Would you like free wifi with that?

By: Tamsin Standford
Date: August, 2015
File under: Articles

During a recent visit home to the UK, I found myself desperately scanning for free wifi every time I walked into a restaurant, hotel, bar, clothing store or supermarket.

What I found as I wandered down London’s Oxford Street is that many retailers are missing an opportunity by breaking one of the rules of the web: if you’re asking people to fill out a form, only ask for the essential details or you risk alienating your user and losing a ‘conversion’.

When a clothing store offered me free wifi in exchange for providing my email address (effectively signing up to their newsletter), I felt that was a fair trade and signed up. From the store’s perspective, this has several potential benefits:

  1. I am likely to spend longer wandering around their store while checking emails/Facebook/AFL results, increasing the probability I will see something I want to buy
  2. If I receive their newsletter I could be tempted to make a future purchase from their online store
  3. If I was local, I would probably return to their shop, knowing I can surf while I browse, which presents yet more opportunities to be tempted into a purchase

But some businesses wanted me to complete 6 to 10 or more fields, so filling out the form on my smart phone became a task even more arduous than trying to find shoes in my size in the summer sales.

As a business we test many online forms for clients in all kinds of industries – from insurance and credit cards applications to university applications and online retailer checkouts.

In almost every instance, users want to provide only what they perceive to be relevant to the activity and dislike providing details they think are unnecessary or only of value to the company.

Even if people are paying for the service – as Lance Wiggs discovered in his investigation into wifi on flights (The 31 reasons that inflight wifi is not making money) – they still only want to do the absolute minimum to complete the transaction.

In a high-profile fail, the UK’s Transport for Greater Manchester recently faced complaints after asking commuters whether they are transgender, as part of the form to register for free wifi on their services (Manchester Metrolink asking people if they are transgender before they can use wifi).

The irony is that sometimes our clients don’t even know why they are asking users for so much information and can’t explain what it is used for – a clear indication that the details don’t need to be collected at all.

So next time you’re thinking about creating an online form – whether it’s for free wifi, for a retail product, or even just for your company’s newsletter – think about the customer experience and what you might lose by asking for unnecessary information, not just what information you want to gain.

External resources

  • Luke Wroblewski has published and presented extensively on web form usability:
  • Phil Sharp lists a ‘treasure trove’ of 42 forms resources:
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