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The Four C's of Form Design

"Forms make most people cringe. Why? Because forms are generally boring and painful. Do they have to be this way? Yes and no.

Forms are a bit like going to the dentist. Both are necessary evils. A good dentist, like a good form, shouldn't cause you any pain. But neither are likely to ever be much fun.

So what is it that makes a form painful? Take a moment to reflect on what you don't like about doing your taxes. Tax forms are typically a great illustration of what aspects of a form's design make it painful. They:

are confusing
are long
are burdensome and
rarely just 'work' and make sense.

Therefore, if a form's characteristics are the opposite of these, it should be painless."

Formulate has developed a model called the 4 Cs of Good Forms Design.

Source: Formulate

The principles

  1. Clear
  2. Concise
  3. Clever
  4. Cooperative

  1. Clear

    Clarity is influenced by many things, including but not limited to the language used, layout of the form and actions that are available to the user. When designing these components, you are aiming to marry the purpose of the form with the perspective of the form-filler. It is for this reason that it is so important to have an in-depth understanding of your specific users and the context of use.

    Another very important approach for enhancing clarity is consistency. Consistency (e.g. of language, layout and actions) makes the form predictable and learnable. Humans are very much creatures of habit - we act in the future according to our experience of the past. A predictable form therefore fits very well with our way of working.

  2. Concise

    Conciseness is about gathering the required information in the most efficient way possible.

    Many people mistakenly believe that a good form is short. They aim for the fewest possible number of pages or screens and the least number of questions.

    However, quality is not linearly related to length. This is because things that add length, like questions tailored to different circumstances, often improve the experience for the person filling out the form.

  3. Clever

    Making the form clever reduces the workload for the user.

    The most basic level of cleverness comes from "sequencing". Sequencing is the process of directing the user around the form, skipping questions that don't apply to them. The revised tax question above uses sequencing to ensure that only those people whose family name in the current tax form is different get asked about their family name on the previous tax form.

    Forms intelligence really comes into its own in the electronic realm. Here, sequencing can be automated, inputs can be restricted (e.g. number of children must be at least 0) and many other smarts, like calculation of totals, can be built in.

    Forms that aren't smart are not only burdensome, they are frustrating.

  4. Cooperative

    Finally, a good form works with the form-filler, i.e. is cooperative.

    Being cooperative is all about stepping into the form-filler's shoes, and doing what will make the experience better for them. Specifically, cooperative forms:

    • Manage expectations
    • Match the user's mental model
    • Provide definitions and explicit boundaries
    • Give background information and explanations and are consistent but flexible.

    In the electronic medium, being cooperative is also about:

    • Confirming before submission, and allowing modification and
    • Being bug free and stable.
    • In other words, cooperative forms don't frustrate!