Sometimes, you need to design something really odd

I’m usually a little cautious when critiquing sites where I’m not familiar with the design rationale. I’ve often read a critique of a site that I’ve worked on, where the issues raised make sense from the point of view of that individual, but wouldn’t result in us changing anything as there was actually a good reason for the design they didn’t like. Usually, it related to the needs or behaviours of other personas that they hadn’t thought about, or an overriding commercial imperative.

Here’s an example.

In the checkout process on British Airways’, the customer is asked for a phone number. Here’s the relevant bit.

Provide phone number on

It was often pointed out to us that we should have put the radio buttons above the number input field. An alternative would have been to allow the customer to put in a number, and then let them tell us whether it was a landline or mobile number.

In this case, if you hit ‘No’, then you see this.

Result of saying ‘I don’t have a mobile’

The reason the fields are in this order is that it was quite likely that no use at all would be made of a landline number. In a real emergency, or if you were high value, then maybe.

Even if we’d suggested strongly that it was in the customer’s own best interest to provideĀ  mobile number, some people still wouldn’t, for their own reasons. By doing it this way, people would see the request for the mobile number, see it was mandatory (so far), and maybe be a little pissed off, but would give a number. Many wouldn’t notice the ‘No’ option. Even if they saw the ‘No’ after typing in a mobile number, people being lazy, they’d just leave it.

If there were customers who really didn’t have a mobile, they had put so much effort into getting to this point that they would hunt around for a way round this problem, and spot the next bit.

Whilst we never A/B tested this one, I’m sure that the end result was that we collected many more mobile numbers than we would otherwise have done, and that we didn’t lose significant revenue.

Don’t default to ‘please select’ in drop-downs. Only use defaults when applicable to most users.

Here’s the name field entry from British Airways’ Executive Club registration form.

Name fields for BA’s Executive Club form

Here’s the equivalent for Virgin Atlantic

Name fields for Virgin Atlantic registration

Note that the drop-down for ‘title’ is blank for BA, but has ‘please select’ for VA. Users don’t need to be told to ‘please select’ if there’s a field that’s empty. There may have been a day when people were not used to drop-downs, and didn’t know what to do with them, but that’s not the case any more, for the vast majority of users.

Even more importantly though, users scan forms looking for empty fields. As people, we don’t methodically work through all the field names, picking them out from all the other clutter on the page. We take the easy lazy route. Which fields are blank? We don’t do this consciously, but we’re surprised when we hit the ‘enter’ button, and get an error. I have observed this often enough in usability testing. Even worse on the VA form, I have no idea why they would duplicate the field names in the input fields.

Further down on the BA page, we find a couple of fields that have been defaulted. The ‘country of residence’ and ‘language’ fields.

Defaulted drop-downs

In this case, it’s reasonable to default, as on entering the site the user has had to accept or change their country and language settings. The vast majority of users won’t change these fields, and so it would just be annoying for them to have to apply a setting that they’ve already done. Moreover, anyone who happens to want to change these entries, is likely to notice the disconnect with what they want. Again, it can be an unconscious thing.

Just by way of another example, here are some fields from the UK organ donor site. Right in the middle of a lengthy form, we find ‘please select’ again. The user just wants to get the thing done, and this sort of thing in the middle of a form increases the risk of errors.

Organ donor form

Check your forms. Are you leaving fields blank when they should be, and thinking intelligently about what to default? You should also be looking at your form analytics, and seeing which fields cause the most errors, so you know what to fix.