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How to write good questions for forms - Write the supporting content for your form

As well as questions, your form or service may need an introduction, help text, error messages and a confirmation or thank you page. Think about content across other channels too.

Name your form

If you have not already done so, name your form or service. (See the GOV.UK guidance on Naming your service.)

Focus on the task, on what the user wants to do.

Introduce the form

Introduce and explain your form or service to users. This is your chance to stop the wrong people filling in the form and to set expectations.

You could try a start page, like the GOV.UK start page pattern. (We are developing an NHS start page pattern for the service manual in GitHub.) Be aware that users often ignore text under the start button (and any "Continue" buttons).

Also, user journeys rarely start with the start page and many forms or services do not need a special start page. Think about how users will get to your form or service as well as how to introduce it.

Give users help in context

If users need help or guidance with filling in a question, do not link to something labelled "help". Put just enough help where they need it - and only if you see in research that they need it.

For example, users do not usually need to be told to "Select the answer that applies to you" with radios, but they may need telling to "Select all options that are relevant to you" with checkboxes.

Example
How would you like to be contacted? Select all options that are relevant to you.

Answer users' questions in context, like:

  • "What's this?"
  • "Why do you want this information?"
  • "Where can I find this?"

Use it to explain:

  • any necessary jargon
  • where to find their NHS number
  • what format users should give information in
  • what you’ll do with personal information
  • the consequences of making 1 choice over another
Example
Do you know your NHS number? This is a 10 digit number, like 485 777 3456. You can find it on any letter the NHS has sent you, on a prescription or by logging in to a GP practice online service.

Good help text saves having to write error messages.

Bear in mind that users may miss the help text. Sometimes a filter question will work better.

Information:

If you have to explain your interface, it needs more work.

How to add help text

We do not recommend tool tips. They can be hard for users to see and are not accessible.

Instead you can:

  • add hint text as a part of other form inputs, such as text inputs, radios and checkboxes, for help that's relevant to most of your users
  • use the details component to reveal expanding help text - this is useful if the help text is only relevant for some users

Use error messages to explain what went wrong

Think of error messages as a step in the conversation. Tell the user how to fix the problem as soon as you can.

If you begin prototyping with 1 thing per page, you can deal with errors for 1 thing at a time.

Read more about error messages in the service manual.

Also think about error messages if your service, or a service you use, fails. For example, GOV.UK has patterns for "Service unavailable" and "There's is a problem with the service".

End with a confirmation or thank you page

Consider how you can reassure users they have completed the form and help them understand what to do next.

You could try:

Look at your content across channels

Think beyond the form. For the user, it is likely to be a cross-channel experience. Remember to make your on and offline content consistent, including:

  • paper or downloadable forms
  • introductory emails or letters
  • confirmation emails or text messages
  • call centre scripts
  • follow up emails or letters

Read more about writing content for transactions

GOV.UK has some good guidance on designing how GOV.UK content and transactions work together.

Updated: November 2019