Once again, back to school time has me thinking about forms. I wrote about forms this time last year too… about how they’re a reflection of your organization, they speak volumes about how you care for your customers, and they can make your job easier if done right. So, let’s talk about how to do it right .

First, let’s define usability. Usability is the idea that your USER can navigate and complete the form efficiently and effectively. It is not about YOU. It’s about your customer. So, the first tip for creating a form or document is…

always think about the user and their experience with the document…

…and not just how quickly you can get this thing done and off your desk.

design hierarchy

When you design a form, you want to define the process for the user. You want to be sure your user knows what steps they need to follow, and in what order. Here are some basic tips:

  • Use font size, bold text, or underlines to define headings for your sections, and keep them consistent. Use multiple levels of headings, if necessary.
  • Define form sections on the page by using white space between sections and indents from the left margin. Make sure subsections are defined as well.
  • Be sure that the parts the user has to fill out are clearly defined from the informational/instructional text. Use arrows, space, lines or other markers to make it easy for the user to find the parts they need to complete so you don’t have to follow up with them later to get the missing information.

use white space

If there is one thing I hope you take away from this post, it’s to increase the empty space on the page. White space allows the user room to breathe and makes your form less intimidating. Here are some ways to make room:

  • Reduce your informational text. I know your instructions are important, but see if you can provide that information in fewer words. (You probably can.)
  • Use lists and columns instead of long, wide paragraphs.
  • Rethink and update the information you’re asking for. (Do you really need a fax number? Will you ever use the it?)
  • Eliminate redundancy. Do you always use the same forms together? Then combine them. Take out the redundant questions – saves you space and your users don’t have to fill out the basic “name/date/address/phone/email” information multiple times.
  • Add another page if you have to. I know, it’s so much better to have everything on one page, but don’t sacrifice usability for convenience. (If using paper forms, consider printing front-to-back to save on resources.)

Side note: Give them enough space to write. This is partly a white space thing, but also just a legibility and usability thing. If the user has to write tiny to fit their answer in, you have to try to read tiny writing. And if they get frustrated, that tiny writing will get less legible. It’s human nature.

usability tips

Using basic word processing software like Microsoft Word is an easy way to get started, and it can work as the finished product if you’re using them as paper forms. However, if people are going to be using the form electronically, you will want to consider a few things:

  • Use text boxes rather than just typing in the document to help avoid formatting issues.
  • If you’re using Word, use the Insert/Shapes/Line function to draw your “fill-in” spaces rather than using repeated underscores. This will allow your user to type in the form without ____breaking up____________ and shifting the line. (Hint: hold the SHIFT key while you’re drawing your line to keep it level.)
  • Word does have the capability of inserting clickable checkboxes, drop-downs, and other controlled content through the Developer tab. (If the Developer tab is not visible, you can add it to the menu “ribbon” at the top of your page by going to File/Options/Customize Ribbon.)

software

Remember that MS Word (and other word processing software) is not really designed for creating forms, especially when used at its most basic level. That’s why the frustrating shifts of content happen when you go back and type in your finished form.

  • Consider using a PDF writer to turn your Word form into a PDF form users can type in. You can choose what they’re able to edit and where they’re able to type. I use Adobe Acrobat, and it does a fairly good job of automating the process of turning your original document into a typeable form. (FYI: Acrobat is not free software.)
  • Another option for creating forms is Microsoft Publisher. If you’re a comfortable Word user, you’ll recognize the functions within Publisher and hit the ground running fairly quickly. You’ll be able to more easily place text, images, and spaces on the page wherever you want without things “randomly” shifting on you. However, you will need to save the finished product as a PDF for distribution, and if you want users to be able to type in it, we’re looking at Acrobat or similar software again.

Creating visually appealing and usable forms takes time and thought beyond just typing in a blank document. You’ll be rewarded for your time when you have happy customers and fully completed forms that require no follow up for missing information!

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Feel free to contact me with any questions you might have as you’re working on your next form/document. I’m happy to help!
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photo credit: pixabay.com

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