Usability and user experience aren’t just about how a web form looks. It’s also about how your web forms talk to people — the words you use and how you say them. To follow web form usability best practices, don’t stop at designing the layout or style of a form. Remember to design your words, too.
How do you design with words?
It’s simple. Think like a designer: write iteratively, use data to drive your decisions, and aim for clarity and delight.
The world is stuffed full of boring, complicated, messy, awful forms. You probably don’t enjoy filling out forms, but think of the last time you were really impressed by a letter or an email. What was special about it? Maybe it was someone reaching out to see if you needed any help, or a friend linking you to a helpful article. Maybe it was something small, like a funny sentence or a perfect emoji.
The magic touch is the connectivity — the emotional connection you create with your audience.
Words can help you achieve that. What you say can make a huge difference in how people feel about and respond to your web form. The right words will boost your conversion rate and build trust in your brand. The right words will feel authentic, honest, and friendly.
So let’s get to it! We’ve put together this quick guide to designing with words, so you can get started and build your own creative process.
1. Write Iteratively
Writing iteratively means creating multiple drafts or versions. You don’t just leave it at one go, but your writing will develop and evolve through a series of iterations, going through a process of feedback and editing each time you move to the next iteration.
First, outline what kinds of information you need to collect, and how you’ll phrase the questions. Draft the form title, intro, question labels, submit button copy, thank you page — basically anything that needs text.
Keep in mind how the text will flow from one step to the next. Does everything make sense in that specific order? If you need to, diagram and wireframe to make sure that you’ve mapped out all the steps and possible sequences.
Once you’ve got the outline down, fill it in. Feel free to come up with several different spins on a word, sentence, or paragraph.
And then rewrite, revise, and rework your words until they’re ready. Depending on the project, you might go through three or more rounds of revision. Build on the things you learn, and keep iterating!
2. Make Data-Driven Choices
This applies to any decision across the board, but it’s essential to writing, too. Whenever there are multiple options, it can be tough to know which one to choose. People on your team might have different opinions, some stronger than others. But it takes more than someone’s keen intuition and wealth of experience.
In the end, it’s all about the user.
So head to the data. Do an audit and evaluate how closely your words hit the mark. Survey your users: ask open-ended questions and ask them what they think. Conduct user tests and gather feedback.
Why? Because you might think you’ve got all the answers, and you’re totally right about your subject line being the best… until you test it and realize it’s not that great. People are deleting that email after skimming the subject line! They instantly mark it as spam! Your amazing subject line is junk!
Testing gives you the opportunity to see what you’re doing right, and what you could do better. You’ll be able to identify bottlenecks and pain points, and understand what will ease the frustration for your users.
You might not have the resources to do a lot of user testing, especially if you need to put together dozens (or hundreds!) of web forms with multitudes of text. But your words matter. Since your web forms are how you draw in new customers, clients, or constituents, user testing will help you make the most effective decisions and drive the most impact.
3. Be Clear
Make sure your words are as clear as possible. Use fewer words.
Time is valuable, and people are always on the lookout for something better to do with their time. The more words you use, the more you’re asking them to read.
Let’s say you’re driving on a road that forks into two paths:
- The left path looks smooth and clear.
- The right path has a ton of rocks on it — not huge enough to block your car completely, but big enough to get in your way. You’re going to have to do a lot of careful maneuvering around these rocks.
Which one would you pick?
Yep, the easy one. And most of the time, it’s a lot easier to close the tab than to give your time and energy to a web form. Don’t forget that there are endless distractions to keep respondents from filling out a form.
If any part of your form is confusing, ambiguous, or complicated — that’s a lot of rocks for people to deal with. You want the clearest possible path, so people can speed right to the finish line.
With online forms, less is often better. Less text means there’s less to parse, and it’s less overwhelming. After cutting form fields and going from 11 to 4 questions total, one company increased conversions by 120%! So keep your words lean and take away anything that’s not necessary.
4. Delight Your Users
You need to develop and harness what makes your organization unique and appealing to your audience. If you’re running a toy shop for kids, you might want to add more kid-friendly touches to your web forms, like simpler word choice and fun surprises so that children and parents can read along together.
If you’re a florist, you could add lively and interesting descriptions about the flowers and bouquets that your customers can order.
It doesn’t have to be a huge, flashy gesture. But explore ways to make your words meaningful.
Delighting your audience can be as simple as customizing the Thank You page of a form, so that people feel appreciated through your genuine gratitude, or assured by a confirmation that you’ll get in touch ASAP.
Think about how you’d interact with them face-to-face. How do you try to connect with your audience? Figure out how you can take your conversations online. Write like you talk.
