Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Dysfunctional Forms Syndrome

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Most web designers are probably aware that web sites have to work correctly, prior to any consideration of whether they are well written, look nice, and contain plenty of relevant, accurate content.

Designers are also commonly taught that broken links, that display Error 404 messages, are not conducive to a pleasant and productive user experience.

But there's another, similar problem that needs to be acknowledged and corrected.

Dysfunctional, or broken, forms are all over the web. This is a major usability violation, encountered on far too many web sites and blogs.

Site registration forms. Contact us forms. Feedback forms. Newsletter sign-up forms. Newsletter opt in or unsubscribe forms. Blog comment posting forms.

Many of these things are just not working, but you won't know it until you spend time filling them out, and attempt to Submit. When you get an Error message, and your data is wiped out, you may start cursing and pulling your hair out.

EXAMPLE #1 = Broken Blog Email Text Entry Function: There's a great marketing consultant blog site that I visit. I like the content of this blog, but comment posting is a pain. The first time I tried to post a comment, it was rejected due to "questionable content." What was this objectionable material? It was the "msn" in my astreight AT msn DOT com email address, which I had to fill in as a required field. So, I had to use one of my other email addresses to post a comment on this blog. And I have to remember this whenever I visit the person's blog.

EXAMPLE #2 = Broken Blog Comment Posting: Another marketing consultant blog has a broken comment function, but in this case, when you select (click on) Post Comment, you're greeted by a form for sending the article you want to comment on to a friend's email inbox. No comment text entry box is provided. I tried several times, but the same thing happened. No possible way to post any comment.

EXAMPLE #3 = Broken Unsubscribe Option: A huge consumer discount company's "Unsubscribe" function for their newsletters is dysfunctional. When I attempted to unsubscribe, "I got a message that my email address is not on file," thus I cannot "Unsubscribe" to the newsletter that they sent to my email address.

MY RESPONSE TO EXAMPLE #3: Here's what I wrote in the newsletter provider's Feedback text entry box, after finally finding it (the Feedback function was somewhat hidden and not easy to quickly locate):

"I used an email newsletter subscription *Unsubscribe* link you provided in the newsletter. When I pressed *Submit* I got the message that you did not have my email address on file. This is a legal violation of serious import. You DO have my email address on file, since you sent your newsletter to my email address. You DO NOT allow me to *Unsubscribe*. I will inform my legal counsel about this matter."

The company sent me an standard form email saying it would need 10 business days to unsubscribe me from the newsletter list. 21 days later, I'm still receiving their newsletters. I feel they are being deceptive and arrogant. I'm planning to sue the company and file a complaint with the FTC, accusing them of spamming in spite of requests to stop sending me email.

DYSFUNCTIONAL FORMS CAN CAUSE USER ANGER: It's time consuming and irritating to spend time and effort on forms that don't work correctly. Especially lengthy registration forms, where you have to fill out multiple fields of personal information and preferences.

Or when I write a lengthy comment on somebody's blog site, press *Submit*, and watch my comment vanish, or be disallowed because comments were turned off on that article, but you have to write, then try to post a comment, before you know this.

When I press a "Submit" button and nothing happens, or I get an Error message that is itself an error...well...I don't smile so much when that happens.

EXAMPLE #4 = Pre-Selected Options: Another monstrous forms usability violation is providing a response that the user may not want, and may even resent. This occurs with, for example, a series of check boxes, when one of the boxes is already checked ("pre-selected").

This presents two problems: you may not notice that an option is pre-selected, and it may not unselect when you select (click on) another option.

Let's say that the newsletter provider prefers to send people the HTML version of their newsletter, so they arrogantly pre-select the "HTML Version" box.

Let's say now that the user, who is usually in a hurry, clicks on the "Text Version" check box, and doesn't notice that the pre-selected HTML check box remains occupied by a check mark.

Thus, he has now subscribed to both versions. And he hates HTML newsletters, for network security reasons. HTML email can harbor hidden code viruses.

But the newsletter provider has usurped the user's right to exercise independent judgment and freedom of choice. You have bullied, forced, imposed upon the user what you want think is best for the user to have.

This is a gross violation of netiquette and contradictory to the philosophy of standard web usage.

When the user tries to *Unsubscribe* to the HTML version of the newsletter, and the *Unsubscribe* link is broken, insult is added to injury.

If anyone can develop a decent, reliable web forms and subscriptions list management service, they'll make a ton of money.

An impassioned plea. Please, webmasters, web developers, web site operators: check your forms and functionalities to make sure they work properly.

And don't go bury your head in the sand, or go ballistic, when someone takes the time and trouble to inform you of things that need to be fixed. Be grateful someone told you what you, for some reason, were unaware of.

Negative feedback is positive food. Complaints make us smarter and help us improve our work. Compliments just tend to make us complacent, and may even lead us astray into unjustified, smug, self-satisfied over-confidence.

Let's stop releasing web sites to the public without testing all the links, functionalities and forms. Let's also periodically check them to make sure they continue to work correctly.

Your web visitors will be very impressed.


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