testing to make sure that data is passing through properly because it’s no longer just that someone submits information that’s collected in the CMS and that’s where our clients are accessing that data. It goes to the site, which then passes into their marketing automation tool, which then often passes to Salesforce. If they’re doing webinars, there’s a whole other piece of making sure that data is accessible on whatever webinar tool they’re using. There’s all of these systems that are interwoven together that need to be considered when you’re talking about forms. And like I said, something as simple as adding a field to a form on your site then becomes making sure it’s still connected in all of those places.
Chris Butler: Right. And we make a lot of assumptions about where the alert’s going to come from. Something as trivial as that, for instance, every one of those systems you just mentioned has the ability to generate an alert to you that a form has been filled out or that data’s been received. So, which one is the best one to use? How do you identify where the source of truth is? Again, those are choices that need to be made, they’re not just out of the box, automated set up.
Chris Butler: Oh, but Dave, I remember what the other things was going to be in regard to what Lauren was saying about these forms and sometimes our assumptions about where data is going to be prefilled. Many of our clients, many people in this industry, have purchased names. They built a contact list in advance of people that they believe are gonna find the material relevant or are gonna at least be relevant prospects to them. And they know more, at that point, than their first name, last name and email. And the question is, “Well, what do you do with that?” What if you know that and that person comes back, they respond to … You send them an email and they come back to the site, you know that it’s them, because they clicked on that email. What do you do with that data? Do you start to pre-fill it or not?
David: I think unfortunately, you don’t do anything with that data. That’s something we batted around for a while. To sort of back up, we do a lot of stuff with that data in the back end. We know, based on what they’ve done inside the insight engine, who they are, we see all of that there. But in terms of pre-filling fields, we would never show information that they haven’t actively supplied to us. And that’s kind of a rule we came up with a while ago as being the least creepy way to do it.
Chris Butler: Right. And that does make a meaningful difference because it might slow down the opportunity.
Chris Butler: For instance, if you buy a list and Dave Mello, the director of technology at Newfangled is on that list, and you know that he is Dave Mello, director of technology at Newfangled, which has sub 50 employees, which is headquartered in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, et cetera, et cetera. You know all these things about Dave, but you send an email to Dave and Dave says, “Oh yeah, that’s really interesting to me,” he taps on that email and reads that article on the website and then goes to a form and all of a sudden sees his name in there, Dave is gonna make some conclusions about that, that he may or may not be comfortable with.
Chris Butler: The reason we slow it down is because, number one, there’s a benefit to having that stuff confirmed by the person; him or herself. We assume, and we do a lot of list cleansing and we assume that that data is correct, but it’s not always the case. Sometimes you might have somebody on your contacts list that you’ve purchased and they’re still appropriate and they’re happy to receive the content, but their role has changed since then, or something of that nature.
David: We have people that we send to that we probably added five or six years ago and I think in a lot of cases, that role is correct and that’s fine.
Chris Butler: So back to the data integrity issue, it’s not just a matter of creating a scenario that makes the prospect feel most comfortable or less surveilled or whatever you wanna say. It also enables them, because we know that they’re gonna be the best authority on the accuracy of their data. It allows them to rebuild their profile in a way that’s most accurate and I think that’s good.
Chris Butler: I’ve told this story on this podcast before, but I’ve had to become convert on contact strategy, on buying lists. Because I think inherently, when you say “buying a list of names of people that don’t know that you’re …” That feels not cool. I can tell you that my name has been sold to thousands of people because I’ve received thousands of unsolicited emails. But you know what? I’ve been impressed over the last year by the degree to which those emails’ accuracy to me have increased. There have been a few services and products that I’ve actually pursued for Newfangled because of that.
Chris Butler: That’s true for me, but we had our first seminar a few years ago and I was in line to get dinner at a buffet and I had met the man in front of me and we were talking. I had never met him before. There were many people at the seminar that we did know and we were just talking about our backgrounds, where he’s from. He started chuckling at one point, he was like, “Don’t you already know all this stuff about me?” And I was like, “Well no, I don’t.” And he’s like, “Well, you bought me.” I laughed because I didn’t really know what he … It took a minute for me to understand what he meant by that. What he knew is that he had received an email out of the blue from Newfangled that he did not sign up for and he, being in this industry, knew what that meant. It meant that we had purchased his name. And not only was he thrilled about that, but the next thing he did was spend thousands of dollars to come to our seminar. That verified for me that if it’s done right, it can be really beneficial both to us and to the person on the list.
