On good form? Consider what you’re asking… Alexander Darlington, User Researcher, on good etiquette when collecting information via forms

frustrated userOver the course of a few blog posts, I’m going to share my opinions on forms.

I’ve worked on a number of projects in the past six months which focus on creating forms – from work with government departments through to well-known e-commerce websites. The common form is a staple of our digital diet and it has the power to be subtle, unobtrusive and painless… or utter hell.


Sweet Brown Collecting Information via Forms


I’ve witnessed a broad range of emotions in participants when conducting research and recently arrived at a simple, effective analogy for a bad form:

You’re on the tube (London Underground) and making great time. As the train doors open at the penultimate station before your destination (which isn’t far away by foot), the driver makes a scary announcement: “This train is being held at a red signal”.

Okay, it isn’t that scary but the Londoners reading this know that pang of disappointment. Actually, if you ever visit the city and hear that announcement, look around you. There is a visible emotion worn on the faces of everyone in the carriage.

Anyway with the train doors open you have a choice – wait and suffer the delay, or leave the station and walk to your destination.

The train is like your form, and any delay or pain you introduce to it will bring your user ever closer to abandoning your journey and going elsewhere. For example, this might be to a competitor’s website or it could be calling your customer service team – either way, it’s going to cost you.

I’d like to look at three areas within forms: the fields, the design, and how the information is used.

In this first blog post, I want to concentrate on what your form asks of users, or in other words: the fields. I would say this is a common starting point for form creation.

1. Make it the bare minimum

Begin by understanding exactly the minimum amount of information needed for the user to complete the task. Asking for information that serves a business purpose but doesn’t clearly benefit the user is going to be frustrating or confusing.

2. Keep secrets safe

Be careful about asking for sensitive information which people might feel less comfortable sharing. If you have to ask, then give users easy access to information which reassures them of your credentials, and explains how you’ll store the data or who will have access to it.

3. Let them express themselves

Allow the user to answer as specifically and exactly as possible. Although this isn’t really an issue with open fields, you should watch out for data validation and postal codes (which can be hell). Closed fields need some serious consideration. Ensure you include a broad enough range of options for users to select from, but not so many that the field runs down the entire page.

A balance is required between allowing users to select an option with which they identify,  and keeping things simple in terms of usability. Researchers like me will also rejoice at having much richer data to analyse.

To illustrate those three points, I’ll finish with my pet hate in forms. A field I’m convinced has no place in the majority of forms, yet remains oh-so-common: gender. It is the one piece of information collected in forms that most of you could ditch. And I implore you to do so.

Gender refers to how someone identifies and expresses themselves (don’t confuse it with someone’s sex) and it can be very personal to users.

Being personal means you really should look after that information. It is about the user, so it’s key that you reassure them you’ll keep that information safe.

Finally, and probably most significantly when it comes to gender, is expression. Gender isn’t binary, so creating a closed field with just ‘female’ and ‘male’ won’t do. You need to give the users the opportunity to fully respond to that field.

Having discussed some points on collecting information here, I’ll explain how to design forms in the next blog post.

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Alexander Darlington
Alexander is a user researcher and caffeinated cyclist. With a background in technology and project management, the self-described ‘social anthropology nerd’ now works in the research team at WhatUsersDo.

Drawing inspiration from a classic line in one of his favourite films Tron: “He fights for the users!” Alexander spends most of his time trying to do the same.

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