Forms that Work Designing Web Forms for Usability

**** Feb262012

Forms that Work is a straightforward, practical volume which outlines best practices for creating usable web-based forms. The authors, Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney, both usability consultants, draw on their own experience as well as third-party research, and back up each conclusion with examples, including plenty of explanatory screenshots.

While the web has evolved at an amazing pace over the last decade, not a lot has changed when it comes to building and filling out forms. Aside from the new HTML5 form elements and the introduction of AJAX, web developers still have a small selection of fields and actions to work with. Many of the recommendations in the book have become somewhat standard practice (such as using an asterisk to indicate required fields).

Who this book is for

The book will be most beneficial to developers creating longer, idiosyncratic forms. It should be required reading for anyone putting together an online loan application, college admission, or tax form. But there are also useful guidelines for those building typical e-commerce and registration forms: for example, making errors prominent at the top of the form and also at the individual form fields (p112). Best practices such as this may seem obvious, but everyone has experienced forms that ignore them.

Sweat the small stuff, but not too much

Perhaps the most important takeaway for a front-end developer is that it’s far more important to think critically about what information you’re asking of the user and how it can best be gathered than to worry about small details such as whether to follow form labels with a colon. Even if you’re form is beautifully formatted and completely accessible, if you’re asking poorly-worded or intrusive questions, it will still fail.

Light on usability testing

The only disappointing aspect of this book is Chapter 9: “Testing (The Best Bit)”. The authors emphasize that usability testing and observing forms in action is how they have gained the most knowledge, and thus:

If you want to create great forms, usability test early and often.

However this chapter is the shortest in the book, at only 4 pages. Given the authors’ insistence that forms should be tested with real users “early and often”, more explanation on how to conduct these tests would have been welcome. A concrete case study describing the process and what was learned from it would have served to illuminate the methods and potential benefits of testing a form with users.


Despite this shortcoming, anyone who builds forms on the web can benefit from this quick read, especially those working on longer, more complex forms.

Respond to this review

Author(s)Caroline Jarrett, Gerry Gaffney
PublisherMorgan Kaufmann

2 comments so far…Comment

Caroline Jarrett Feb 29 2012

Thanks for the review. It’s great to know that the book continues to be relevant.

For more resources, please have a look at the book’s companion web site “Forms that work”.

I’ve also got some presentations on my SlideShare account: cjforms

Interesting that you’d have liked more on usability testing. We struggled with this and in the end decided that shorter was better, particularly as there are many good books on how to do usability testing – and some excellent new ones have come out recently. For example, Steve Krug’s book “Rocket Surgery: The Do-it-yourself guide to finding and fixing usability problems”, or (if you’d like a more formal book) Carol Barnum’s “Usability Testing Essentials”

Nora Mar 01 2012

Caroline – Thanks for taking the time to comment, and for the recommendations.

In fact, I’ve already found something immediately to useful for me on — your pdf on when to use a dropdown.

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