Why Paginate Your Web Forms?

Peter North
Lead Design Writer at SitePoint

Many website refinements and redesigns focus on color, type, and other purely aesthetic aspects. These visual facets certainly have their merit and value, and improvements in aesthetic areas foster confidence and favor in customers. However, functional website revisions often align more directly and concretely with business and marketing goals, and most of these functional improvements involve form fields or user input. The right improvements to your forms can immediately generate more submissions, sales, subscriptions, or signups.

But, it’s rarely clear how to arrive at the ideal form improvements and determine which changes to make. Some misguidedly base their form decisions on guesswork, hunches, irrelevant past experience, or the opinions of a few internal colleagues. But, taking a more rational, pragmatic approach of weighing options objectively and considering your specific application and context will lead you to unambiguous, measurable form improvements. One of the first, hardest, and most important considerations involves choosing between single page and multi-page formats. Both form layouts have unique advantages and notable weaknesses.

Capturing Partial Completions, Understanding Abandonment

When it comes to capturing partial form completions and gleaning insights into abandonment, multi-page forms seem to hold the advantage. Well-designed multi-page forms will ask for the essentials upfront, enabling those in marketing and business development to analyze and act on even the sparsest of incomplete form submissions.

Conversely, single page forms offer far fewer insights into why visitors abandon your web form. Analysts often only have complete submissions and bounces — no insights into the nebulous area in between. While the single page style may initially perform better than its multi-page equivalent, it offers a much murkier path towards refinement. This can leave a designer with a difficult dilemma — choosing between a single page form that performs well in the present and a multi-page equivalent that offers far more potential, albeit unrealized potential that must be earned with thoughtful testing.

Honesty and Transparency

Single page forms offer no unpleasant surprises to users; they convey a sense of honesty and transparency by showing everything they will ask of users upfront. If you’ve ever been surprised by required fields or sensitive “asks” that seem unnecessary (phone numbers, income, spousal information, etc.), you’ve felt the temptation to abandon the form altogether. When these kinds of fields arrive unexpectedly within a multi-page process, they can lead to far worse results than an abandoned form or customer indifference; customers that feel misled are just clicks away from a competitor, and any resentment they feel works in your competition’s favor.

With this in mind, it’s no coincidence that ultra-streamlined single page forms are a common practice on landing pages. They are essentially the ambassador for a very delicate part of customer experience — the introduction between company and customer. Those selling software as a service (Saas) have even more at stake; they must demonstrate their design prowess as a testament to the value and quality of their software.

Consider Your (Ideal) Users

Tailoring your forms to suit your targeted customer demographics is common sense, but it’s not always common practice. Many follow standard, generic form conventions closely and view it as adherence to best practices and avoidance of unnecessary risk. But, few prospective form-fillers are excited by the standard forms, and failing to cater to your ideal customers is far from a risk-free (in)decision.

Because of the step-by-step “Form Wizard” paradigm from decades ago, older demographics may have a penchant or preference for a more instructive multi-page form, where “Next” buttons and progress indicators provide guidance and prevent information overload. Conversely, younger users who in all likelihood have far more familiarity with technology may favor single page forms that allow them to exercise their speed and savviness.

Conclusion

There’s no universal one-size-fits-all answer to the problem of pagination, and often both single page and mult-page formats are viable at least as careful experiments. But, exploring the advantages and shortcomings of each can usually guide you to the right decision for each new form-based challenge. And, ultimately iterative A/B or multivariate testing will take these basic tenets, extrapolate, and determine what’s ideal for your specific purposes.

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  • CarlosJa

    Paginating webforms can scare a few visitors away as they see multiple steps. When i normally do is create a single form.. Regardless of how many fields i always save the information entered using AJAX; and Blur. When the person moves to the next fields it saves it into the database. So no need for pagination

  • Syd Partridge

    With single page forms you can see what you have to fill in and estimate the time it will take. There is nothing more frustrating than spending time entering your details and then spotting the NEXT button – time to leave.

  • agf

    This story took no position and drew no fact-based conclusion. So why write it?

    • James

      Yeah, I was just settling in for discussion of various design examples or coding tips when the article finished. This represents little more than “paginated forms: discuss.”

  • M. Cynowicz

    I agree with @agf. I work at an agency that runs multiple websites with the goals of collecting user data for leads generating. Everything I code is forms. I was really hoping to see here some concepts for form designs that have proven higher conversion rates. All this article has done is present the same dilemma that my company faces on a daily basis, but with no conclusion.

    For anyone who is interested, our company numbers show that paginated forms perform infinitely better than single forms, and you can avoid the ‘surprise’ part of the experience by providing a progress bar or graphic that indicates which step of the full process the user is on, giving them an idea of how long the process will be.

  • Tom

    There is no mention of situations where the layout of step 2 varies according to data entered in step 1 – on a single page form, this is going to look odd as the form grows/shrinks/changes in front of your eyes.

  • Anonymous Coward

    I was planning to post an anonymous comment on a StackExchange site. The well-designed multi-stage registration was so good and so easy that I did follow through.