1. Fewer words

Most forms have far too many words. Aim to cut half of them.

2. Establish a clear purpose — and communicate it

Few people fill in forms for fun. It's an effort, and forms designers need to justify that effort.

Your user will be thinking "What's in it for me?" So make sure that you figure out:

  • Why you're asking them to fill in the form
  • Why they might want to fill in the form
  • Whether those two purposes line up.

If there is a gap between the users goals and yours, then you'll need to find a short, convincing explanation to bridge the gap.

3. Try using soft validations

Paper forms allow users to enter whatever they think they need to fulfil the purpose of the form. This means that if their particular answer happens to be unexpected, they can still fill in the form and proceed. But if they miss a field or write illegibly, then the error simply stays there until the form is processed.

On web or electronic forms, we have the ability to check data as the user enters it, and (we hope) guide them to better results. There are three options:

  1. No validation: there is no warning and the form accepts any input.
  2. Strict validation: the form will not allow the user to proceed until correct data is entered.
  3. Soft validation: the form warns the user that the data is missing or incorrect, but the user can proceed.

Opting for no validation is the easiest to program, but may confuse your users if they inadvertently make minor errors.

Think about the business reasons for each validation. If you have strict validation, then you may lose some users whose circumstances are a little different to whatever you anticipated.

Soft validations are the most challenging to program, but can deliver the best user experience because users find out about genuine slips but can still enter data where their answer doesn't quite fit with your pre-defined ideas.

If you are getting unacceptable drop-off rates (too many people bailing out of your form), then consider including some soft validations at the points where they are leaving.

4. Test the form with real users — then act on what you find

If you're already doing usability testing on all your forms - congratulations. If not, then give it a go: you'll be surprised by how much you learn. Ask some real users from the target audience to try your form. Watch them as they fill it in, and ask them to tell you what they think about it as they work through it. Watching a real user work on your form is the single best way of finding out where it works, and (more importantly) whether it fails.

5. Bonus idea: take the course

If you'd like more ideas like these, come to our seminar "Forms usability".

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