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How to use Smart Defaults to Optimize your Form UX

Apply form defaults to improve your website conversion rate

Using defaults in form fields can improve the user experience for your website visitors. This article explains what form defaults are and how best to use them to improve your form conversion rates.

Filling in forms can be dull, tedious and probably high on the list of things that most people wish they weren’t doing at any given moment. It’s not surprising then that when it comes to conversion rates, forms usually are flagged as one of the worst offenders for turning your potential prospects into the ones that got away and taking revenue or leads with them.

Optimizing forms to make them less painful can involve lots of improvements to make the user experience as friction free as possible. Providing clear instructions and inline feedback, not asking for contentious information, logical ordering and grouping of types of information required and many more techniques may be used to help boost completion rates. Another such tactic is providing default information for input requests where it makes sense to do so, which we’ll go into more details about shortly. But what do all of these things have in common that helps to improve forms? Well, it's to do with your brain. Let's explain.

Humans are wired for easy

Humans by their very nature are lazy, or put another way, we are usually primed to find the easiest possible route or solution to a given task. Call it a survival mechanism if you will from days a yonder when conservation of energy was critical to ensure you saw the sun rise for another day. Why waste energy when you can find a more optimal shortcut? 

Shortcut Image
Users will always find the most optimal way for them to complete a task - lazy or efficient?

Consideration must also be given not only to our physical need to conserve energy, but how our brains and our mental processes look to conserve energy as well. The primary way our brains do this is by breaking down the thinking process into two types; System 1 and System 2

System 1 thinking is the sort of thinking you do, without actually thinking at all. It’s almost instant and requires very little effort indeed. It’s the things we do that help us to perceive the world we inhabit, like recognising objects. System 2 thinking is more demanding and slower. It needs more effort and logic and helps us to solve more complicated problems such as doing something that we’re unfamiliar with. 

Try this puzzle to see both your systems at work:

Bat and ball image
A tenuous segue to illustrate a point!

A bat and a ball together cost £1.10. The bat costs £1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Did you guess 10p? If you did, you’re in the majority, but that’s not the correct answer. That’s System 1 thinking offering up the most obvious solution. 

Now think about it again, this time a bit more analytically… and let System 2 kick in. What answer do you get now?

If you’re still trying to solve it (don’t worry the author spent ages on it too!) then the answer is at the end of this article.

How can form defaults help?

As you should hopefully now see, the power of System 1 to hijack a given situation is quite impressive. It’s the go to controller of any given task because it provides an instant (but possibly incorrect) solution. Because of this, harnessing the power of System 1 and providing it with sufficient information to assess correctly, can reap benefits when it comes to filling out form information. This is where defaults come in.

What are form defaults?

A form default, much as the name suggests, is a value that is set in the first instance when your form is presented to your user. A classic example is a country dropdown menu that defaults to the most commonly selected option each time. 

Form dropdown example

CA, UK and USA are listed at the top of this country dropdown as they are the most commonly selected options for the user base

The provision of a form default for a given input can save the user time, cognitive load and reduce the hassle of filling out a form in the first instance. Form defaults sounds great, right? Well they are, but only if they are appropriate to the user and the given context - so how can you ensure that you’re helping and not hindering your audience?

Majority rules

With the masses of data accumulated on users of your website, it is possible to extrapolate what the majority will select for a given field. For example, if your audience is predominantly female, it’s a good guess that when asked for their title, they will select Ms, Mrs or Miss. So if you’re asking for this information those 3 options should be prioritised at the top of a select/option menu. 

Here’s another example from Travel Supermarket:

Travel Supermarket form

The form has a number of defaults set based off what users usually select

  1. Return to the same location (pre-checked)
  2. Pick up and drop off times (10AM)
  3. Drivers age 25-75 (pre-checked)

Essentially they have taken the thinking out of the form and left the user with just 3 things to figure out, the pick up location, the pick-up date and the drop-off date (which most likely will be bespoke choices for any given user). It’s important to note that the user can still modify the options that have been pre-selected or chosen by the interface, it’s just that the majority of users probably won’t need to do this.

Get smarter

Anyone who has tried to fill in a form whether it be on a keyboard or a touch screen will know that it has a heavy payload when it comes to interaction and friction. Think about the physical side of it just for a moment:

If you combine the above with the usual suspects of poor UI and UX design such as error prevention and handling, contrast issues and disappearing labels to name but a few, it’s easy to see why a form filling request can quickly snowball into a cacophony of miserable user experiences. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could reduce the need for typing entirely and as a consequence reduce error and the sheer effort required? Say hello to Smart Defaults!

A smart default is a clever way in which you can take some of the heavy lifting off your users in order to complete your form. They provide an educated guess as to what a user is likely to do. Let's take a look at some examples.

