Can usability be worth $4/form submission?

Recently I decided it was.

People generally agree investing in usability for Websites and Web applications is a “good idea” when it comes to retaining visitors and users—or in my specialty, survey respondents. The challenge is assigning a value to that investment because product managers, graphic designers, user interface specialists, technical support managers, trainers, and executives will often have wildly differing opinions.

While this article won’t provide you with a formal ROI model, it does tell a story of how I decided the value of an excellent paid site easily out-tipped an awkward free site, and it may remind you of a few clicks you’ve experienced. Along the way, I highlight a few usability concepts.

It was W-2 filing time, and while I value my accountant for anything convoluted or when I need advice, I tend to take care of routine reports spewed out by QuickBooks. At the employee information deadline a month before, I’d saved a bunch of Adobe PDF documents and instructions from QuickBooks, but ignored them until now when the reporting deadline was approaching. Little did I know I was about to become an impromptu lab rat.

As an alternative to hardcopies, my accountant had given me a link to which was a mere $4 per W-2 to submit electronically. So I went to the site and zipped through a straightforward company account setup. Then I brought up my W-2 in an Acrobat PDF I’d saved the prior month, and copied and pasted information into their Web form—an exercise made easier by their form layout being almost identical to my PDF’s. No fuss, no muss. If I had several employees’ information to submit, I expect the import process from QuickBooks would also have been fairly smooth.

Excellent usability is like excellent service: you don’t notice it because what you want is simply there when you need it, unobtrusive and adaptive to different styles (within limits).

Alternatively, think of rental cars—or a new DVR or DVD player. With some, every time you reach out for a control, it’s near where you expected, and any new functions quickly make sense. With others, you wonder whether aliens were involved in the design, hope you don’t hit something awkward in your 60mph grope for the wiper controls, never tap many of the features you purchased for, and resort to calling tech support.

At the checkout screen, just before officially filing, I was reading the last of the instructions QuickBooks had generated to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. An odd paragraph starting with “Caution” sounded as if the Social Security Administration offered its own e-filing Website. While paying $4 to finish on the current site was a shrug, I’d also only invested a few minutes in the current form, and since I was just getting started with e-filing it seemed worthwhile to scope out the source.

So I left my page where it was, opened a new browser window, and brought up

On the Social Security site, I started with “First Time Filers.” I discovered not only was I going straight to the source instead of running my data through a third party, it turned out it would be free instead of pocket change. Small kudos for my few minutes’ investigation!

Next, in an unusually compliant moment, I followed their suggestion to start with the “Learn How” link, and then looked at the tutorial for “Business Services Online Registration.” The apprehension begins. In fact, the reptilian portion of my brain had an excellent impulse—which I unfortunately suppressed—on seeing that tutorial: Close the browser, grab my credit card, and shell out $4 as fast as the first site would take it. At the time I didn’t even notice that the registration tutorial was 64 pages long, just that it was far too much compared to the click-type-click-don’t-read-anything-all-done experience of the first site (here’s the tutorial if you must see).

It’s a usability red flag if you’re directing users to detailed tutorials in advance of basic tasks like registration. They should be able to dive in, and either complete with no assistance or make it through with non-disruptive pop-up style help while in the application. If you suspect your usability has significant snags, look at the amount you’re spending on documentation and technical support, and consider whether any of that budget can be better leveraged at the user interface—i.e. draining the swamp instead of fighting the alligators.

But, persistent me, I didn’t leave the site. Instead I merely fled the tutorial and proceeded through the registration, hoping there was nothing important in the documentation because I wasn’t going back there unless I got stuck.

Within the registration, the first oddity was that even though this was and “Business Services” I had to register as an individual based on my social security number, home address, and other information. Apart from the conditioning we’ve all been given over the past decade not to base accounts on our SSN (yes, it felt awkward even to do so with the Social Security Administration) I kept wondering whether I should be entirely consistent with personal data or put the contact information I wanted for what was really a business account.

Any time someone is slowing down to debate whether to answer, or what’s the right response, you’ve got a usability snag. Depending on how engaged they are in your site or available competitors are, it’s a place they may exit.

The account setup also wouldn’t let me pick a user name, instead assigning an arbitrary set of letters. While it did let me pick a password, that value will expire in 90 days, at which point I believe I may get to answer all 5—yes, five—of my re-set questions to pick a new soon-to-expire value.

Beware of burdensome security policies like this design—the net result is little Post-it notes with passwords on them, which is far less secure than simply letting users pick a non-expiring username/password combination they can remember.

While the first site was a page or two to register (it went by so fast I barely noticed), the second was many screens with optional services, some of which were baffling and included alarming wait times, but I left it on the defaults and ploughed through—I just wanted to submit my W-2 after all! I’d even started the process from a link that said “Electronically File Your W-2s.” At this point, my reptilian brain’s impulse had been more than validated, and while I was past the registration stage, the difference in the username/passwords alone might be enough to get me to the paid site next year.

But I just had to see it all, so onward to the W-2. Like the first site, the basic form layout was very similar to my PDF. There was only one little issue. In the first site, the SSN and dollar fields were a single blank so I just picked up the whole text string in the PDF and pasted it in. In the Social Security site, they’d “helped” by parsing the fields into multiple pieces: three blanks for the SSN ### - ## - ####, and dollars/cents, for all the currency fields. This meant either triple or double copy/pasting to get the text snippets, or resorting to typing bits—either way it not only increased effort, it also increased the odds of making an error.

Often good intentions have unplanned results. The designer may never use copy/paste, so they may think the design that enforces the character counts in the parsed fields is a slick feature rather than a limitation. This was irritating with the one W-2 I had or a handful, but in any kind of bulk hopefully one would be doing an import instead. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen users take amazingly inefficient paths because once they figured out a way that worked, they stopped looking for new routes.

Once I had the W-2 complete, I had a false start to actually get it officially submitted vs. having it hang out in draft limbo on their server. It turned out the button I needed was “Go to W-3,” which happens to be the official summary report. Once I made it there, I got to the final submission, and saved off a copy of the report for my files.

This snag was another common pitfall: jargon rather than plain language. True, the buttons did have explanations next to them, and if I’d bothered to read all the instructions before clicking on a likely contender I could have avoided my false start. Also true, I had no need to read fine print or pick “likely contenders” on the first site when I was ready to finish and file.

Thus ends my impromptu Web form usability saga:

  • One site was quick, polished, intuitive, but $4/form to use
  • One site was bloated with text and pages, cryptic, and expensively documented in video/PDF/text, but $0 at low volumes

And next time I’ll sprint to the one that takes my money and doesn’t make my head hurt.

Now if I’m willing to switch sites for better usability when I’m actively pulling out a card to shell out money—no matter how small the amount—imagine the impact usability has on visitors who are passively browsing a site or doing you a favor by completing a survey?

So for your visitors and users, even if $4/form isn’t the right number, what is? Perhaps usability might be worth a bit more of an investment than you thought. And on that note, an excellent book is Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think.”

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I always hear your voice in my head ‘if it is taking you too long, there is a simpler way to do it!’

Pauline Perreault
Market Research Analyst
Alberta Motor Association