Five Questions to Consider for Narrative Forms

by on Aug 03, 2017

In a rapidly changing digital world, online forms have changed surprisingly little since the earliest days of the internet. While forms play a crucial role in online tasks—particularly within financial services—there’s no need for online forms to maintain the same static layout as paper forms.

Some financial services firms update forms by replacing lists of questions with a first-person narrative approach, a style known as “mad libs” as it follows the word game’s format of filling in words within existing sentences.

While this natural language approach is meant to be more appealing than traditional forms, it’s important to consider whether adding a narrative style will be an improvement, or just a gimmick.

ValoraLife Quote Tool

For narrative forms to be useful, they must be usable. To assess whether updated forms preserve clarity and usability, we conducted an expert evaluation of Ladder Life’s quote tool, MassMutual’s Retirement Income Calculator and Guardian Life’s Living Confidently microsite. These forms’ strengths and weaknesses yield five questions to consider when updating a form with a new format.

1. Does the new structure suit the content? Although asking prospects to prioritize goals helps firms serve appropriate content, forcing them to choose only one goal may cause frustration. In past user tests, prospects worried that they may miss important information about other topics if they choose to focus on a single goal.

Guardian’s Living Confidently microsite, for example, asks prospects to choose a single goal from a list that includes Being Happy, A Great Marriage and Raising Children. Ideally, these goals are not mutually exclusive, yet the site requires the visitor to choose between them.

Guardian Living Confidently Microsite Homepage

2. What format is best for each input? Dropdowns are effective for longer lists, but when a simple choice between two options is needed, displaying both can speed the process. The Ladder Life quote tool displays all possible inputs for prospects’ gender and whether they smoke, avoiding the extra clicks required by a dropdown. The tool also mixes formats, allowing prospects to type inputs, such as dates and heights, that would be unwieldy in a dropdown.

Ladder Life Quote Tool

3. Is language consistent? While some variation in formatting is fine, inputs should have an underlying logic. Ladder Life’s quote tool lacks uniformity, breaking from a natural language input to an abstract five-star rating. In contrast, MassMutual’s Retirement Income Calculator uses a consistently conversational tone, including a first-person title.

MassMutual Retirement Income Calculator

4. How does the form integrate contextual help? Some topics—such as health status or Social Security income—may need context to ensure accurate inputs. Though eliminating explanations can streamline a form, style is nothing without clarity. MassMutual and Ladder Life, for example, both successfully use balloon tips to clarify without sacrificing simplicity.

MassMutual Retirement Income Calculator Balloon Tip

5. Does the form follow UX guidelines? Forms should minimize errors by following user experience best practices. Ladder Life, for example, prevents errors by automatically formatting dates correctly.

In contrast, persistent error messages on the MassMutual retirement income calculator block input fields.

MassMutual Retirement Income Calculator Error Messages

As financial firms publish innovative new features, following best practices can ensure that features work smoothly.

Related blog posts include recommendations for improving retirement plan sponsor homepages, advisor homepages, long-term planning tools and chatbots.