Layout of forms - key components

Text and colours

By default, and unless instructed otherwise in these or other applicable guidelines, text should be:

  • black or very dark grey (for example #000000 or #0C0C0C)
  • a non-Roman ('sans-serif', that is, without the small lines at the end of the character), typeface is highly readable on screen, especially at small sizes (for example Arial, Helvetica, Optima, Verdana, Tahoma, Open Sans). For more information, visit If It’s Hard to Read, It’s Hard to Do - USC Dornsife website (PDF, 51KB).
  • set flush left
  • actual text, not an image of text. If text must be provided via an image, ensure appropriate ALT text is provided.
  • set relatively (that is, in ems or percentages, not pixels)

The size of text used for answers should be the same as for questions (including labels on radio buttons and check boxes). The background colour of a form should be white (that is, #FFFFFF), unless a different colour is needed to improve usability. If the background has a colour, it should be a tint of no more than 10%.

Because not all form-fillers can perceive it, colour should never be used as the sole method of conveying information. Except for very large text and help text, the contrast between text and background colours (for example on buttons) should be at least 8:1, as recommended by the W3C. Large text should have a contrast of 3:1. Help text should have a contrast ratio of 4.5:1.

Link text should be underlined, and in a different colour from the surrounding text. If link text isn't underlined, the contrast ratio for the link text colour versus the surrounding text colour should be at least 3:1. There are several free tools available for checking colour contrast, including:

For more information on colour contrast, visit the Contrast (Minimum) page on the W3C website.

Form title

Every form must have a unique, descriptive title. Avoid using redundant terms like 'form', 'online' or the name of the business unit (the header says this). Set the title in the largest font used anywhere in the form, and position it flush left. Programmatically, use the h1 element to mark up the form title.

When choosing a title, put the subject before the verb. This makes it easier to find the right form, as when searching, form-fillers are focused on the subject matter more than the related action.

The exception to this rule is forms within a user portal, such as the forms inside the Working With Children Check Unit’s MyCheck. In-portal forms are usually for performing actions on the user’s account, so are more appropriately named with verb before the subject.

When referring to a form in the text of a website, use the exact form title.

Good title Poor title Example of reference in text
Birth registration Register a birth '...complete a Birth registration...'
General complaint General complaint - Consumer Affairs Victoria '...make a General complaint...'
(In a portal) Change your details (In a portal) Details change '...change your details within 21 days...'

 

Contact information

Form-fillers should have access to telephone support during appropriate hours. Telephone support enables form-fillers to move past blocks — such as being unsure how to answer a question — in the most frictionless way (that is, while still on the relevant screen of the form).

In turn, for the business unit, this improves data quality and reduces costs. Data quality is improved because on required questions, form-fillers can give accurate answers (rather than guessing or providing nonsense answers, just to get past validation).

The Working With Children Check Unit experienced inserting of nonsense answers first hand. When a field was required but some form-fillers legitimately didn't have any answer for it, the Unit started receiving submissions with spaces, dashes, full stops or other single characters entered.

Costs are reduced because:

  • it's easier and more efficient to help a form-filler at the point where they incur the issue, rather than later
  • improved data quality means less staff time spent addressing data issues after submission
  • always-visible contact information provides psychological reassurance to form-fillers, and helps build trust. It says: 'if you need help you'll be able to get it easily'. This makes form-fillers more willing to try completing the form online, and increases adoption of this more cost-effective channel
  • Making it easy to contact the owning organisation is one of Stanford University’s 10 guidelines for building site credibility. These guidelines are based on the considerable research done by the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab — three years and 4,500 people — as listed on their website

Moreover, if they need it, form-fillers will find contact information one way or another. Thus, displaying the details on the form will not significantly increase call volumes, yet it will improve form-filler satisfaction.

How to provide contact information

Provide a brief description of the support and its availability (days, hours and time zone), for example:

Form design: How to provide contact information

Make this information always visible no matter what step of the form the form-filler is on. Contact information can be set flush right.

Form headings

Form title

As mentioned earlier, every form has at least one heading: the form title. The form title is the largest font in the form.