Order your form fields and paragraphs so that they follow a natural, logical order. Add section headers and emphasize key points. Make the space clean and inviting.
Basically, make it easy to skim! People will take shortcuts wherever they can, so they’re likely to skim. If words are readily organized, then people will get more info from just a quick glance. That’s very convenient for anyone short on time.
We’ve already said that shorter is better, but if you must have a long form, you can cut down the mental strain by splitting up your form into multiple pages. It’s like dividing a phone number into small blocks of three to four digits, rather than leaving it as a long string of numbers. Break an unwieldy form into bite-size pieces so it’s easier to understand and to fill out. Add a navigation bar so it’s easy to flip from one page to the next.
6. Talk to Your Audience
This goes hand-in-hand with user delight. Who’s your audience? Be mindful and respectful of who and where they are. Have you refined your words so that you’re specifically talking to them?
For example, if you cater to American teenagers, you might use more informal, chatty words and sprinkle emoji into your text. Or if your respondents are parents enrolling kids for a summer camp, your voice might be welcoming and supportive. You’ll present the camp as a fun, educational place and speak to any parents’ concerns.
But if your audience is international and spans many ages and nationalities, then you’ll want to be as plain as possible. You’ll need to avoid using any American English idioms and phrases, because people could get confused or misunderstand what you’re saying. Ideally, your web form will be localized for your audience, so that the text, buttons, and error messages are in your audience’s language.
7. Match Your Brand’s Voice
Your words should sync up with your organization’s identity. It should be a seamless transition from your website, storefront, office, email, letter, text, or however your audience finds you — to your forms. If your web presence and your brick-and-mortar office is beautiful, but your web forms look disconnected and dull, that’s a jarring experience for your users.
Is your organization’s voice playful or professional? If it’s playful, it doesn’t mean you have to go overboard with cutesy words. But you can feel free to have a little fun in the right place. For example, MailChimp’s voice is bright and expressive, but the tone changes depending on the context.
If you have a professional voice, you can be interesting and friendly without leaning too casual or silly.
Just take care to steer clear of cookie-cutter text that’s dry and generic. Does it seem like it could belong any old website, or is it clearly and specifically your organization’s voice?
Personalize your words as much you can, whether you’re designing a homeowner loan application or a pizza party event registration. The unique details of your web forms will help you stand out from the crowd, and help you make a human connection with prospective clients and customers.
8. Focus on Benefits
If people fill out your form, what will they get at the end of it?
Maybe you’re offering a free consultation, or an eBook download. But the benefits go beyond these things themselves, so uncover the real values for your audience. For example, a financial consultation could help people save money and time and find more freedom in their lives — freedom to fund a vacation or a move to a new city. An eBook download packed with cooking tips and tricks could teach you to eat healthier and trim your budget. That’s a huge plus for your nutrition and your savings.
Or maybe the benefits are broader. A survey response could help you change an important policy for low-income households for the better, with a significant boost to their quality of life.
So whether you’re designing business forms or nonprofit forms, show your audience exactly what kinds of great things they can gain or contribute through a web form. It’s a win-win: they’ll know up front what the benefits are, and you’ll land more conversions.
9. Use Better Verbs on Your Submit Buttons
Does your submit button say “Submit”? Toss it out!
It’s plain and doesn’t tell you anything about the online form. It’s like naming a restaurant “Restaurant” — there’s just not enough detail. Wouldn’t you rather know what you’ll be eating before you sit down at a place?
Think of five different words you could use instead. Specific verbs are more helpful:
- Register Now
- Send a Message
- Download the Guide
- Schedule My Consultation
Now, you might want to jazz it up with a phrase like “Awesome!” or “Yes!” But while these words communicate a strong voice and tone, they’re vague and don’t give a good sense of what’s going to happen next. Awesome… what? Yes to what? You’re not sure what the actions are there.
When you use specific verbs, respondents can tell immediately what the submit button does. And better verbs encourage people to take action, because the words paint a clear picture of what they’ll get or accomplish.
Web Form UX Further Reading
Looking for more resources on web form user experience? Check out these thoughtful and informative articles:
- What Impacts Web Form Conversion? Luke Wroblewski
- 8 Reasons Users Don’t Fill Out Sign Up Forms, UX Movement
- Must Read? Must Go in Question! Formulate Information Design
Share Your Web Form Usability Tips
We hope this little primer has helped you learn to design with words and think creatively about your web forms!
Do you have any UX tips and processes to share? We’d love to hear your case studies and insights. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet @FormAssembly, or drop a comment here.