March 1, 2001

Effective use of forms on websites

Summary: People don't like filling out forms in the real world, and especially not while using the web. Forms are complicated, distracting, and take control away from the user. That is, unless they're designed effectively.

Most people hate filling out tax forms, registration forms, ballots, and so on. In fact, all kinds of new technologies are being developed to speed up delivery of common information (like telephone numbers, addresses, names, birthdates, and social service numbers), and prevent excessive use of forms. Yet users are still forced to fill out forms, to accomplish all kinds of simple tasks, because forms are perceived as an effective means of gathering information. They aren't always effective for users, and certainly aren't always effective for the recipients of the information, either.

Some common user-perceived problems with forms

If users don't understand why they are forced to answer a bunch of questions, in a very particular way, to achieve an unclear purpose, they are going to have a negative experience. That might cause them to simply leave the website, or to miss out on the positive benefits that await them if they fill out the form correctly.

Some common owner-discovered problems with forms

Forms are very mechanical by nature, but humans aren't. Because of interface constraints, it's much easier for most people to write a specific message than to deliver the same information by filling out a form (think of the repetitive mouse movements required to select a birthdate from a complex popup menu widget). In many cases, if a user has reached a form, it's because they want something, or they want to communicate something to the people who run a website. They might have trouble trying to squeeze their thoughts into a narrowly-designed framework: a problem very similar to being forced to answer "yes" or "no" to a question when the answer should really be "maybe". If the message that the user needs to communicate is "maybe", then a human is much more able to process the information, and discover its meaning, than a computer is.

When are forms useful?

Obviously, forms are necessary for certain processes:

Feedback systems almost never require forms. Feedback forms are usually unnecessarily convoluted and frustrating. If a form is going to be used to direct information to a specific recipient or group, just indicate a specific email address to which the feedback should be sent. Give pointers with regard to what information users should provide, but don't force them to reveal information they are not comfortable with handing out to (potentially) complete strangers. Building trust and confidence is an essential part of positive user experience.

In circumstances where a form of some kind is necessary, it's best to keep it simple. In almost all cases, users want to be more effective, which includes getting things done hassle-free, and as quickly as possible. Therefore, forms should have few controls, and shouldn't require excessive cognitive processing or repetitive physical movements to complete.

Here are some common form design mistakes to avoid:

Tips for effective form use

I worked with a company that offered a very personal service to users. That meant that a registration system was required, and users would have to log in and log out. We ended up designing a service that users could browse before registration, but could only personalize after registration. The registration process was made as simple as possible: users were only required to enter a login and password to join. Additional information wasn't requested right away, but instead users were casually reminded to provide some more information, particularly their email address (for password retrieval). Otherwise, users only had to provide more personal information when it was necessary to help the user accomplish a given goal: for instance, users had to provide an address when they ordered a product for the first time.

The same service had a number of other simple forms for searching, logging in, and ordering products. In each case, we found out what was absolutely essential to the user, and how to most effectively design the form to keep users informed and in control.

Here are some guidelines that I kept in mind while working with the client to design the forms:

When considering use of a form, it's important to remember how much most people hate filling out complicated ballots, tax returns, registration forms, and surveys. Web forms are no more fun.

Adam Baker is a user experience designer who's worked at Google, Apple, BlackBerry, and Marketcircle, and mentored startups in Vancouver.