Published in Design -

Why it’s natural but risky to make your donation form complex.

User experience (UX) as it relates to donation forms is a well-researched area. And one thing the research tells us is that, broadly speaking, the simpler the donation form, the better the completion rate.

According to a study by Nielson Norman Group, 47% of website visitors who abandoned a donation form did so because of ‘problems relating to page and site design, including unintuitive information architecture, cluttered pages, and confusing workflow’.

That’s a big number.

As a marketer this probably makes intuitive sense to you. ‘Less is more’ has become something of a cliche in the sector, but only because it speaks to a general truth and so bears repeating.

Despite this, many organisations have a tendency to make their forms, including donation forms, complicated.

Why do we so often lurch towards complexity when we know simplicity is preferable?

Actually, it’s completely natural in most medium to large organisations.

Every area or division within an organisation wants its interests represented. And everyone is hungry for data. They understand that better data means better decisions, and better decisions reduce risk.

A form can be an enticing prospect for such data gathering. It can appear to be a seam of insight from which to mine snapshots of data that might provide crucial information about a supporter, a customer, or a client. There’s a fear of missing out – ‘What am I losing if I don’t get certain information from this form?’

It’s natural. It’s just not always rational.

Why it’s best to avoid complexity.

Even if this fear of missing out was warranted…

Even if there were gold in those seams (there isn’t always)…

Even if the people in your organisation desiring that data had the ability to analyse it and extract meaningful insights (they rarely do)…

Even if the complexity led to some kind of benefit…

…the question still remains: would making the form more convoluted be worth it?

And the answer is clearly no.

Incredibly good data isn’t going to get you all that far if the people who come to your website hate what they see there. Or become confused. Or are overwhelmed by the amount of information. Or get waylaid by unexpected requirements or notifications.

The fear of missing out is a powerful concern? It’s hard for people within an organisation to let go of. The problem is that website visitors get FOMO, too. And, as Nielson Norman Group suggests, website complexity only makes the phenomenon more likely:

Not only do we feel mentally exhausted when we have to compare too many options, but also, once we’ve decided, we are often left over with a nagging feeling that we missed something important…

The same article goes on to suggest that: ‘Adding marginally useful features to a product can result in overly complicated rather than desirable interfaces… [W]hen it comes to making decisions and actually using the product, having fewer options makes it easier for people to make a selection.’

But there are other more technical reasons why simplicity wins almost every time.

Upgrades to front-end libraries, payment platforms, and CRM integrations all have the potential to break the form. A less complicated design reduces the risk of enhancements or refactors breaking, decreasing the need for complex regression testing.

More generally, the fewer the number of possible branches a user can take, the lower the chance of an obscure bug stopping donation progress.

Then there’s loading time. When you keep fields and steps to a minimum, your form will load faster. And if you think the difference between 2 and 5 seconds is inconsequential, think again.

In short, the more complex the form, the higher the risk for the entire organisation.

How you can reduce the complexity of your donation form.

How do you keep things short, sharp, and to the point?

It’s easier than you might think. Here are some tips and techniques to make sure your donation form is doing only what’s required… and what’s expected from a user’s perspective.

Keep fields to a minimum.

Your donation form isn’t a survey.

Only collect material and information from users that are absolutely necessary. And if you can’t bring yourself to remove some of the non-essential fields, at least remove the asterisks—make those fields optional.

How do you decide what constitutes ‘necessary’?

Here’s a useful heuristic: if your browser pre-fills the information, then the field can stay.

It might also be worth considering a super-brief explanation. For instance, if you need to send a receipt, an email address is absolutely essential—but that may not be immediately obvious to a prospective donor.

Keep things in a straight line.

Ensure that progression through a process is linear. A donation form that asks a donor to go back and forth between questions or fields creates confusion, and that increases the likelihood of task abandonment.

As an example, Animals Australia updated their digital donation form to include the option of turning a donation into a gift. As part of their design, fields required for the gift certificate only appear when that option is selected. If you, as a donor, simply want to make a traditional (non-gift) donation, you don’t see any of the fields associated with gift certificates. Simple, clear, and easy.

Avoid distractions in and around the form.

It’s usually best to keep the copy on your donation form reasonably brief. If you absolutely have to use jargon or technical language—perhaps because a donation might help a cause in a very specific way—explain it.

You should minimise the use of dynamic content and therefore layout shift (showing or hiding fields based on inputs). At the same time, always stick to established conventions for field labels and button placement. Confounding people’s mental models is a classic UX mistake.

It’s also worth thinking about potential diversions around or on top of the donation form. Headers, footers, pop-up notifications, ads, and even navigation bars can all draw a user’s attention away from the task at hand.

Don’t give people a reason to leave in a huff.

Everyone knows the frustration that comes from poor website UX.

How annoying is it, for example, to be filling in a number field on a mobile application and have the QWERTY keyboard appear rather than the number pad?

Or not being able to cut and paste into a field?

Or being told your name or telephone number is, for some reason, not ‘valid’?

It’s probably an obvious point, but it’s difficult for someone to complete a donation form if, halfway through the process, they throw their device out the window with rage.

You can still gather data… just do it elsewhere.

If the teams around you scream blue murder as you ignore every request to add complexity, remind them that the data they crave is still available. They just need to locate it in different places.

They can use follow-up transactional emails, for example. Or, better still, include a quick questionnaire on the donation confirmation page.

And if some within your organisation want to use the form as a way of segmenting audiences or intents, remind them that this work should really have been done before the form was created.

UX trumps just about everything.

Including complex logic in your donation form is a risk for all sorts of reasons. The main risk is that your potential donor becomes confused and lost in the maze that is your donation process. Unlike a traditional maze, though, the user isn’t trapped; they can close the browser tab at any time. And they may choose to never return.

The fact is, when it comes to digital design, user experience is more important than just about any other consideration. You should always make your primarily focus the donor’s experience.

We can certainly empathise with the tendency towards complexity. In any medium or large organisation (and even in some small ones) there’ll be pressure from different departments, divisions, and interests to add rather than subtract.

But it’s so important to resist that pressure.

If colleagues express reluctance or cynicism, show them data. It’s easy to experiment and measure the impact of changes. You can monitor the effect of even the slightest tweaks with A/B testing, which can provide rich data on changes to key metrics like donation amount and conversion.

In truth, though, the data on this subject is already clear: the best donation forms offer a simple, linear donor journey. That message may not have the rhetorical punch to sway people in your organisations, so don’t be afraid to be more blunt:

Simplicity will invariably lead to more donations.