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Chapter 4. Transactors > How to Gently Interrogate Your Users

How to Gently Interrogate Your Users


How you ask for information is as important as what you ask for in the first place.

Most transactions require users to provide at least some personal information, but some sites treat this process as if it were an interrogation in which information is demanded from users. Internet users often loathe providing their personal information for fear of more junk mail on how to get rich quick, lose weight, or grow their hair back. Users are skeptical about how their personal information is used, so it’s important for web sites to carefully think through how and what to ask from customers to get them to complete a transaction. This section will explain how to make personal information gathering as painless as possible for your users.

The Importance of Context

If I had just met you and within the first five minutes of our conversation asked you what your salary is, whether or not you’ve declared bankruptcy in the last 10 years, and what your outstanding debts are, you would probably be perturbed, offended, and amazed at my intrusiveness. If, however, I were asking you the same questions as a loan officer in bank who is helping you fill out a loan-application form, you’d be quite comfortable in providing that information. The difference is the context.

An online parallel to this brings us back to the “Membership Not Required” section of this chapter, where I elaborated on how users shouldn’t be required to register as a member in order to check out. iQVC.com unfortunately takes this approach when it asks new shoppers to provide their name, address, and email to register as a member before being able to check out. The problem here is that the users are being asked to provide this information in the context of becoming a member rather than in the context of checking out their shopping carts.

When it comes to asking users for personal information, you need to make sure you are only asking them questions that are relevant to the context of the task they are trying to complete. With the iQVC example, users were being thrown over to another context of membership rather than helping them with their original intent to check out their shopping carts.

Explain the Benefit

When it comes to asking users to provide information, it doesn’t hurt to reinforce how doing so will benefit them. The trick is to proactively address any concerns before users hesitate and abandon the form altogether.

Take, for example, the checkout at Borders’ web site. The first page asks users for the self-explanatory name and shipping address. When the site asks users for their phone numbers and email address, brief explanations are provided to explain how the information is used.

Within the Borders checkout process, users are told how providing requested information will benefit them. www.borders.com

Phone numbers are needed in case the user needs to be contacted, and email is used to keep users up-to-date on their orders. These explanations help motivate users not only to provide their information but also to do so accurately. Some users, including myself, provide fake email addresses (and I apologize to all the John Does that have received junk mail on my behalf) to bypass a form question, but if a clear benefit is explained, users are more likely to provide the appropriate information. Information needs to be treated like currency—there has to be something of value in exchange for your users to part with it.

If It’s Not Required, Don’t Ask for It

The Internet is a marketer’s dream. It’s a medium where you can interact with customers on a one-to-one basis. You can target, customize, and personalize, all in the name of building relationships. All you need is for your users to provide you with some demographics and interests and answer a few short questions for good measure.

Hold it—what’s going on here? Why are we even talking about asking additional questions on a transaction form? The users’ purpose is to transact, so let them. No marketing information is worth asking for if it prevents your users from becoming customers. What good is additional marketing information if it means losing customers?

Every piece of information asked for must have a meaningful purpose to support the user’s current task. Every form element must earn the right to be there because every additional field is a potential barrier, a source of confusion, or an opportunity for the user to make a mistake.

The remedy is easy—if anything on your transaction form is optional, ditch it. Do it and don’t look back. You’ll be glad because you will have more customers.

Display Your Privacy Policy

Privacy is a top concern for many users, so it’s important that it be integrated within any information-gathering form. The Nielsen-Norman Group is a usability consulting organization that also organizes conferences on the topic. For one of its upcoming conferences, the group had a simple email registration form for users to be notified of any updates:

When users are asked to provide their email address at the Nielsen-Norman Group web site, they are provided with a simple and clear (read: no legalese) privacy policy explanation. www.nngroup.com

The strength of this design is that the privacy policy is explained in the context of the form, without requiring users to click to a separate privacypolicy page full of legal jargon (although in some cases this cannot be helped). By making this information immediate and accessible, users can have greater confidence that their information will only be used for its intended purpose.

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