Build a Better Online Form

The following post is also published at the blog of Department of Better Technology.

Filling out a form is hardly a pleasant experience, but a clear and simple form can go a long way in easing the pain. Everyone wins: respondents complete it without any issues, and you, in turn, avoid chasing down missing data from incomplete forms. You get exactly the information you need.

We’ve helped our customers improve their forms in Screendoor, and we’re ready to share what we’ve learned. Inspired by the “teardowns” on User Onboarding, we plan to regularly suggest improvements to government forms we find online.

We recently updated our Knowledge Base with tips on building better forms. These pointers aren’t specific to Screendoor, so you can apply them with whatever tool you’re using to create your form.

How better to practice putting these tips to work than with an existing form? Let’s take a look at an application for a job with the City of Chicago and see whether there are a few elements we can improve:

Superfluous help text

resume upload - before

With fewer words and a simpler layout, we can convey and ask for the same amount of information:

  • Let’s make “Resume Upload” an optional field, which obviates the need for the radio buttons.
  • The “Choose File” button is self-explanatory, so we can change the label from “Resume Upload” to “Resume.”
  • And why don’t we cut the help text down to one line?
resume upload - after

Confusing inputs


This yes–no question is mandatory, but why, then, is “Not specified” an option? Let’s remove it and change the dropdown menu to radio buttons.

A good rule of thumb: if you have fewer than five options, opt for radio buttons. Users can scan their choices and click only once to select their answer.

radio buttons

Too much emphasis

emphasis - before

Bold, italicized, and underlined—with a capitalized word for good measure! With such emphasis, it’s likely that an applicant will gloss over the sentence rather than read it carefully. When you use fewer words, you don’t need to emphasize them as frequently. Each sentence demands attention.

emphasis - after

Until the next form

It takes time to sort out what you should keep in your form and what you should cut, but the extra effort will pay off. A clear and simple form results in fewer questions, fewer errors, and greater number of correct responses. It lets you focus on the substance of the data you collect, not the way you collect it.

This has been the first installment of what will be a regular series. In each post, we’ll focus on one form and point out specific ways to improve it.

If you come across a confusing form, take a screenshot and share it with us in a comment below or via Twitter or email!

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