In this article, we’ll provide practical guidelines that you can easily follow. These guidelines have been crafted from usability testing, field testing, website tracking, eye tracking, Web analytics and actual complaints made to customer support personnel by disgruntled users.
Why Web Form Usability Is Important
The ISO 9241 standard defines website usability as the “effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which specified users achieve specified goals in particular environments.” When using a website, users have a particular goal. If designed well, the website will meet that goal and align it with the goals of the organization behind the website. Standing between the user’s goal and the organization’s goals is very often a form, because, despite the advances in human-computer interaction, forms remain the predominant form of interaction for users on the Web. In fact, forms are often considered to be the last and most important stage of the journey to the completion of goals.
ISO 9241标准中对网站可用性的定义是：特定用户在特定环境下，能够快速、有效且满意地完成特定的目标。用户使用网站都是有目标的。 如果设计得好，网站不但会达到用户的目标，还会将其与自身公司的目标联系起来。介乎用户目标和公司目标之间的往往就是表单
Let’s clarify this last point by discussing the three main uses of forms. As Luke Wroblewski states in his book Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks, every form exists for one of three main reasons: commerce, community or productivity. The following table translates each of these reasons into the user and business objectives that lie behind them:
让我们通过讨论表单的三个主要作用来阐述下最后这一点。就像Luke Wroblewski在他的《web表单设计：点石成金的艺术 》一书中说的一样，每个表单的存在必有如下三个原因之一：商务、社区或效率。下面的表单把这三个原因转化成了其背后的用户目标和公司目标：
Uses of forms, based on Luke Wroblewski’s Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks.
Thus, the relationship between forms and usability have two aspects:
1. Forms can make a website usable or unusable, because they stand in the way of the user achieving their goal;
2. Forms need to be usable in order to help the user achieve that goal.
This post will focus on the second point, because a usable form will naturally contribute to the overall usability of the website, hence the first aspect.
The Six Components Of Web Forms
Web forms are a necessity and often a pain point for both designers and users. Over time, users have formed expectations of how a form should look and behave. They typically expect Web forms to have the following six components:
1. Labels These tell users what the corresponding input fields mean.
2. Input Fields Input fields enable users to provide feedback. They include text fields, password fields, check boxes, radio buttons, sliders and more.
3. Actions These are links or buttons that, when pressed by the user, perform an action, such as submitting the form.
4. Help This provides assistance on how to fill out the form.
5. Messages Messages give feedback to the user based on their input. They can be positive (such as indicating that the form was submitted successfully) or negative (“The user name you have selected is already taken”).
6. Validation These measures ensure that the data submitted by the user conforms to acceptable parameters.
Skype’s registration form contains all six components.
Tackling Usability Via Three Aspects Of Forms
Despite differences in layout, functionality and purpose, all forms have three main aspects, as noted by Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney in their book Forms That Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability:
尽管在布局、功能和目的上各有不同，所有的表单都有三个主要的方向，就像在Caroline Jarrett与Gerry Gaffney合著的《Web表单设计：创建高可用性的网页表单
1. Relationship Forms establish a relationship between the user and the organization.
2. Conversation They establish a dialogue between the user and the organization.
3. Appearance By the way they look, they establish a relationship and a conversation.
For a form to be usable, all three aspects need to be tackled. Let’s look at each aspect in turn to figure out how to make a form truly usable, along with practical guidelines that you can easily follow.
Aspect 1: The Relationship
“No man is an island,” the 17th-century English poet, satirist, lawyer and priest John Donne once said. Indeed, human beings thrive on relationships, be they amorous, friendly, professional or business. A form is a means to establish or enhance a relationship between the user and the organization. When done badly, it can pre-empt or terminate such a relationship.
With this in mind, a number of principles emerge:
* Relationships are based on trust, so establishing trust in your form is critical. This can be achieved through the logo, imagery, color, typography and wording. The user will feel at ease knowing that the form comes from a sincere organization.
* Every relationship has a goal, be it love and happiness in a romantic relationship or financial gain in a business relationship. Ask yourself, what is the goal of your form?
* Base the name of the form on its purpose. That name will inform users what the form is about and why they should fill it in.
* Just as in a relationship, getting to know the other person is essential. Get to know your users and always consider whether the questions you’re asking are appropriate and, if so, whether they are timely. This will instill a natural flow to your form.
* Knowing your users will also help you choose appropriate language and remove superfluous text. And it will help you craft an interface that balances your needs and the user’s.
* Do not ask questions beyond the scope of the form. In a relationship, you would become distrustful of someone who asked questions that were out of place. The same thing happens online. Consult with relevant stakeholders to see what information really is required.
