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Form design

It’s one of the absolutes of life – filling in forms are not fun for the majority of people (with the exception of Andrew Boyd who loves forms so much, that he “would do it [designing] for free”). I’m not a fan of filling in forms. Come tax time, I rather get our accountant to do our tax return than try tackling it myself. Yet many organisations seem to be very Vogon-like when it comes to forms (Vogons are the masters of bureaucratic behaviours). Every organisation seems to have a multitude of forms for every aspect of life – taking leave, applying for access to a building, security clearances (which are always deeply painful to fill in), medical insurance, house insurance, survey forms, win-an-ipod…the list goes on.

Love it or hate it, forms are part of lives. I’ve spent a few years doing user centred design work around translating paper based forms into an electronic medium, so it was a refreshing reminder at last night’s Canberra IA Cocktail Hour when Jessica Enders from Formulate Information Design took us through her presentation, Form Design. Jessica started off with a very amusing clip from Black Books which nicely demonstrated the joys (or lack of) of filling in forms.

She talked about The 4 Cs of Good Form Design:

  • Clear – forms should be clear, enabling “the form-filler understanding, with minimal effort, what to do with the form as the designer intended.”
  • Concise – it’s about being efficient and being only as long as needed (not necessarily being as short as possible, which brings about its own usability and accessibility problems).
  • Clever – forms should reduce the workload upon the user. Don’t make users go through all of the questions if they’re not relevant. This is a lot easier to achieve with electronic forms but can also be done with paper forms (think of the directional instructions you get on some forms, such as “if no, go to question 6”).
  • Contextual – provide enough context and don’t make people guess at the meaning of words. Jessica gave an example about a survey she was recently completing that asked for her annual income – is that income before or after tax? Let people know why they have to complete the question. I’ve noticed the why behaviour in many of my user testing sessions. The participants wanted to know why they were completing certain questions. Once we put in succinct explanatory text about the why, we found that the participants were a lot more comfortable with providing the information being asked for.

Jessica also took us through her “4 layers of a form”. These were:

  • Questions and answers – the “meat” of the form.
  • Flow of information – she suggests mapping out the flow of questions to see at a glance the relationship between questions and impacts if questions were to be moved or removed.
  • Layout – this is about the layout of elements on the page, visual hierarchy and “page furniture” (repeating elements like logo, header and footer).
  • Process – a holistic view of the form filling in process.

Edit: Updated reference to Andrew Boyd and his love for designing forms (rather than the filling in of forms). :)

Published inUsability


  1. Hi Ruth,

    thanks for the link :)

    I don’t really get a perverted pleasure out of filling in complicated forms – my comment “I love this stuff, I would do it for free” was around designing uncomplicated forms. It’s something I’ve done in the past and I really enjoy :)

    Best regards, Andrew

  2. Thanks Ruth,

    clarification appreciated :)

    Best regards, Andrew

  3. Ruth Ellison Ruth Ellison

    @Andrew No worries :)

  4. Floroskop Floroskop

    I think this try.

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