Think of the form as a conversation
Help users understand and answer your questions by making them flow and feel like a conversation.
Be respectful and inclusive. Consider the sensitivities around your questions.
Do not rush things. When and how you ask the questions makes all the difference between a conversation and an interrogation. Your user research will show you how best to get the questions into order.
Make users feel cared for and supported
Show consideration for the user’s emotional needs, as well as their goal. Help them through the form with prompts, reassurance and explanations, for example:
- give them help in context
- use error messages that make it easy for them to understand their mistakes
- offer help on the web, on phone or in person and, where appropriate, signpost users to other support services
Make the conversation flow in a more natural way
Whether you decide to use questions or statements, word them consistently. This helps users get into a rhythm of answering and lets them focus on the content of the questions rather than how they’re presented.
Consider asking follow up questions. For example: "We think you mean this. Is that right?". You do not need to validate the question on the same page. Sometimes it's more effective to check it on the next page.
Soften your language and be less formal
Ask questions the way you would in person. Soften your language. Instead of "You must confirm this", explain "Before you continue, you need to confirm this".
Do not just repeat a message if someone gets things wrong a second time. It can feel harsh. Think about how you could rephrase it.
Do not ask for the user's "Full name", for example, if you just need their "Name" or "Contact name". (But be clear whose name you're asking for. For example, do not rely on a page title "Next of kin" and then ask for their "Name". Say "Name of next of kin".)
Ask questions users can answer easily
Closed questions are usually easier than open ones. Several short questions are often easier than 1 long one.
Consider the effort involved in answering
There are increasing levels of difficulty involved, depending on whether users will get the answer:
- from their heads
- from information they have to hand
- by figuring something out
- by asking someone else - for example, arranging a witness or referee
Example of a difficult question
What percentage of your working day do you spend doing moderate-intensity activities that make you breathe faster and raise your heart rate (such as brisk walking or housework, like vacuuming) for at least 10 minutes continuously?
To answer a question like this, the user has to:
- understand and interpret the question
- think and remember, or go and check something
- make a judgement or estimate (some people find calculations like percentages difficult)
- choose an answer and hope it matches an option on the form
Here the user has to work out, for example:
- when their working day starts and ends
- what a typical day is
- whether to tell you about a typical day or a more active one
Think about context: where your user will be when they fill in the form
Will they be at home, on their mobile, or using someone else's phone in an emergency, for example? How will they be feeling?
Will they be filling in the form themselves? If someone else is helping them fill in the form, that may change how appropriate the question is.
Example: a callback number
If you’re offering a callback service, rather than asking for "your" phone number or "their" phone number, ask "What number do you want us to call you on?"
Pause to allow users to reflect
Give users a chance to think twice if:
- you want them to look carefully at something, like checking a photo they've uploaded
- they're about to do something destructive, like deleting a document
Declarations at the end of the form are a time to pause. (Declarations help users tell you that they've understood and agreed to something.) We use them, for example, to ask users to confirm that:
- the information they've given is correct
- they are happy to submit their application so we can take the next step
Before you include a declaration, find out what your users expect and understand by it. Read more about confirmation and thank you pages.
Decide whether to use questions or statements
For page titles you can use either a question or a statement.
Questions work well for:
But, if you want people to enter information, action statements work well. Be specific about what you want them to do.
For example, we say "Enter the details your GP surgery gave you", not "What are your patient registration details?". This makes it clear what we want people to do, in this case to "enter the details".
Use clear language that users understand
Use familiar words in familiar ways. Listen to your users to get an idea of the language they use: for example, (high) "blood pressure", not "hypertension". Find out how they describe the information you're asking them for.
Do not hide behind the passive voice. Not "Your GP will be notified' but "We will let your GP know".
Use words like "please" and "sorry" sparingly in forms
You do not need to say "please" when you ask someone to do something in a form or "sorry" whenever the user makes a mistake or cannot complete the task. An example of when we do say "sorry" is if something very inconvenient has happened and it's our fault.
"Please" suggests people have a choice. It can sound patronising, and "sorry" can sound false. They're not usually necessary and they lose their impact when you overuse them. Instead, show users that we care by softening your language and using helpful, clear, meaningful content.
Do not try to reassure people by describing the task as "easy" or "simple".
Use "I" and "you" appropriately
Use "you" or "your" when you're:
- asking questions, for example: "Have you changed your name?"
- giving instructions, for example: "Check if you have this"
- describing things, for example: "the letter the NHS has sent you"
Use "I" or "me" for things that the user will do or say:
- when they click a button, for example: "Add me"
- select a checkbox: for example: "Yes, I know my NHS number"
But only use "I" or "me" when you need to.
Test how the form sounds
Try reading your questions out loud to a colleague and listening to how they answer them. That will help you check:
- whether it flows like a conversation
- how formal it sounds
- how easy the questions are to answer
- where there are any natural pauses
- whether you're using "I" and "you" appropriately
Read more about the way we talk
- the service manual content style guide, including the section on inclusive content
- our guidance on accessibility and content
Read more about how people react to questions and produce an answer in "The Psychology of Survey Response" by Tourangeau, Rips and Rasinki (2000).
Would you like to contribute to this guidance?
Please let us know how this has worked for you and, in particular, if you have research findings to share. This will help us improve it for everyone.
Before you start, you will need a GitHub account. It's an open forum where we collect feedback.