* Sudden changes in behavior or appearance will make users edgy. Likewise, never introduce sudden changes between forms or between steps in a form.
Know your users. Make it easy for registered users to log in and for new users to register. Debenhams makes this distinction barely noticeable.
Amazon, on the other hand, simplifies the process for registered and new customers.
Aspect 2: The Conversation
A form is a conversation. And like a conversation, it represents two-way communication between two parties, in this case, the user and the organization. In fact, the user has filled out the form in order to initiate communication with the organization.
For instance, with a social network, a user would fill out a registration form to inform the organization that they would like to join. In inviting their request (whether automatically or manually), the organization would ask the user a number of questions (in the form of labels), such as their first name, last name, email address and so forth. Upon acceptance (or denial), the company would inform the user of the outcome, thus completing the communication process.
Viewing forms from this perspective yields some useful guidelines:
* As mentioned, a form is a conversation, not an interrogation. Aggressive wording in labels will make users feel edgy, and (if they do not leave) they will most likely give you the answers that you want to hear, rather than the truth.
* Order the labels logically, reflecting the natural flow of a conversation. For example, wouldn’t it be weird to ask someone their name only after having asked a number of other questions? More involved questions should come towards the end of the form.
● 标签的排序要有逻辑性 ，要能反映对话的流程。例如，先问别人一大堆的问题，然后再问姓名，不觉得这很奇怪吗？相关度越高的问题越应该要放到后面问。
* Group related information, such as personal details. The flow from one set of questions to the next will better resemble a conversation.
Yahoo’s registration form effectively groups related content through purple headings and fine lines.
While Constant Contact groups related content, it separates the groups too much, which could confuse the user.
* As in a real conversation, each label should address one topic at a time, helping the user to respond in the corresponding input field.
* The natural pauses in a conversation will indicate where to introduce white space, how to group labels and whether to break the form up over multiple pages.
* In any conversation, people get distracted by background noise. So, remove clutter such as banners and unnecessary navigation that might distract users from filling out the form.
Dropbox provides a fine example of what a registration form should look like. The white space is effective, and the page uncluttered.
Aspect 3: The Appearance
The appearance or user interface (UI) is central to the usability of a Web form, and there are several guidelines for this. To simplify the discussion, let’s group them into the six components presented earlier.
* Individual words vs. sentences If the purpose of a label is simple to understand, such as to ask for a name or telephone number, then a word or two should suffice. But a phrase or sentence might be necessary to eliminate ambiguity.
Amazon’s registration form contains full sentences, whereas individual words would have sufficed.
* Sentence case vs. title case Should it be “Name and Surname” or “Name and surname”? Sentence case is slightly easier — and thus faster — to follow grammatically than title case. One thing is for sure: never use all caps, or else the form would look unprofessional and be difficult to scan.
See how difficult it is to quickly scan the labels in Barnes & Noble’s registration form?
Barnes & Noble
* Colons at the end of labels UI guidelines for some desktop applications and operating systems such as Windows recommend adding colons at the end of form labels. Some designers of online forms adhere to this, primarily because old screen readers mostly rely on the colon symbol to indicate a label. Modern screen readers rely on mark-up (specifically, the label tag). Otherwise, the colon is a matter of preference and neither enhances nor detracts from the form’s usability, as long as the style is consistent.
* Alignment of labels: top vs. left vs. right Contrary to common advice, above the input field is not always the most usable location for a label. It’s ideal if you want users to fill in the form as fast as possible. But there are times when you’ll want to deliberately slow them down, so that they notice and read the labels attentively. Also, keeping a long form to a single column and making users scroll down the page is better than breaking it up into columns in an attempt to keep everything “above the fold.” Each style of alignment has its advantages and disadvantages:
● 标签的对齐：上对齐、左对齐还是右对齐 。跟一般的建议相反，输入域上方并不总是放置标签的最佳位置。如果想让用户尽快填完表单，这样做是最最好的。但有时为了让用户阅读标签，你会故意想让他们慢下来。还有，把长表单用一页显示，让用户滚动页面，要比分成几页，每页只有一屏的效果好。每一种的对齐方式都有其利弊。
*Times retrieved from “Label Placement in Forms” by Matteo Penzo.
Forms should never consist of more than one column. Notice how easy it is to ignore the column on the right here on Makeup Geek (not to mention the note about “Required fields” at the bottom).
2. Input Fields
* Type of input field Provide the appropriate type of input field based on what is being requested. Each type of input field has its own characteristics, which users are accustomed to. For instance, use radio buttons if only one option of several is permitted, and check boxes if multiple choices are allowed.
