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How to write good questions for forms - Consider the sensitivities around your questions

People may not trust you with their personal data or they may think the question is inappropriate.

Understand the topics that are especially sensitive

These include, for example:

  • gender or sex
  • sexual orientation
  • whether the person has or intends to have children
  • whether they are married, in a partnership, or living with someone
  • whether they have mental health problems
  • whether they have a disability
  • their ethnicity or religion

Some people are reluctant to divulge:

  • their age
  • their email address
  • their telephone or mobile number
  • a health complaint

Think about how to word questions respectfully and inclusively and what you'll do if the user cannot or will not answer the question.

Consider the context

It's OK to ask what sex or gender someone is when you need the information to provide the right medical care, but often it's irrelevant.

Take into account who might be involved in filling in the form. Will the user want to divulge information if a family member is helping them with the form?

Try asking a different question

Another way to deal with sensitive questions is to ask a different question. For example, people may be more willing to give you their age range than their exact age.

Explain why you need to ask

If you understand why you're asking each question and how you will use the answer, you can explain it to users. For example:

  • tell users that the questions you're asking will help you know if their situation is urgent
  • if your service collects information for statistics or to monitor diversity and will anonymise it, say so

Avoid using "Other" for sensitive topics

"Other" is often a good option to include. But be wary of using it when you're collecting personal data or sensitive topics. It can make people feel that you do not care enough about their personal circumstances to be specific.

Be especially careful with "Other" or "Mixed" ethnicity in the context of health information. Do not use these categories to provide health information.

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Use tested patterns

We do not yet have tested NHS patterns for collecting this kind of data. Use these GOV.UK patterns for now and feedback what you learn by contributing to the service manual via GitHub.

GOV.UK Design System patterns

Read more about sensitive topics

The sensitive topics reflect the "protected characteristics" in the Equality Act 2010. It is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of these characteristics.

Updated: November 2019