Form Etiquette, Part 1: Four Checkpoints of Form Etiquette

January 31, 2017

Online forms are a great way to connect with your users, gather needed information from them, and move away from pen-and-paper methods of collecting and processing data. Many online tools bring form creation to your fingertips — no HTML, javascript, or server-side coding experience required. On our platform we use a content type called Webforms to build these, and our content managers can create a simple webform in minutes. But while the technology makes it easy to get started, if you want to get good results, you need to know how to design an effective form.

When creating your online form, your goal is to get other humans to take the time to provide accurate answers to questions (or prompts) you’ve set up, and submit those answers to your organization. We cannot take those expectations for granted — we have to design for them.

The principles to focus on for an effective form are fourfold:

  1. ask the right questions,
  2. make sure your form is usable,
  3. ensure the form’s settings meet the right level of security for the answers, and
  4. you are considerate in how form respondents may react to potentially sensitive prompts.

There are entire books and websites dedicated to best practices around form design. While you don’t need to be an expert in all things forms, this post is meant to simplify the key ideas that will help you get started. The goals of the checklist below are to improve your form results and engagement and ensure you’re not breaking the law. Today we will simply focus on the highlights that will get you started. In the next posts in this series, we will explore the reasons behind some of these practices.

Before You Build

Checkpoint 1: Ask the Right Questions

Before you even crack open a form builder, make a list of the questions you need answers to. For each prompt, make sure you know:

  1. why you need each prompt,
  2. what type of response(s) you expect to gather, and
  3. how you will handle the data you receive.

After you answer each of those questions, ask yourself again: will having an answer to this question impact our results? If the answer is “No,” remove it.

Now that you have your list, it’s time to review how to handle them.

Checkpoint 2: Keep results Secure and Private

  • Know Your Sensitive PII

Do any of your prompts ask for Sensitive PII? Federal law has strict regulations on the collection of HIPAA data and Sensitive Personally Identifiable Information (PII), including who can request and access the information, and the security rating of the systems that store sensitive PII. Sensitive PII includes, but is not limited to: social security number, date of birth, driver’s license number, medical information, and any information that may stigmatize or adversely affect a person.

Forms that gather and store sensitive PII require high security systems. Customers on our GeorgiaGov web platform need to be aware that the web system is designed to publish information for the general public — not to store sensitive data. The bottom line: you cannot request or store Sensitive PII on the GeorgiaGov Web Platform. If you need to store PII, you need to find a system that meets federal and state standards for storing sensitive data.

  • Not Sensitive PII but still needs some security restrictions?

If you gather information that doesn’t qualify as sensitive PII, but still need to respect a respondent’s privacy, we offer a Secure Webform setting to submit data over SSL and restrict which employees can view and download the data.

Building Our Form

Now that we’ve got the full list of questions and selected the right environment for collecting our data, it’s time to consider how we build each prompt to get the best results.  

Checkpoint 3: Make Forms Usable

  • Ask as few questions as you can, to reduce your drop-off rate.
  • Use tooltips or descriptions to clarify what type of information you need.
  • Use Fieldsets to chunk similar groups of questions together.
  • Use labels and field keys for each field. (for example: when asking for a name, the field key should be “Name”, not “field1.”)
  • Mark required fields.
  • Test the tab order to confirm a form can be completed using only a keyboard (no mouse).
  • Field type should match the type of information you need (for example: email address, phone number, date, not generic “text input”).
  • Use select lists when the number of possible answers is limited:
    • radio buttons when users should only select one option (all options are visible; making it easier to understand the options than when using a dropdown list),
    • check boxes when users can select more than one (all options are visible),
    • dropdown lists when users should only select one, and the list of possible options is long (such as states in the US, countries, etc).

Checkpoint 4: Be Considerate

  • Recognize emotionally sensitive information.

There are plenty of questions you could ask that aren’t PII, but can still have complicated answers and induce an emotional response. This can include questions around marital status, gender, race, and employment status, to name a few.

  • In the field’s description or tooltip, explain why you need it, who will use it, and how it will be used.
  • Gender and marital status should have an option for “Other,” or “Custom.”
  • Ethnicity should have options for “other” or the option to select multiple fields.
  • Tread lightly on other questions that may be more complicated than you think:
    • Family and relationship status
    • Education status
    • Employment status

Submit!

Now that you’ve run through the form checkpoints, you’re well on your way to getting the responses you need from an effective web form. But why are these the checkpoints that matter? In my next post, we will unpack some of these points in more detail. Until then, print a checklist version of the above list for quick reference the next time you design a form.

If you’re hungry for more on form design, check out www.formsthatwork.com.

Kendra Skeene

About the Author

Kendra oversees the state’s enterprise web platform, directing product strategy and working with development partners to create new products for the platform’s customers.

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