Form Etiquette, Part 2: Every Question Has a Cost

I recently wrote a post that was meant to serve as a reference checklist of the things to keep in mind when building an online form. Today we will unpack why those items are on the checklist. We’ll stay out of the technical details until next time, and focus on the philosophy behind asking questions. These philosophies are important to consider whether the form you create is a web form, a PDF form, or even on paper. The root is that every question has a cost.

Every question has a cost.

Every prompt in a form will cost the user time to answer, including time to decide whether or not they need to answer it, and how to answer it. It will also cost an employee within your organization time to decide what to do with that data. If your form requires more perceived time than a respondent is willing to give, and if the benefits of completing the form don’t noticeably outweigh the time cost, your target respondents may not bother completing the form at all.

To that end, our first goal should be to limit the total number of questions, or prompts, in our forms. The fewer the prompts, the fewer barriers to completing the form. So what stays, and what goes? You can determine what prompts you need with this question protocol developed by Caroline Jarrett.

For each prompt, ask:

  • Who in your organization uses the answers to each question?
  • What do they use it for?
  • Is an answer required or optional?
  • If an answer is required, what happens if a user enters gibberish just to get through the form?

This protocol is meant to help you reduce the prompts down to the ones you need — and will help identify any that are no longer needed.

Once you’re well on your way to eliminating the cost associated with your form, and you’ve cut it down to the fields you need, it’s time to think about how your respondents will react to the questions that are left, and how you will handle the results.

Your Target Audience is Humans

While we’re focused on designing prompts that gather data to complete a transaction of some sort, it’s important to remember that you’re requesting information from humans. Humans often have complicated lives and stories that affect how they interact with the world — including how they interact with your form. So even as your prompts are dispassionate and direct, it’s important to remember that your respondents will be humans for whom the answers to questions of marital status, ethnicity, and even gender may be “it’s complicated.”

Content strategist Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s personal story of how form questions around family and personal history can have a real impact is worth reading as a small insight into this line of thinking. Along with sharing some personal struggles, she reminds us that:

“How many children do you have? might sound like the simplest question, until it brings a grieving parent to their knees. When is your anniversary? might create a moment of pause for someone who’s recently separated. Even What’s your hometown? or Where did you go on vacation as a child? might feel painful for kids who grew up without that kind of stability or privilege.”

Of course, this does not mean we shouldn’t ask questions that need responses. What it does mean is that we can increase our response rate and reduce the friction of filling out a form if we think about how to frame potentially difficult questions. Once again, only request information you need. If you don’t need it, don’t ask for it. If you do need it:

  • Gender may be something other than just Male or Female. Consider a selection for “Trans,” “Non-binary,” or at the very least an option for “Decline to state.”
  • Marital status should have multiple options, including more open-ended options and “Decline to state”
  • Ethnicity or race should have options for “Other” or the option to select multiple fields.
  • If you do need potentially sensitive information, include information about why you need it, who will use it, and how it will be used

Every question has a cost. These costs are not only on the interaction with the respondent's. You also need to consider the privacy and security efforts involved when gathering sensitive information.

Form Privacy and Security

Federal law has strict regulations on the collection of HIPAA data and Sensitive Personally Identifiable Information (PII), including who can request and access the information, and the security rating of systems that store sensitive PII.

Sensitive PII is defined as,

“PII that requires stricter handling guidelines because of the nature of the data and the increased risk to an individual if compromised, and if lost, compromised, or disclosed without authorization, could result in substantial harm, embarrassment, inconvenience, or unfairness to an individual.”

Phew! Did you get all that? In a nutshell, sensitive PII includes, but is not limited to: social security number, date of birth, driver’s license number, medical information, and any information that may stigmatize or adversely affect a person.

If you’re requesting potentially sensitive PII, it’s your responsibility to confirm with the appropriate people in your organization, and determine the appropriate methods of gathering that data. (Note to our customers: the Digital Services Georgia web platform is not built to store sensitive PII.)

Even if you’re not requesting sensitive PII, you may be requesting information that requires some privacy. If that’s the case, take the time to evaluate how secure that information is in your system.

  • Are the form results submitted securely?
    On our platform, forms are submitted via http — unsecure unless you use the Secure Webform settings to send the results via SSL (over https).
  • Who else can access the form results in the back end?
    On our platform the default is that anyone with Editor access can see all form results. You can manually adjust settings to only allow certain editors, using the Secure Webform features).

Bottom Line: Be Considerate of Time, Feelings, and Privacy

Treating form respondents with consideration and respect goes a long way to establish trust and improve your organization’s relationship with the very people you want to reach. Every small step toward improving your form interactions will improve your results.

Today we looked at how considerations around your respondent’s time, personal history, privacy and security can improve your results. In the final post of this series, we’ll look at the technical form settings that can improve usability and ensure you get the answers in a format you can use.

Let's Get Started!

To get you on your way, we’ve put together a handy spreadsheet template to use as a guide as you put together your form.

It's a Google spreadsheet, so when you visit the link, you can use the File menu on the template page to download it as an Excel file or copy it as a separate Google sheet.


Get the Form Handling Questionnaire

(Spreadsheet Template)

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