Using geo-location data

Being able to figure out where a device (ergo your user) is in the world via GPS or IP addresses seems like a useful option and it can work very well as a smart default tactic to make intelligent suggestions based on a user's location. 

In the example below, the user is searching for the weather in their area and we can see that Google believes it knows where the users location is based on an IP address and helpfully serves up what it thinks the user wants to know.

Google Weather Smart Default

Skyscanner does a similar thing by populating the airport it thinks the user wishes to fly from based on IP address.

Skyscanner smart default

Geolocation can be very useful, but there are downsides to this approach as well when it comes to optimizing forms;

  1. Privacy regulations

A topic very much in the limelight right now means use of geolocation data can be a tricky thing to obtain because IP addresses are considered personal data. GDPR and a myriad of other regulations around the world mean that use of this data could breach those regulations.

  1. It can be unreliable

Users are getting more savvy about who gets to have their data through explicit choice when landing on websites or by using a variety of applications and system settings that prohibit their location being used. Additionally, where a person is physically at any given time doesn’t necessarily reflect what they want or need now. For example, someone who is taking a 100 mile day trip to the seaside and decides to look up flights to New York may not want to fly from an airport nearest to where they are currently eating an ice cream and admiring the view.

Indeed, a quick look at where-am-i.co has this author located in Scarborough, some 227 miles from the actual location for where this article is being typed.

Incorrect IP location

Autocomplete for search

Given the limitations of geo-location, a more fruitful smart default could be autocomplete. Not only does this speed up the ability of a user to make a series of actions, if done well it can provide cues and hints to enable the user to take a more optimal decision to complete a task.

Autocomplete search image

Google does this exceptionally well by providing a series of autosuggestions when the user starts to type their search query. 

Payment details

Yes, it’s true that saving payment details via a number of different methods such as in your browser, Apple wallet or Google Pay or a myriad of other express payment options has made entering payment information less tedious than it once was, but there are still those that prefer to do it the old-fashioned way or situations where the card to be used hasn’t been saved elsewhere and the payment information must be re-entered. 

Checkout image

Businesses are increasingly offering express payment options to ease friction during checkout, but not everyone will use them. Manual credit card entry should always be an option for payment.

To accommodate those users offering a way to save their payment details can be a bonus as long as it is their explicit choice to do so and the ability to remove payment details is clear and easily achieved. 

Pre-filling known data

If you know the answer to a question then supply the answer to save the user repeating themselves. Think about the following scenario:

A new social site has launched, let's call it FaceSpace. Your friend has already signed up and because they are one of the first 1,000 people to do so, they get to send you a golden ticket to join as well. Your friend enters your first name, your last name and of course your email address to send the invite to.

You receive the email invitation and click on the shiny button to join FaceSpace. When you land on the site you’re presented with the registration form. What’s a better user experience? To have to re-enter your first and last name as well as your email address, or for that information to be filled in already leaving just one final click to confirm your sign up? The latter of course. As the information being requested is already known by the system excluding it at the conversion point seems pointless.

In a form context, this often comes up in multi-step forms when users move from one section to another. If you have already asked them for some information, for example address, don’t make them enter it again (such as in the payment section), pre-fill it to avoid frustration.

Form defaults in a nutshell

Hopefully by now you’ll see that when used well, form defaults can achieve amazing things and help your users complete a variety of forms in a variety of situations to achieve a given task. But, with most things that offer a solution to something, there are some caveats around using form defaults, so use them wisely and heed the following advice:

Do this

#1 Use default when it’s the choice of MOST users

#2 Use what you know about your users to inform your default choices

#3 Make it easy for the user to change default values

#4 Provide an option to restore defaults

Don’t do this

#1 Ask for the information your user has already given you

#2 Use defaults for things that need your user to pay attention

And absolutely don’t do this

#1 Use defaults to feather your own nest (dark UX patterns)

A great example of this is those gnarly marketing opt in and opt out checkboxes to confuse the user into opting in when they don't want to. In this situation, you should make the user have to check the box opt in, not to opt out. 

Dark UX Opt In

#2 Use defaults for sensitive or political choices

It’s 2022. Long gone are the days where an assumption about topics such as gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or citizenship (to name just a few) can be made so don’t do it unless you want to aggravate the person filling in the form. Political alignments and viewpoints are another area to steer clear from, too. 

And here's the Bat & Ball Answer!

If the bat costs £1.00 more than the ball and the total is £1.10, then the ball must cost 5p and the bat must cost £1.05. Did your System 2 work that out?

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Failed Form Submissions: Optimizing the Submit Button UX
Why failed submissions happen and how to reduce them
Optimizing the phone number field on forms
UX tips to reduce abandonment on mobile and landline form questions
Form UX Design Tips: Best Practice Examples
10 form design patterns that help optimize conversion
8 Tips to optimize your mobile form UX
CRO advice for forms on mobile devices

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