Forms Studio with Caroline Jarrett

Do you ever get asked “please take a quick look at this form”? Or do you wish that clients and colleagues thought a bit harder about their forms before inflicting them on people in a usability test?In her workshop, Caroline Jarrett led participants through a series of practical exercises, exploring both the historical challenges and latest thinking in form design to combat these problems.

Caroline started working on optical character recognition for tax return forms, where she found that her OCR system would not work because people filled the forms in so badly. This ignited her passion for improving the design of forms.

She noted that a form is a form if it looks like a form and works like a form, if it asks questions and expects answers, and if it helps to achieve a goal. Working with forms allows her to get to grips with content strategy in plain language. UX professionals tend to get involved with the interaction design element of form design, but underlying this is service design and process design.

To understand whether a form is a good form, you have to start with who the users are and what they are trying to do. Caroline argued that we also need to understand the answers that we want before we construct our questions, although most people start with the questions and work backwards.

Caroline facilitated a group discussion about the pros and cons of label placement on forms, including the trend demonstrated by Google Material Design and other recent form design trends, and the cultural differences surrounding label placement. Caroline argued that the crucial thing is that it should be clear that the label belongs to the box. She directed workshop participants to her Labels and Buttons on Forms slides that explore label placement in more detail:

Caroline also recommended reading the Design Patterns for guidance about drop downs. At GDS they have to design for users who are using a computer for the first time and therefore don’t necessarily know how to interact with a drop down.

Workshop Exercise

The group suggested forms they would like to examine in the Form Studio exercise. The top suggestion was to look at the UK visa application form: Apply for a registration certificate as a qualified person: EEA (QP)

Caroline guided the group through several steps to analyse this form:

Step 1. Don’t look at the form
We don’t know who the users are or the journey they have taken to get to the form yet, so we don’t want to bring any preconceptions to our analysis.

Step 2. Find out about the users
Choose a persona and write the story of why that persona is filling in the form. The group suggested several different personas with different needs and emotional states as they approach the form. They settled on Michael – a Swiss citizen who has been living in Canada and would like to come to the UK to work as a professional.

Step 3. Complete the form from the perspective of the persona
Caroline asked workshop participants to work in groups to complete the form as honestly as possible.

Step 4. Suggest improvements
Each group was asked to find three things to recommend the owners of the form: one relating to the appearance of the form, one relating to the conversation and one relating to the interaction.

Feedback included:

  • It was difficult to use on a mobile device and it really needed to be printed out to be completed. This led most people to just look at the form and resolve to print the form out later.
  • One group gave up on the form entirely and found another form entirely that was easier to use online. This led to a page with a call to action button presented above useful information that users needed to read before they move to complete the form, which could be easily missed.
  • It was difficult to tell that we were actually looking at the right form for our persona.
  • The tone of the form was aggressive and the language was nebulous.


Caroline concluded by noted that it is often hard to find positives when looking at forms like this, but she is always looking to find a ray of sunshine when analysing a form. She advised that it can be best to start a form consultation by asking “what is the scope for change with this form?” as sometimes it may not be possible to start again from scratch, even if you want to!

About Caroline Jarrett

Caroline is an expert at improving forms, surveys, and other interactions.
After earning a degree in mathematics at Oxford University, Caroline started work as a software engineer, moving rapidly into project management across a variety of industries, including electronic point of sale, process control systems, telecommunications, and optical character recognition of printed and hand-written documents.

Follow Caroline on Twitter: @cjforms