Self service from hell: How large corporates serve an insulting user experience to job applicants

Self service from hell: How large corporates serve an insulting user experience to job applicants

Are you a manager recruiting on behalf of your large corporate employer? Are you a director hoping that your managers get their hands on the best talent out there? Are you in HR and certain that everyone is having a field day with the third party recruitment solution you invested in?

Below we reveal the misery your online job candidates are likely to be  subjected to, along with 25 tips on how to make things better.

Your organisation is likely to be investing quite a bit of effort and money into recruitment to ensure that it attracts the best candidates. There is probably a nicely written and designed careers website, a YouTube careers channel dedicated to company videos, interviews, employee testimonials and departmental presentations, social media career chatter on Facebook and Twitter and maybe a blog with polished corporate news and views written with job prospects in mind.

In our research we came across numerous examples of such online recruitment initiatives, most offering a decent experience. And yet, behind this sparkly, über-optimistic career-fest lies a big rot: the online job application process. As soon as a job candidate crosses the lovely shop front and enters the back room of online account opening, job searching, CV uploading and job applying, all cuddly content and design fade away. Instead, the unsuspecting user is asked to go through a clinical, impersonal, confusing, badly designed, badly written, patronising, and sometimes even impossible to complete, process.

This embarrassing for the employer and insulting to the candidate debacle is more often than not owned by third party recruitment solution providers such as Oracle’s TaleoKenexa, or SAP’s Success Factors. Yet, this should not be an excuse for a poor user experience.  If you fail to attract the best talent out there, it is the future of your company that is at peril.

Below we give you some pointers of how to improve the user experience of your online job application process with examples to demonstrate what to avoid.

1. Your job search form must be attractive and easy to use

Your job search form is the gateway to all your job opportunities and you must get it right. It took the ecommerce industry years of trial and error to refine the search tools and processes being used today and it is worth learning from them.

By doing the opposite to what Dell, Ford and Pfizer are doing, you will be in a much better place:

  • Brand your search form well. To help build trust and confidence in your organisation, you must keep reminding your job candidates where these great opportunities come from. Dell’s form has zero branding – not even a logo!
  • Include some elements of emotional design in the copy and surrounding graphics. It might be just a form, but it’s also a powerful sales tool. Pfizer’s “Find your perfect job!” line is a nano-step in the right direction, but a lot more is needed.
  • Restrict the text fields and drop down menus to a reasonable width so that they look neither bloated (like on the Dell form), nor anaemic (like on the Ford form). Aim for a balanced layout.
  • Stack all input fields into a single vertical column to give the form flow and make it easier for the user to complete. The Pfizer horizontal layout (Miller Columns) needs more caution, as many users might not be familiar with how it works; additional graphics to indicate direction and relationships between the lists would help.
  • Use large call-to-action buttons that stand out so they beg to be clicked. All examples below feature pathetically weak buttons.
  • Hire a professional copywriter (and not your IT manager) to come up with copy introductions, descriptions and explanations that are short, dense, witty and free from any tech jargon. Ford people, how many users would know what on earth a Boolean operation is?!
  • Replace radio button lists with drop down menus as they help keep the layout simple. The Dell layout could do with fewer lists and drop down menus would be a suitable alternative.

The Dell form looks bloated, busy and thrown together without logic

The Ford form looks weak and crushed under the enormous (and mostly irrelevant) menu and masthead

The Pfizer form looks like a road block devoid of direction and flow

2. Your search results page must be simple to browse and offer filtering and sorting options

Once more, ecommerce can show the way. Over the past few years search results pages have been transformed from plain lists to an integral part of the shopping experience. The same principles that apply to books or shoes can also be applied to your job opening listings.

By doing the opposite of what Marks & Spenser, Dow Chemicals and FedEx do, and your potential candidates can find what they are looking for with ease:

  • The results list should start as high on the page as possible. Both the M&S and the Dow examples push the results too far down the page offering content of little value at the top of the page.
  • Search criteria should be both discrete and easily accessible. The search criteria are too intrusive on the M&S page, almost lost on the Dow page and too far down to be usable on the FedEx page. Alternatively, the ecommerce approach can be used where the search criteria become selections on a results filter that sits to the left of the results list. The user then not only can easily see his or her search criteria, but also change them on the spot.
  • Each job opening listed is too complex to comfortably fit in a table (the M&S and FedEx approach) making a single column layout a better option (the Dow approach). Unlike the Dow layout though, each job opening listed needs to be much better designed for maximum appeal and legibility.

The Marks & Spencer page is a mess with numerous text bits, menus, buttons and tables littering the page without apparent order

The Dow Chemicals page pushes results too far down the page and lacks design refinement

The FedEx page looks vacuum packed


3. Your job descriptions must look slick, sophisticated and do a much better job at selling themselves

Your job description page is no different to the product or service you sell. It needs to be packaged attractively and sold based on its USPs and value it delivers. Sadly, almost all the career websites we reviewed treat the job descriptions like legal documents, both in the presentation and tone of voice, and offering no emotional hooks in the form of clever copy, highlights, employee quotes or branding.

