How to write good questions for forms - Make sure you need each question

Question your questions. Keep them to a minimum.

Understand why you're asking each question

Make a list of all the information you need from your users now for you to deliver the service.

Having a list forces you to question why you're asking users for each item of information. It also helps you challenge unnecessary questions. (This list is sometimes called a "question protocol".)

Work out what information your organisation already has (or can access) and where you have information gaps. Ask the questions that let you fill the gaps.

Only ask for information you definitely need

Only include a question when you know these things:

  • you need the information to deliver the service
  • why you need it
  • who in the organisation uses the information and how
  • which users need to give you the information
  • how you'll check that the information is accurate (including any validation rules)
  • what you'll do if the user gives you the wrong answer or no answer, or if their answer contains information that suggests clinical risk
  • how you'll keep the information up to date and secure

If you do not know how you'll use an answer, find out or remove the question.

Example: signatures

Paper forms often ask for a signature but not many organisations authenticate them. Does your service need a signature and if so, how will you check the user's identity?

If you do have to verify and authenticate individuals, read NHS Digital's Identity verification and authentication standard for digital health and care services, DCB3051.

All the data you capture is subject to data protection legislation, including GDPR. Get specialist advice on protecting users' confidentiality and privacy from your business and information risk teams (for example, senior information risk owners and information asset owners). This is another reason to collect as little data as possible.

Start with essential questions and add optional ones later

Decide if each question is essential (sometimes called "required" or "mandatory") or not. If the user cannot get the service unless they give you this information, it is essential.

Not all personal data is essential. Consider the sensitivities of your questions and the data you really need.

Only add optional questions when some users clearly need them.

Do not mark essential fields. Mark optional fields with "(optional)" - in brackets.

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We do not use asterisks for essential fields. Research suggests that they're not necessary and they can make users anxious and less likely to complete the form.

Use information your organisation already has - or can access

If you already have some data about the user, you may only need them to confirm that it's correct.

Investigate whether you can get some of the information you need from another NHS system.

Example: doing the hard work to avoid asking a question

The NHS has a service that lets patients choose if data from their health records is shared for research and planning. As part of the service, users need to confirm their identity. They can do this by giving their NHS number. But the team found that some users struggled to find their number.

So they designed a way users could prove their identity by using their personal details instead. This involved looking up a patient database which needed the user's:

  • name
  • date of birth
  • postcode
  • gender

The database check needs gender (the service does not), but not everyone wants to answer a question about gender. The team gets around this by checking the database 4 times - once for each of the gender options in the database.

That way they do not have to ask users their gender and this makes the service more inclusive.

Postpone questions you could ask later

If you do not need information right now, consider collecting it afterwards.

For example:

  • on an application form, first ask the questions that let you and the user know if they're eligible, then come back to questions that determine what they will get
  • for psychological therapies, rather than asking users to take a clinical assessment (like a depression score sheet) as part of their self-referral form, it can be better to ask them to fill it in later on

Read more about collecting personal information and data protection

Help us improve this guidance

Share insights or feedback and take part in the discussion. We use GitHub as a collaboration space. All the information on it is open to the public.

Read more about how to feedback or share insights.

If you have any questions, get in touch with the service manual team.

Updated: November 2019