InfoCommons #2 – Usability and Online Forms

My second InfoCommons column was published this February in the AIRS Newsletter.

Forms are ubiquitous in the world of information and referral.  Many of us use online intake forms embedded in software to record calls; we use online search forms in resource databases, and we provide forms for users and agencies to contact us. Poorly designed forms can cause confusion for users and result in bad information being entered.   If users don’t understand why they’re being asked for certain information, they may simply refuse to provide the information.  In their book Forms That Work, Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney propose that forms involve three layers:

  • The relationship of a form is the relationship between the organization that is asking the questions and the person that is answering.
  • The conversation of a form comes from the questions that it asks, any other instructions, and the way the form is arranged into topics.
  • The appearance of a form is the way it looks: the arrangement of text, input areas such as fields and graphics, and the use of color. (Jarrett & Gaffney, 2009)

The user experience involved in each of these three layers has implications for the success of a form.

Relationship and Conversation

It can be challenging to organize the flow of an intake form to promote accurate collection of information while facilitating natural dialogue between an I&R Specialist and a caller.  One common problem with online forms is that questions may seem random if each new piece of information doesn’t relate to what’s previously been requested. When an I&R Specialist is acting as an intermediary between a caller and an intake form, it’s easy to explain why certain information is being requested – there’s a more personal relationship and conversation happening. In a purely web-based setting, it becomes crucial to gain users’ trust by clearly indicating who we are, why we’re requesting certain information, and how that information relates to what the user has already entered.  Jarrett and Gaffney provide this advice: “It’s usually best to ask anticipated questions before you move into something unexpected or unusual. Ease into questions that may intrude on the user’s privacy by dealing with neutral topics first.”

Example form field with explanation for why information is being requested.

The relationship between your organization and the users of your online forms may be relatively clear, but it always helps to make sure that your public online forms are clearly labeled with your logo, and provide reassurance to the user about how their information will be used and where it will be sent.


The appearance of forms is often the area over which we have the least control when using software, content management systems, or online services like Google Forms or Formstack.  Many form-creation services don’t allow customization of field label displays, dimensions of input boxes, typography, or grouping and placement of fields. However, if you have control over the appearance of your online forms, I encourage you to consider how you can manipulate these elements to promote usability:

  • Results from user testing of forms, including eye-tracking studies, indicate that users see labels above and to the left of fields. Putting labels above fields reduces the eye movement required to scan the labels and fields, but can result in the form appearing longer.
  • Reading right-aligned text is harder than reading left-aligned text, especially if your question runs over more than one line. For simple, often requested data, right-aligned field labels will enable users to move swiftly through a group of fields. However, if you form asks unfamiliar questions that requires people to scan labels to learn what’s required, left-aligned labels work best.
  • Make your forms more organized by grouping related fields together.  You can do this using placement, spacing, alignment, and background color.

Users with different experience levels and motivations will interact with web forms differently. By providing well-organized and easy-to-use forms for the public and for I&R Specialists, we’ll be more likely to succeed in collecting the information we need.

Further reading:

Friedman, V. (2008, July 4). Smashing Magazine. “Web Form Design Patterns: Sign-Up Forms.”

Jarrett, C. & Gaffney, G. (2009). Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability. Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.

Penzo, M.  (2006, January 23)  UXMatters.  “Evaluating the Usability of Search Forms Using Eyetracking: A Practical Approach.”


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