Step headings

Single-step forms don't need a step heading; the form title suffices. Multi-step forms should have a heading for each step. This heading should be set flush left, in a font that is smaller than the form title but larger than message headings. Programmatically, use the h2 element for step headings.

Step headings should be brief (that is, 1–5 words). Avoid the use of redundant terms like 'details' and 'information'.

Summary message headings

Boxes showing summaries of errors, warnings or feedback should include a heading, as follows:

Message type Heading
Errors To continue, please...
Warnings Note
Reinforcement Success! (or equivalent)
Information Important

 

The font for message headings should be smaller than step headings but larger than section headings.

Section headings

Avoid section headings (but not necessarily sections themselves). Research shows form-fillers often use section headings to decide whether they need to complete the section, so section headings increase the chance of errors.

Where used, section headings should describe what the section is about. Never use a section heading to ask a question.

The font for section headings should be smaller than message headings but larger than that used for field labels and question-level help. Like field labels, section headings should be set flush left:

Form design: Example of section headings that should be set flush left.

Forms design: Example of section headings.

If a form screen is broken into sections, programmatically the fieldset element and legend tag should be used to create and caption the sections for screen readers. To mark up section headings, use the h2 (if the form is single-step) or h3 (if the form is multi-step) element.

Page title

Every screen of the form should have a unique and meaningful page title (that is, the browser tab or window label), marked up using the title element. By default, the page title should be 'Step heading – Form title'. The business unit name can be appended to the page title.

Progress indicator

Display a progress indicator when a form has more than one data-entry step, not counting Eligibility or Review (refer to Layout of forms - key screens). The exception is when the form is being viewed on a mobile/small screen. In this case, the progress indicator should be a simple label indicating which step the user is on, and the total number of steps contained within the form for example 'Step 1 of 5', 'Step 2 of 5', etc.

Because the steps in the form must be completed in a specific, linear sequence, sometimes with dependencies between steps, no parts of the progress indicator should be clickable. If a multi-step form has no dependencies between steps, and steps can be completed in any order, a tabbed form design should be used rather than a progress indicator.

A standard for the design of a tabbed form isn't provided here because at the time of writing, there were no prototypical forms of this type. Moreover, the tabbed form is relatively uncommon on the web, and so international best practices aren't yet established. If you use a tabbed web form in the future, test the design thoroughly with users before going live.

The progress indicator should have one 'node' for each step in the form, including Review but excluding Eligibility (page 101) and Completion (page 106). The label for each node should be exactly the same as its corresponding step heading. don't number steps or use redundant terms like 'step' or 'page'.

Each node can have one of three states:

  • current step
  • step yet to be started
  • completed step

Each state should have a different background colour, with the current step being the most visually prominent. Default colours should be:

Node state Background colour
Current step Brand colour, ideally primary (provided sufficiently different from grey or green)
Step yet to be started Grey (for example #BFBFBF)
Completed step Green (for example #D2FABE)

 

Completed steps should also have a tick icon (for example in colour #327828). Reinforce the sequential nature of the form by linking nodes with a directional arrow. Make sure there's enough space between nodes so that their labels don't come to close to each other. If necessary, wrap labels, but ideally not over more than two lines. Node labels should be set centred, vertically aligned with the middle of the node.

An example of a progress indicator that meets these requirements is shown below. 'Mother' is the current step:

Forms design: Example of a three-step progress indicator.

In the progress indicator, don't include Introduction, Elegibility or Completion. (Refer to Layout of forms - key screens.)

The content of the progress indicator should be conveyed to screen reader users (for example use ALT text for nodes — if nodes programmed using HTML images — or hidden CSS — if nodes are CSS background images).

Numbering

Sub-questions

Don't number sub-questions.

Questions

By default, questions should not be numbered. Number questions if you need to refer to them.

