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Designing Forms

1 August 2013
Hila Cohen

Approximately a year ago I decided to take a trip to the States: a month of New York, Miami, and Las Vegas. I was very excited towards my vacation: sightseeing, food, shopping and lots of experiences. As part of the less attractive and exciting part of flying to the country of limitless possibilities I decided to take care of the cumbersome bureaucracy of attaining a visa.

Everybody talks about the long process one has to go through. I thought to myself, how hard could it actually be? All it involves is filling out some forms on the internet and arriving at the US embassy for an interview. So for starters, I indeed went to the embassy's website. And I indeed found out that I am facing a long process including filling out many forms, detail by detail, explanations, attaching documentation etc.

At this point I exited the site and told myself I'll return to it some other time when I have the time. The second time I filled only half the form, and the third time I entered the form was fully filled out and successfully sent. Hallelujah. I felt a great burden being raised from my shoulders, and this was even before I began another round of form filling and personal interviews at the embassy.

We are surrounded by forms in our day to day lives, from feedbacks at restaurants to long government forms. A form is a template document intended for receiving data. It contains instructions, titles or questions beside fields to be filled in.

Forms are used for various needs:

  • Dialogue and means of communication between provider and receiver of service.

  • Information collection.

  • Service and product sales.

One of the most important tasks in building a form is ensuring that the exchange of information between the world of the service provider which mainly deals with work processes and the world of the service receiver which can be summarized as the will to receive that which he/she desired in a friendly, simple and quick manner. Bridging the gap between these two worlds depends on optimally designing and planning the form. These two aspects will eventually lead a great amount of users to the finishing line and sending the form to its destination.


Hereby are some tips for designing a comprehensible, clear and reliable form:

  • The Length of the form: insert only the most necessary fields. Many fields will deter users from filling out the form. Nevertheless, remember that short is not necessarily better. Don't give up on necessary fields for the sake of shortening the form.

  • If many fields are required in order for the user to complete the process, the long form can be divided into several pages or clearly defined groups.   

  • The form route: create a clear route for filling out the form, preferably a linear up-down path (as opposed to two columns right to left).

  • Tags: each field in the form should have a tag that describes it. Upward/left alignment of the tag will assist the user to connect between the tag and the field and therefore fill it more quickly.

  • Explanations regarding filling out the form:

    • Explanation regarding the information to be filled in-preferably beside the field.

    • Explanation regarding what information is mandatory-marked by an aster beside the tag, a red tag or explicit writing of which field is mandatory.

    • An explanation of the reason the system requires certain information.

  • Feedback for typing in incorrect information:

    • Short and concise error messages including what is wrong and how it can be fixed.

    • Activating the error message when the user finishes typing in the error and has moved on to the next field (as opposed to presenting all errors following the completion of the form).

    • Showing an error message beside where the error was made.

  • Designing and locating main action buttons (enter/send) and secondary action buttons (I forgot my password).

    • It is preferable to use only one main action and locate it in a straight line down the form's route.

    • Use the secondary actions only if necessary since they "annoy" the user by requiring them to choose between the actions.

    • Distinctly differentiate between main actions and secondary actions using different design location.

  • Designing the form's rules: make sure to maintain a clean design that does not include any 'diversions' when filling in the form. Assist the user in maintaining concentration when performing the required task.

  • Data security: in order to encourage users to trust you and submit sensitive information when filling in a form, indicate the user that the form is secured. This can be performed through explicit wording or a 'lock' symbol.

So I flew to the US. I enjoyed beyond my wildest dreams. I travelled, I ate, I took photos, I experienced. Nevertheless, I cannot exclude the process of attaining the visa out of my overall experience. That part was admittedly less enjoyable, which is why it took three visits to the US embassy website till I filled out the entire form and clicked on "Send".

There are many other examples alike this one in which we are required to fill a form in order to complete an action we wish to perform. I believe that the bad reputation of forms can be reversed and words like "bureaucratic", "cumbersome" and "pointless" will no longer be associated with forms.

Designing the form and careful planning taking the complexity of the request and the users in consideration will assist the user to fill it relatively quickly and easily maintaining a positive and recommending opinion regarding the form. Forms are a way to create a dialogue with the receivers of service and are usually used as supporting sales tools and central tools of information collection. Use them correctly and utilize the most out of their potential features. 

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