What makes a good form?

4 Cs of a good form

Forms make most people cringe. Why? Because forms are generally boring and painful. Do they have to be this way? Yes and no.

Forms are a bit like going to the dentist: both are necessary evils, and neither is likely to be particularly fun. But a good dentist, like a good form, shouldn’t cause you any pain.

So what is it that makes a form painful? Take a moment to reflect on what you don’t like about, say, doing your tax return.

Tax forms are often a great illustration of what aspects of a form’s design makes it painful. They:

  • are confusing
  • are long
  • are burdensome and put a lot of responsibility on the form-filer
  • rarely 'just work'

Therefore, if a form’s characteristics are the opposite of these, it should be painless. This gives us the Formulate Information Design '4 Cs of a good form':

  • clear
  • concise
  • clever
  • cooperative

Every part of this standard delivers at least one of these characteristics. The 4 Cs should also be your guide for the parts of a form’s design that aren’t dealt with here.

For more information on the 4 Cs, including examples, visit the What makes a good form page - Formulate website.

Step into the form-filler's shoes

To apply the 4 Cs, you need to know what would be 'clear', 'concise', 'clever' and 'cooperative' for the form-filler. This means you need to put yourself into their shoes.

You will do this best if you work from a base of quality data rather than anecdote, so conduct as much careful research with the target audience as you can. You will find that form-fillers are always a diverse group, in terms of:

  • background
  • language skills
  • computer literacy
  • physical ability
  • familiarity with the subject matter
  • availability
  • priorities
  • preferences

For instance, 18% of Victorian adults have some kind of disability, with approximately 88,000 Victorians having a disability that profoundly or severely impacts on their life. For more information, visit the Disability, Australia report on the Australian Bureau of Statistics website.

Taking another perspective, almost 112,000 Victorians were born in India, and another 94,000 were born in China. In fact, almost 1.2 million Victorians were born outside Australia. For more information, visit the 2011 Census report on the Australian Bureau of Statistics website.

Given this diversity, your motto should always be 'I am not the form-filler'.

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