Question numbering should be in numerals (that is, '1, 2, 3…'). If you are numbering questions, your questions will usually be long and thus flush left. In such cases, there should be a hanging indent so the question number stands out from the text. The numbers can be written either with a prefix of 'Q' and without a full stop, or without the 'Q' and with a full stop:

When referring to questions, use 'Q' if this prefix is being used when numbering (as per example above left). Otherwise, write 'question' (as per example above right).

Question numbering continues sequentially across sections and steps. For example, if the last question in a step is Q21, the first question in the next step is Q22.

Sections

Don't number sections.

Steps

By default, step should not be numbered. Numbers make it harder to scan the step names, and over-emphasise that the form has many steps.

Space and dividers

Ensure there's sufficient vertical space between form components. The space between components of the same type (for example between questions) should also be consistent.

Borders and dividers — for example, between questions or sections — are ineffective separators. This is because their lines compete with the borders of text fields and drop downs:

Form design: Example of lines compete with the borders of text fields and drop downs

As such, separating borders and dividers should not be used. Instead, the relationship between elements should be conveyed through the adjustment of space, particularly in the vertical.

Form design: Relationship between elements should be conveyed through the adjustment of space, particularly in the vertica

In the illustration above, the greatest vertical space is between sections (1). there's less vertical space between questions (2) and the least vertical space is between sub-questions (3).

The underlying principle at work here is that humans see objects that are close to each other as related, whereas objects that are far away from each other are seen as not being related. This is the Gestalt Law of Proximity. For more information, visit the Perception and the design of forms — Part 5: Proximity page on the Formulate website.

Use this principle throughout the form, including communicating:

  • which labels go with which fields
  • which tips go with which labels
  • which radio buttons or check boxes form a set of response options
  • which sub-questions make up a question

Zebra striping

When additional separation is needed, zebra striping works well. Zebra striping is the alternate application of a very light grey tint (for example #E6E6E6):

Forms design: When additional separation is needed, zebra striping works well.

When field labels are positioned to the left of fields, zebra striping must be used, to help visually connect the labels to the fields.

When using zebra striping:

  • the first application of shading should be to the second question on the form (or step, for multi-step forms)
  • striping should continually alternate by question, regardless of any sectioning
  • whenever the first question in a section has striping, if there’s a section heading, the striping should include the heading too. This is so that the section heading doesn’t get visually separated from the first question in the section
  • don't be concerned if the showing of conditional fields leads to two striped or two non-striped questions being displayed next to each other

For more information on zebra striping, visit:

Case

All text should be in sentence case. This means capitalising the first letter of the first word (of the title, label, tip etc) but not capitalising any other letters:

Form design: Capitalise the first letter of the first wordForm design: Example of text using sentence case.

Don't use title case, which is where the first letter of every word is capitalised:

Form design: Don't use title case.

For emphasis within a piece of text, use bold:

Form design: Using bold to emphasise some text.

don't use upper case for emphasis; because we encounter them infrequently, upper case words are more difficult to read than lower case words.

Form design: Example of bold text overused.

For more information, visit The Science of Word Recognition page on the Microsoft website.

Fields - overview

Overall structure

The overall structure of the form body should be as follows:

Forms design: Overall structure of the form body.

The column for section headings (dark grey) field labels (green) should be anchored to the left edge of the form body and run across to the form spine. The column for the fields (purple) and navigation (blue) runs from the form spine to the right edge of the form body.

Don't centre the spine in the form body. Instead, locate the spine to the left to suit the length of the majority of questions — so the labels and fields aren’t left floating in a sea of whitespace — while also ensuring there isn’t too much text wrapping.

Do this:

Form design: where to place the spine.

Don’t do this (spine too far to the right):

Forms design: Spine to far to the right.

Tab order

While the field labels are aligned in a column, with the fields themselves aligned in another column, the tab order should be set for logical form-filling flow:

Form design: Example of the tab order set for logical form-filling flow.

Alignment of field labels and question-level help

Within the left-hand column for field labels and question-level help (the green box in overall structure above), text should be set flush left:

Form design: Example of text set flush left.

On a mobile/small screen:

Text that is set flush left is the easiest to read, while zebra striping helps guide the eye to the field, when the label is to the left of, rather than above, the field. Zebra striping may also help associate visually the label and help text with the field on mobile/small screens.

