Deciding what makes a good form is somewhat subjective, of course. One person might prefer one kind of design, whereas another likes a different layout. You can usually find agreement, though, on forms that are not well designed. Everyone seems to agree on bad forms.
A good form, though, is one that people can use instinctively without making mistakes. A “great form” does this and also has a design that most people like. Great forms combine excellent design with superb levels of usability.
One way of achieving this is to consider the principles of Gestalt psychology. This is a branch of psychology about perception being the sum of many parts. For instance, we understand what a car is, as a whole vehicle. We know it has wheels, a trunk, steering, an engine and so on. We understand these things individually, but added together they make a whole car we can identify immediately from the sum of its parts. We do not have to go through a checklist to assess all the individual parts and then come out with the answer that it is a car. We know the instant we see it.
The same is true for online forms that work well. We know instinctively what to do with the form because all the individual parts make up a whole, obvious form. It is so obvious what to do we can understand the form without any instructions. That’s a Gestalt form – one that is obvious from the sum of its parts.
Gestalt Principles Use Eight Laws
You can use these laws in your designs to produce forms that are easy to use because they tap into the psychology of understanding shapes and how they complete a whole item.
The first law useful to form designers is the law of proximity. People perceive things that are physically close together as being related to each other. If you want to show that certain elements of your form are related, make sure they are closer to each other than to unrelated elements of the form.
The second law is the law of similarity. When people see similar things, they think they are related. So you can have similar things on a form, not necessarily next to each other, but signified as related to each other by using the same background color, for instance. You might not want to group some items by proximity, but show they are connected to other parts of the form.
When it comes to aesthetics of design, you can use the law of closure to help. Gestalt psychology suggests that people will “close” things even if they are not whole. For instance, you may not wish to show boxes on a form because that makes the design too heavy. You simply need to show part of the boxes and the mind of the user “closes” them. The law of closure means you do not have to provide completeness in design – the human mind will fill in the blanks for you.
The law of symmetry is part of Gestalt psychology that can work against freeform design. The human mind appears to want to establish symmetry, even if there is none. When designing forms, either create symmetry or look for the possible areas where symmetries will be created by the viewer, which could lead to potential confusion.
The fifth law, the law of common fate, means that people perceive elements of a form to be doing the same thing. So, for instance, you might start a form with boxes that go downward. The user will then assume that all the other boxes appear to do the same – even if they do not. Sometimes a form designer wants to put boxes next to each other, instead of below each other. But if the first couple of boxes operated vertically, then the rest of the form would be expected to do the same.
Another law that can cause confusion in some forms is the law of continuity. This suggests that one thing aligned with another is thought to be part of the same thing. Hence, if you have a heading next to a box, they are assumed to be together, when in fact they may not be. Only align things that are actually connected.
The law of good Gestalt may seem obvious to many form designers, but is important nonetheless. Essentially this law is about the amount of extraneous material you have. The less additional material you have in a form, the easier it is to grasp it as a whole. Often, nowadays, you find online forms – particularly pop-ups – filled with added extras intended to grab attention. From a Gestalt psychology point of view, these additional elements in forms make it difficult to grasp what the form is about.
Finally, the eighth law is the law of past experience. In the car example earlier, when we see a new car we expect it to be a car because it is like all the other cars we have seen. With online forms, if you start designing forms that do not look like all previous forms, you make it difficult for people to use them.
Using these eight laws in your form design can improve usability and make the form look good, too. Ultimately, Gestalt psychology can make your forms much easier to use. Make sure items are grouped physically, lined up appropriately, use color coding and run in the direction expected. Add to that the need to be sure that your form design looks like a form and is simple, without any added extras. Do all of that and you will have a great form.
Graham Jones is a psychologist who specializes in online behavior.
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