Making Questions Easy to Answer

One thing to keep in mind: a form is presented to a user, and if the user doesn't understand a question, they come to a dead stop.

The author suggests there are four steps in answering a question:

  1. Understand the question
  2. Find the answer (in memory or by consulting a resource)
  3. Judge whether the answer fits the question
  4. Enter the answer on the form

Sometimes, it happens very quickly, other times it takes a while. Consider the time it takes to fill out tax forms.

On the level of each question:

Regarding answers, the author mentions four types:

  1. Slot-in - An answer that is assumed to be in the user's immediate knowledge (memory), such as their phone number.
  2. Gathered - An answer that may require the user to reference something, such as a credit card number.
  3. Third-Party - The user must ask someone else for information, such as a convenient time for a gift to be delivered (the user must, or should, ask the recipient)
  4. Created - an answer the user makes up on the spot, based on the question (asking if the user would like standard or overnight shipping)

Problems arise when you make a mistake about what kind of answer is required. For example, it's often assumed that a person knows their office's fax number (it's in memory), when in reality they may need to go look at the machine.

It is also a common assumption that the person who is completing the form is the person who has the information you need. For example, a form to book travel reservations may be used by a secretary booking plans for her boss rather than herself.

In writing labels

  1. Slot-in - The question can be very brief: "Name" is sufficient for the user to know what they need to enter
  2. Gathered - A brief prompt is OK, but you may also need to tell them where to find the answer. For example, the CVV number on the credit card (show them a picture)
  3. Third-Party - Most likely, a "proper question" is needed so that they can ask the other party for information.
  4. Created - Definitely needs a proper question, and may need guidance for deciding on an answer.

Explaining the reason you want the answer will help the user to tell that the information they have provided fits the question you have asked ("judging" step). The example given is a form that indicates that a password will be sent to the e-mail address provided will help the user decide which e-mail address to provide (one they can access immediately).

A particular problem with multiple-choice questions is that none of the options provided seems to "fit" - the old joke about being "male" or "female" without an "other" option, and an example of a dating site that provides "transgendered" as an option.

There is also the problem where more than one answer seems to fit - in which case you will need to revisit the answers to make them mutually exclusive, or ask if you should make it a "check all that apply" rather than "select only one."

Ambiguity can be a problem - if you ask a person if they do something "frequently" or "seldom," that is not clear. A person who does something once a week may feel it is seldom