If more than 75% of the form’s fields have labels that are brief stubs (see Q&A in forms, and the section on full sentence question vs. brief stubs), and move the form spine further to the left and reduce the width of the field label column. This is illustrated by this example.

Do this:

Form design: Move the form spine further to the left and reduce the width of the field label column

Don’t do this:

Form design: Example of text set too far to the right.

Alignment of radio buttons and check boxes

Within the right-hand column for fields (the purple box in the illustration of overall structure), this is how radio buttons and check boxes should be laid out:

Form design: Example of how radio buttons and check boxes should be laid out:

This approach follows the established convention for the web, and allows all radio buttons and check boxes to be vertically aligned, for fast completion.

Zebra striping

Any zebra striping should go to the edge of the form body (the grey box in the illustration of overall structure). In other words, zebra striping extends beyond the edge of field labels and fields:

Form design: Zebra striping extend beyond the text.

Remember that when labels are to the left of fields, zebra striping must be used. Zebra striping is optional in all other cases. The one exception is a log in form, where the username and password need to be visually grouped, so no zebra striping should be applied.

Mobile/small screens

On mobile/small screens, the same structure applies, except field labels and question-level help should be positioned above fields, rather than to their left.

Form field widths

Don't make all text and drop down fields the same width. The width of the field is a visual cue to the form-filler, helping them know what kind of information is needed.

However, to maximise aesthetics and simplicity, variety in field widths should be kept to a minimum. Aim for no more than four different widths within one form, for example:

Width

Suits

Smallest Small numbers (for example or or two digits)
Small Postcode, abbreviated Australian states
Large Suburb or town, phone number, country, sex, occupation, ABN
Largest Street, name, email address, relationship status, indigenous status

 

By default, drop down fields should be formatted to one of these widths, rather than having the width of the largest entry.

Labels

Programmatically, every field must have a label and the field and label must be associated using the for attribute. Don’t visually hide labels unless the surrounding context makes them unnecessary.

Labels must be in close proximity — vertically or horizontally — to their associated fields.

Keystrokes

When focus is on a form field, of any type, all keystrokes should act on that field. In particular, backspace and enter should act on the field only (if at all) rather than triggering the 'back' function in the browser or submitting the form.

Closed question field types

If you want to provide the form-filler with a set of options to choose from, this is a 'closed' question. Closed question response options can be presented in a number of ways, but the most common are:

  • radio buttons
  • check boxes (also known as tick boxes)
  • drop downs (also known as selects)

The alternative to a closed question is an 'open' question, where the user can provide any answer they like, into a text field (also known as an input field).

Three or fewer options: radio buttons and check boxes

When there are three or fewer options, use radio buttons or check boxes. This saves the form-filler a click (to go into the drop down), and allows them to see all the options that are available, at a glance.

If the form-filler can choose only one option, use radio buttons, else use check boxes.

Radio buttons and check boxes should be implemented such that the label for each option can be used to make a selection, not just the circle or square that is the actual radio button or check box.

Radio buttons and check boxes should always be positioned vertically:

Form design: Radio buttons and check boxes should always be positioned vertically

Never horizontally:

Form design: Don't set radio buttons horizontally.

Form design: Don't set radio buttons horizontally.

The one exception is the ease of use rating question asked after the form has been submitted. For more information, see Form feedback. Programmatically, each set of radio buttons or check boxes should be grouped within a fieldset. The fieldset should be titled using the legend tag.

Four or more options: drop downs and checkboxes

For four or more options where the form-filler can choose only one option, use a drop down, else use checkboxes.

Drop downs should be implemented so that the keyboard can be used to jump to the first matching option, where one or more characters — anywhere in the option — are being matched.

Large lists

If the form-filler has to choose between a large number of options — for example 20 or more — look to see if the question can be broken up or changed in some way.

Text fields

Except for dates, there should only ever be one text field per label. This means numbers like ABN or credit card are to be collected via a single text field, rather than multiple text fields (one for each 'chunk').

