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Design suggestions for better online registration forms

By Paul Dempsey

Form follows function. This cliché should be the guiding principle for designing on-line forms for advancement events. In contrast to direct mail reply forms and telephone responses, online forms can be more convenient for users and more efficient for staff. But as alumni gain online experience, they expect all features of an institution's Web site — including forms — to be as intuitive and interactive as those of the best commercial sites they visit.

Typically, Web forms are largely unchanged from their paper predecessors, which limits their utility and effectiveness for both users and staff. Keep the following tips in mind as you evaluate your online forms.

Keep it simple. Make sure your forms aren't cluttered with unnecessary queries. Take a critical look at what the forms request and eliminate anything that is not essential to the event registration. For many years, our alumni event forms asked users to note their fax numbers. We realized we never recorded or used that information, so we removed the query. Further, avoid asking for information that you already have in your alumni records. Everyone hates filling out information they know they have given you in the past.

Organize the format. This complicated task can be distilled into a few specific tasks: Break down forms into multiple parts to keep users from being overwhelmed. Cluster similar types of information into sections (all demographic information should be in one place, for example) and make questions clear and easy to read. Make sure sequential pages flow from one to another in a way that is logical for the user. Use headers to make it clear to users where they are in the process. Work with your programmer to evaluate the design and test it often from a user's perspective.

Enhance interactivity. Online forms allow the user to make choices and benefit from simple calculations on the fly. For a recent alumni weekend event, we offered different meal options, which were grouped by alumni class year. Users could select any meal option and then indicate the number of adults and children attending the meal. The program would multiply the numbers by the appropriate costs, display the correct amount, and add it to the user's total.

Be polite. Make sure that your forms' error messages are polite, clear, and provide help for correcting the user's mistake. Many error messages are written in a scolding tone that can make people feel stupid. These thoughtless messages can cause some people — especially older alumni — to abandon registering for an event.

Balance data usability with control. Many programmers prefer forms that feature more selection buttons and boxes because they limit users' options and make the data easier to manage. Some users, however, prefer forms that allow them to input text, which gives them more freedom to write in the information they want to share.

Web managers can often feel caught between these two conflicting preferences. If you only use information like alumni class year on name tags, let users enter the format they prefer ('95, 1995, Class of '95) in a text box. If you can't permit this degree of flexibility, be sure you have a reason for designing your form more rigidly. For example, we compelled our alumni to select from limited options for class year because we wanted to better sort and list event registrants.

Remember your co-workers. While the focus of online forms should be on users, don't forget that online forms should make life easier for advancement staff, too. Two-thirds of the attendees at a recent event of ours registered using an online form, thus allowing staff to spend much less time processing paper forms.

Basic online forms put user data into e-mail messages to staffers. While this is convenient for users, data-entry workers have to manually process the registration. More effective online forms put data directly into an event-management database. For example, we used a Microsoft Access database and ColdFusion programming to create head-count reports, print registration packets and name tags, and generate Web pages so alumni could see which classmates were registered for specific events. (See "Special Event Production.")

Creating an effective online registration system takes a commitment of resources, but it's well worth the investment. Users might not notice the features that make online forms easy to use, but they certainly will become frustrated with a form that's not organized and clear. Staffers can become frustrated with forms that don't support automated data entry and don't connect to a database. Take the time to do it right.

About the Author Paul Dempsey

Paul Dempsey is a Web manager in the college relations office at Dickinson College, a private institution of 2,100 students in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.




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