How to Create a Smooth Online Application Process

As any recruiter or HR professional will tell you, one of the primary considerations you should make with any new recruitment technology is the experience of the candidate. Process automation is great, but first you have to get good, qualified candidates to apply for your positions. And it all starts with having a robust, smooth and easy-to-use online application process.

We’ve worked with hundreds of companies to set up their online career site, job board and online application. We also talk with candidates who are applying on these sites, so we hear first-hand the ways that they can get frustrated and tripped up. The following are some of our suggestions for a great online application process.

Brand your employment site to match your website

The first thing a candidate will notice when they hit your employment portal is the overall look and feel of the site. Having your company name and logo is an excellent start, but even better is having a site that matches your main website’s design and navigation, to give a consistent, professional impression to the candidate.

For example, here are a few ApplicantStack customer employment sites that we think provide a consistent, clean brand image to the candidate:

Keep in mind that having an employment site that matches your website doesn’t require that your existing website administrator create the site. Many third-party systems for employment sites are able to create a “skin” which matches the website, so it will appear consistent to the candidate even though it’s running on a different system.

Make sure your job information is up-to-date and complete

You want to make sure the list of jobs and job descriptions on your site are complete and up-to-date. One of the primary benefits of an employment site is to enable candidate self-service so they are not calling up your company to inquire about your jobs. But if you have out-of-date jobs on your site or don’t provide all the details of your jobs, you will be missing one of the primary benefits of an employment site.

Having a good applicant tracking system is an excellent way to make sure the information on your employment site stays up-to-date and complete. When you post a new job you can push it automatically to your employment site. Similarly, if you modify the details of a job or close a job, the change can be made automatically in real-time. This sure beats having to submit a request to your website administrator to update your site each time your jobs change.

Decide how much you want to ask of candidates when they apply

When designing your online application you should consider how many fields you will ask the candidate to fill out in order to apply. Many organizations just ask for basic contact information (Name, Address, Phone, Email) and a Resume, while others may ask the candidate to fill out a complete Employment Application with separate sections for Personal Information, Education, Employment History, References, etc. Still others will ask for basic contact information and then ask some job-specific screening questions.

There is no right or wrong size for an online application, but you should weigh the trade-offs. In general, the more fields you ask in an online form, the less people you will have complete the form. However, it is often advantageous to collect all the information you need in your hiring process up-front, rather than having to request it later in the process. Also, many companies, such as those under OFCCP regulation, are required to review each application and document the review, so it may be advantageous to restrict applications to only those most serious candidates.

Keep the application simple

Many forms on the web these days, especially those designed by us web developers, tend to be a bit “too clever”. Developers have this nasty habit of trying to take advantage of every technology at their disposal, even if it doesn’t improve the user’s experience. You want to project a modern image to your candidates, but if you try to make your application too fancy it can make it hard for the candidate to fill out.

For example, scripts and animations during the application can look cool but can also get in the way of the basic task of filling out the fields. This is especially true of longer applications such as a complete employment application. Web technology was built with a very simple, but robust way to capture data through forms, and often just sticking to these web standards will result in the most usable forms.

Any web site should keep in mind that users will be coming from multiple environments and browsers, which is even more reason to keep the application simple and stick with standards. The animation where the screen scrolls up and prompts the user to fill out a missing field may look great on your browser, but someone on another (older?) browser may find it prevents them from completing the application. Better to just do the validation when the user clicks Submit and come back with a prompt for any missing data.

Don’t make the candidate re-enter data

There’s nothing more frustrating than being asked to fill out questions in an application process that you’ve already answered somewhere else. For example, you provide your Contact Information when you register with the system, but then when you go to apply to a job the system asks you to fill it out again. Or even worse is when you apply for one job, then go and apply for a second job and the system asks you to fill out the complete application again.

A good application system should be able to save an applicant’s information and re-use it later in the process to prevent duplicate (or triplicate!) data entry.

Be careful of data loss resulting from timeouts and lost sessions

Actually, there is something more frustrating than having to enter data you’ve already entered somewhere else, and that is having the data you’ve spent so much time entering suddenly lost. We’ve all had the experience of filling out a form, entering a comment or composing an email, and then clicking Submit only to lose the data entirely. Sometimes a person will take the time to enter the information again, but more often they will just leave in frustration.

The usual culprit in these situations is system timeouts and lost sessions in your application system. For example, if a candidate has the Apply page up and partially filled out, then is called away from her computer suddenly, when she comes back to Submit the application she may find that her session with the system has timed out and the data she entered on previous pages is lost.

Most good application systems will be engineered to prevent this type of data loss, but you should definitely test it out. For a simple test, just start an application and go half-way through, then leave the screen up over night and in the morning try to submit. If the page comes back with a “Your session has ended” message and you can’t get back to your data, there is session timeout problem and there’s a good chance it will affect your candidates.

Single page or multiple page?

When designing your online application you will need to decide whether you want to have all fields on a single page, with the Submit button at the bottom, or broken up into multiple pages with Next and Back buttons. There are advantages to either method, but you need to consider the trade-offs:

Single Page Application:

  • Allows the candidate to see everything they are being asked to submit and thus determine if they have time to complete it in this sitting
  • Keeps the application process simple (less moving parts)
  • Prevents data loss because all information is submitted at once, rather than kept in session memory (see session timeout issue above)

Multiple Page Application:

  • For very long applications, breaking it up into multiple pages can make it not seem as long to the candidate
  • The system can validate the information page by page and provide more immediate feedback, rather than all at once at the end
  • You can use questions on previous pages to trigger logic on later pages (i.e. skip questions), although this does make developing the application quite a bit more complex

For most cases we prefer single-page applications because of the simplicity and ease-of-use. But either method can be implemented successfully.

