Not Evangelism

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Importance of Signposting in Long Processes

Signposting is Important

When faced with a long, complex online process such as a detailed application form or data capture, it's tempting to try and remove as many steps as possible in order to make the process shorter and simpler for the users.

In general, making the process as short and simple as possible is a good idea.  But you need to think very carefully which steps to remove.  Those "useless" wordy pages that help to signpost and position the user in the process (after all, no one reads them anyway, right?) - those may be the very pages that you need to keep.

The thing is, the longer the process - and at some point, there really won't be anything else you can take out - the more important those signposting pages become.

The Value of Signposting

Up front, signposting sets expectations about the length and complexity of the process. Signposts allow you to tell the users what you expect of them, what preparation they need to do before they begin At the end, signposts allow you to congratulate your users on getting to the end of the journey.

Throughout a long process, signposts are miniature conversations with the users. It's a chance to give them a pat on the back, a nod that they're doing well.

User testing shows that users need reassurance that they're doing the right thing. There's an innate suspicion of computers, a wariness of online forms that users need reassurance about. Without a human face, users start to get nervous. What if the data gets lost? What if I've done something wrong?

Users become invested in the time they've spent; they need to know that the information they've provided has been saved, and that they don't have to go through this all over again.

How to Signpost

Signposting needn't be complicated. Sometimes it's as simple as:
You are here. You've just done that. Next, you're going to do this.
Signposts help to reinforce progress indicators, give feedback about the stages of the process that the users have completed, tell them where they are in the process.

And if you're concerned about the number of pages in your process, signposts don't necessarily need to have their own, dedicated pages. You might consider integrating signposts into the process flow; make them more visual, less wordy. But they do need to be there. Without them, your users are going to get mired down in the process.

The Importance of Signposting

Signposting allows users to pause and draw breath. They give pace to your process, a chance to relax from the serious business of providing information.

Make your application process as lightweight as possible, by all means. But don't remove the very things that help users deal with long-winded processes. Don't underestimate the value of signposts to help your users along.

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