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Formally Speaking: Two Guidebooks about Designing Forms

 book coverbook cover

Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability

By Caroline Jarrett & Gerry Gaffney

Morgan Kaufman, 2009

Web Form Design

By Luke Wroblewski

Rosenfeld Media, 2008

Designing forms, i.e., complex layouts of text, graphics, and interactive controls, has been given little attention, despite the contribution that forms make: they help us to access data, collect and present information,organize knowledge, and facilitate decision-making. Fortunately, two very good books are devoted to interactive forms design for the Web.

One is Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney’s Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability (FTW). The other is Luke Wroblewski’s Web Form Design (WFD). Both books consider almost all two-dimensional typographic or verbi-visual arrangements as forms, and would call even Google’s homepage a form (which one must admit it technically is), even though it is far removed from the complexity of federal income tax forms.

The two books are similar in their basic subject matter but take different approaches to defining the problems, providing solutions, and, most notably, to presenting their approach in their book design storytelling.

One fundamental difference is how each frames the process of thinking about what it means to design good forms and the user experience of forms. WFD focuses on the artifact, the details, and how to construct the design so that is usable, useful, and appealing. If one has a good understanding of usability and user-experience design, as well as forms, then one can find here very valuable guidance on the design elements and their combinations and patterns that provide assistance for even the most challenging circumstances. FTW, on the other hand, begins with framing questions about what using forms should accomplish as a subset of all user-interface planning, research, analysis, and eventually, design. The book’s discussion of process, personas, testing (terms missing in WFD’s index), and trust, all point to additional layers of conceptual analysis and modeling that have benefits for general user analysis and business analysis. One might sum up the two world views by calling FTW more “Apollonian” (more verbal, detailed, technical, and usability-oriented) and WFD more “Dionysian” (more visual, artifact-, and appeal-oriented). The differences in the two books are apparent just from looking at each table of contents (ToC). FTW has 189 entries, while WFD has 93. If I didn’t miscount, this is essentially a 2:1 difference in detail.

FTW’s ToC gives the impression of being a definitive, detailed account, almost like an instruction manual, of all relevant topics and subtopics: from the introductory “What is a Form?” to the telling conclusion “Testing (The Best Bit).” WFD’s ToC, on the other hand, is laconic, making the entries brief labels of the topics being discussed. No further information appears about the content within each topic, but when the label says “Field Lengths,” presumably there is not that much hierarchical complexity below. One noticeable structure of the book is that each chapter presents its informative content and then concludes with a bullet list called “Best Practices,” which summarizes the most salient pieces of advice in the chapter. This approach is very practical for those with little time to read through either book’s pages, those seeking a quick check of “what I learned or know,” or those wanting a reminder when returning to the book to refresh their understanding.

In general, the extent of content detail, the examples, and the illustrations, are quite successful in both books. Both books adopt a sometimes conversational approach to what “you” might do or should do and what “we” think is better. Both use frequent illustrations in color. WFD is notable for having colored call-outs that show likely user thoughts or responses: favorable (green smiley face), negative (red unhappy face), and warning (yellow neutral face). Although these signs clutter the layout, they effectively point to key design issues and often, but not always, imply appropriate solutions.

In general, the books are similar in content; there seem to be few places in which comparable advice differs substantially. They do differ in their approach to storytelling, however, which begins in the TOCs. Considering the many large empty pages of color in WFD as chapter indicators or the end of chapters, FTW probably has more actual content, but what WFD shows is presented in a more readable, “design-oriented” appearance. If you want a more usability-oriented, user-testing, user-centered design approach, you’ll probably be drawn to FTW. If you are sensitive to and desire more visual design quality and a more elegant presentation of the contents, then you’ll be more at home in WFD.