You might be thinking, what kind of silly question is that? The census is produced by the government, and everyone knows that the government can’t do much of anything correct. Right? Well, today I received in the mail the same letter from the U.S. Census Bureau that people across the net have been decrying for a while now. It is a thin envelope, and inside of it is a letter letting me know that in about a week I will be receiving a census form. At first glance you might think “What a waste! They mailed you a letter to tell you that they were going to mail you something?!” In the immortal words of Tracey Morgan, “That’s just crazy!” And at first, it does seem that way, but I think that the truth is a bit more involved.
A Little Sleight Of Hand
So, what is a U.S. census? Well, it is a 5 or 6 page long form with dozens of questions which you are supposed to fill out in tiny boxes. It is a bit like one of the forms that they give you when you go to the DMV, only worse. And how much do you enjoy filling those forms out? Would you do it if it was optional? Heck no you wouldn’t! But you know, we face the same problem as website designers/developers. When you show someone a giant form on a page, are they likely to fill it out? Nope. Unless they absolutely have to fill the form out, they are very likely to abandon the process and move on. Thankfully, unlike real-world forms, we aren’t limited by the laws of physics. We can break down a form into a “wizard” and present each piece to the user, showing them along the way how far they have gone. This lets the user know that they are entering a long process, but since the form isn’t presented to them all at once, they don’t feel that it is such a daunting task.
The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t have this luxury. They can’t exactly break the form up into multiple letters and send it to you piece by piece over time. That would make it both incredibly hard to tabulate, very annoying to fill out, and very costly to send. They have to mail the entire form at one time, in a big thick envelope. And if that were to show up in the mail one day unannounced, you would probably feel how thick that envelope is, see U.S. Census written on it, and promptly drop it in file 13 (the trash can).
Give A Little, Get A Little
So they take another approach that we as web developers also have at our disposal, they inform the user up front of what they are going to do, and why they need to do it. You see, that letter which the U.S. Census Bureau sends me isn’t just a letter that says “Hey, you’re getting a letter!” It is a plea to fill out the U.S. census, telling me that if I don’t, me, my family, and my community may not get our fair share of the resources. The letter explains that my responses help the government determine how they are going to dish out the goods. Whether or not there is any real truth to that, I’m not entirely sure, but they dig at one of our deepest and darkest fears, that I may not get mine. I jest, but at the same time, there is truth to that statement. People want to be treated fairly, and if they think that not filling out the census might hurt them in some way, then they are probably more likely to fill out the census.
You see, it isn’t just some silly letter that was generated by layers of government bureaucracy. It is a simple lesson in basic usability. Users don’t like surprises. If the user can’t figure out why they would want to, or need to, do something; then they probably won’t. So next time you are presenting a user with a large form, consider for a second what your user is going to get out of it. What is the result of them filling out the form? What is the result of them not filling out the form? Draw some conclusions, and then communicate that to them. You never know, the user might feel better about filling out your form, and you could end up with a much higher success rate. It seems to work for the U.S. census.