Do this:

Don't do this:

Taking this approach eliminates the problems associated with using a field for each chunk, namely:

  • if you tab automatically between chunks, this will be unexpected behaviour for some users, and lead to errors
  • if you don’t tab automatically between chunks, this will be unexpected behaviour for some users, and lead to errors.

For more information on auto-tabbing, visit Why we care more about effectiveness than efficiency or satisfaction - GDS user research blog.

Dates are an exception because they are actually three fields combined into one: day, month and year:

Multi-line text fields (for example, comment boxes)

Research shows that form-fillers take the size of a text box as an indication of how much information is expected. As such, if an answer of more than one line is typical and allowed, the text field should be multiple lines high:

Prefixes and suffixes

Prefixes and suffixes can be used to minimise data entry and cue of the kind of information that is needed:

The prefix or suffix can appear outside or inside the text field, but should not be editable:

Note that for the purposes of vertical alignment, a prefix should be considered the start of the field.

Placeholder text

Don't use placeholder text inside fields (text or drop downs).

Required fields

Across all online forms, the majority of questions should be mandatory (or 'required'). This will often be the case at a form level too. If, at a form level, the majority of questions are optional, it may mean you are collecting too much unnecessary information. Look at whether questions can be cut from the form.

As the majority of questions are mandatory, the screen will be kept free of clutter — while still providing a highly usable and accessible experience — if you mark just those questions that are optional.

Indicate optional questions by adding the grey text '(optional)' to the end of the field label:

The grey used for the '(optional)' text should be the same as the grey used for question-level help.

On every form screen, underneath the form title — or step heading, for multi-step forms — there should be an explanation of this approach:

This explanation should also be included in the introduction for the form.

If completion rates for an optional field are too low, consider explaining to the form-filler how providing the information will help:

Form design: Consider explaining to the form-filler how providing the information will help

Note that a question is only required if it must be answered by all form-fillers, in all cases. For example, for WWCCU forms, if a person has only one name, it goes in the family name field. Thus, given name is not a required field for all form-fillers, in all cases, and should not be marked as required.

All required questions should be indicated as such programmatically.

Finally, if a question has multiple sub-questions, and the requirement is that at least one sub-question is answered, then do this:

In this approach:

  • the help text 'At least one must be provided' is added immediately after the field label
  • visually, sub-questions are not marked as '(optional)'

Related fields

Fields that are related to each other – such as the parts of an address – should be in close vertical proximity:

Forms design: Parts of an address should be in close vertical proximity.

Conditional fields

A 'conditional field' is one that is applicable in only a subset of cases. An example is postal address, which only needs to be collected if it's different from the already-collected residential address. The term 'conditional' refers to the fact that the need to ask the question is conditional upon the answer(s) to earlier questions.

Conditional fields should be hidden (both visually and programmatically, using the aria-hidden attribute) until they are confirmed as applicable, as illustrated in the following sequence.

Screen upon loading:

Screen after address has been entered by form-filler:

Screen after form-filler answers 'No' to postal address question:

Form design: Screen after form filler answers 'no'.

The showing of conditional fields can be triggered by an on-input event handler, but never by on-focus.

Graceful degradation

there's no need to provide a non-JavaScript version of the form to account for conditional fields, sometimes referred to as 'graceful degradation' — provided the:

  • conditional fields always appear below the triggering field
  • screen does not reload to show the conditional fields
  • screen remains anchored on either the triggering field or the first conditional component shown
  • JavaScript follows specification

Trigger question changes

The trigger question is the field that determines whether or not a conditional field is shown. In the example above the trigger question is 'Is your postal address the same as your residential address?'

If a form-filler goes back and changes their answer to a trigger question so that the conditional field(s) are no longer shown, then any data that had been entered into those conditional fields should be deleted.

Repeated fields

Forms will sometimes have sets of fields that can be repeated one or more times (up to some very high limit). For example:

  • someone who works with children may do so at one or multiple organisations
  • a mother can have any number of previous children
  • there may be multiple related parties to a complaint

It makes sense — for form-fillers and government — to use the same set of fields for each instance. However, it can be tricky to do this in a usable way, so carefully follow this procedure when setting out the interface:

Form design: Example using the same fields for each instance.

