Step 1 in building online applications: Make it easy for the user

October 03, 2016 by Casey Podlucky

Few things in the online world are as frustrating as a difficult or confusing online application. Whether it’s a student seeking a scholarship or an internship, an entrepreneur seeking a grant or any number of business-related surveys and reports, a maddening application process can be a major deterrent.

Take this story by Roy Maurer of the Society for Human Resource Management. It shares information from the 2015 Candidate Experience Awards, which recognizes “employers that exemplify the best candidate experience.” The results among the 75,000 candidates surveyed show some of the things that trip up or irritate applicants. 

  • Nearly half of the candidates didn’t receive status updates during the application process, as in what step they were in and how many were left to complete.
  • More than 40 percent said the application process took 30 minutes or more, and 12 percent reported an hour or more.
  • On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being “very negative” and 5 being “very positive,” just more than half rated the application process between 1 and 3.

So mistakes are clearly being made here, but they are avoidable. The starting point is the design process. Here are some of the essential elements to consider in the building stage.

 Easy-to-use layout

In today’s Web-savvy culture, we have become used to reading things in segments, bite-sized chunks that get to the point quickly and don’t require much time to digest. This brevity is included in Jacob Gube’s top seven tips for improving web usability in a story for Mashable.

“It's pretty well known that web users have very short attention spans and that we don't read articles thoroughly and in their entirety. A study investigating the changes in our reading habits behaviors in the digital age concluded that we tend to skim webpages to find the information we want. We search for keywords, read in a non-linear fashion (i.e. we skip around a webpage instead of reading it from top to bottom) and have lowered attention spans. … Shorter articles enhance readability, so much so that many popular readability measurement formulas use the length of sentences and words as factors that influence ease of reading and comprehension.”

So, how does that apply to online applications? Break the application into several sections and pages, rather than one long slog down a web page. Since readers find chunks easier to manage, breaking it up should help to make the process smooth. Keep the users updated on where they are in the process as well.   

Perfect the questions

An application should offer strictly relevant questions. Multiple-choice questions are ideal. They are easy for users to answer, and they help to standardize common responses. In other words, by requiring users to answer one of several options, it eliminates the possibility of write-in answers that can complicate the application analysis.

This is also where “skip logic” comes into play, or an “if-then” concept. If a question is answered a certain way, it changes the possibilities for the following question. For example: If different age, experience or income ranges can qualify for different levels of a grant, internship or scholarship, the answers to those questions would then take the user to the corresponding next question, specifically tied to that answer. The other options would not be revealed, because they are not valid for that age, experience or income level.

Skip logic can help to eliminate ambiguity and confusion, but it can only go in one direction. Here’s how it is described by IT Connect at the University of Washington: “It’s important to note that skip logic can only take participants to destination questions below the current question in the survey, or to the end of the survey. As one of our undergraduate staff said, logic is ‘like a river — it can only flow in one direction.’ You cannot use skip logic to loop back over the same set of questions.”

Other essential elements

Specialized fields: Individual fields can assist in making the application process easier. Take the pop-up calendar widget with clickable dates. By selecting the date on the calendar, the information is recorded in a consistent way, rather than having the user type in individual dates, which would inevitably clash with other users’ formats. The same goes for consistency with phone numbers. 

Calculations: Similarly, a calculating function can help eliminate errors. For example: Grant or scholarship applications will require financial figures, as in the income of the entrepreneur or parents of the prospective student. When multiple entries are involved, those income numbers should automatically add up, so that the user can’t make a math mistake.

Number ranges: Aim for clarity with number ranges. A good example comes with education-related applications. Listing the range of possible GPA, SAT or ACT scores can help alleviate confusion. Just list the corresponding range next to each field.

Essays: The easy-to-consume concept mentioned at the beginning applies to essays on an application as well. A series of small essay questions can be easier to accomplish than one long one, and it’s easier on those who evaluate the answers. There should be specific instructions on what to do and how to do it, along with any length maximums or requirements. These essay fields can enforce word-count limits, to avoid sprawling content by the applicants. If possible, don’t allow for attachments on essays, as this creates more work and potential format issues for the evaluators.

Recommendations: Segments in which a user is giving a recommendation on someone’s ability should be as simple as possible. Give specific instructions and multiple-choice questions, or rating questions. Example: A question regarding the subject’s personal development and the ability to cope with work situations could come with five rating options: 0 (unable to judge); 1 (below average); 2 (average); 3 (above average); 4 (outstanding). A special field for additional remarks can be helpful as well — especially if the person needs to clarify a rating, or explain the “unable to judge” mark — but attachments should be minimized or eliminated.

Regarding attachments: As mentioned, applications that steer users away from attachments can make for a better experience. But for some applications, supporting documents are unavoidable. The best example of that may be transcripts that are required for school admission or scholarships. Be sure to specify which formats are appropriate — jpegs or PDFs, for example — to make things easier for the user and for those evaluating the applications.

In our next blog post, we’ll move from the designing and building stage to the complete application process for the user.

Filed Under: Online Application Software

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