Madlib-style forms increase conversion by 30%? Well, maybe …

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A while back, while writing about Google’s Social Graph API, I mentioned Jeremy Keith’s audio-sharing web app, Huffduffer, and its unconventional signup form. If you haven’t seen it, here’s what it looks like:

Huffduffer signup form

As you can see, unlike the traditional web signup form, it’s asking you to fill in the blanks of a short paragraph or sentence with the required information. At the time it was released, it was seen more as a novelty and a curiosity than an innovation in web form design, but recently an A/B test of a similar form against a more traditional form by the team at Vast.com, as blogged by Luke Wroblewski, should make you think twice about it. The test apparently showed a 25-40% increase in conversion from the storytelling forms as opposed to the traditional, stacked field style form. You can see an example of the new madlib form here on Vast.com.

Blogging about the results, Jeremy Keith says:

That seems to be a statistically-significant result, even accounting for Cennydd’s reality-check on A/B testing.

The link is to a fantastic piece by Cennyd Bowles on the fact that basic statistics are so often overlooked when conducting A/B tests. A quick excerpt from that article (though I strongly recommend you read the whole thing):

Last week I tossed a coin a hundred times. 49 heads. Then I changed into a red t-shirt and tossed the same coin another hundred times. 51 heads. From this, I conclude that wearing a red shirt gives a 4.1% increase in conversion in throwing heads.

This example is only partly in jest: many A/B tests make similar conclusions from similar sample sizes. What I don’t see, however, is what Keith sees as this being “accounted for”: Luke’s post makes no mention of sample size, or the duration over which the test was run, or whether the number stated is an absolute percentage or a relative one.

So, for the moment, what can we take from this? It’s not certain that this kind of form will work wonders for every kind of site, and it’s also not certain whether or not its performance might be due solely to its novelty (in which case the advantage would dwindle as more sites began employing similar forms). On the other hand, looking at the side-by-side screenshots in Luke’s post, the new-style form does feel more personable and appealing, less cold and machine-like, so maybe there’s something to it.

What do you think? Will we start seeing an abundance of story-style forms on the Web? Outside of signup forms, what else can you see them being used for?

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  • http://www.mjswebsolutions.com type0

    Do people really have enough time to read a form in paragraph format? I sure don’t.

  • http://fvsch.com Florent V.

    Hi Louis,

    Thanks for the article. Good questions, I read the reality check article and like you I don’t see any trace of the points in this article being accounted for.

    What you say about the novelty effect is interesting as well. Do you know of any documented exemple of webdesign trends that give positive results while they are still uncommon, and whose effects become null or even negative as they become more common?

  • http://www.sitepoint.com AlexW

    There has to be a certain amount of novelty value involved too, which ebbs away pretty quickly.

    You buy the vanilla coke, it tastes fine, but are you still buying it regularly six months later? Probably not.

  • W2ttsy

    the only time i ever saw these style of forms in the real world was the primary school permission slips.

    I ______________________ authorise ______________________ to attend ______________________ on __/__/_____

    I don’t see how it would work on the web as most forms have a specific outcome and the formatting guides the user through the process to complete that outcome.

    It is also worth noting that users will be looking to relate their UI experiences on the web with the UI experiences that they have in their OS. So until OS X or windows starts featuring these story line forms, i think there will be a slow up take on this, aside from it being a novelty… i wont be seeing this on amazon thats for sure.

  • brekk

    Don’t you think that people who enter their details on forms regularly won’t like the new approach?

    The beauty of old forms is that we can scan them quickly, they’re routine, and they (hopefully) don’t take very long to fill out.

    I really couldn’t see enjoying filling out a non-standard form — unless it was really, really well designed.

  • EvilDog

    The moment I read about this I saw the huge value in it. Let me explain. About a year ago I began a personal campaign to understand how to write better content for the websites that I create and how to better sell the services that I have to offer as a webmaster. This involved buying and reading books on how to be successful at selling to books on how people make buying decisions and even some on psychology. It’s what the pros on Madison Avenue do so I thought it might work for me.
    What I learned was huge! I began put into practice the various approaches I found in my studies and I can testify that the stuff really works! In this particular case, I can clearly see that the reason that the mad-libs approach produces better results is NOT because of it’s novelty. It is something far different.
    The reason it works is that it engages the customer in a conversation. A static web form fails miserably at this task. The mad-libs form contains readable content that the person (whether he intends to or not) finds himself reading. When he reads the content, he then finds himself in agreement with what is being said. It is the leap of this giant hurdle (getting the customer to agree with what it being said) is what prompts the customer to actually fill out the form.
    One thing that I have discovered from all my reading on this subject is that people do respond to positive suggestion and the mad-libs web form does precisely this. I for one, plan on exploring the possibilities for this new approach wherever it might be useful. I might be old but you can definitely teach this dog a new trick once in a while.