Note:

  • there's only ever one 'add another' button, and this button always appears underneath the last set of repeated fields
  • whenever there's only one instance of a repeated fields set, there should be no 'remove' button against the heading for that set (so that only the radio buttons control whether this instance is shown)
  • for repeated fields, zebra striping should be applied at a set- rather than question-level

To illustrate, here is how the screen will look when the form-filler has entered the details of one organisation and just used the 'Add another organisation' button, intending to enter the details of a second organisation.

First principles of interaction design underpin this design. Moreover, the approach has been used successfully in two complex web form designs for Coles, and successfully tested with a total of 29 research participants from a cross-section of the general public.

This procedure has been recommended because:

  • it's consistent with the presentation and behaviour of other fields in the form
  • it allows the user to add and remove sets of repeated fields in any order
  • it's highly scalable, to any number of repeated field sets

When there must be at least one instance

The above procedure is for cases where it's okay to have no instances of the repeated field(s).

If there must be at least one instance of the set of repeated fields, the procedure is the same, except:

  • the 'ask if any' question is not shown
  • the button to removed the first instance is not provided
  • the second to nth instances are labelled 'other' for example 'Second other organisation'

This adjusted procedure is illustrated by the next diagram.

Display notes for repeated fields

Regardless of whether or not there must be one instance of the repeating field:

  • the repeating instances of the field(s) are conditional fields, and so should be hidden by default
  • the 'add another' button is spaced vertically away from the repeating set of fields, to convey its relationship to the form as a whole, rather than the set

Procedure for when there must be at least one instance:

Forms design: Procedure for when there must be at least one instance

Limit on the number of sets

If there must be a limit on the number of sets, make sure this limit is high enough so that the vast majority of form-fillers (for example 95%) won’t ever reach the limit.

When the form-filler has added the maximum number of sets, replace the 'add another' button with a message indicating this limit and what to do if there's a genuine need for more sets than allowed:

Form design: Message indicating limit reached and what to do if there's a genuine need for more sets than allowed

Buttons and navigation

Navigation

'Navigation' refers to the way form-fillers move between steps or screens. The recommended approach is, in this order:

  • a 'primary' navigation button, for moving forward
  • a 'secondary' navigation button, for moving backward
  • a link, for cancelling out of the form

As shown in structure of the screen, these navigation elements should appear underneath the form body. Have the left edge of the primary button in vertical alignment with the left edge of fields:

Form design: Example left edge of the primary button in vertical alignment with the left edge of fields

These three components should be:

  • spaced evenly (that is, same space between 'Next' and 'Back' as between 'Back' and 'Cancel')
  • far enough apart so that they are clearly three separate elements
  • close enough together to form a 'set' of functions

The primary navigation button should have:

  • a label of 'Next', in bold
  • a colour that is highly prominent and ideally the primary brand colour (unless that colour is a red)

The secondary navigation button should have:

  • a label of 'Back', not in bold
  • grey colour

The 'Cancel' link be:

  • labelled 'Cancel'
  • blue-coloured, underlined text, with no background colour, by default
  • styled consistently with other links in the form and on the site

All of the above recommendations about navigation buttons and links draw on research findings about the most effective order, styling and presentation for such form components. For more information, visit Buttons on forms and surveys: a look at some research 2012 - Slideshare website. The table below shows the action that should occur when each of the navigation elements is used:

Element

Action

'Next' button Load the next step in the process, anchored at the top of the screen
'Back' button (Ideally, the browser’s back button should trigger the same action as the form’s back button) Load the previous step in the process, anchored at the top of the screen.
'Cancel' link Trigger a modal dialog with two buttons: one button returns the form-filler, at the same scroll position as when 'Cancel' link was used; one button closes the window the form is in and discards the session from the server.

 

An example of a cancel dialog:

Form design: Example of a Cancel dialog.

