3 common mistakes when designing paper forms – and what to do about them

Type ‘Form design’ into Google and you’ll see there’s lots of help out there to improve the design of web forms. But there’s little help if you’re looking for advice about creating paper forms.

If I’m in complete denial, do tell me, but there are still circumstances where I think paper forms are more appropriate than web ones:

  • Instant need: when a form needs filling in there and then, for example in a store.
  • Longer forms: if it’s unlikely that a form can be completed in a single sitting, then a paper form can be more convenient. It can be picked up and worked on as and when the opportunity arises, without the need to log back in to a website.

In many cases digital forms will be the most suitable solution (although filling in a form on a mobile still seems to be a problem that needs some more work) but there is still plenty of use for paper forms. So, whilst they’re still here, it would be great if we could make them as easy to use as possible, and that means avoiding some of the most common mistakes. 

1) Trying to use as few pages as possible

New York health benefits application form with answers squeezed into as little space as possible

New York health benefits application form, with answer spaces squeezed onto one page

A form isn’t an exercise in paper-saving, it’s an exercise in information collection. If the information you are collecting isn’t worth the cost of collecting it well, perhaps you don’t need it that much.

This is a conversation that happens on many form design projects:

Client: We want to make the from shorter

Designer: Do you know which questions you can take out?

Client: We can’t take any questions out – but the form needs to be shorter.

And so begins the process goes of cramming questions onto a page, just for the purposes of using less paper. There are a number of problems with this approach, including:

  • a confusing layout (just look at the image above) making it hard for the user to follow the order of questions and causing the person filling in the form to miss questions out 
  • answer spaces aren’t big enough for the information that needs to be given meaning the risk of incomplete data
  • putting people off filling in the form before they’ve even started.

Instead of deciding how many pages the form will be at the beginning of the project, concentrate on creating clear content and a consistent design that’s easy for people to use. This will give a form that keeps errors to a minimum, something that will probably save you a lot more than you’ll spend on extra print costs.

2) Using separate notes 

A separate document with explanatory notes is a pain: it stops someone from getting on with filling in the form and make them look elsewhere every time they need help or reassurance. This means they are taking their concentration away from the task at hand.

I’m pretty sure of the theory behind separate notes: take the notes out and the form looks easier to fill in. But if you’re worried that having notes on your form is going to make it look complicated, you probably need to look at ways to make your notes simpler. Bringing the notes into the main form is also a great incentive to give them a proper edit. In separate notes you can say as much as you want, but when space becomes an issue then you are forced to consider how much guidance you need to give people.

Instead of trying to squeeze the notes in here and there, make sure the design of the form accommodates them. After all, if they are important enough to be included, then it’s important they are easy to use.

Notes that apply to everyone

These sort of notes often cover things like:

  • who needs to fill in the form
  • how to fill in the form
  • what to do when you have finished filling in the form.

Although these notes aren’t about the questions themselves, they are equally important: if the wrong people fill in the form, everyone’s time is wasted; if the form is filled in in the wrong way it will have to be done again and if someone doesn’t know what do with the form when they’ve filled it in, it’s no use to anyone.

It is a common occurrence for people to start filling in a form before they’ve read any notes, so notes that apply to everyone should be dominant on the page, so everyone sees them before they’ve filled in any of the answers:

  • they can be bigger than other text
  • they can sit in the main area of the form (where the answer spaces are) so they become part of the natural flow when someone is reading through the form
  • putting them on a panel gives them their own space on the page and says ‘look at me, I’m different’.
a good example of how to show notes for everyone on a form

Prominent notes in the main area of the form are unlikely to be missed

an example of how not to show notes for everyone on a form

Important notes that aren’t prominent will be missed, meaning more chance of mistakes on the form

Notes that only apply to certain people

These are the sort of notes people go to when they need help, for example:

  • what to do if they don’t know a piece of information
  • a definition of a word or phrase they may not be familiar with
  • specific information that needs to be given within an answer. 

These notes that only apply to certain people in certain circumstances can be more subtle. Giving them a consistent position compared to questions means people will soon know where to look for help when they need it (even someone completes a form without any help will notice a couple of early notes and their purpose).


3) Not giving enough space for answers

The problem with doing this is obvious: if you don’t give enough space for the answers you need, you’re not going to get the answers you need. 

As a guide, a minimum height for answer spaces should be 6mm, but bigger is better.

single letter answer spaces

Single letter boxes: difficult to write into, and only necessary if the form is being scanned

Don’t use boxes for individual letters (like the ones above) unless you really need to, and the only time you should really need to is if the answers on the form are going to be read by scanners. Individual letter boxes are actually really hard to write into because writing a word in individual letters is unnatural. If you do need to use these boxes, go for at least 6mm high and 4mm wider, but more if you can. 

Where answers are expected to take up more than one line, help the filler by adding lines to these sorts of answer spaces. 

answer spaces with dotted rules help people write more neatly

Adding dotted rules to a large box helps the user write more neatly, which is easier to read

putting separate boxes makes it hard for people to write naturally

Three separate boxes are less natural to write into

If you need to collect an email address, you can expect that it will contain the filler’s first name, their last name and their company’s url. It’s no good expecting someone to fit it into a space the same size as is allowed for their date of birth.

So, why bother?

Forms are for collecting information (or data if you prefer that word). Any of the issues above can cause that information to be less accurate than it could be, and every piece of information that’s not accurate has a cost:

  • the cost of letters (printing and posting) to ask for the correct information
  • the cost of calling (wages, call cost and technology) to ask for the correct information.


If these tips aren’t enough to help you fix your forms, get in touch. Call me on 44 (0) 7590 850 013 or drop me an email at robert@roberthempsall.co.uk

2 thoughts on “3 common mistakes when designing paper forms – and what to do about them”

  1. Nice post, Robert. I’d agree with all your points.

    A couple more situations where paper forms can be preferable to electronic:
    – Someone fills out the form on behalf of the primary respondent (e.g. a government service worker filling out a form for a customer). Rapport can be easier to build sitting face-to-face with the paper form in between rather than the form-filler having to face the computer and turn their back to the customer.
    – The form has to be highly transportable (e.g. a clinician working across various sites) but iPads or equivalent cannot be provided (e.g. for cost reasons).
    – Remote locations, where electricity and/or internet are patchy or often not available.
    – ‘Wet’ (i.e. handwritten) signatures required and printers — e.g. for a partially completed form — aren’t reliable or accessible.
    – Multiple respondents who don’t all have access to the same system.
    – A group of individuals each fill out the form at the same time (e.g. participants in a education session), again when iPads or equivalent are not feasible.
    Paper is a low cost, highly transportable, lightweight medium that still suits a lot of situations.

    When it comes to making a form “short”, I think sometimes the cost of printing is a valid reason for trying to reduce the number of pages. One extra piece of paper can add up to a lot if the form gets printed thousands of times.

    Having said that, I still very much agree that we need to not throw the ‘usability’ baby out with the ‘length’ bathwater. This is one of the reasons why, in my 4 Cs model of good forms, I focus on being ‘concise’, rather than ‘short’.

    Finally, you might be interested to know that some research conducted in the 1980s found that boxes for individual letters actually didn’t improve legibility (as well as confirming that it slowed people down). Reference: Wright P. 1980, “Strategy and Tactics in the Design of Forms”, Visible Language, Vol. 14, No. 2.


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