Caroline Jarrett Shares Her Knowledge About Usable Forms

Designing a usable form requires more than slapping together some fields and putting them in front of the user. Just ask Caroline Jarrett. She, along with Gerry Gaffney, has a new book coming out in November called Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Jarrett about her book and her work with forms.

Forms are more prevalent in web design than one may think: from simple login and newsletter subscription forms with only one or two fields to lengthier registrations or even tax forms. Jarrett became involved in the latter in 1992 when she got a job delivering OCR, short for optical character recognition, to the Inland Revenue, the UK tax authority. “Of course there are a lot of forms in taxes,” she says.

So, Jarrett began her work with the big stuff: tax forms. “People hate tax forms at the conceptual level,” Jarrett says. “Before the form comes out of the envelope, they hate it. It’s intrusive, it requires effort.”

Since then Jarrett has become an expert in the usability of forms, whether short or long, on paper or online. She sums up the problem with forms by referring to their “intrinsic ‘formness’.” She says that forms are generally ugly and they may ask questions that the user doesn’t know how to answer.

To make a form work, Jarrett sites three important elements:

  1. Relationship – Help the user achieve something. Jarrett provides an example, “if you’re ordering something, you expect to give a shipping address.”
  2. Conversation – Ask questions that users can answer easily.
  3. Appearance – “It’s better if the form looks tidy,” says Jarrett.

“Users don’t want forms to be fancy,” says Jarrett. “They just want them to be usable.”

Jarrett argues that forms change the relationship between a user and an organization. “When you ask someone to fill in a form, you change the way they are interacting with your web site. You’ve gone from sending out information to making the user divulge information.” This is especially difficult when, as Jarrett explains, “people are very sensitive to the amount of effort it takes, privacy issues, about looking after their identities.”

When it comes to keeping the user’s attention, Jarrett says you have to think about whether the effort you are asking someone to put in is worth it. She says, “at the very basic level, typing requires more effort than clicking.”

With all of this talk about relationships, I asked Jarrett how a company can establish trust with its users. She replied, “it’s a bit harsh to expect a poor little form to make your whole organization trustworthy.” Credibility, she says, has to be looked at in the overall context. What is the purpose of the site? What is the user’s purpose for visiting the site? Is there any connection in those two goals?

For someone tasked with creating a form, getting their organization’s buy-in to spend the proper time and effort to design a form properly can be tough. She says, “the first time you have to twist arms for usability testing, the second time they think ‘maybe if we’d done this the first time, it would be easier.'”

She explained that in addition to discussing the orderly process “where you work from beginning to end,” her and Gaffney’s book includes a “messy but typical” forms process. “Messy is what happens in real life,” says Jarrett. “You create your form in the margins of other work.”

Filling a void of references on forms, Jarrett and Gaffney wrote Forms That Work to provide some extra guidance. Their goal is to give people who work with forms ways of thinking about the problem.

“There are guidelines in form design, but so often guidelines end up being unsatisfactory because they aren’t applicable to your situation,” Jarrett says. “People think ‘you’ve talked about tax or business forms, but my form is about a game. How does this apply to me?'” Jarrett and Gaffney set out to give people a way to think through the situation, so they have ways to work through the design process and apply it to their specific problem.

The book is the companion to Ginny Redish’s Letting Go of the Words and uses the same way of illustrating examples with happy and sad faces, so that “when people open these books, they know what point an author is trying to make.”

An illustration from the book Forms That Work

An illustration from the book Forms That Work

At just under 200 pages, Forms That Work is a quick read, an effort made with usability in mind. “We tried to be conscious of how much time people really want to invest in this topic,” says Jarrett.

She adds, “Gerry and I would love to outsell Harry Potter.”

Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability has just been published and is available at

Forms That Work

Forms That Work


1 Comment

  1. Saturday, March 7, 2009 at 10:30 am

    […] You may recognize the name Caroline Jarrett. I interviewed her last Fall prior to the release of her book. She was so delightful to speak with. You can see a recap of that interview here. […]

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