July 14, 2024

Interview with Caroline Jarrett about Web Forms that Work

For as crucial as they are, online forms don’t get nearly the attention they deserve. Without them, scores of businesses would crumble (metaphorically speaking) and information wouldn’t be shared in the same way. Most of us interact with forms every single day without even much of a thought.

Few people in the world can claim to know online forms like Caroline Jarrett, the undisputed Queen of Forms. Caroline has run usability consulting company, Effortmark Ltd, in the UK since 1994, helping organisations to make forms easier to fill in. She co-authored Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability in 2009, and contributed a piece ‘People Before Pixels’ to the other well-known book on form design: Luke Wroblewski’s Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks.

So if there’s one person out there to interview about what makes an effective form, it’s Caroline. And that’s just what we did to learn what really does make a great form.

Caroline Jarrett photo
Q: How did you become interested in online forms initially?

I was interested in paper forms. I’m still very interested indeed in paper forms: paper still has many advantages and is a cheaper channel than face-to-face or phone. (Of course, it has one major disadvantage which is accessibility of paper is very poor for many people).

For many years, though, my clients didn’t want to know about paper. So from about 1999, I focused mostly on online forms.
Recently, there’s been a wonderful swing away from looking only at the online parts of service design and towards looking at the whole end-to-end experience. So clients are getting interested in paper again, as another channel.

Q: Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability published in 2009. Have you noticed forms changing significantly since then?

Yes and no.

Yes because now mobile is absolutely important. I agree with Luke Wroblewski: we have to consider mobile forms as our starting point, for people outside of our organisations, anyway. When designing for colleagues, and maybe when designing for some specialists and technical professionals, desktop is still crucial – but that’s a whole other story.
No, because I still see a lot of the same old mistakes and issues that motivated Gerry and me to write the book in the first place. There’s very little in the book that we disagree with today, apart from we want to put more about mobile into it.

Q: You mentioned Luke Wroblewski, also author of a popular book on forms design. Why would you recommend that people buy your book instead of his?

I wouldn’t! If you’re serious about better forms, you should definitely buy both books. They are complementary. His book focuses primarily on the details of interaction design of forms within high-traffic web sites – his background is in big web properties like eBay.

If you’re doing a signup form, you’ll definitely still find ideas of value in his book. Only these days, Luke focuses almost entirely on mobile and he mostly releases his more recent ideas as short videos.
Our book is more general, it’s wider in the types of forms that we think about. Gerry, my co-author, and I both come from a tradition of working with all sorts of forms and especially with complex forms like big government ones.  We look more at how to think about the structure of forms tasks in general.

Q: You give great attention to testing forms in Part 4 of the book. Do you think today’s analytics tools are any replacement for tried-and-true usability testing?

It’s definitely much better to use both – the analytics for how many people do different things, and the usability testing for why they do them. But if I had to pick one, I’d go with usability testing every time. Knowing why you’ve got a problem makes it far easier to fix it.

Q: In your book you mention an example of a company in 1992 increasing their response rate to a mailed survey by sending a dollar bill in the envelope as a token of trust. Is there a way to incorporate that with web forms in 2015?

Yes. That was an example of how response to a survey, or a form, is a balance between three things: perceived reward, perceived effort, and trust. Reward: what do people expect to achieve by filling out this form? Effort: how much time and trouble will it take? Trust: do they trust the organisation to make good use of the answers?

Once you start thinking of that balance: reward, effort, and trust, you start to see examples of how to improve conversion on forms everywhere. Here’s one that surprises many people: including a clear and obvious contact phone number on your form actually increases web conversion. That’s because it shows the organisation isn’t trying to hide anything and wants to be helpful. It’s a token of trust – sort of like the dollar bill.

And if for some reason your form is so crummy that people start to phone you all the time while trying to complete it – well, don’t take the phone number away. Fix the form instead. Anyone trying to increase web conversion needs to spend time in the contact center for their organisation, it’s a goldmine of great ideas.

Q: I loved the chapter on making forms look easy. Is there a correlation between easy-looking forms and trustworthy forms?

Definitely. About a decade ago, Stanford University did a bunch of work in that area. I don’t know of the work being replicated recently but my observation is that it holds true today.

Q: Do the rules for an effective form change when it’s asking for payment or other confidential information?

Not really, they just become more important.

Giving up confidential information or making a payment are both highly effortful. Think about the effort of typing the number 12345678 compared to the effort of typing your Social Security number into some website you don’t know much about.

Effort isn’t only about how long it takes to type in an answer. The cognitive effort of overcoming reluctance to give out an answer is a major part of effort, probably the most important part.

Q: What is a tip for forms that eludes most people? A tip that is surprising or little known?

Cut down on the questions.

Organisations thoughtlessly ask tons of questions that they don’t need to ask, or don’t need to ask yet, or could solve the problem in another way. Just think of the number of times you see the question ‘where did you find out about this site?’. Don’t ask it! Use your search logs and your analytics to find out the routes people took to get to you – they are much better quality information.

Every single question really matters.

It’s really worth doing a proper question protocol and really weighing up the true importance of every question.

Q: Can you describe the most creative form you’ve ever seen?

As it happens, I recently found a new favourite form. I’m writing a blog post about it at the moment. Check back with me in a week or two and I’ll show it to you.

Q: Are best practices for forms different on mobile versus desktop? In what ways?

No, not really, not for forms that people in general fill out for occasional tasks. As I mentioned previously, it’s different for forms that people live in, enterprise systems or forms that professionals use day in, day out.

But for the ordinary form, simpler is better. When you design for mobile, you have to focus on one thing at a time, very simple pages. People using desktops like that too.

Q: Is the increasing prevalence of mobile changing forms? If so, what is the new direction?

In some ways. I see some very silly mistakes, such as designers trying to save space on mobile forms by putting the labels inside the boxes using placeholders. That’s a terrible idea for anyone with low digital skills, or accessibility needs, or who might be interrupted, or is busy, or distracted, or tired. I’ve seen that mistake spreading from mobile to desktop.

But I also see sensible designers making simple, responsive forms that work well on mobile and that means they’ll work well on the desktop, too.


Chad Reid is the Director of Communications for JotForm, a popular online form building tool. He loves all things related to cats, and never turns down free food.

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