[Book Review] Web Form Design, Filling in the Blanks

11 Jun 2008 - 7:56pm
8 years ago
4 replies
2575 reads

I just finished this book, and thought I would share my book review with the
community. Enjoy!

- Will

Book Review
Web Form Design, Filling in the Blanks
By Luke Wroblewski
Publisher: Rosenfeld Media

The scene is all too familiar. You're presenting wireframes of the
registration process for a new web application when the discussion veers
down a dark alley. The sky has turned the color of black ink, and you can
smell sulfur in the air as one team member after another debates the
alignment of form labels. Before you can toss up a quick Hail Mary,
marketing says that the opt-in for marketing solicitations has to be
defaulted to yes, and you can feel your soul sucked out of your body through
your nose as a simple one hour meeting turns into a 3 hour discussion over
the pro's and cons of inline validation while your stomach grumbles because
you just missed. I have heard this war story many times from many
interaction designers and information architects, with little variation
except in the details. What we need is air cover in this battle to design
better forms. Now, it's here.

"Forms Suck!"

And so Luke Wroblewski begins his new book on web form design with a canon
shot across the bow, providing just the air cover and ammunition interaction
designers need; and every review, including this one, is going to begin with
a first impression of the book.

Mine was: Boffo.
(bof·fo (bf) Slang, adj.: Extremely successful; great.)

Wroblewski opens "Web Form Design" with an exploration, from a strategic
perspective, of why users interact with forms. News flash: It's not because
we like to. It may seem obvious, but the truth is, interaction designers
need to confront the truth that a user's goal is to get to some successful
outcome on the other side of a form – as quickly and painlessly as possible.
We want our iPhone, tax return, or account with Facebook. We don't want to
fill out forms.

"Forms suck. If you don't believe me, try to find people who like filling
them in. You may turn up an accountant who gets a rush when wrapping up a
client's tax return or perhaps a desk clerk who loves to tidy up office
payroll. But for most of us, forms are just an annoyance. What we want to do
is to vote, apply for a job, buy a book online, join a group, or get a
rebate back from a recent purchase. Forms just stand in our way."

Wroblewski has researched, with admirable thoroughness, everything from the
basics of good form design, to labels and most-direct route, delivering his
explanations, patterns and recommendations with a casual urgency that never
veers into preachiness. This book is a useful guide for both the novice
interaction designer and the battle tested UX guru, offering salient, field
tested examples of the good, bad, and often times ugly forms that have
proliferated the web like so many mushrooms after a good rain.

Wroblewski has also invited many seasoned professionals to contribute
sidebars, like Caroline Jarrett's no-nonsense perspective on designing great
forms by advising us to "start thinking about people and relationships,"
instead of just diving into labeling our forms and choosing where to put the
Submit button. I especially appreciated her strategic guidelines for picking
what questions should go into a form in the first place, which she aptly
titles "Keep, Cut, Postpone, or Explain."

Wroblewski is aware of how challenging most readers will find good form
design. It comes as a relief, for instance, when he writes that we should
think less about forms as a means of filling a database, and more as a means
of creating a meaningful conversation between the user and the company. He
generally succeeds at adopting the warm tone of a confiding friend and
colleague who can win you over with self-deprecating,
you-too-can-make-dynamic-forms-every-day enthusiasm. The more subtle points
of user-centered design or goal-driven design are not talked about
explicitly; they are like a whisper on the wind that you can barely hear
unless you train your ears.

*What's In the Book?*

"Web Form Design" is part of a wave of User Experience books sweeping over
us from Rosenfeld Media; books focused on bringing practical, actionable and
well researched methods to actual practitioners in the field. This
literature is going to have a powerful effect on our community of practice,
maybe as powerful as the effect the Polar Bear book had on our grandparents'
era. This volume is broken out into three sections:

*Section one*, "Form Structure" begins with an overview of why form design
matters and describes the principles behind good form design, followed by
Form Organization, Path to Completion, and Labels (hint: your form design
should start from goals). Working quickly through strategy to tactics.
Wroblewski gives numerous examples - within the context of usability studies
-so that you are not left wondering whether these patterns are recommended
based just on his opinion.

*Section two*, "Form Elements," is a useful, clearly written exploration of
each of the components of form design: labels, fields, actions and messages
(help, errors, success). Wroblewski attacks each one of these by defining
particular problem spaces, and then shows good and bad solutions to the
problems while highlighting how these solutions faired in controlled
usability tests, including eye-tracking. He then finishes each chapter off
with a succinct list of 'Best Practices' that I suggest are good enough to
staple to the inside of your eyelids.

