Guest Post: Context is Everything – Part 1

Hello! Welcome to part 1 of a guest post by Jessica Enders of Formulate Information Design. Read on and find out what matters most in form design.


My awkward moments at parties

When people find out I design forms for a living, they’re usually a bit baffled. How can I enjoy working with something that most people hate, like being a garbage collector or tax auditor?
The big difference between being a garbage collector/tax auditor and being a form designer is that a form designer can make a real — and lasting — difference to the world. People hate forms because most forms are awful. They take a lot of time, and they’re confusing, frustrating, and stressful. Sometimes they actually stop people from getting things they need.
There will probably always be tax audits and there will definitely always be garbage, but we form designers have the ability to make awful forms a thing of the past. We can make forms that are clear, concise, clever, and cooperative.
After working with forms for 17 years, I’m convinced most forms are awful because designers are too focused on the wrong thing. Time after time I get asked about things like whether a phone number should be collected using one or two fields, whether auto-tabbing is a good idea, or whether an email address needs to be entered twice.
These are questions of detail, and while they definitely impact usability, they’re not what you should be worrying about the most.

What matters most

To put it simply, a form works if it is appropriate for the context.
Context means the situation in which the form exists, and can be looked at from two angles:

  • the organisation’s context; and
  • the respondent’s context.

Most form designers cater well to the organisation’s context, and indeed build the form around what the organisation must collect. (If you don’t currently spend time exploring the organisational need, you’ll find it very worthwhile — it usually results in fewer changes and happier staff.) But if the resulting form doesn’t also cater to the respondent’s context, it will be filled out carelessly and inaccurately, if it’s even filled out at all.

Get to know your respondents’ context

Who are your respondents?

To make sure your form works well for respondents, try to spend some time getting to know their context. To begin with, this means working out who your respondents are.
For example, you might want to ask yourself (and perhaps note):

  • What regions, countries, cities, etc. are the respondents in?This can affect things like address collection, payment methods, and more generally, the wording of questions (as can broader cultural differences, which can be partially indicated by location).
  • What languages do respondents speak? How fluent are they in those languages? Is there a particularly relevant vocabulary?Even if you aren’t going to translate your form, knowing the language profile of your respondents will give you a sense of what’s appropriate in terms of the written word, especially things like technical terminology, idioms, and humour.
  • Why are they filling out your form?A form is just a means to an end, a way for accessing some product or service. Try to truly understand your respondents’ situations, and why they need (or want) your product/service.Are they a single parent, trying to juggle ten different things — including filling out your form — to keep their family together? Perhaps the respondent is filling out your form on behalf of their manager. Or maybe your respondents are all employees, who work in quite a variety of different roles and relate to the organisation in different ways.

Stay tuned for part 2, which covers how your form will be filled out and what motivates your respondents!

Jessica Enders, Principal and Founder of Formulate Information DesignJessica Enders has suffered from a life-long condition known as a love of designing forms, transactional applications, and other interfaces for collecting information. She is attempting to minimise the adverse symptoms by running her own form consultancy business, Formulate Information Design.
Formulate is based in Melbourne, Australia and consults worldwide. Services include:

  • reviewing and redesigning existing forms;
  • designing new forms;
  • conducting user research; and
  • training in form design best practices.

Don’t just collect data — leverage it.