Dec 01

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Designing forms – whetting your appetite

Forms, questionnaires, surveys – almost every organisation produces these at one time or another, from the tax office to the PTA at your local school.  Most of us groan at the thought of filling them out, so how do you design a form that:

  • is easy for the user to fill out; and
  • gets you the information you want?

Like most pieces of writing, you need to plan before you begin.  Start by thinking about some of these questions:

  1. What is the most important information you need to get from the person filling in the form?  Are you asking clearly for this information, or is the question or prompt ambiguous?
  2. What information do you really need, and what can you do without?  For instance, do you really need a date of birth or is that a bit irrelevant?  Do you really need multiple contact details or is one enough?
  3. Who is likely to be filling out your form, and will they understand any specialised terms you use?
  4. How long is each answer likely to be, and have you left enough room for it?

I recently had to fill out a form which had a question at the bottom of one page, and the answer space at the top of the following page.  Needless to say, neither I nor the people around me remembered to answer that question.  A simple matter of formatting meant that no information was gathered for that question!

We’ll have some follow-ups on this topic over the coming months, but in the meantime have you ever come across a form that was particularly easy to fill out?  What made it work so well?

Permanent link to this article: http://wordsmadeclear.com/2011/12/01/designing-forms-whetting-your-appetite/


  1. Michael


    I use a fair amount of forms both as user and creator and I agree that forms are often a pain because they are poorly constructed, too long or have the wrong questions.

    When I work on questionnaires, I work backwards from the desired outcome and ask what are the best questions to ask to arrive at that outcome, not always easy.

    Formatting is important and also, brevity. Many forms are filled in voluntarily and the individuals time needs to be respected. When I create feedback forms as a heuristic measure I stick to 5 questions, 3 that allow a tick to scale quality of experience and two asking what went well and how could it have been better. I am sure there are better approaches.

    I look forward to more on this. Cheers. Michael

  2. Elaine

    I agree with Michael that many of the questionnaires I see are far too long. For me, if a survey can’t be completed in ten to ffteen minutes, it is unlikely I will find the time to do so.

    While I don’t restrict myself to using five questions when creating such documents, I also follow a model of some that can be filled in with a tick or a rating and others that are open ended. I believe that the former need to be very carefully thought out. Poor communication here frustrates the user and a wrong interpretaion of the question/comment can really skew results.

    I also like a very brief introductory statement that clearly identifies the purpose of the questionnaire.

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