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  1. Service manual
  2. Design
  3. Form structure

This guide explains how to structure online forms.

Meeting the Digital Service Standard

To pass point 13 (make the user experience consistent with GOV.UK) in your service assessments, you must use GOV.UK design patterns and guidance.

Read the guide on using, adapting and creating patterns before you start designing or building anything.

Don’t treat online forms like paper forms

Don’t assume you should create a digital version of an existing paper form. Paper forms are a product of a pre-digital era and are subject to different constraints than digital services.

Consider the service as a whole.

Know why you’re asking every question

Before you start, make a list of all the information you need from your users.

Only add a question if you know:

  • that you need the information to deliver the service
  • why you need the information
  • what you’ll do with it
  • which users need to give you the information
  • how you’ll check the information is accurate
  • how to keep the information up to date and secure

This list is called a ‘question protocol’ - it’s different from the form itself because it’s about how you’ll use the answers.

A question protocol forces you (and your organisation) to question why you’re asking users for each item of information. It gives you a way of challenging and pushing back against unnecessary questions if you need to.

Design for the most common scenarios first

Once you have a question protocol, you can start to decide how to order your questions.

Start with questions that will let users know if they’re not eligible for the service, so you don’t waste people’s time.

Use ‘branching’ questions so people only have to answer questions that are relevant to them.

You need to decide which group of users you want to prioritise. Make sure you know the relative size of your different user groups and how your decisions will affect them.

Start with one thing per page

If your service is used infrequently by people without a broad range of digital skills and confidence they may struggle with complicated forms and lack the opportunity to learn how they work.

Start by splitting the form across multiple pages with each page containing just one thing, for example:

  • one piece of information you’re telling a user
  • one decision they have to make
  • one question they have to answer

User research will tell you when you can merge pages together.

Starting with one thing on a page helps people to:

  • understand what you’re asking them to do
  • focus on the specific question and its answer
  • find their way through an unfamiliar process
  • use the service on a mobile device
  • recover easily from form errors

It also helps you to:

  • save a user’s answers automatically as they go
  • capture analytics about each question
  • handle branching questions and loops

Try the Register to vote service on GOV.UK to see an example of this approach.

Structure your form to help users

Asking a question doesn’t necessarily mean you should use one form field. For example, date of birth is best captured with 3 text fields.

For page titles you can use either a question or a statement. For example, ‘What is your date of birth?’ or just ‘Date of birth’.

Use questions or statements consistently to help users get into a rhythm of answering. This lets them focus on the content of the questions rather than their presentation.

Discuss online forms

Discuss how to structure online forms on the design patterns wiki.

Further reading

Learn more about using a question protocol.

Read a GDS blog post about how the ‘Register to vote’ service used forms.

You may also find these guides useful:

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Guidance first published