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I've been going through the jQuery demos to determine which UI widgets could be used to help optimise our user's journeys through our web forms.

One such widget is the progress bar, but it raises a big question: in long, complex web forms, are the use of progress bars motivating or demotivating?

As I see it:

Pro: Granular feedback as to where they are in the process, setting expectation for time to completion Con: In long web forms, each item produces a small incremental change in progress which could be perceived as demotivating.

What say you? I need to user test two versions, one with and one without a progress bar and see how users feel about it but I wondered if you have any experience or research to quote?

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4 Answers

I don’t know if progress indicators make a motivating or demotivating UI on average. I do know they make an informative and honest UI. The users can appraise the amount of work to do and decide for themselves if the benefits the form provides are worth the effort. If you find too few users think it’s worth the effort, then you need to either make the form easier or make the benefits greater, and communicate this to your users. That’s only fair (shrug).

In contrast, if you bet that not having a progress indicator improves conversion, then you’re basically hoping more users will misperceive your form as short enough than will misperceive it as too long. It’s like you pulling a trick on the user, rather than making the best user experience.

As a user experience, form filling represents substantial anxiety for users for various reasons, especially web-based forms. One big anxiety is that the users won’t have enough time to complete the form, which on the web typically means all their work to that point is wasted and they’ll have to start over from scratch at a later time (if they ever return). Providing an early and accurate means to estimate the time does a lot to reduce this anxiety (so does providing a means to save and retrieve partially completed forms).

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Granular feedback as to where they are in the process, setting expectation for time to completion

Feedback is a core quality of a usable form, but time to complete might not be the best metric. An expectation of how many more questions/sections the form has is probably a better way of thinking about it.

Might be a question of terminology here, but jquery progress bars IMHO should not be used for any form. 'Progress bars' provide feedback to a user about functions the system is performing, for example processing the input from a form, uploading a file, retrieving data from a repository etc.

A 'progress bar' on a form where the system is waiting for a user to fill in fields is useless and provides no context. Having said that though, there are other design patterns about that are similar to 'progress bars' and these really do work. Im guessing this was the type of pattern your question was actually about.

The steps left pattern will show a user how far they have come through a process, and how many steps are left, the system can also give feedback at intermediate points along the way to reassure the user that their information is 'right' (acceptable, complete, formatted correctly etc).

The checklist pattern is similar to a steps left approach, but it doesnt enforce a specific order for each part of the checklist. This pattern lets users pick and choose their way through the form.

The wizard pattern similar to the other patterns, but is useful when the steps needed to reach a final goal may vary due to decisions made in previous stages.

Ive tested a large number of forms, some simple, some with multiple sections, complicated parts and relationships and every test result I see is the same. A 'progress indicator' - usually a steps left, but sometimes a combination of all all 2 or 3 of the patterns I mentioned above help users complete the form.

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Nathan, do you think the difference between "Progress Bar" and "Wizard" could be semantics? A wizard that in which steps are presented horizontally, left to right, could be called a "Progress Bar". –  Anonymous Jan 6 '11 at 17:26
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I feel that long forms definitely need to be broken up somehow (accordians, progress bars, "Step x of y", etc.), but as I see it, there are 2 fairly important factors which will affect the answer.

  1. The type of user - some people are driven by seeing a progress bar and strive to get to the end - sometimes much more quickly than you'd like. Inversely, others - as you rightly point out - are put off by slowly incrementing progress bars.
  2. What the form is relating to. If this is a service a user will be invested in or one which requires maybe time or financial commitment, then their drive to complete the form will not depend entirely on the progress bar. In my view, it would be a real benefit so they can know where they are in the process. If it's something a little more trivial, I think it risks being demotivating if the increments are small.
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...but time to complete might not be the best metric. An expectation of how many more questions/sections the form has is probably a better way of thinking about it..

Can't agree more. I would generally prefer a combination of the Wizard and Steps Left pattern in the case of a long, complex form. But the choice may vary depending on what kind of form it is that I am filling..

Take an example of service/product quality feedback form where I'd rather not see the number of steps left because that really puts me off when there's a large number of them and each step has so many questions/fields/choices! Here, I'd be comfortable with a combination of checklist and wizard patterns.

On the other hand if I am posting requirements or filing a complaint, it'd be number of steps and wizard patterns..

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