For many reasons, thinking about web forms in User Interface / User Experience has generally concentrated on the flow of thought, guiding the eye, visibility of elements, navigation, security and of course, accessibility.
However, one thing that’s often overlooked is just as important, and will stop some people in their tracks from completing a form: stupidity.
Take, for example, this extract from a survey form from an affiliated site a major bookseller. Although I generally have many better things to do than click on links on my email to fill out online surveys, this was a lazy Sunday, so what the heck? First page, no problem. Second page presented me with this train wreck, such that I not only couldn’t continue, but had to post this to vent my frustration:
In case you’re baffled, wondering where’s the horrible usability issue, the problem is that the form is asking me to make an impossible choice. I’m a book lover, and I buy books from many different sources: Amazon, Borders, B & N, and I try to support my local independent stores as well, (which I wish I did more often). My specific recommendations would depend on which friend this is, and their specific priorities regarding the particular item they’d be interested in, e.g. cost, convenience, immediacy.
The key problem here is either/or choices are being forced upon the user, when the user may not necessarily think of the situation as being remotely exclusive, but as subtle, nuanced, and inclusive of many factors.
Check boxes would be what the doctor ordered here. This is a glaring problem on many forms. Users cannot give detailed, meaningful feedback on how they see things, if the form presumes to know a priori how they see things. This applies to more things than one might initially suspect.
Take the common fieldset “Select Your Religion” that you see on many social sites. Invariably the user is presented with list of popular choices (usually ending in “Other”) and a slew of radio buttons. This design undoubtedly works for many people, but it doesn’t for those who are questioning their religion, leaving it, changing it, or seriously exploring another without intending to make a complete conversion. These people might be better served by something more like: “Please Indicate Your Main Religious Preference(s)” and choices marked by checkboxes.
Is this overly picky? I think not. In the case of the choice of religion on a social networking or dating site, inappropriate either/or choices may indicate a bias against unconventional choices, particularly if the list is short.
In the case of the bookseller mentioned above, it conveyed a sense of not wanting to understand my preferences, which implies to me that they’re also not really interested in changing to help meet my needs and gain more of my business.
Bottom line: If you want honest, detailed feedback from users, or to make a positive impression on them, do not try to force the user’s mind to fit your form. Mold your form to allow them to express their mind.