Review: Web Form Design

by June 13, 2008

web form designReviews for my new book, Web Form Design, are starting to appear. One of the first comes from Will Evans, Principal User Experience Architect at Semantic Foundry, who kindly gave me permission to reprint it here. Thanks Will!

Book review

Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks
Publisher: Rosenfeld Media, May 2008

The scene is all too familiar. You're presenting wireframes of the registration process for a new web application when the discussion veers down a dark alley. The sky has turned the color of black ink, and you can smell sulfur in the air as one team member after another debates the alignment of form labels. Before you can toss up a quick Hail Mary, marketing says that the opt-in for marketing solicitations has to be defaulted to yes, and you can feel your soul sucked out of your body through your nose as a simple one hour meeting turns into a 3 hour discussion over the pro's and cons of inline validation while your stomach grumbles because you just missed. I have heard this war story many times from many interaction designers and information architects, with little variation except in the details. What we need is air cover in this battle to design better forms. Now, it's here.

"Forms Suck!"

And so Luke Wroblewski begins his new book on web form design with a canon shot across the bow, providing just the air cover and ammunition interaction designers need; and every review, including this one, is going to begin with a first impression of the book.

Mine was: Boffo.
(bof·fo (bf) Slang, adj.: Extremely successful; great.)

Wroblewski opens Web Form Design with an exploration, from a strategic perspective, of why users interact with forms. News flash: It's not because we like to. It may seem obvious, but the truth is, interaction designers need to confront the truth that a user's goal is to get to some successful outcome on the other side of a form – as quickly and painlessly as possible. We want our iPhone, tax return, or account with Facebook. We don't want to fill out forms.

"Forms suck. If you don't believe me, try to find people who like filling them in. You may turn up an accountant who gets a rush when wrapping up a client's tax return or perhaps a desk clerk who loves to tidy up office payroll. But for most of us, forms are just an annoyance. What we want to do is to vote, apply for a job, buy a book online, join a group, or get a rebate back from a recent purchase. Forms just stand in our way."

Wroblewski has researched, with admirable thoroughness, everything from the basics of good form design, to labels and most-direct route, delivering his explanations, patterns and recommendations with a casual urgency that never veers into preachiness. This book is a useful guide for both the novice interaction designer and the battle tested UX guru, offering salient, field tested examples of the good, bad, and often times ugly forms that have proliferated the web like so many mushrooms after a good rain.

Wroblewski has also invited many seasoned professionals to contribute sidebars, like Caroline Jarrett's no-nonsense perspective on designing great forms by advising us to "start thinking about people and relationships," instead of just diving into labeling our forms and choosing where to put the Submit button. I especially appreciated her strategic guidelines for picking what questions should go into a form in the first place, which she aptly titles "Keep, Cut, Postpone, or Explain."

Wroblewski is aware of how challenging most readers will find good form design. It comes as a relief, for instance, when he writes that we should think less about forms as a means of filling a database, and more as a means of creating a meaningful conversation between the user and the company. He generally succeeds at adopting the warm tone of a confiding friend and colleague who can win you over with self-deprecating, you-too-can-make-dynamic-forms-every-day enthusiasm. The more subtle points of user-centered design or goal-driven design are not talked about explicitly; they are like a whisper on the wind that you can barely hear unless you train your ears.

What's In the Book?

"Web Form Design" is part of a wave of User Experience books sweeping over us from Rosenfeld Media; books focused on bringing practical, actionable and well researched methods to actual practitioners in the field. This literature is going to have a powerful effect on our community of practice, maybe as powerful as the effect the Polar Bear book had on our grandparents' era. This volume is broken out into three sections:

Section one

"Form Structure" begins with an overview of why form design matters and describes the principles behind good form design, followed by Form Organization, Path to Completion, and Labels (hint: your form design should start from goals). Working quickly through strategy to tactics. Wroblewski gives numerous examples - within the context of usability studies -so that you are not left wondering whether these patterns are recommended based just on his opinion.

Section two

"Form Elements," is a useful, clearly written exploration of each of the components of form design: labels, fields, actions and messages (help, errors, success). Wroblewski attacks each one of these by defining particular problem spaces, and then shows good and bad solutions to the problems while highlighting how these solutions faired in controlled usability tests, including eye-tracking. He then finishes each chapter off with a succinct list of 'Best Practices' that I suggest are good enough to staple to the inside of your eyelids.

Section three

"Form Interaction," with chapters on everything from Inline Validation to Selection-dependent Inputs (a barn burner of a chapter). Here we have moved from the world of designing labels, alignment, and content to designing the actual complex interactions between the system -that wants to be fed like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors – and the world-weary user that just wants to get to the other side of the rainbow. As Wroblewski explains in his opening of chapter 9 "Inline Validation"

"Despite our best efforts to format questions clearly and provide meaningful affordances for our inputs, some of our questions will always have more than one possible answer… Inline validation can provide several types of feedback: confirmation that an appropriate answer was given, suggestions for valid answers, and real-time updates designed to help people stay within necessary limits. These bits of feedback usually happen when people begin, continue, or stop entering answers within input fields. "

The chapter tells how to establish communication between the user and the form, providing clear, easy to read feedback so that the user doesn't get the "select a username or die" travesty that we see in registration forms all over the web. You know the ones: you type in your name, choose a username, enter your email address, and your password (twice), hit the submit button…and…bad things happen. The username is already taken. Worse, the form is cleared and you have to enter all that information all over again. Wroblewski provides advice for validation (without set-in-stone rules), and a bulleted list of best practices.

The final, and perhaps most interesting chapter in the book, covers the topic of Gradual Engagement. This is particularly timely given the kudzu-like proliferation of Web 2.0 applications and services as well as social networking sites and micro-blogging sites. Instead of starting your engagement with a new company that all your friends are raving about with YET ANOTHER registration form – Wroblewski highlights the benefits of moving a user through the application or service – actually engaging with it, and seeing it's benefits, while registration is either postponed, or handled behind the scenes. He explores web applications like JumpCut, where the user has gone all the way through creating, uploading and editing their video – and only when they actually want to publish and share it, does the user encounter a form – at which point they have already learned the service, it's benefits, and it's value. Wroblewski doesn't have any hard numbers about fall-off rates, but from a user experience perspective – my gut tells me it's better than confronting a first-time potential user with a form to fill out. I am looking forward to seeing how this approach plays out over the next year.


What is likely to win the most converts, though, is the joy Wroblewski takes in designing – which becomes clear as you page through the book. He isn't just an ardent evangelizer, following the rituals of going to conferences selling snake oil. He's been there in the trenches, just like you; he's done this a hundred, maybe a thousand times; he's tested these ideas – and he has a framework for you to use from day one.

If you want to trust my snap judgment, buy this book: you'll be delighted. If you want to trust my more reflective second judgment, after having read, re-read, and ruminated over the finer points he makes in the book, buy it: you'll be delighted but left wanting more. I don't know if more could have been written about Web Form Design, but if so, I would have gladly read that as well.

You can get Web Form Design from Rosenfeld Media. You can also get it at, but for the same price, R.M. tosses in a nicely formatted digital version which you can use to quote from when you have to sell a good form design to a team that wants to bicker over top-, right-, or left- aligned form labels. This is your air cover – now just call it in!

Book review by: Will Evans, Principal User Experience Architect at Semantic Foundry