By doing the opposite to what Cosco, GE and JPMorgan Chase & Co do, you will delight your candidates:

  • Brand your content! Show you are proud of your organisation; use large logos, large text and attractive images. The Cosco layout is completely unbranded and relying only on a minuscule stock image to enthuse the prospects. No chance…
  • The job description itself needs styling: large headings, large and spaced out body copy, attractive bullet points, varied line spacing and strong indentation to help guide the user’s eyes through. All three examples below treat the job description with utter disrespect by offering none such styling features.
  • A job summary as a list or in tabular format is a very good idea, but only if the styling is impeccable. Cosco’s such table fails on all fronts.
  • Invite prospects to apply like you mean it with large, attractive and impossible to ignore calls to action. None of the examples below treat the “Apply now” buttons with such respect.

The Cosco page is completely unbranded, which is not surprising given how ugly it is; what brand would ever want to be associated with such an abysmal layout?

The GE page is so tightly stacked, reading the text becomes an excruciating experience  

The JPMorgan Chase & Co page looks like a legal document

4. Your Login/Register form must be inviting and easy to complete

Login/Registration pages in the world of ecommerce have been the subject of great UX scrutiny recently, the outcome of which can be found in numerous articles and blog posts (eConsultancy features a few). Sadly, of all the websites we reviewed not only do they ignore any insights and advice coming from UX research, but they are doing their best to actively deter users.

Cisco, BMW and KPMG give us some good pointers on what to avoid:

  • Start with a handshake; be warm, positive and welcoming. Instead, both Cisco and KPMG greet their users with wordy and unnecessary alerts and restrictions at the very top of their pages.
  • Make sure your layouts comply with the latest web accessibility standards. The BMW layout would fail any accessibility test.
  • Captchas can be handy, but may cause the loss of 3.2% of your potential prospects. The good news is that nowadays there are numerous ways to block spam, all a lot more user friendly than Cisco’s choice.
  • It has been proven that top aligned labels lead to a better user experience. None of the examples below follows such advice.

Cisco features a loud (and very retro) show-stopper at the very top

The BMW form is so faded it looks inactive

Is successful password creation part of KPMG’s applicant screening process?

5. Your complex application form should comply with the latest form design and validation best practices 

An online job application form is a necessary beast to be reckoned with. Many companies (including Red Bull) choose to simply ask for a CV to be sent via email. But should you choose to automate the whole process, then the application form is the most complex part of the user experience and the one that needs the most attention.

Microsoft, Pepsico and AXA demonstrate below what happens when there is no UX or design input in their form creation process. All we can do is learn from their mistakes:

  • Use graphic elements to group associated fields together so that completing the form feels more like a series of smaller steps than a single overwhelming one. Neither the Microsoft nor the Pepsico form make such an attempt.
  • Pre-fill fields with known user information. The Pepsico form forced me to re-type information I had already entered when I opened my website account.
  • Explain errors and make recovery easy. No job application forms we reviewed (over 30) used dynamic validation;  instead the validation we experienced was reminiscent of 15-year-old practices.
  • Use dynamic help via small buttons (that trigger text pop-up boxes) adjacent to the input fields that need them. The examples below offer no help with completing the form.
  • You need to explain with text the method you use to indicate mandatory fields even if this method is as commonplace as the standard stars. The Pepsico form does not offer any such explanation.
  • If your application form is split into multiple pages then you should design and include a status bar that is attractive and easy to follow. Unfortunately, most career websites we looked at that use the Taleo platform feature an abominable status bar that violates every good usability and aesthetic best practice we are aware of.
  • Organise your content in a logical way. The AXA example is a soup of incoherent and nonsensical stuff.

The Microsoft form is a hard to follow grid with no clear entry or exit points

The Pepsico form feels like a morgue

The AXA job application sequence of pages and forms doesn’t make any sense; we gave up attempting to untangle it and only included a random screen shot below


There is a lot of talk about about the new, sophisticated, empowered and knowledgeable web users who cut their teeth on Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn’s complex forms and layouts and are now finding their way across multiple platforms, channels and devices. These users demand to be treated with respect by the owners of any touch-point they come across during their digital travels (touch-points such as social media, ecommerce, games, search engines, corporate websites, mobile apps, etc).  And yet, there are certain areas such as intranets, self-service facilities, corporate software, contact centre solutions and of course recruitment products where large corporations are still years behind consumer brands in acknowledging the needs and demands of such audiences.

Is the future bright? Not until the IT Director’s check list stops being the only set of criteria for the development and purchase of such complex software solutions.


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