Chris Butler: I’ve changed my tune on that considerably, but that’s due to the kinds of things that Dave, you do, which is making sure that the data integrity is as top notch as possible.
David: That’s right.
Chris Butler: Well I-
Lauren: You have a question?
Chris Butler: You mentioned some things about form design and a tiny little detail came to mind because you and I were reviewing a design recently that one of our expert firm clients had put together. Actually, it was an agency on behalf of them. And something that I see over and over again is style trends shifting with forms. And that’s fine, that’s gonna happen, I think. We’ve all worked in this space long enough to see trends come and go and some of them are useful and some of them are impediments. But one thing I’ve noticed that style trends, as they pertain to forms, can really get in the way of the basic usability of the form.
Chris Butler: One thing I’m noticing is that people want minimal forms. And for many years, we said to clients, “Look, you really need to keep the label out of the form field because in order for us to capture the form data properly, they need to be out of there.” But you can actually kind of fudge that, design-wise. You can make it look like the label’s in the field, even though the field itself is not the full span of what looks like the field on the front end, and so you can kind of fake it. But something else that I’m seeing over and over again is that the field is no longer there, it’s just an underline.
Chris Butler: And where that becomes problematic is that every single time somebody visualizes that at the design stage, they visualize it by putting the field data in the field. So you don’t see an empty form, you see the form with the underlines, but you see it as if somebody has put data in there before they’ve hit submit. The problem with that design convention is that the reality is, the first time someone sees it, they’re just gonna see the lines. And when the label is either above or below the line, it doesn’t make clear to somebody what that label is assigned to. And so you can often get people mis-submitting a form or misapplying data in the wrong places. And what I’ve found is that we get that instantly, because we’ve dealt with this kind of data and design issue over and over again. But it’s almost impossible to get people to understand that eventuality at the design stage. Why is that?
Lauren: I happened upon an article that Chris Creech, Newfangled alumni, wrote on our website, and one of his main points in there, it was talking about forms. And he was like, “Hey, forms are ugly.” I think a lot of times, a form that is best designed for a user to know exactly how to use it, often isn’t gonna be the one that is the most aesthetically pleasing. You do sort of have to choose what is most important in that interaction.
Lauren: I think too, there tends to be a little bit of an understanding that maybe they’ll be confused for a second, but surely someone will figure it out. Which is a little bit of a gamble. That may not always be true and the more we force users to really work to get what you want them to do on your site, the greater the chances that they’re not gonna be as effective and caring through those conversion points and all sorts of different things.
Chris Butler: And we’ve seen that play out a million times where, for instance, in a scenario in which there’s a form where all the fields are underlines, and it’s not immediately clear what the labels apply to. Yeah, someone might figure it out because they fill it out improperly and they get a submission failure the first time and they go back and they figure it out. How many submission failures is within somebody’s appetite to proceed with? I don’t know. But then the question becomes, “Well, have you designed for this submission failure to be educational to the user?”
Chris Butler: Most people never do that. They don’t design the submission failure experience and so what ends up happening is the user gets a submission failure and they don’t even know it. Or they get something where something’s red, but they don’t know why. And there’s no instruction for that or we haven’t designed a retrieval page where there’s actually text with instructions. What I found is that if the forms are non-negotiable, and it plays on that concept that we’ve talked a lot about, which is prospect experience design. Making it easy for users to do what you want them to do. If what you want them to do is submit the form, then you need to start with that and work your way out from a design system.
Chris Butler: And it is true that you could say that forms are ugly, but actually, as a designer, I don’t accept that because what I think about in terms of beauty, has to do with order and stability. In the same way that for instance, Dave, you might look at a line of code and you could assess its beauty, right?
David: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chris Butler: From a mathematic standpoint, there’s a beauty and elegance in function and form fitting function. So a form, yeah you might think it’s ugly because you’ve already established the design system for everything else and now you have to accommodate these forms, but if the forms are the most necessary component, then why would you ever wait? Why would you make design decisions prior to incorporating the forms? If anything, you should start from the form and work your way out.