Tab order

After the last field on the form, the tab order should be:

  • primary navigation button
  • secondary navigation button
  • cancel link

Submit and start buttons

The last button on the form — the one to 'submit' the form for processing — should, at a minimum, have the styling of the primary navigation button. The same applies to the button that triggers the first screen of data entry: the 'start' button. Ideally, though, the start and submit buttons will be made even more prominent than any other button in the form, by doing one or more of the follow.

Label in upper case:

Form design: Button label in upper case.

Button size increased:

Form design: Lower case, larger button size.

Button styling more prominent:

Form design: Button styling more prominent.

Combination of upper case, larger button size and more prominent button styling:

Form design: Combination of upper case, larger button size and more prominent button styling:

Avoid 'submit' as the label for the submit button. Instead, the label should describe whatever action the form-filler will be taking when the button is used. This will usually be the same as or similar to the form title.

The start button should be labelled 'Start now'.

Button styling

Buttons can be styled to match the style of the corresponding website provided the aforementioned criteria are met and buttons look clickable. Ways to achieve this include having a drop shadow, rounded corners, gradient or border, no matter how slight or subtle.

Button labels should be set centred on the button. When the label is especially short, make the button larger than the label, to provide sufficient target area.

Do this:

Don’t do this:

When the mouse cursor or keyboard focus is on a button, the pointer should change to a hand and the colour of the button should change colour (for example to a lighter or darker tint).

Button tips

As shown in all the above illustrations, navigation buttons should have a tip underneath them, styled as per question-level help except that the text is centred. On all but the start and submit buttons, this tip should say 'To: step heading'.

On the start button, the tip should say: 'Using our secure service', to reassure form-fillers that it's safe to enter personal data. This assumes that all forms use https for an encrypted transmission of data.

On the submit button, the tip should either:

  • say 'To: Confirmation' or
  • give an indication of what will happen after the form is submitted (if submission is not the end of the process).

All button tips can wrap to accommodate longer labels, but over no more than three lines. Tertiary buttons don't need button tips, nor do 'Edit' buttons at Review (both have very descriptive labels).

Disabling and hiding buttons

By default, buttons should never be disabled or hidden. A disabled button tells the form-filler the button can’t be used, but it doesn’t tell them why it can’t be used. This potentially leaves the form-filler stuck and unable to continue. A form-filler has no way of knowing that a hidden button will appear, potentially leading to significant confusion.

Conversely, if all buttons are enabled at all times, and a button is used before pre-requisite actions have been done, this can be explained via Messages.

Attachments

Where attachments can or must be uploaded with the form, follow this structure:

  • 'Attachments' heading
  • clear description of what should or must be attached
  • bullet points on acceptable file types and sizes
  • files (as they are attached)
  • button to select file.

For example:

Forms design: Example of what attachments have been added, and what's acceptable.

The button to select a file should bring up the operating system’s file explorer tool. The screen should stay anchored to the Attachments section throughout the attachment process.

Messages in forms

At a form- or step-level, 'messages' includes:

  • text about required fields, that is, 'All questions must be answered unless marked '(Optional)'.
  • step-level help
  • general information
  • summaries of
    • validation failures (that is, errors)
    • warnings
    • positive feedback (that is, reinforcements).

At a question-level, 'messages' refers to individual errors, warnings and reinforcements.

By default, and aside from any headings, all messages should be presented in the same font size, weight and colour as questions.

All messages should be written in plain English, with a polite, non-accusatory, tone. For errors, the focus should be on what must be done in order to progress, not what was done 'wrong'.

Except for warning messages about cancelling or timing out of a form, all messages should be within the form screen, not in a modal window.

