Caroline Jarrett – Best practice when designing forms

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August 25, 2016 7:53 pm

Caroline Jarrett – Best practice when designing forms

Caroline Jarrett, a form specialist and noted author, met the team at SimpleUsability on Thursday 11th August and gave a very insightful talk about how to design better forms for users.

Caroline Jarrett at SimpleUsability

Caroline got interested in form design, and the impact of poor form design, while troubleshooting optical character recognition (OCR) problems while scanning incoming forms. The problem was, people didn’t understand what the form was asking, or it didn’t fit their situation, so they didn’t fill in the form in the ‘right way’. Caroline realised that form design was behind the problem and that good form design was important whatever the media. She now focuses on how to design online forms and surveys, so that people can fill them in correctly; ensuring good language, content and interaction design.


Surprising people is never good.

states Caroline, as the discussion moved forward onto certain features of forms, in particular accordion forms. Lucy Buykx, a Senior UX practitioner from SimpleUsability, said that she has seen some accordions which take users through the form process nicely. However, Caroline discourages the use of accordion forms, stating;

If it’s simple enough to work, it’s probably simple enough to be done on one page.

So is there a need for accordion forms? Maybe yes, in some instances, where users are guided through a specific process. However, users may have false expectations of how much they have to do. For example, it could appear there are only four questions on the form, but once users click into the first section of the accordion, another set of questions are generated and users get frustrated because they realise they haven’t progressed as far as they thought. To avoid this Caroline explained

You can signal progress with good terminology.

Good terminology reduces the need for an accordion, where simple stages labelled clearly are more favourable.

This raises the question ‘Why do we still insist on using accordions on forms?’ Caroline explains it could be due to the fact developers in the team don’t often see interviews with real people, to find out what they expect. Developers enjoy the challenge of coding new forms of interaction and often put them into apps and websites because they are new and fun to code. However, this is not so fun on the receiving end for the user, who struggles to interact with them. Caroline believes in talking to users earlier in the process, so developers understand their users’ needs beforehand.

Form freedom

Guy Redwood, Founder of SimpleUsability, acknowledged the difficulty of filling out forms for certain circumstances. Something that should be as simple as entering your name can actually cause problems for users who – for example – use their middle name as their preferred first name. However, clients are often bound by legacy systems where form designs are built to match the underlying data structure, rather than thinking first about what would help the user and then how do we get that into our database.

This sparked a similar conversation about gender on forms. So how should forms ask about gender?

The most politically correct way to ask someone’s gender is not to ask at all!

replies Caroline, but if this is necessary, then ask the user what pronouns they’d prefer to use, as this respects the users choice about what they would prefer to be called. Similarly, some forms for example may not initially force a gender choice by including ‘Mx’ as a choice of pronoun, but further into the process users are asked to select ‘Male’ or ‘Female’. This causes an inconsistency, as users are then being forced to select a gender.

Eye tracking evidence from surveys and forms

The discussion then moved onto what eye tracking evidence can tell us about how people fill in forms and surveys; highlighting a difference between gaze and attention. Where users are looking and what they’re paying attention to may not necessarily be the same thing and this is important, as evidence suggests users miss on-screen information.

Caroline described how Government Digital Services (GDS) are removing drop downs from the Government Service Design Manual, as users with low digital online skills struggled to interact with these. This led to an idea that colleagues shared about ‘Type ahead’, a method where users would look at the screen whilst typing as suggestions are generated simultaneously. However, concern and problems over this quickly arose. Caroline states;

Type ahead isn’t going to work when it comes to gaze and attention.

Users with low typing skills would be likely to type looking down at their keyboard, rather than at the screen, and so miss the suggestions list. Likewise, if users type some of the correct letters but then add letters that do not have any search results, the suggestions list would disappear as the inputted data does not match any search results. Consequently, this would still be a problem for users who struggled with drop downs in the first place!

Pre-filled form boxes

Caroline was asked about best practice for pre-populated forms. She explained why it’s not a good idea to put hint text inside the form boxes;

It’s my space, don’t shove stuff in there!

If the text is dark enough to make it accessible to users with visual impairments, people are likely to skip over the field as they think it has already been filled in so they don’t have to. Best practice, if hints are necessary, would be to move this text outside of the field.

Help icons on forms

Another feature on forms that was discussed was the usefulness of help icons beside form fields. The internet has trained people to ignore help icons, as the help they receive from these is often not the help they were looking for. After three or four clicks of unhelpful contextual help, users have learnt not to click into these. So how can we offer help to users? Caroline states,

Having a generic icon can work but only if it’s used sparingly. Words are always better!

By having help in words such as ‘What is this?’ and ‘How to use this?’ users are more likely to click these as it meets their expectations. Similarly, Caroline believes that if users have to go looking for help to understand the question, then maybe the contextual help should have been the question in the first place. For example, when filling in flight details on an online form, it may ask users for a full name but what the form is really asking for is the users name printed exactly how it is on their passport.

You’ve put that question- what did you really want to know? Ok, why don’t you ask that instead?”

To avoid user error, Caroline recommended it would be better to explicitly ask the question.

In conclusion, this discussion with Caroline Jarrett was a chance to review best practise around form and survey design and how implementing these approaches can enhance the user experience-

We don’t care whether they like it, we care whether they can do it.