Chris Butler: Right. And actually, that brought to mind to me, that one thing I’m utterly sick of hearing about in our line of work, is mobile first. Because to me, that was just an over-calibration for people who were never thinking about the mobile experience, right? Maybe what we should have in terms of a [inaudible 00:36:41] is a form first design. Because if that’s in the marketing space, the most essential element … That’s the difference between you getting the data or not, that you need to move an opportunity forward, why wouldn’t you start there? If you’re a designer in Sketch, and you’re trying to figure out the way that your design system plays out in different contexts, like different page layouts and different devices, you should start with the forms. And then you don’t have the excuse anymore of, “Oh, well the forms are ugly and I have to accommodate this thing that I’m tacking on later.”
Lauren: Right, and to your point, just as we see time and time again clients sort of develop concepts that assume that data is going to be in those form fields, I find is often the case too that they sort of develop their design language around forms assuming that every field is gonna be an open text field. Which is also not the case and so when you sometimes start applying some of the decisions they’ve made about what those forms will look like to a drop down or a list of check box options, it sort of quickly falls apart and ends up looking more odd than it would had they started with something that could sort of easily be applied and follows some of the conventions we talk about for best practices.
Chris Butler: Yeah, and I’ve had the privilege of seeing Dave become quite frustrated by these types of things because Dave, it’s the case that once you get beyond the open text field, the amount of control you have from one browser to another in terms of the styling of that thing, is limited.
David: That’s right.
Chris Butler: Some browsers force you to have a certain kind of drop down experience or radio button experience …
David: There are a lot of really good work arounds at this point, but they are just that; they are workarounds and they do start to fall apart when you get to the fringe.
Chris Butler: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s fascinating to me how when you start with the concept of data integrity, which is I think thematically what we’re talking about here. We started with this idea of the work behind the words, right? We offer a lot of consulting, which is basically, “You should do X.” But once you’ve told somebody, “You should do X,” then there’s all these other questions of “Well, here’s how that happens” or “Here’s how you ensure that X can be effective for you.” And that’s really what the space that you both play in the most.
Chris Butler: Data integrity is a theme that keeps elevating and data integrity is relevant to the most fiddly detail of designing a form field all the way to the most [incorporeal 00:39:07] concept of figuring out what you do with data that you have and figuring out where the source of truth is and what you can predict based on that data. All the stuff that we think is the sexy of marketing right now, which is finding the truth in this immense haystack of data. And it’s amazing to me, that it seems like the line between those two ideas is like a million miles apart. The distance between predictive analysis of an ever growing pile of data and how a form field should look, but they’re really not; they’re right side by side.
David: That’s true.
Chris Butler: Anything else that you think that people listening, anyone who’s endured this up until this point is still with us, should know or think about?
David: Form first design. You basically heard it here first.
Chris Butler: Yeah, you did [crosstalk 00:39:52]. Yeah, that’s the new hotness. It’s not about mobile first anymore, it’s form first design.
Chris Butler: I think I would have to send some kind of royalties to Luke Wroblewski. I actually remember, the first time I ever heard his name … And for people who don’t know who that is, he’s a designer … I guess you could call him a designer, who has been focusing on form interaction for over a decade. But the first time I heard his name is because Dave, you had bought one of his books, which I don’t know. Do you remember what it was called? It was like … I could look it up, but you should follow him because he’s really thoughtful about the usability of these types of interactions. And I bet at some point, he’s said that and perhaps I’ve just buried it in my subconscious, but if he hasn’t, I said it first. You heard it first, form first design.
Lauren: Yep, yep.
Chris Butler: Thank you guys for joining me.
Lauren: Yeah, of course.
David: Of course, thank you.
Chris Butler: It’s always a pleasure to have you on the podcast. If you, listening, wanna hear more from these two individuals, come to our site. They’ve both written things in the past, they’ve both been on the podcast in the past. Dave Mello and Lauren Clarke. There’s nobody else here at Newfangled who knows more about the ins and outs and details of where all this marketing knowledge comes into practical play than you two, so it’s been a pleasure. Find out more about Newfangled at newfangled.com. You can follow us on Twitter @Newfangled_web and look for more podcasts in the next week or two.