Online Job Application Tools Lack Usability

I was recently working with the vendor of our online job application tool to improve the user experience. Frankly, the current version of the tool leaves a lot to be desired in terms of usability.

My first step was to research how other companies handled this critical web site activity. After researching other job application tools, I was disappointed (but not surprised) to find that we were far from alone in our issues.

I would estimate that 8 out of 10 online job application tools suffer from significant usability problems, including confusing labeling, use of multiple pop-up windows, and requiring an unnecessary amount of information from the applicant.

For my research I selected some of the top companies from Fortune Magazine's 2007 list of best places to work — guessing that if these employers cared more about their employees then their application processes might also be better than most.

Below are some observations culled from my experiences.

Not Another Account?!

Credit to Cisco and Genentech as they allow you to apply as a guest without having to create an account. The requirement to create an account to apply for a job really annoys me.

I can understand why companies do it, but as a user it's frustrating when this might be the only job you ever apply for at a particular company.

Unfortunately, Cisco's application process quickly broke down when I chose to create my resume online. The next screen simply stated that "Cisco Systems is an Equal Opportunity Employer" and nothing else.

Perhaps it was a browser (Firefox) incompatibility, but either way it was unacceptable.

New Windows and Too Many Screens

What is up with opening job application screens in new windows (Whole Foods, Starbucks, Boston Consulting Group, etc)?

Whole Foods is particularly notable in this regard. Not only do they open two new windows as you go through the application process, but they also make you select the job you want twice before you can apply for it!

Nugget Markets has an interesting problem because their job application screen fills the width of the page. So, on each screen the 'Exit' button is in the middle, asking to be clicked, while 'Next' is out of the way over on the right.

They also spend two screens asking you if you want to create a 'restart' code and password. If I said no the first time, why do you make me tell you again?

I don't know how many screens they require you to go through in order to apply for a job, but I gave up after about eight. And why do I have to provide my social security number in order to apply for a job? This makes no sense.

Given that Nugget Markets feels the need to provide 'personal grooming guidelines' on their main careers page, I suspect that their job application process is somewhat overly complex.

Field Validation and Cancel Buttons

The Container Store didn't have any special usability problems beyond the usual. However, I was able to submit my job application just by using the 'populate form fields' tool in Firefox's Web Developer toolbar.

I would imagine that having no field validation except for username might create a few problems on the back end.

Network Appliance had a strange widget for reordering your employment history.

It actually took me a minute to understand what it did. And then when you do rearrange your employment history by clicking one of the arrows, the page refreshes sending you to the top of the page, so you're not really sure what happened.

I also managed to cancel to my application because the 'Cancel' button looked the same as the 'Next' button except that it was bigger and to the right.

Why do designers insist on making it easy for users to make a mistake by 1) including a 'cancel' option in the first place, and 2) making it look more clickable than the 'next' or 'submit' button?

Show Me My Progress and Give Me a Preview

Other than opening in a new window and having fairly unhelpful error messages, the Starbucks application process was good. It was six pages long and kept you informed of your progress throughout.

S.C. Johnson & Son make it difficult to know where to click to search jobs or create a new account.

However, they do a good job of showing you where you are in the application process (as do Quicken Loans) via a clickable progress bar that allows you to navigate back and forth between screens.

Boston Consulting Group's required fields turned out not to be really required (I guess all that validation is a pain to program).

To their credit, they were the only company that provided you with a editable preview of your application before you submitted it. This should be standard for all sites because it's way too easy to make a mistake when the application process is typically so lengthy.

Despite having 33,000 employees, Wegmans Food Markets has taken the low-tech approach to job applications — simply send them an email.

I like the idea of keeping it simple, but I can only imagine the rubbish they must get sent. Pity the poor HR folks who have to wade through all that.

One Form to Rule Them All

Methodist Hospital System opt for a one-page, very long application form, which I actually prefer. However, it would benefit greatly from an improved layout.

Nordstrom have also taken the single page giant application form approach.

However, if you try to submit your application but miss a required field, not only do you get an error message alert, you are also taken to a new page with the following helpful message:

Invalid data was sent. Your application has not been inserted in our database.

Nothing else; you have to hit 'Back' to return to the form in order to correct it.

Sidenote: Nordstrom, is it really a good idea for your careers site to play music when it opens? Doesn't make it too easy to apply for a job on the sly while at work, wouldn't you agree?

Who's Best?

So what of Google, the #1 employer? I have to hand it to them, their very usable application form was on a single screen followed by an optional survey which tried to get a sense of whether you would be a good fit or not.

Here's an example question:

Compared to other people in your peer group, how would you describe the age at which you first got into (i.e., got excited about them, started using them, etc.,) computers on a scale from 1 to 10?

Parting Thoughts

If Google can make it easy to apply for a job, why do so many other companies make it so difficult? Many of the usability problems I encountered were basic and could be easily fixed.

I find this all the more surprising given that applying for a job is often the first significant interaction a potential employee has with a company. What does this say about an employer when it's so painful to go through the job application process?

Of course, most of these tools are provided by vendors and not by the hiring company itself. I'm surprised by their lack of focus on usability; I would imagine that it could be an important point of differentiation from other products.

Posted on: March 24, 2007 | 4 Comments

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4 Comments Posted

I remember going through the process of looking for jobs via seek.com.au and it was annoying and un-usable in all the ways you wrote about.

The situation is quite different if you're the one who hire and not the one who wants to be hired. Definitely, an application form should be clear and easy to be filled.

There basic information which has to be known for further discussions. If I would hire, I would keep the application form simple.

One thing I have been observing lately is the need to copy your entire work history into little fields that aren't long enough for you to do a simple copy and paste. Why require this information when the employer is also asking for a CV? Check out NBC, JP Morgan Chase and MTV for extremely bad user experiences. Maybe it's a way for them to weed out only those people who REALLY want the job?

Often customers (those who hire) on internet applications are creators of these problems. I think we should try to understand needs of people who use those applications.

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