Why a badly filled out form cost me a lot of heartache (and money)

When you design an ecommerce checkout system, it’s easy to make assumptions about how easy it is for the customer to use. After all, they’re in control of everything they do, from sign-up to purchase. Why would they deliberately mess up filling out delivery addresses or credit card details correctly?

Here’s a true story…

A few months ago my 15 year old daughter asked me if she could buy something online for her friend’s birthday. My daughter was on the website, had selected the gift and added it to the cart. All that was left was to pay. The deal was I’d pay with my credit card and she’d give me the money back. Nothing could be easier…

To save time, my daughter had started to sign up for an account. She entered our address into the site’s registration form and I gave my credit card details to my daughter, who entered them into the form and then she clicked the pay button. All done.

Two weeks later, with the birthday just a week away, I asked my daughter if the gift was what she’d expected. It hasn’t come, she replied.

I checked my emails and found it had been despatched nearly two weeks before. I checked the neighbours to see if it had been delivered in error.


I went back through the emails from the online shop. I had them all, the order confirmation, the invoice, the shipping confirmation.

Why hadn’t it arrived?

It wasn’t until I checked the courier website that I started to piece together what had happened:

  1. When my daughter filled in our address, the address autocomplete feature in Google Chrome had taken over and filled in the street, town and postcode but left out our house name
  2. When I’d checked the address, I had skimmed the details, only making sure the postcode was right
  3. The courier, without a house name [1], had reported the address unfindable and returned the parcel to the sender
  4. The package had been posted in Belgium, so it was unlikely the missing address line would have been noticed
  5. The sender didn’t have a system in place to tell me that the parcel wasn’t being delivered
  6. I had assumed I’d be contacted if anything was wrong.

I learned a lot from this incident.

Firstly, the Connected Generation sample of 1 that lives in my house doesn’t check forms properly. Now I have to confess, I didn’t check the address properly either. (I’m a Generation X for the record).

There’s a good reason why people don’t check things properly. In general, people tend to skim read using the internet [2]. This relies on the brain’s ability to recognise words and phrases that are present, not detect things that are missing. When it comes to forms [3], people fall into two categories:

  • Readers – who carefully read the form
  • Rushers – who only read the fields they think are necessary

When I’m not working, I fall into the rushers category. I was looking for confirmation that the address was right. The important fields for me were the surname and postcode. I know from prior experience that with these two bits of information it’s possible to find me and deliver mail to my house. When I “checked the address”, I only checked those two bits of information.

Secondly, people will take shortcuts if they’re available. By relying on the Chrome autocomplete feature to insert the right address, I assumed the fields in the form matched the information being auto-inserted.

Thirdly, the site’s form checking algorithms didn’t pick up the fact that the house number or name was missing. A proper check to see if the address was valid at this point would have saved the cost of a failed delivery, the stress of having to wait for a parcel that never came and the cost of an unexpected shopping trip to get a suitable alternative present.

Until this event happened, I’d never really thought about the consequences of mis-filling out an online form. Sure, I’ve designed and tested systems that users could input addresses, but I had no real experience or knowledge of what happens when it goes wrong. Each step in this chain of events was easily fixable. I could have double checked the address – but I’m human, so I didn’t. The developer could have forced me to complete the house number/name field – but they didn’t. The communication between the courier and supplier could have been better. The supplier could have told me I wasn’t getting the parcel – but they didn’t.

All these failure points could have been eliminated by using address validation. At a practical level, it makes the customer’s life easier because it offers a standardised address listing. All they have to do is pick the right address. From a supply chain viewpoint, “address unknown” returns should be eliminated which will have a positive effect on my delivery costs. It also minimises the time, effort and cost of issuing credit notes and refunds.

Most importantly, the customer gets what they ordered without a drama. And that’s the heart of the matter. We may be in business to make money, but we do that by satisfying a customer need. An essential part of that need is a frictionless customer experience throughout the website checkout and account handling process. Anything we can do to improve the process will increase our credibility as a supplier, minimise logistic issues and help the balance sheet.

There are simple, elegant and cost effective ways of reducing the sort of supply chain failure that happened to my daughter. PCA Predict’s Address Validation tool works particularly well. So the next time you find someone’s had trouble with your online form, ask yourself would it have happened if you had address validation in place and then ask why wasn’t it.

[1] Unlike our local postie who managed to deliver a letter from my mother who was on holiday abroad that was addressed to “The white house with the big tree in the front garden…”

[2] How users read on the internet – J. Nielsen https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-users-read-on-the-web/

[3] Forms that work – C.Jarrett & G. Gaffney