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Getting wiser about government forms: five tips for better forms

6 February 2020

In BETA’s last blog post about government forms, we laid out four reasons government should take form design seriously. Good forms should be a priority for all agencies committed to service delivery—better forms can drive a virtuous cycle of more efficient services, more trust and better outcomes.

Today, we are introducing BETA’s Better Practice Guide to Improving Government Forms. The guide expands on the WISER framework, using behavioural insights to make forms easier, simpler and more human. We also draw on the practices of user experience (UX) design, plain language principles, and better practice in government communications. The guide is designed to be practical, offering a systematic approach to improving government forms, with tips, templates and examples.

The complex business of simplifying forms

We developed this guide in recognition of the challenges and complexities faced across the Australian Public Service (APS) in improving service delivery using forms. Designing a government form might sound simple, but it is deceptively difficult. Agencies must securely collect large quantities of information via user-friendly, multi-channel forms while meeting legal and practical constraints. And these forms must work for diverse individuals with complex needs and circumstances.

5 tips for improving government forms

If there is a form at your agency that is causing frustrations for clients and staff, have a look at our five tips for improving government forms, then download our guide for more.

1: Recognise that form redesign is not just about the form

Form redesign should not only consider the form itself, but the end-to-end process and the systems that sit behind it. You need to consider the many options and steps your clients must complete in order to successfully submit the form. Any ‘friction’ acts as a deterrent to completing the form. Behavioural research has found surprisingly large effects from even small barriers to completing a task. Small friction costs such as the requirement to print and scan a form can be enough to stop some clients from submitting.

2: Challenge your own assumptions by conducting research with form users  

Once we understand something, we tend to assume others do too. This is a bias known as the ‘curse of knowledge’, and it means public servants who are experts in their area may find it hard to take the perspective of a client seeing a form for the first time. This is why it is vital to conduct research with form users to understand their perspectives and challenge your own assumptions. Talking to your clients as they work through a form allows you to understand exactly where they are getting tripped up, how they are interpreting instructions, and any further explanations they would find helpful. 

3: Implement a ‘question protocol’ to shorten your form 

One of the most impactful things you can do to reduce errors and increase completion rates is to simplify and shorten your form – but this is easier said than done. A ‘question protocol’ is a useful tool to help identify which questions are unnecessary, by interrogating how you will use the answers – meaning each question must ‘prove’ its usefulness to stay.

4: Focus on clarity, not just simplicity   

Simplifying the language in your form reduces cognitive overload, making the information easier for your clients to process. However, simplification alone does not guarantee comprehension. Simple questions can be harder to understand if they do not provide enough context or use unfamiliar terms. We recommend using readability scores to help complement research with form users to test comprehension.

5: Don’t start from scratch   

When moving a form from paper to online, consider using the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) templates for online government forms. The DTA offers flexible templates for better-practice online form delivery, along with tips on validation, structure, design and content.

Simplifying and improving forms is a complex process that requires dedicated time and resources, and a strong commitment from agencies to improve service delivery. It is our hope that with our Better Practice Guide, events like Form-a-Palooza, and the ongoing work of partner agencies, we can kick off a ‘better forms movement’ in the APS.