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Lessons from Forms Research

By Robert Barnett

This summary accompanied the article Redesigning Centrelink Forms: A Case Study of Government Forms
The story of scientific forms research began in the mid-1970s and continued on through the 1980s and 1990s with UK researchers such as Robert Miller, Philip Barnard, Patricia Wright, and Robert Waller; Janice (Ginny) Redish and her team from the Document Design Center in Washington D.C.; David Frohlich; Robyn Penman, David Sless and others from the Communication Research Institute of Australia (CRIA).

We can never rest on our laurels and stop learning about forms. People who claim to know all there is to know about form design are kidding themselves. Methods for examining forms don’t have to stay in universities and research institutes. Any forms analyst can learn them and begin to apply the principles in day-to-day work. The following are lessons we’ve learned from research over the past thirty-plus years.

Patricia Wright and Philip Barnard came to the following conclusions:

In the later 1970s, studies by Wright, Barnard, and Wilcox dealt with the constraints placed on legibility by the use of character separators, often referred to as delimiters. The computer world had introduced the idea of little boxes for each character, and later changed to small tick mark combs on the bottom of boxes to separate the characters. The research showed how the use of such marks slowed reading of the forms during data entry. (This research went hand-in-hand with my own observations that such marks even cause significant errors in reading.)


Patricia Wright’s early research taught us about our poor understanding of basic forms issues. A lengthy article in Visible Language reviewed research investigations into form design and usage up to 1980. One of the most significant conclusions was that, “those who seek simple recipes for designing adequate forms have failed to understand the complexities of the problem.”

In 1982, Grant, Exley, Lonsdale, and Goddard produced a major British government report, “Forms Under Control.” While it didn’t include much in the way of new design knowledge, the study showed the extent to which forms need to be controlled and the problems people faced with government forms. The report came up with sixty-two recommendations on the management of government forms.

In 1984, Robert Waller (now professor of information design in the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading) reported on the design of a British government form,

“Claim for Supplementary Benefit.” The information from the project provided an excellent starting point for later researchers. Some conclusions would be modified by subsequent studies, but most of the general conclusions still apply to public-use forms:

In 1985, Ginny Redish of the Document Design Center at the American Institutes for Research and Jack Selzer of Pennsylvania State University, published an important article on “The Place of Readability Formulas in Technical Communication.” The report highlighted how inappropriate the use of formulas such as the Flesch Reading Ease Scale and Gunning’s Fog Index are for technical communication.

In 1986, David Frohlich (now director of Digital World Research Centre at the University of Surrey and professor of interaction design) undertook one of the most important pioneering studies in forms research. His conclusions, recorded in the paper “On the Organisation of Form-filling Behaviour,” form the basis of the observational study approach we still use today. He summarizes his findings on the way people use forms as seven question principles:

  1. Linear progression: work through the questions in the order they appear on the form.
  2. Least reading effort: only read what seems to be necessary to maintain form-filling progress.
  3. Question routing: jump directly to a new question if the form tells you to.
  4. Question omission: miss out questions which don’t seem to apply to you.
  5. Question preview: if in doubt about the meaning of a current question, read the subsequent question.
  6. Question review: if in doubt about your interpretation of the previous question, review that question and the answer provided.
  7. Topic scan: if in doubt about the relevance of the current question topic, scan the local topic context.

We consistently find during usability testing that if any of these principles are violated, people tend to make errors in their form filling.

In 1990, the Communication Research Institute of Australia (CRIA) conducted the world’s first study on the way people use life insurance application forms. One hundred percent of the traditional forms produced one or more errors. After redesign and usability testing, error rates were reduced to fifteen percent, and most errors were trivial. The savings in processing time provided the funding to maintain the whole Forms Management Department. Robyn Penman and David Sless from CRIA reported on studies of insurance documents showing that just designing them by following rules of plain English was not good enough.

In 1999, Michael Tyler from Robert Barnett and Associates reported on a series of usability studies on forms produced by different government departments for aged people. The studies showed that many of the lessons learned from research with younger people didn’t apply. For example, simple form-filling processes such as sequential reading of questions, were replaced by random scanning of pages, and answer examples were often misinterpreted as being the only possible alternatives. The studies also highlighted the special needs of aged people.

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User Experience Magazine is by and about usability professionals, featuring significant and unique articles dealing with the broad field of usability and the user experience.
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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 2, 2009.
http://www.usabilityprofessionals.org/upa_publications/past_issues/2009-2.html.

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