Review: Forms that Work – Designing Web Forms for Usability

My first thought on seeing that there was a whole book on web form usability was – “How could anyone write a whole 200 pages just about how to design forms?”  My scepticism wasn’t entirely dispelled by Steve Krug’s introduction, where he describes one of the authors as “someone who can talk for an hour about whether to use colons at the end of labels and make it interesting”.  I really found this quite difficult to believe.

Thankfully, there’s only one page in Forms that Work about whether to use colons at the end of labels. However, there’s actually an awful lot else that you can explore about form design which is potentially useful and this book certainly covers most of the areas I can think of.

The first couple of  chapters look at persuading people to answer forms and how to ask for the right information. There’s a focus on understanding who is going to answer your form and on ensuring that you’re trying to get information which is really needed. The advice about asking the specific people who are going to work with the information what they need and checking if the organisation already holds the information you’re asking for are things that seem obvious, but which often seem to be overlooked in practice.

The following sections cover how to make questions easy to answer and how to write useful instructions. This includes guidance on using plain language and avoiding negative questions. Chapters follow on choosing form controls and making the form flow easily, with common-sense advice on meeting users’ expectations about how controls work, breaking up long forms by topic and avoiding surprising users with sudden changes.

The visual design of forms is discussed next. The authors advise not to stress too much over minute details. The principal guidance here is to put labels where users will see them, indicate required fields and choose legible text. To make a form look easy, there is advice on applying logos and branding to forms and on making forms look tidy and organised with grids and grouping.  Finally there’s a concluding chapter on usability testing which the authors are very keen on. I found the most interesting advice here to be that the authors find testing forms with more than five users usually leads to diminishing returns.

Overall, it’s a nicely designed book which also includes cartoons, case studies and a useful list of further reading with helpful comments.

“Forms that Work” is about usability rather than coding, so there’s nothing here about how to achieve some of the recommendations with CSS.  If you’re interested in this, then there’s a good free collection of links you could usefully explore in the Smashing Magazine article: CSS-Based Forms: Modern Solutions.

Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability is by Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney. It’s published by Morgan Kaufmann.

Oh, and apparently it doesn’t matter much either way if you use colons at the end of labels (p.132), but if you want a rule to follow, then use them (p. 140).

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See also my review of Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works. This is from the same publisher, shares the same overall book design and covers web writing apart from forms – making it a nice companion volume to “Forms that Work”.

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