Monday 29th April, 2019

The Formless Form Formula

This post explains some of the dos and don’ts of collecting information from users on the Internet.

Businesses and government organisations often need data from their customers, clients, or constituents. Since the mid-nineteenth century, forms have been the answer: they impose regularity, easing both the mental load of the form-filler and the administrative load of normalising (making sure that everyone’s answers match the same pattern) the returned data. In the nineteenth century, forms were only used for essential government data-collecting: censuses, tax returns and the like. These forms didn’t have to be fun and engaging: they were essential – the government compelled people to complete them.

The Web has lowered the cost of collecting data, and as a result, organisations have started collecting data that, while useful to the organisation, isn’t necessarily that important to the user to provide. Our clients often ask us to create sites that rely on some user input or data collection – in effect, forms. Online forms can be a big stumbling block for users – and without some thought, you can lose them completely.

Digital tools have made capturing and analysing data much easier for the people asking  the questions, but, compared with paper forms, digital forms can be intimidating for users. A paper form won’t reject your input or run out of battery power half way through, forcing you to start from scratch. They allow for nuance, interpretation and discretion – where digital forms are much less forgiving. With all this in mind, it can be tough to get people to complete your form – especially if you’re asking “what’s your favourite breed of cat”, as opposed to a government telling you to complete your tax return. My mum always told me: “If you don’t ask you don’t get”. She forgot to add that sometimes you do ask and you still don’t get. Sometimes, not always, we need to sweeten the deal a bit in order to get what we want. We need to make the form fun and engaging, with an incentive for the user to complete it.

When is a form enough?

Sometimes “just a form” is the right answer. Before you go to town on making your form fun, consider the incentives. When building administration tools of any kind, the user wants to get their data into the system as quickly and cleanly as possible. This isn’t to say that the user experience isn’t important (see the UK’s Digital Service Standard) – simply that adding too much pizzaz might backfire.

The amount of persuasion you need to apply to data gathering is inversely proportional to how much the user is obligated to participate in whatever it is you’re doing – and loosely positively proportional to the complexity of the form. Tax returns? Just give them the form. Survey about crisps? Bring your “A” game. Awareness campaigns and opinion surveys almost always fall into this low-importance/high-persuasion category.

Forms are boring, especially unnecessarily long ones, because people lose interest if you ask them to read too much or ask them too many questions

So follow these guidelines whenever you’re creating a new online form.

Be clear about the data you need and how you want them presented

If you’ve decided that the form does need a little bit of pizazz, it helps at the outset to think about how ultimately you’d like that data to be presented. Understanding what needs to be generated from the data is a vital part of how we approach projects like this. A last-minute request for “all the data as an Excel file” can seriously derail a project if the team building your form were expecting to send you a JSON file. For developers, consider producing some dummy data early in the project to share with your clients. This will really help to quickly identify problems. This process will also help you to be really clear on what you absolutely positively have to ask. You should then make those essential data-points the only ones you collect. This will reduce the length of your form, the development time in producing it and the scale of the commitment you’re expecting from your users. You never know, it may even be enough to allow you to go live with just a boring old form.

Don’t be greedy

A progress bar can help people to feel that they’re not in a never ending process.It can be tempting to take the opportunity to ask everything you may ever need to know from the user. This seems like a more efficient way of going about things, but it’s a false economy. The net result could easily be fewer responses and an audience who are put off responding to your questions in the future. By asking for just what you need, users feel that they’re contributing – rather than surrendering themselves to your marketing machinery.  The BBC’s Loneliness Experiment (carried out in collaboration with Manchester University) was recently criticised for how long the submission process took. This may be unavoidable, but you should seriously consider the risks when deciding what to include.

Don’t be nosy

By resisting the urge to get too nosy, we can also avoid a number of obstacles. The fear of GDPR is palpable in many organisations. In this atmosphere, there is a risk of squashing great campaigns before they get off the ground. But the good news is that GDPR legislates on what organisations can legally do with personally identifiable data. We won’t go into GDPR in detail here, but if you’re not asking for (or otherwise tracking) personally identifiable data, it doesn’t apply at all. You may ask some demographic questions, perhaps in groups or brackets (so offer England, Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland as options rather than a “postcode” field), but don’t ask for name, date of birth, address or telephone number. I can ask you what colour socks you prefer free from legal jeopardy.

What type of online form are you? Take this short quiz to find out!

Incentives don’t have to be cash prizes: asking a couple of quick questions about a person’s knowledge, habits or preferences in exchange for a novel post on their Facebook feed is a really popular way to gather some insight. The value in the exchange for the user is low, but so too is the cost to them, especially if it’s done correctly. These quizzes are usually a couple of yes/no or multiple choice questions with a personalised social network sharing message at the end.  Another simple way to make a form less intimidating is to break it up across multiple pages. This is good practice anyway. The brilliant GOV.UK design guidelines advice on creating forms suggest you start with “one thing per page”.

In doing so, you can break down a set of complex or intimidating questions into simple component parts – each of which have space for plenty of explanatory text, help and guidance.

What counts as an incentive?

Many people specifically try to waste time on the internet, which sets the bar pretty low for what counts as a reward in this context as long as you’re not asking too much of them. Design your process to collect your required data in the service of achieving one of these incentives:

  • Prizes, cash etc.
  • A little bit of self-insight
  • A high score
  • A fun animation
  • Helping a good cause

Depending on your particular use-case, the payoff may be as simple as showing the user how their own answers could be interpreted – or how they compare to other users.

Once you’ve decided what your incentive is, keep hold of it until you’ve got the submission. Submit to your database as soon as you have the data required and only then display your results page (or whatever you’re offering). It’s important that responses and any demographic information are collected before you give the user what they came for and potentially lose them.

You said “formless”!

That was a lie. But you can soften the blow.

Browsers have a fantastic set of tools for capturing all types of data: from plain text, dates, and even colours. It’s worth noting here that these form controls come with some useful additional UI, particularly on mobile (number-only keyboards or native datepickers, to name just two). They are also much more likely to give you clean, comparable data. Imagine never having to find and replace all the “yes”, “Yes”, “YES” and “yes!” answers in your responses. Take a look at MDN’s list of HTML5 input types and consider these alternatives to the default text input.
Here are some specific suggestions to make inputs less intimidating:

  • For multiple choice selection with only a small number of options, use radio buttons
  • Consider range sliders where numbers can be approximate. Dragging a slider around feels less intimidating than making a definite statement. The strongly disagree to strongly agree scale could easily be turned into a range slider.


Forms can be tricky to get right, but giving some thought to exactly what information you need – and how important it is for the user to provide it – can help you to find the best method to obtain the data.  Some points to remember:

  • Be clear about exactly what data you need and why
  • Consider who the data is for and how it needs to be presented
  • Think about how important the form is to the user (e.g. tax returns vs crisp flavours).  Sometimes “just a form” is enough
  • Games and quizzes are fun, but don’t overcomplicate things especially if it’s information that has to be provided
  • Offer an incentive, however minor

Forming an informative form needn’t be a formidable task, and with the right platform, your can formulate a form that can outperform other forms. (Sorry, too much? ????)