    Thanks for the great and informative article.

    • http://www.facebook.com/sam.ingersoll Sam Ingersoll

      Hello! Have you used this technique on any other sites. How has it worked for you during the last year? I’m in agreement with you that this form engages people in conversation. If you aren’t just asking for “name” “email” – “so we can send you something” but rather helping them agree/confirm what they are interested in it might be very helpful. I also agree though that I would make sure the form fields are darker and labeled so that the reader could instantly go to them.

  • perreault

    This isn’t a novelty for me. I have used this format in our SaaS app since 2000 (an MLS service for business brokers). In the 10 years we have used this format on our listings maintenance admin page I can say that we have had no complaints. Though I don’t have any firm statistics, I’d also go so far as to say that we receive fewer support requests regarding this form than any other in our system.

    Could we have done it a different way? Yes, but we used this approach as it allowed us to pretty much self-document the form. You just read the sentence and fill in the blanks so that it makes sense.

    We do not normally use this approach, however, as it does tend to slow down people who want to fill in only certain items. If you’re not going to require every field to be completed, then it seems to be less useful.

  • http://www.tyssendesign.com.au Tyssen

    The beauty of old forms is that we can scan them quickly, they’re routine, and they (hopefully) don’t take very long to fill out.

    Yeah, I took one look at the new form and my first reaction was that I have to read so much more to determine what information the form’s trying to collect. I personally reckon I’d be less likely to fill out the new form.

  • bsmbahamas

    are you kidding? unless this happened in mass all over the web it’d never catch on and probably not if that happened either.

    as far as psychology is concerned it’s cute and a little entertaining, but users would quickly tired of having to read an interpret dozens of forms like this all worded differently.

    the human brain works by forming habits, this is why we can make lemonade or drive a car easily and not have to think about each detail. nobody wants to have to figure out what a form is asking for, every time they try to join a new website – NOBODY. one or two sites perhaps, but then everyone will start complaining, as you can’t habitually or quickly fill in registration forms that are different every time.

    and everyone knows that many many people hate reading.

    lets just hope that the readers of sitepoint don’t all rush out and test this crazy idea.

    lololol

  • bsmbahamas

    forgot to mention, that this approach is much better reserved for something like a contract or application where in the real world you’d likely have blanks to fill in as you read along, but not for most registration type forms

  • John

    I agree that the format that the huffduffer uses seems a bit of a stretch, as it really does require that you read the text to know what you’re expected to fill in. The Vast.com approach, and the one I’m going to try out, includes standard-looking input fields with the expected information clearly stated in the field. I’m using a bolder, darker font in the input fields to make them stand out more. You can, if you choose, focus only on the fields and never even read the intermingled copy.

    It’ll be interesting to see how it performs…

  • http://www.fishoutoforder.net fishoutoforder

    Using mad-libs for a sign-up form works quite well if you only have a few fields, and it is designed to fit into the mood and theme of the website you are joining.

    Mad-libs will not be appropriate for some forms. It depends on what kind of data you are collecting, how many fields, the context given, and many other factors. I think they are a neat idea when used appropriately.

    What I’d like to know, though, is how a screen reader interprets mad-lib style web forms. If they make things difficult for vision-impaired users, then there’s a problem.

  • ITistic

    My main concerns with this implementation are two-fold: (1) It forces the visitor to read the entire copy in order to understand how to complete the form; and (2) reviewing the data entered and correcting validation errors will certainly be more time consuming as the visitor will have to re-read the copy to find the field they’re looking for. I like the fact that it’s different, but I’m very surprised that a form designed in this fashion had a higher conversion rate. I wonder how true the test really was?!

  • http://www.iraqtimeline.com/maxdesign Black Max

    This form styling is not for every situation, but Evildog’s observations are very much applicable. I think that while designers, coders, and computer mavens will often just be impatient with this kind of form design, “real world” users will, in many cases, appreciate it. I’ll bookmark this, and the next time I need to design a form, I will consider this kind of styling.