Provide confirmation and information on next steps

Finally, after the candidate has submitted his or her application you should provide a confirmation message that the application was received. Along with a general confirmation message, you may also want to consider providing some additional information to help the candidate understand the next steps in the process. For example:

  • If you will be sending email communication from a central email address (i.e. careers@yourcompany.com), you can ask the candidate to add this email address to their address book / white list so your emails won’t be accidentally caught as spam.
  • Tell the user when they should expect to hear from you, for example, “We will review all applications within 2 weeks.”
  • Tell the user the next step to expect in the process, such as a phone screen or skills assessment test.
  • If you don’t want the candidate to call you to ask about the status of their application, you should probably tell them so

Moving from a manual application process to an online process has the potential to drastically improve your recruiting workflow and provide a great first impression to your candidates. But you need to make sure that the process you set up isn’t going to result in frustration on the part of your internal users OR candidates.

Not just for jobs: Using an ATS to streamline Program Applications, Scholarships, Grant Applications, etc

While working with several of our customers this past week, it occurred to me how many things people apply for other than jobs! Things like school admissions, societies and organizations, loans and grants, military branches, awards, scholarships, photo contests, and other applications. We have several customers–well respected

We have converted their long and detailed admissions forms into online versions that collect data like undergraduate GPA and test scores and detailed essays explaining why they are a suitable candidate for the program. All the questions can be scored which helps the Admissions Department focus on the strongest applicants. This is especially helpful when they receive over 1,000 applicants for only 25 available course seats!

We’re also working with another major university who is about to accept applications from companies applying for a special annual monetary award based on their contributions to global social challenges—Wow, how special is it to be part of that?

The unique ways our applicant tracking system is being utilized made me realize how valuable a web-based, affordable , and customizable system really is! Even more exciting for me is how much we can learn from our customers, if we take the time to listen and make their ideas a reality! Please comment if you’ve been looking for an effective way to collect data on line and have never thought about configuring a “job” applicant tracking system to fit your needs.

Posting to Job Boards: How and where most businesses are posting their jobs

Recently we asked our ApplicantStack customers some questions about their current job posting processes, and what new features they would most like to see in ApplicantStack to help streamline their company’s posting process. We heard back from 73 of our active customers and the following is a summary of what we learned.

We were somewhat surprised that so many of our customers said that they would not use one-click posting to paid job boards. The rational seems to be split between those who don’t currently use paid job boards, and those who feel that the current method of manually copying a job to a paid job board isn’t really much of a hassle.

The reason I say we were somewhat surprised with this result is that one-click job posting is the #1 question that we get asked in product demos, which makes us think that everybody (or at least the majority) of companies need this feature.  Even those customers to told us that they would definitely use a one-click job posting function, also said that it’s not really that time consuming to post their jobs to each website separately.  Much less time consuming then, say, the time it takes to review and communicate with the candidates who apply to their jobs.

In fact, many customers who do post to multiple third-party job boards said they would like to continue doing it this way, because it gives them more control over their posting process and allows them to negotiate discounted fees with each job board individually.

Of those who said they would use one-click job posting, a common qualifier was that it would need to have automatic source tracking in order for it to be useful, so they can evaluate whether the money they spend advertising on a particular job board has an acceptable ROI.

Not really surprising that 70% of our customers were interested in sending jobs to Indeed and SimplyHired. After all – it’s free publicity! But one recurring statement we heard is that publicity, and thus more applications to a job, is not always desired. For example, many people told us that they hire only local candidates or have highly specialized positions, and thus don’t want the flood of unqualified applicants that would result from posting to a large free job site.

Even among those customers who liked this option, many said they wanted to maintain control over which jobs get posted to the free sites and which do not.  We also heard some suggestions of other free niche job sites that we could include such as idealist.org and flexjobs.com.

We were actually a little surprised that many of our customers weren’t all that interested in one-click posting to social media sites. Many people said that they don’t currently incorporate social media in their job posting process, and aren’t entirely sure how to recruit effectively. There was even some concern that posting to social media sites could be used inappropriately and attract the wrong type of person.

Of the three major social media sites we asked about, LinkedIn was by far the one people were interested in most. Not all that surprising, as LinkedIn is viewed as more of a professional networking site than Facebook or Twitter.

Finally, among those who said they wanted to be able to one-click post to paid job boards, we asked the question which job board(s)? The results here aren’t that surprising, with Monster and Careerbuilder coming in as the most popular sites, followed by Dice (mostly for tech jobs) and then Jobing (a relative new comer).

As far as an update on our development roadmap, as current customers are aware we have launched the Indeed/SimplyHired posting and Social Media posting functionality. We appreciate the wonderful feedback we’ve received on these new functions and are thrilled to hear that they are resulting in wider distribution of our customer’s jobs and more qualified applicants.

The development team is just about done with the function to post to paid job boards, starting with Monster and CareerBuilder. We are planning to make this available in mid-August. If you would like more details regarding getting this in place for your account, please contact us.

What do you think?  Do any of the survey results above surprise you or validate your current thinking on effective use of recruiting technology?