Human beings are of many different nations. Our ways of life are different. Our national characters or motifs are different. Our racial stock is different and even the color of our skin is different. But even among all of these differences, we are absolutely united in our hatred and detestation of two different things; of having to stand in line and having to fill forms. This is why we all hate having to deal with government institutions because they tend to require us doing those exact two things.
In my two decades of living, the only time I enjoy standing in line was during a trip to Tokyo when I was queuing for a locally famous ramen place recommended to me by a colleague. But never have I ever encountered a form that I don’t immediately hate with a passion, including those surveys that promise a prize at the end. Even now that most forms are digital, this issue still remains true and it’s one of the Holy Grail of web development to come up with a form that won’t leave people feeling miserable.
Accessibility issues in forms
You’ll have to excuse the hyperbole in the two opening paragraphs but this is because filling out forms used to be something that I’m regularly required to do in a previous place of work. Because that form wasn’t designed to be filled out by customers, there wasn’t much thought given to make the form as easily accessible as it should. Even the well-designed forms aren’t going to be a pleasant experience because at the end of the day, they’re still forms.
The thing is, forms are also important because that’s what the majority of businesses are going to rely on and that’s what internet users are going to be regularly faced with in the end. Signing up for anything requires forms and with much stock being given into the power of data, forms remain one of the most effective methods of data gathering. And yet, despite this seeming importance of forms, they remain one of the least accessible parts of the internet.
This isn’t exactly a knock to web developers, web forms are actually a pretty complex beast since they have to involve validations and errors to make sure that the data being sent are correct. It’s because of this that most forms are designed first to be functional above all else with the accessibility issues being some kind of an afterthought. This shouldn’t have to be the case as there are small things web developers could do to make forms that more accessible, as will be explained in the following section.
Be clear with your messaging
To begin with, start by clearly outlining the instructions, the kind of information that users would have to provide and if possible, how long should filling out the forms is going to take. Without delving into personal details, I was once required to fill out a lengthy form that right near the end, asks me for some information that I don’t have with me and ended up requiring several days for me to obtain. If your form is going to need information that the general public don’t typically have, state this information at the beginning so that users could prepare beforehand.
It’s also important to use unambiguous language when designing your forms to ensure that there won’t be any confusion but also try to keep it brief. Dense tutorial are never a good thing and would simply lead to users simply ignoring them so make them as short and as unambiguously to the point as possible. The expected time needed to fill out the forms can also be a good idea, especially if the form is quite longer than the average, so users don’t have to stop midway because they have other priorities to maintain.
Always include clear labels and placeholder text
The reason why web developers include labels is pretty self-explanatory but one thing that web developers aren’t always aware of is that including a placeholder text inside the field would also help clear out the ambiguity. Say you’re required to put in a certain date in the form but as we’ve all figured out by now, date and time notations can be wildly different from one culture to the next so including a placeholder text in this regard would keep users from making a mistake.
Use additional helper text when necessary
Sometimes, you’re going to be asking for private information that you deem is necessary but because of the private nature of said information, might require additional explanation on why you’re asking for them. In this case, include additional text on why that information is necessary and how they’d be used in the future. For example, a website might require you to include your e-mail information and phone number and since two contact information might seem like overkill, explain that the phone number would be used only in special situation and that the user will be primarily contacted via their e-mail address.
Flag errors and use custom error messages to outline where the mistake is
We don’t react well when we’re told that we’re wrong but we react the worst when we’re told that we’re wrong without being told what exactly our mistakes are and how to correct them. I speak from personal experience when I say this kind of thing is enough to break even the most loving form of relationship so web developers have to avoid this by highlighting users’ mistakes and telling them exactly where they went wrong. Even if you’ve followed the previous 3 tips religiously, there are still bound to be some mistakes on the user’s part which makes error handling a priority no matter what.