This guide explains how to structure online forms.
Design your forms for the format they’ll appear in
Paper forms and digital forms have different strengths and weaknesses. Design for both formats with the same amount of care and attention.
The movement from paper to digital is an opportunity to transform how your service is delivered - don’t just put your paper forms online.
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.
Once you’ve worked out what you need to ask, you can start thinking about how to ask the questions.
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
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. For example, if you’re designing an internal service for government users who need to repeat and switch between tasks quickly.
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.
Read blog posts about:
- how the ‘Register to vote’ service used forms
- how the US healthcare service ordered complex eligibility questions
You can use the Check a service is suitable design pattern to ask users questions to help them work out if they can or should use your service.
You may also find these guides useful: