10 Rules For Efficient Form Design

Forms is the one of the most important type of interaction for users on the web and in the apps. They are used everywhere — for registration, subscription services, customer feedback, checkout, to initiate transactions between users and companies, or as data input to search or share information. Developers should pay special attention to improving their forms and making them as usable as possible, because careful form design has a huge impact on the speed with which users can accurately complete a form. 

In this article, you’ll see practical recommendations that have been crafted from usability testing, field testing, eye tracking and actual complaints made by disgruntled users. Use these recommendations as a starting point for your form design.

1. Order the Form Logically and Only Ask What’s Required

A form is a conversation. And like any conversation, it should be represented by a logical communication between two parties — user and your app. You should:

  • Keep questions in an intuitive sequence — they should be asked logically from a user’s perspective, not the application or database logic — this makes the flow from one set of questions to the next better resemble a conversation.
  • Order options in an intuitive sequence (e.g., days of the week in the sequence Monday, Tuesday, etc.). If no meaningful sequence is possible, you should order them alphabetically.
  • Always question why and how the information you request from your users is being used. Keep in mind that eliminating unnecessary questions reduces user effort and increased completion rates.

2. Present Fields in a Single Column Layout

One of the problems with form fields in multiple columns is that your users are likely to interpret the fields inconsistently. If a form has horizontally adjacent fields, the user must scan in Z patterns, slowing the speed of comprehension and muddying the clear path to completion. But if a form is in a single column, the path to completion is a straight line down the page. Thus, don’t separate a form into more than one column and only ask one question per row.

Left: One (of many) way to interpret how the form fields relate when fields are arranged in a two column layout. Right: Straight line down the page.

3. Minimize the Number of Input Fields and User Typing Effort

Minimizing the number of input fields makes your form less loaded, especially when you request a lot of information from your users.

Keep the form as short and simple as possible. Image credit: lukew

But minimizing the number of input fields isn’t enough — you should also pay attention on user effort for data input. Typing has high interaction cost; it is error prone and time consuming even with a full keyboard (and even more so on a touch screen). Try to minimize typing and prevent users from making errors — use checkboxes, radio buttons or drop-down menus to restrict the number of options and for entries that can easily be mistyped.

4. Match Fields to the Size of the Input

Baymard institute usability study found that if a field is too long or too short, users start to wonder if they correctly understood the label. This was especially true for fields with uncommon data or a technical label like CVV (card verification code).

Skype’s name, credit card number and card verification code fields are too long

To achieve good usability you should adjust the width of the field so it’s just long enough to contain all the characters of the input (users should be able to see their full entry) but not any longer than that.

5. Place Labels Above the Corresponding Input Felds

How easy is it for users to scan your form? If your form is hard to scan, it takes longer for users to complete it. The way to avoid this is to make your fields quick to scan when users first see them and after they fill them out. Matteo Penzo’s article on label placement implies that forms are scanned faster if the labels are on top of the fields.

Left-aligned labels, right-aligned labels and top labels. Image credits: uxmatters

Top-aligned labels are good if you want users to eye-scan the form as fast as possible (notice: I don’t say ‘complete’ the form, just ‘scan’ it). Another advantage of top-aligned labels — they doesn’t take too much horizontal space (in comparison with left or right-aligned labels) which makes it easier for different sized labels and localized versions to fit within the UI (this is especially good for mobile screens with a limited estate).

6. Use Forgiving Formatting

Some tasks really do require users to type very precise information, but forcing people to provide this information in a specific format can be at odds with good usability principles. If you are asking users to input numerical information (such as phone number) into a form, be flexible, and design screens that can interpret multiple input formats and show that information in a way that is easily scannable (by humans, not machines) in order to prevent mistakes.

People usually write phone numbers in the format “(777) 666–5544” because this format groups digits into smaller chunks that are easier to scan. Image credit: thinkwithgoogle

7. Don’t Use Placeholder Text as Input Field Label

Placeholder text, located inside a form field, usually has a role of an additional hint, description, or example of the information required for a particular field. These hints typically disappear when the user types in the field.
Some designers replace form field labels with in-field placeholder text to reduce clutter on the page, or to shorten the length of the form. While this approach works well for simple forms (e.g. login form which contains two field), it’s a poor replacement for a field label when there is more information required from users. Why this solution is bad for regular forms:

  • Once the user clicks on the text box, the label disappears and thus the user cannot double check that what he/she has written is indeed what was meant to be written.la
  • When users see something written inside a text box, they may assume that it has already been prefilled in and may ignore it.

If you still want to use a placeholder text for your fields — use placeholder text as a floating label. The placeholder text is showing by default, but once an input field is tapped and text is entered the placeholder text fades out and a top aligned label animates in.

Floating label ensures users that they filled out the correct field

8. Distinguish Optional And Required Fields

First, as I said before, try to avoid optional fields in forms. But if you use them, you should at least clearly distinguish which input fields are optional one. Limit the form to only 1 or 2 optional fields, and clearly label them as optional — the convention is to use an ‘optional’ hint, because it’s preferable for long forms.

‘Street Andress Line 2' is an example of properly marked optional field

9. Avoid ‘Reset’ Button

‘Reset’ button is a pure evil. The risk of accidental deletion outweighs the unlikely need to ‘start over’ on a web form. In reality this button almost never helps users, but often hurts them. The web would be a happier place if virtually all Reset buttons were removed.

Image credits: form-ux-tips

10. Provide Highly Visible and Specific Error Messages

In an ideal world, users will fill the form with necessary information and finish their job successfully. In the real world, users often make mistakes. This is where form assistance and validation come into play. One of the 10 Usability Heuristics advises that it’s important to communicate errors to users gracefully, actionably, and clearly. Thus, error handling in your app should have following properties:

  • The right time to inform about the success/failure of provided data is right after the user has submitted the information, because users dislike when they go through the process of filling out a form only to find out at submission, that they’ve made an error.

    Real-time inline validation immediately informs users about the correctness of provided data. Image credits: Google

  • Error messages must be noticeable at a glance —  use color, icons and text to highlight the problem area. Locations near the erroneous input field lead to better performance than error messages at the top and the bottom of the form.

    Facebook uses color, icons and text to highlight the problem area in sign up form

  • If answers are required in a specific format, state this in advance, communicating the imposed rule (format specification) without an additional example.

    Image credit: Material Design

  • After an error occurred, never clear the already completed fields!

Conclusion

Users can be hesitant to fill out forms, so you should make this process as easy as possible. We need to make the form design our strength rather than weakness. Minor changes — such as group related fields and indicating what information goes in each field — can significantly increase form usability. And improved form leads to faster completion times, fewer form submission trials, and fewer eye movements.

Thank you!