*Section three*, "Form Interaction," with chapters on everything from Inline
Validation to Selection-dependent Inputs (a barn burner of a chapter). Here
we have moved from the world of designing labels, alignment, and content to
designing the actual complex interactions between the system -that wants to
be fed like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors – and the world-weary user
that just wants to get to the other side of the rainbow. As Wroblewski
explains in his opening of chapter 9 "Inline Validation,"

"Despite our best efforts to format questions clearly and provide meaningful
affordances for our inputs, some of our questions will always have more than
one possible answer…

…Inline validation can provide several types of feedback: confirmation that
an appropriate answer was given, suggestions for valid answers, and
real-time updates designed to help people stay within necessary limits.
These bits of feedback usually happen when people begin, continue, or stop
entering answers within input fields. "

The chapter tells how to establish communication between the user and the
form, providing clear, easy to read feedback so that the user doesn't get
the "select a username or die" travesty that we see in registration forms
all over the web. You know the ones: you type in your name, choose a
username, enter your email address, and your password (twice), hit the
submit button…and…bad things happen. The username is already taken. Worse,
the form is cleared and you have to enter all that information all over
again. Wroblewski provides advice for validation (without set-in-stone
rules), and a bulleted list of best practices.

The final, and perhaps most interesting chapter in the book, covers the
topic of Gradual Engagement. This is particularly timely given the
kudzu-like proliferation of Web 2.0 applications and services as well as
social networking sites and micro-blogging sites. Instead of starting your
engagement with a new company that all your friends are raving about with
YET ANOTHER registration form – Wroblewski highlights the benefits of moving
a user through the application or service – actually engaging with it, and
seeing it's benefits, while registration is either postponed, or handled
behind the scenes. He explores web applications like JumpCut, where the user
has gone all the way through creating, uploading and editing their video –
and only when they actually want to publish and share it, does the user
encounter a form – at which point they have already learned the service,
it's benefits, and it's value. Wroblewski doesn't have any hard numbers
about fall-off rates, but from a user experience perspective – my gut tells
me it's better than confronting a first-time potential user with a form to
fill out. I am looking forward to seeing how this approach plays out over
the next year.


What is likely to win the most converts, though, is the joy Wroblewski takes
in designing – which becomes clear as you page through the book. He isn't
just an ardent evangelizer, following the rituals of going to conferences
selling snake oil. He's been there in the trenches, just like you; he's done
this a hundred, maybe a thousand times; he's tested these ideas – and he has
a framework for you to use from day one.

If you want to trust my snap judgment, buy this book: you'll be delighted.
If you want to trust my more reflective second judgment, after having read,
re-read, and ruminated over the finer points he makes in the book, buy it:
you'll be delighted but left wanting more. I don't know if more could have
been written about Web Form Design, but if so, I would have gladly read that
as well.

You can get Web Form Design from Rosenfeld Media.

You can also get it at Amazon.com, but for the same price, R.M. tosses in a
nicely formatted digital version which you can use to quote from when you
have to sell a good form design to a team that wants to bicker over top-,
right-, or left- aligned form labels. This is your air cover – now just call
it in!

~ will

"Where you innovate, how you innovate,
and what you innovate are design problems"

Will Evans | User Experience Architect
tel +1.617.281.1281 | will at semanticfoundry.com
twitter: https://twitter.com/semanticwill


11 Jun 2008 - 8:44pm

Will: "You can also get it at Amazon.com, but for the same price, R.M. tosses in a nicely formatted digital version which you can use to quote from when you have to sell a good form design to a team that wants to bicker over top-, right-, or left- aligned form labels."

also, Rosenfeld were a sponsor of Interaction 08

that said, PLEASE dont feel guilty buying at Amazon, ok?

12 Jun 2008 - 8:51am
John Gibbard

Great, comprehensive review Will. I'm about half-way through (the
book) and still finding great things.

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Posted from the new ixda.org

12 Jun 2008 - 1:38pm
Louis Rosenfeld

Will, thanks very much for the great review!

IxDAers: I can't think of a better excuse to make a discount code
available. Use code IXDA for a 10% discount at the Rosenfeld Media
site: http://rosenfeldmedia.com

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Posted from the new ixda.org

12 Jun 2008 - 2:10pm
Crystal Coss

JOB:: User Interface Specialist: Chicago - north suburbs: 2-3 month contract: Recruiter: This person should have two years experience designing user interfaces. Understanding the benefits of process headers, buttons vs. links and common usability guidelines is desired. This person also needs to know Visio for wireframing.

Writing and Editing skills a plus.

Please respond to Crystal Coss at smartdept. inc., crystal@thesmartdept.com

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