Can anyone recommend best practices and guidelines for the design of paper forms - not printed online forms, but stand-alone paper forms, filled in by hand.
Rob Tannen, PhD
Director of Research
> Can anyone recommend best practices and guidelines for the design of
> paper forms - not printed online forms, but stand-alone paper forms,
> filled in by hand.
I would have loved to include paper form design in our recent book but was
persuaded that a shorter book would be a better idea. However, many of the
ideas in there work just fine on paper forms.
The book is: "Forms that work: Designing web forms for usability" Morgan
Available from Amazon and most other bookshops.
Here's a guide as to which chapters are applicable:
Introduction: what is a form - works for paper
1. Persuading people to answer - works for paper.
2. Asking for the right information - definitely works for paper, and some
of the things we recommend such as watching people deal with the incoming
forms are a lot easier to do with paper
3. Making questions easy to answer - definitely works for paper
4. Writing instructions - definitely works for paper
5. Choosing forms controls - irrelevant, no help for paper
6. Making the form flow easily - not much that's relevant to paper
7. Taking care of the details - works for paper
8. Making the form look easy - the sections on grids and grouping are
9. Testing - definitely works for paper.
If you'd like some online resources, then try two papers (I wrote both of
them about paper forms):
"Designing usable forms: the three-layer model of the form"
"Understanding the costs of data capture"
Hope this helps.
I disagree with #5. Picking controls is VERY important. Why just today
I had to fill in a form to get my flumist inoculation. The last item
on the list was:
The Cost is $25.
Elsewhere on the form I had this option:
Male [_] or Female [_]
So what was I supposed to fill in? Was I supposed to check one? Was I
supposed to write two numbers, like Cash $15, Check $10? Was I
supposed to write in the Check number... and if so, what if it was
I'd say any book worth its salt about form design would answer this
question for an online form, and thus a paper one.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Posted from the new ixda.org
For those who saw that collapse into 1 line.
>From William Brall
> I disagree with #5. Picking controls is VERY important.
<snip - example>
> I'd say any book worth its salt about form design would answer this
> question for an online form, and thus a paper one.
(Aside: sorry that the formatting of my previous email on this subject came
out so badly)
We do have a whole chapter on picking form controls, chapter 5.
It's just that the original post asked for material on paper forms, and I
felt that the chapter wouldn't be useful for paper forms. There are
different considerations for designing the boxes that people write into
compared to the controls that they interact with online. One day, I'll get
around to writing something on choosing response spaces on paper but I
haven't yet done so.
As it happens, this chapter in the book is very much based on the paper that
I wrote with Sarah Allen Miller called 'Should I use a dropdown?'. The paper
is available at: http://www.formsthatwork.com/articlespapers/dropdown.asp
During the editing process, the acknowledgement of Sarah's contribution to
the book chapter got overlooked and I'm glad to be able to remedy this now.
Hope this helps
I'm just saying that picking form controls for an electronic form,
would be a better guide to paper form control choice than nothing at
all would be.
The example I gave would translate directly from any section in such
a chapter that talks about when to use check boxes, and when to use
And then I was pointing out that the only possible way your chapter
wouldn't be helpful at all for paper, would be if it didn't have
advice for when you should use what, and as a result be a failure for
electronic and paper forms alike.
True, a paper form can't have a select box, but they can have check
boxes and blanks for text and many of the same rules apply for when
to use them.
So, without reading your book, I know it must be helpful in that
case. And if it really isn't at all, it must not be very helpful for
electronic forms either.
And if your book goes even one step beyond rote rules and delves into
the spirit and philosophy behind why you should design such and such a
way, it should be directly translatable to any sort of form.
<snip - explanation>
> And if your book goes even one step beyond rote rules and delves into
> the spirit and philosophy behind why you should design such and such a
> way, it should be directly translatable to any sort of form.