* Customizing input fields Do not invent new types of input fields. This was common in the early days of Flash websites, and it seems to be making a comeback; I have seen some odd input fields implemented with jQuery. Simple is often the most useful. Keep input fields as close to their unaltered HTML rendering as possible.
● 定制输入域 。不要发明新的输入域类型。在早期的flash网站上这很常见，现在似乎又有回归的迹象：我看到了一些超烂的使用jQuery的输入域。简单最实用。尽量让输入域看起来跟HTML中展现的一个样。
Altering the interface of input fields will confuse users.
* Restricting the format of input fields If you need to restrict the format of data inputted by users, then at least do so in a way that won’t irritate users. For example, instead of displaying MM/DD/YYYY next to a text field for a date, consider using three drop-down fields or, better yet, a calendar control.
* Mandatory vs. optional fields Clearly distinguish which input fields cannot be left blank by the user. The convention is to use an asterisk (*). Any symbol will do, as long as a legend is visible to indicate what it means (even if it’s an asterisk).
* Primary vs. secondary actions Primary actions are links and buttons in a form that perform essential “final” functionality, such as “Save” and “Submit.” Secondary actions, such as “Back” and “Cancel,” enable users to retract data that they have entered. If clicked by mistake, secondary actions typically have undesired consequences, so use only primary actions where possible. If you must include secondary actions, give them less visual weight than primary actions.
● 主要操作和次要操作 。主要操作就是执行最后功能的链接和按钮，例如“保存”和“提交”。次要操作，诸如“后退”和“取消”，可以让用户撤消已经输入的数据。如果被误点了，次要操作一般会产生不愉快的结果，所以尽量只用主要操作。如果必须要有次要操作，那么也要让它们看起来没主要操作那么显眼。
Not clearly distinguishing between primary and secondary actions can easily lead to failure. The above action buttons are found at the end of a lengthy form for enrolling in St. Louis Community College. Just imagine pressing the “Reset Form” button by accident.
* Naming conventions Avoid generic words such as “Submit” for actions, because they give the impression that the form itself is generic. Descriptive words and phrases, such as “Join LinkedIn,” are preferred.
● 命名规则 。避免使用“注册”之类的常规词语，这样会让用户觉得整个表单都没意思。用“加入LinkedIn”之类的描述性单词或短语会更好一些。
Although Coca-Cola correctly gives more importance to the primary action button, it settles for the generic word “Submit.” “Register with us” would have been more helpful.
在主次操作的处理上做得很好，但是却用了一个很平常的“注册（submit）”，换成“加入我们（register with us）”或许会更有效。
* Text to accompany forms Your should never have to explain to users how to fill out a form. If it does not look like a form or it’s too complicated to fill out, then redesigning it is your only option. Accompanying text should be used only where needed, such as to explain why credit card data is being requested or how a birth date will be used or to link to the “Terms and conditions.” Such text tends to be ignored, so make it succinct and easy to read. As a rule of thumb, do not exceed 100 words of explanation (combined).
Skype’s registration form contains both user-triggered help (the blue box that is triggered by clicking the question mark) and dynamic help (the suggested user names).
* Error message This notifies the user that an error has occurred, and it usually prevents them from proceeding further in the form. Emphasize error messages through color (typically red), familiar iconography (such as a warning sign), prominence (typically at the top of the form or beside where the error occurred), large font, or a combination of these.
* Success message Use this to notify users that they have reached a meaningful milestone in the form. If the form is lengthy, a success message encourages the user to continue filling it out. Like error messages, success messages should be prominent. But they should not hinder the user from continuing.
* Only where needed Excessive validation is as bad as its complete absence, because it will frustrate users. Restrict validation to confirming key points (such as the availability of a user name), ensuring realistic answers (such as not allowing ages above 130) and suggesting responses where the range of possible data is finite but too long to include in a drop-down menu (such as a country-code prefix).
* Smart defaults Use smart defaults to make the user’s completion of the form faster and more accurate. For example, pre-select the user’s country based on their IP address. But use these with caution, because users tend to leave pre-selected fields as they are.
Twitter’s registration form uses both dynamic validation (for the name, email address, password and user name) and smart defaults (“Keep me logged in”).
Conclusion The Beginning
The word “conclusion” is not right here. Let this be your starting point to take what I have written about and apply it to your own forms. The good news is that there is much more to say about all this; you can find an abundance of resources on each point made here. For starters, three books are listed below that inspired me when writing this post. As I stated at the beginning, taking shortcuts by only tweaking the UI will not make your forms more usable. What more can I say? The theory is now with you. Go get your hands dirty.