Errors, warnings, information, and reinforcements

Errors, warnings, information, and reinforcements should be colour-coded and marked with an icon:

Message type

Icon description

Icon example

Heading text colour

Background colour

Errors Exclamation mark on a circle or octagon
 
Form design Red icon, exclamation mark Red (for example #D302020) Pink (for example #FFE6E6)
Warnings Exclamation mark on a pyramid Form design: Orange triangular icon, exclamation mark. Dark orange/mid brown (for example #AA551E) Light yellow/Light orange (for example #FAF0D7)
 
Information Letter 'i' on a circle or octagon Form design Blue icon, information Dark blue (for example #)
 
Light blue (for example #)
Reinforcements Tick on a circle or octagon Form design Green tick, reinforcement Green (for example #327828) Light green (for example #D2FABE)

 

The use of an icon is important for accessibility (for example so information isn’t being communicated only through colour) and cognition.

So that they can be clearly associated with their meaning, the above colours should be relatively unique, that is, not the same as key branding colours. The colours should also not be used elsewhere in the form for any purpose other than indicating errors, warnings or reinforcements.

Summaries of errors, warnings and reinforcements should comprise:

  • icon (hanging out the left hand side, to catch the eye)
  • heading (see Headings for text to be used in message headings)
  • content of message

All server-based errors, warnings and reinforcements should be presented at once, rather than sequentially. For errors, the content of the message should be split into two sections:

  • 'Answer these questions': Required question or sub-question that was not answered
  • 'Provide a valid answer to these questions': Required question where the answer is not in the right format

The bullet point for each part uses the exact field label and is an anchor link to that question in the form. When the error field is a sub-question, present the question and the sub-question as the anchor link.

Use bullets and the wording above even if there's only one bullet point for a given part. don't show parts that have no bullet points.

Example of an error message summary:

Form design: Example of an error message summary

Example of a warning message summary:

Form design: Example of a warning message summary.

Example of a reinforcement message summary:

If the page has to reload to show a message summary, add 'Error(s) in form –', 'Warning –' or 'Success –' to the start of the Page title. Otherwise, move focus to the icon in the summary message.

The icon, background shading and text colour (used here for the error messages) should be repeated at the question-level, as per the following example:

Form design: Icon, background shading and text colour (used here for the error messages) should be repeated at the question-level.

Note how:

  • the icon is again hanging out to the left hand side, to facilitate scanning
  • background shading overrides any zebra striping
  • the wording of the text for the question-level error message (for example, 'Please answer this question') matches the text in the summary (for example, 'Answer these questions:')
  • the question-level error message is located before, but in close vertical proximity to, the field label
  • the message for formatting errors doesn't specify the invalid character. This is because on fields where the acceptable character set does not meet form-filler expectations — for example, apostrophes not being allowed in text fields — the field will have always-visible help text advising which characters cannot be used

For accessibility, the question-level error message should be part of the label element for the question itself.

Inline validation

Inline validation is where the validity of the field is checked — and errors reported on — as soon as the form-filler moves to the next field.

Unless the entire form can be validated inline — that is, the form is very brief and simple — this technique shouldn't be used. This is because on complex forms:

  • significant server-side validation will be needed in addition to inline validation, creating inconsistency and user confusion (a field that doesn’t trigger an inline validation message is not necessarily correct)
  • research shows form-fillers don’t correct errors as well if inline validation is used 
  • research also shows form-fillers find inline validation makes for a subjectively worse user experience (presumably because it interrupts flow)

If the form is very brief and simple, and inline validation can be used on the entire form, inline validation messages should use the same wording, colouring and iconography as server-side messages (see above).

General information

By default, general information will be presented as normal text. However, if it's important to call out a piece of general information, you can use an approach equivalent to that for errors, warnings and reinforcements, with an 'i' icon and blue as the base colour (for example #0F3769 for heading text and #D2DCE6 for background):

Form design: General information presented as normal text.

System processing

When the system is processing a form-filler’s request — for example, loading the next step of the form — a processing animation and text should play over the relevant form component:

Form design: Symbol showing loading the next step of the form.

It’s important to include the text 'Loading…' as not all users will understand what the animation means. The movement in the animation, reassures the request was received and is being processed.

If the system is loading the next step or screen of the form, the whole screen should have a grey overlay, to convey the current step or screen should not be used. The loading animation should be presented on top of this overlay. All buttons on the screen should also be disabled.

 

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