A form filler’s plea

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2006 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

I, and I suspect many of you, spent some of the Holiday break on the Internet applying for or ordering things. The ease of filling in the various forms varied considerably so I would like to discuss some of the best and the worst bits of design I came across and produce a list of good practice or a form-filler’s plea. I am keen to extend this list so please add any suggestions by filling in the readers’ comment section below.

The major, but not only, method of filling in forms is typing so forms should be designed with typing in mind. So here are my pleas:

  1. When I click on something like ‘go to checkout’ I expect to transfer to a form I need to fill out. In that case the cursor should be positioned, visibly, in the first field I need to complete. More often than not it is in a default position of top left, which if I press enter will return me to the home page. That is not the action I want to take and if I do I may lose the transaction and the site may lose the business. If the cursor is top left I either have to use the mouse to position me on the first field or I use the tab-key that will take me through a myriad of options, links and adverts that I am not interested in. If I was blind and could not use a mouse this becomes even more important to me.
  2. Reference numbers, and especially credit card numbers, have spaces in them, this makes them easier to read and check. So I should be able to enter them with the spaces. I tend to enter them with spaces and in about 50% of the cases I can not enter the last few digits or worse, I get an error message to say the data is incorrectly formatted. In the worst case I came across it would not let me enter the last few digits and to really wind me up would not let me use the back-cursor key to get to the miscreant spaces. Form-fillers should be able to include spaces or not and the computer should be able to work it out.
  3. Entering the credit card number or amount is vital so when typed they should be big enough to read. Fields should be sizeable and I would suggest that by default they should be bigger than the surrounding text.
  4. The best way to enter data is to get the browser to do it for you. Autofill extensions are available for most browsers and can greatly reduce the typing required. A plea to the form designer: make sure that the form is set up so that the autofill works correctly. Another plea to the autofill designer: make sure it can be used without the mouse.
  5. Drop down menus are great in principle, but I am fed up having to scroll through 100+ countries to reach the United Kingdom. Please set up the field so that typing ‘U’ gets me to the right area, then let me use the cursor down button to get to the UK or let me type until I find the right country.
  6. Dates are quicker to type than using drop-downs. My initial reaction would be to abolish drop-downs for dates but I suppose some people prefer them. What I object to is when I type 12 in the day field and it finishes up as 20. So please allow dates to be typed.
  7. Please ensure that labels and instructions are clear and concise.

I could go on, and I hope you will add your favourites, but I think this list is broad enough to make form authors think about how the form will be used. Thinking form-filler rather than form-author will lead to happier clients and better and more productive business.