Online forms – filling in the spaces


The push towards using the internet as the prime point of communication between ourselves and a variety of government bodies, businesses, and other organisations continues. Indeed it has for some time been the clear aim of both public institutions and private corporations to move from digital by default to digital full stop!

Our not too distant futures will demand most of our interactions with these providers to be with a computer and increasingly using online forms to exchange information. It is with this in mind that we asked our technology review community what their thoughts and experiences were when completing on-line forms. The following is a synopsis of our findings.



When asked what websites were the most straightforward to use when completing on-line forms, the government DVLA site dealing with car tax was a clear winner.

“I do think the car tax people have got it right and it beats the queuing for ages in the post office – They also automatically find your car details once you have used it, it is quick as well”

It was cited as simple, straightforward and easy to complete, minimising unnecessary questions with clear signposting. Although other government sites such as HMRC, the Passport Office and the Electoral Register had mixed reviews they were generally well received with one member noting how dramatically they have improved.

“My view is that most have improved dramatically in the past few years”

The commercial websites we received comments about provided similar feedback of a generally improved landscape. However some utility companies and white goods manufacturers were mentioned as being quite frustrating.

Of particular interest is what our members did if they could not proceed with their on-line form filling. The seemingly most reasonable reaction when facing difficulty with the form filling process is to ask for some help, and more often than not for our community this means using the phone and talking to somebody. Our members complained about the difficulty finding the right telephone number to call and were frustrated with routing selection questions as well as long queueing times. There is a further concern about the cost of these calls and although many are free (0800) or charged at local call rate (0300) the feeling of many of our members is that they are expensive, especially when kept on hold for some time.

“Phone the organisation, this is expensive at prime time especially if you have to queue”

and …

“If you have to call , I only have a pay as you go mobile and if you are kept in a queue for too long , your money in your phone runs out . If they play music it is so annoying”

Another approach used by some of our members when facing difficulty in completing on-line forms is to print them out and ask someone to guide them through the process. Printed out forms often find their way to computer drop-in centres, post offices and helpful friends.

“I print them out and take them to the post office and ask them to help me fill it in”

and for one unfortunate member…

“I had the print out checked by the post office (fee£12) and it was returned later because it had been incorrectly filled in but with the right information. I missed my flight as a result”


There has been a recent and noticeable improvement of on-line form design, particularly evident with the website, a portal to all UK government websites. It was not against the grain to see win the prestigious design of the year award for 2013, the design lessons of which have been rolled on to other government sites.

Much of the success of these sites can be attributed to the government’s digital strategy policy, which places emphasis on User Centred Design (UCD) and User Experience (UX) processes. It will be interesting to see if the user and their interests, continue to be at the centre of the government’s future web site design, or if a certain amount of shear occurs in the interest of other government policies. Sometimes roll-out of design across departments can appear more akin to branding rather than user centered design.

What is most noticeable with our community’s experiences is the important role that trust takes between the site user and provider. Where this is eroded through poor design or downright manipulation, our users will revert to more traditional ways of doing business, namely person to person or pen and paper.

On a personal note I have had direct experience of seeing this loss of trust, with a lady in her 80’s having printed out a renewal blue badge application form for car parking and asking me to help her fill it in. She was convinced that the wording of the questions were written in such a way as to ‘trick’ her into declaring something that would be used against her, thereby refusing a reissue of her blue badge. This caused her a lot of unnecessary distress, which I found easy to understand in light of helping her with the form.

The Future – “from digital by default to digital full stop” ?

There are many possible reasons for experiencing difficulty when completing on-line forms: unclear instructions, hidden information, incomplete option list, no validation and so on. People who are least comfortable with using computers will often need the most help. So it is with a sense of irony that they are probably the same people who won’t find the often hidden help telephone contact number.

If there is one message to designers of on-line forms which can be distilled from the responses of our community, it is …

“We should be able to talk to someone if we need to !”


Our thanks go out to all of our Technology Review Members for taking the time to take the survey and voice their opinions.

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