Technical Communication Review of Web Form Design

by August 28, 2009

Thanks to Patrick Lufkin for allowing me to reprint his recent review of my book: Web Form Design. This review was originally published in Technical Communication: Journal of the Society for Technical Communication Volume 56, Number 3, August 2009.


Web forms are an important— and often frustrating—part of many Web sites. Wherever there is a call to action—join a group, buy a product, upload content—a form stands in the way of completing the transaction. However, often, forms are so poorly designed they do more to drive users from sites than they do to facilitate desired actions.

Luke Wroblewski would like to change that. In Web form design: Filling in the blanks, Wroblewski draws on his own considerable experience, that of other leading designers, and the results of usability tests to produce a must-have book for anyone facing Web form challenges. Wroblewski has been a Senior Interface Designer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and Lead Interface Designer on eBay Inc.’s platform team and is currently Senior Principal of Product Ideation & Design at Yahoo! He is also the author of Site-seeing: A Visual Approach to Web usability (Hungry Minds, 2002).

Part of the problem, Wroblewski argues, is that most Web forms mimic paper forms or database structures, with too little thought given to the online user experience. Instead, he says, you should design from the viewpoint of the user, doing everything possible to make forms easy to successfully complete so the user can get to the payoff on the other side. By following good design principles and paying scrupulous attention to details, you can minimize the pain and keep the user on board, which will add to the success and profitability of your site.

In 14 concise chapters, Wroblewski offers practical, comprehensive, usability-tested advice for usability, interaction design, and visual design of Web forms. He discusses best practices for input fields and labels, tabs and buttons, the use of helper text, drop-down lists, smart defaults, and other design features. He also covers the importance of making pages easy-to-read with clear scan lines, building paths to completion, using progress indicators, avoiding unnecessary inputs, handling errors, signaling success, and employing strategies for gradual engagement.

Throughout, the emphasis is on the practical solution of real-life problems. He covers why something is a problem, discusses the principles involved, and gives you the information you need to make your own design decisions depending on the needs of your particular site.

The book itself is a model of usability. Chapters are short, and explanations are clear and concise. Each chapter concludes with a list of best practices summarizing the lessons to be learned from the discussion. This makes the book equally suitable as an introduction to form design and as a reference for those wrestling with a vexing design challenge.

If your site requires forms, this book belongs on your shelf. Don’t design Web forms without it.

The Author

Patrick Lufkin is an Associate Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication and a frequent contributor to its journal.