Clear Instructions Will Improve Your Form’s Usability

Written by Hirsch Fishman

From a web designer’s perspective, creating a better and more usable form usually means coming up with a nice, clean design. That’s definitely true, but it’s not 100% accurate, because how usable your form is also depends on how well you’ve written the instructions contained within it.

Many forms contain some content aside from the questions of the form itself. This content usually serves some instructional purpose such as helping the visitor understand the purpose of the form, knowing how to get help, etc. There’s not anything wrong with having it in your form, but it can be problematic if you have too much or if it doesn’t clearly communicate why someone should complete the form.

Everyone avoids trying to read instructions on a form, so the challenge is making them as usable as possible – especially if there is key information in them that visitors need to know. With that in mind, here are some tips for writing clear instructions for your form in order to improve its overall usability.

(The tips below are based on chapter 4 of Caroline Jarret’s and Gerry Gaffney’s book, “Forms That Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability”.)

4 tips to writing better instructions

Want to write better instructions and content for your forms? Following these tips can go a long way towards making your forms more usable:

  • Keep it simple – Write the instructions in plain language that most people will understand; anything more complicated and you might be asking for trouble.
  • Know your audience – Use the right terms in the right ways. For example, there’s a big difference between American English and British English – something travel websites have to consider.
  • Limit the jargon – Only use terms a specific audience would understand if the form is designed for that audience. If the form is meant for the general population, keep the language simple.
  • Show graphics if necessary – Where can they can find the information you’re asking for? Show them; the security code on the back of credit cards is a good example.

Write these instructions…

Now that you know how to write better instructions, here are the things you should include as instructional text in your forms if you want to make them more usable:

  • A clearly written title – The title of your form page is the first thing that people will notice about it, so make sure that it says exactly what they can do by completing the form. Is it an order form? Then the title of your form should be “Order ____”. And since a form implies that people are going to take some action, your title should start with an action word to emphasize that point.
  • Where they can go for common answers – Maybe you’ve noticed people are using your contact form to ask questions they could easily find the answers to elsewhere on your website. Do you see that happening a lot? Preempt those questions with instructions at the top of the page telling where they can find that information before they take the time to complete the form.
  • Who this form is intended for – Put some instructions at the top of the page saying who exactly should fill out the form, and you’ll save people the time from filling it out for the wrong reasons. Write these instructions in the positive voice though, and be as specific as possible – people will understand what you’re saying much easier than if you were to write it in the negative voice.
  • What they need to complete the form – Most people want to get through a form as quickly as possible. If they’re halfway through the form and are asked for information they don’t have right in front of them, are they likely to continue filling it out? It depends. Telling them what’s needed ahead of time could avoid any aggravation on their part, and increase the likelihood of them completing it.
  • Why you want certain information – Only ask for the information that’s absolutely necessary for the person filling it out to tell you. For example, does your contact form ask for a street address when only an email is needed? If so, will you be adding them to your print mailing list if they give you their address? Then tell them why you’re asking for it  – but give them the chance to opt out, of course!
  • What the next step will be – Most forms display some confirmation content once the user hits the “submit” button. This is an often overlooked spot to leverage, and where you should tell them what the next step will be as a result of their having completed the form. You might also put links here to other content so that they don’t leave the website just because they completed the form.

…but don’t write these instructions

You can skip on this content in your forms – it might make them less usable:

  • Sales pitches – When someone is ready to fill out a form on your website, they’re willing to complete some transaction with you because they’ve already been sold on what you’re selling. Keep the content directly related to the task of completing the form – anything else can and should go.
  • How “quick and easy” it is to fill out – Your visitors will be able to tell right away both how easy your form is to complete and whether they’ll be able to do so quickly or not. Don’t have to specifically tell them that; some people might even be suspicious if you do. Is it really that quick and easy if you say so?
  • The time needed to fill it out – For relatively simple forms, mentioning how long it will take to complete isn’t necessary. It’s understood that forms take some short time to complete. But, if you have a truly large form that might take, say, 20 minutes to complete, advance warning is useful.
  • Help text for every field – If your field labels are clearly written, skip the help text. But if you have a field where it’s not so obvious how the user should respond, you might need it. Just make it short enough to fit right next to the field, or use an icon (such as a question mark) as a link to it.


Do you have any other tips for writing clear instructions in a website form? Has anything in particular that you’ve tried worked well? Share your thoughts with everyone by using the comment form below!

About Hirsch Fishman

Hirsch Fishman is a professional web designer who has worked with synagogues and organizations in the Jewish community since 2006. Originally from Albany, NY, he has previously lived in New York City and Chicago, and currently resides in Raleigh, NC.

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