Writing Useful Instructions
The title of the form is the first instruction to the user. IF the user fills out an "order form" they believe it is sued to place an order. If it's a "contact form" they expect to contact you, or for you to contact them.
Of key importance is the preamble - the text at the top of the form, that tell the user why they are being asked to fill out a form. A good preamble will result in a higher completion rate.
Some especial precautions
- Keep it short. The preamble should be a few sentences, not a lengthy paragraph
- Write from the user's perspective. The preamble tells the user why THEY should complete the form, not why YOU are providing it.
- Beware of lawyers. While you may have some legal reasons for providing information to the user, don't let them junk it up.
- If information pertains to a specific question, it belongs with the question (not the preamble)
Tips for clarity:
- Use simple words the user can understand (again, this may be based on who the user is)
- Use short, active sentences that presume an affirmative (positive, rather than negative) response
- Avoid a "wall of words" - consider bulleted items rather than a paragraph
- Put choices before actions - If you indicate "enter a phone number if you wish us to call you" people will enter the number even if they do not want to be called. Flip it: "if you wish us to call you, provide a phone number" and the user will skip rather than answer the question.
- Use headings to separate long lists, but make sure they are useful headings (not arbitrary or meaningless to the user)
In some instances, the preamble may convince the user not to fill out the form, or it may direct them to a different form, especially in cases where users seem to be constantly filling out the "wrong" form on yoru site.
After the preamble, it's useful to provide a list of things the user must gather - especially in cases where the user will need a number of items, or even a few unusual ones, telling them this up-front will prevent an ugly surprise later (getting halfway through the process, only to discover they need something).
A before-and-after example is provided with a form that:
- Has an uninformative title - "Information Please" with no indication of why (the user fills in the form to request information on career opportunities)
- Has poor instructions - "Please complete the following form. Asterisks indicate required fields" still leaves readers guessing why they are doing this
- Directs the user to another page for a list of job openings - Unneeded, as the only way to get to the form is to click through from a job opening
- Has goofy, unnecessary text - "If you aren't looking for a rewarding career, please don't fill out this form"
- Has a "thank you" message - Which should be give at the end of the task, if at all.
- Has a gap of white space so large the form itself is off-screen.