We are the sum of our experiences.

We’ve been working with designers and studios to discover their ‘onlyness’. What they do differently to others. What makes them distinct.

One of the tools we’ve been using is a Personal Journey Map and I’ve been the guinea pig. I mapped my career path to demonstrate how I found what makes me different to other designers. As one designer said, it’s quite a trip down memory lane gathering all past experiences…

One of my past experiences was diving into the world of research for a Masters degree in readability and legibility. Part of that research involved form design.

Did you know one of the earliest forms of interactive design was the humble form? It still is the most commonly-used interface between a company and their client. Unfortunately, it can also be one of the most convoluted, over-complicated, badly-worded communication devices a company will ever publish — online or in print. That’s usually because they are rarely edited. When a question is regularly answered incorrectly it’s sometimes rewritten but most often it’s just asked again – using different words. That’s why we have 16-page forms.

Regardless of your industry sector, knowing how to write and design a form is a valuable commodity for any business. It is a saleable commodity, and not something often available inhouse. In the interest of knowledge sharing – here’s my seven clear communication rules for form design.

1. Less is more.

This rule works pretty much for anything, but especially in form design.
Don’t use forms as a fishing expedition — only ask for information you need.
The more questions you ask, the greater the chance of user error, and the less likely the form will be completed. (Unreferenced) research I read recently stated that asking for a telephone number (and therefore inferring the user will be called) reduced the completion rate by 5%. My experience backs that up. So, the moral is, only ask for information that you need.

2. Be clear.

Write and design forms strategically.
Start by understanding the information you need and why you need it.
Begin the form with a clear explanation of ‘why’.
Why you are requesting the information, what you will do with the answers and who to contact if further clarification is needed.

3. Allow intuition.

Go with the flow — make your form as easy as possible to complete – the more intuitive for the user, the great the chance of success.
That means positioning the label (or question) as close as possible to the input field so the relationship is clear.
It also means designing the input field to suggest the appropriate response. For example, when asking for a credit card number, don’t leave a line or an empty space. Instead, allow 16 boxes for 16 numbers. That means one (easily) missed number will be obvious. And use technology, like including ‘drop downs’, to limit selections to relevant responses.

4. Aim for simplicity.

The simpler the layout, the more clarity and the easier understood.
One proven layout is to use a single column grid, ranging all information to the left with labels positioned directly above the input field. Aligning text to the left helps provide structure. It allows a user to quickly scan the form to assess the time needed to complete the task.

5. Group similar questions.

Sometimes you just need to ask a lot of questions. One solution is to group ‘like’ questions into sections. That way users will scan a page and see 5 sections (rather than 25 questions).
Clumping ‘like’ information is helpful because it follows logic. For example: grouping all contact information together is logical. It makes sense. It works with, rather than against, someone’s brain. Similarly, in a motor accident insurance form, asking the make, model and registration of the car within the same section helps the user because they probably have all that information in the one place.

6. Use clear communication.

Sounds simple but using less words rather than more can be challenging. Forms are not novels. They’re not read, they are usually scanned. Don’t feel the need to phrase questions as full sentences. Instead, aim for short, succinct directions of one or two words.
Not: Where is your place of business located?
Instead: Business address.
Of course, online survey platforms like Typeform are based on a completely different approach. They work on the premise of having informal ‘interactions’ — or conversations — with the users. It’s a successful method of harvesting information where forms don’t need formality to be credible (like, for example, in an insurance claim).

7. Use colour.

A limited use of colour aids clarity. It can help segment information into sections, separate prompts from questions, and highlight a ‘call to action’.
It can also help avoid missed questions. Incomplete forms are common, and they can be costly. It means both the end customer and the company need to revisit the data.

Designing for contrast between the input field and the background helps emphasise a missed question. Even a light-coloured background will recede and highlight white input fields. That means the user can easily flick back over the page and identify any empty input boxes.

Of course, online forms overcome that problem by not allowing progression to the next page while a field remains empty, but they too can benefit from the use of colour.

Got a brilliant form layout that you would like to share? I’d love to see it. I do still love a good form, plus you could always enter it into my side project – The Clear Communication awards.

The Clear Communication Awards are a joint project of myself, Joh Kirby and Carolyn Alexander. Our panel of esteemed judges will award projects that combine excellence in design, communication and plain language. I’ve made sure there’s a category for forms.

They open in June 2019.

We’re releasing information regularly. Subscribe to our mailing list or follow our Clear Communication Awards page on LinkedIn to receive updates on categories, judges and lots of information on clear communication.

Carol Mackay

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The Design Business Review is Australia’s only online design management magazine. It’s professional development information written specifically for Australian designers by Australian designers. Best of all, it’s free.

Carol is a designer and co-founder (with Greg Branson) of the Design Business Council, an organisation advocating design and its role in a successful and sustainable business; and the Design Business School, Australia’s the only business school for designers. Together they are working towards the 2019 Business of Design Week. 

In 2018 she partnered with another two Melbourne professionals to launch the Clear Communication Awards. 

Prior to the DBC, Carol co-founded and managed a successful graphic design studio: Mackay Branson design. Carol’s design career focused on helping the financial, legal, insurance, superannuation and service sectors use design to add clarity to their often complex message. She now uses the same skills to help business understand design, and designers understand business. Contact Carol for more information.

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