Fair enough. We've tried very much to concentrate on ways of thinking about
forms, so it seems like we've written the type of book that you're
Out now: "Forms that work: Designing web forms for usability"
I would recommend trying to contact a statistican as they have done
this sort of thing for years and they are a great place to start, but
don't solely rely on their advice. I would suspect the large
departments (census etc have this information on line in US)
I sense you question isn't fully answered regarding paper forms, so
I will offer a good, if difficult, recommendation.
The best discussion I've seen of paper forms in is the Style Manual
6th edition of the Commonwealth of Australia, published by John Wiley
Australia ISBN 0-7016-3648-3.
The chapter on forms (chapter 20) is only 15 pages, but is very
modern in its discussion of user centered approaches and graphic
treatments. I understand that David Sless, an Aussie who is a major
researcher of forms, contributed to the chapter. (I am guessing
Caroline Jarret would approve??)
Unfortunately, the books isn't widely sold outside Australia (I
bought mine while living in New Zealand.) It is an example of
wonderful book that isn't available globally (so much for the global
village). It covers all kinds of graphic design issues with
Sorry to offer a recommendation that isn't easy to get, but if you
are motivated, you might find the effort worthwhile.
>From Michael Andrews
<snip - recommendation>
> The chapter on forms (chapter 20) is only 15 pages, but is very modern in
its discussion of user centered approaches and graphic treatments. I
understand that David Sless, an Aussie who is a major researcher of forms,
contributed to the chapter. (I am guessing Caroline Jarret would approve??)
I would certainly recommending reading and thinking about anything written
by David Sless. It's just not all that easy to get hold of his publications.
Much of his forms material was published by his Communications Research
Institute of Australia, on paper, in the 1980s and early 1990s. His site is
currently saying 'closed for maintenance'
While we're on the topic of Australian forms persons, I can also strongly
recommend Robert Barnett, who has also been writing about usability of forms
for over 20 years (he uses the Australian spelling useability):
If you're in the USA, it might be easier for you to get his books from the
Business Forms Management Association (BFMA):
And there's also Jessica Enders, who's business Formulate is just a year
If you're wondering why I'm mentioning several Australian forms people and
none from the rest of the world, that's because there aren't all that many
elsewhere. You can track some of them down through BFMA, but to be honest if
you ask a question about usability of paper forms on their list (formspace),
you're likely to get answers from me again, and/or possibly Jessica or Rob
Barnett - the usual suspects, in other words. There are other people on that
list who know a LOT about forms, but it's other aspects of forms e.g. the
management of forms, the details of programming Acrobat forms, career
progression of forms professionals.
There are three heroes of the world of paper document design who have great
things to say about forms:
Patricia Wright, now at Cardiff University researching medical information
devices. Published extensively on forms and information design of paper from
the mid-1970s. Her bibliography is here:
but it doesn't mention her earlier stuff, such as the excellent paper "Just
fill in this form" (with Barnard). I'm away from my library at the moment so
I can't give the exact reference.
Ginny Redish (Janice C. Redish), http://www.redish.net/. Ginny used to be
director of the Document Design group at American Institutes for Research
and they did loads of work on paper forms and indeed paper documents in
general. If you are lucky enough to come across the AIR Guidelines for
Document Designers, treasure it. I got my copy by persuading someone to let
me photocopy his disintegrating version (obviously I made him a copy as
well). (USA government material is not copryright, so this was legal). I
wrote a brief summary of the guidelines here:
http://www.usabilitynews.com/news/article1224.asp These days, Ginny is
concentrating on writing for the web and usability in general, and if you
ask her about forms she's rather likely to refer back to me :-)
Karen Schriver (long interview with her at
Karen is interested in information design in general. Her book is EASY to
get hold of (hurrah), and it's called 'Dynamics in Document Design'
Although it's not about forms as such, it does have a lot to say about the
design of documents in general (and can therefore be applied to forms in
If you'd like a more comprehensive bibliography, then (shameless plug,
again, I'm afraid), I've put a whole bunch of suggestions in the back of our