Improving the Usability of Forms

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Customer communications, such as letters, bills, statements and forms are an essential part of any business, and act as a major link between an organisation and its customers.

With said communications playing such an important role, it’s essential that organisations make every effort to minimise the burden which these documents impose on those tasked with completing them.

As well as keeping customers happy, well designed customer communication material can significantly improve response times, save money and help to enforce your brand.

In this article I will talk through some top tips for designing usable forms.

Use a clear structure

Think about the broad groups of questions being asked and divide them into sections, making sure each section is clearly named. Sections should stand out, so set the section name in bigger and bolder type where possible. Also make use of headers and footers on each page to remind people where they are within the form.

Length doesn’t always correlate to complexity

Shorter forms are not necessarily easier to understand. Though shorter forms may be cheaper to produce initially, if the reduction in content results in user confusion, the cost of resolving completion errors as a consequence can significantly outweigh any initial savings. Clarity and usability should always be prioritised over length.

Offer examples and guidance

It’s useful to put yourself in the form user’s position and think about which questions might create confusion. To help make things easy to understand, provide examples of the sorts of answers you’re looking for, and where appropriate, provide clear guidance notes.

The LPA form has a set of accompanying guidance notes. This page shows helpful guidance on how to fill in the page shown in Figure 1. Note that the information can be accessed in a variety of ways – depending on how much detail the reader is interested in or needs. Also, the careful use of red highlights important tips on how to ensure your form isn’t rejected when it’s submitted.

Click on the image for a larger view.

Provide checklists

Some forms require the person filling it out to provide supporting information or supplementary documents. To help remind users to attach the appropriate documents and to inform them of any further steps they may need to go through, it helps to provide a clear checklist with your form.

Customise response boxes

If for example the form requires a person to fill out their date of birth, provide a box with the exact number of required digits, and explain the format clearly in guidance notes (i.e. DD/MM/YYYY). Providing response boxes that reflect the anticipated answer length and format reassures people that they are filling them in correctly.

Pre-fill where possible

If a person has already filled in a form for your organisation in the past, the chances are they won’t want to fill in the same information again. It’s not always easy, but when pre-filling is achieved, it can make customers feel valued.

Use appropriate response mechanisms

With paper forms, users can miss or disregard instructions. Interactive forms however can be programmed so that the user can only ‘tick/check one’ (known as a ‘radio button’), or be presented with the options in a drop-down menu. When designing forms make sure the response mechanism is appropriate to each question.

Use colour wisely

It’s an area of form design which is often overlooked, but when used strategically, colour can really help aid form completion and navigation. For example, yellow is best avoided as text set in yellow on a light background can be difficult to read. Blue however is a good way of relieving the user’s eyes from the harshness of a stark white background.

This Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) form published by the Ministry of Justice uses colour tinted background areas to effectively highlight the white response fields. Colour also codes the three distinct sections of the form (Part A is blue, Part B is Green, and Part C is Yellow) which are completed by the different people involved. In addition, the hierarchical structure of the form’s content within each Part is visualised through the use of grey strips to separate the main numbered sections.

Offer onward instructions

Having gone to all the trouble of filling in your form, let users know what happens next. Customer communication is key, and since you’ve made the form so easy to fill in and return, processing it could also be a breeze!     

About the author

Andrew Boag is Director at BoagMcCann Ltd – specialists in information design, with over 25 years experience of improving customer communication in the UK and the US. To find out more visit www.boagmccann.com.

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