UKOLN AHDS Creating and Testing Web Forms


A Web form is not dissimilar in appearance and use to a paper form. It appears on a Web page and contains special elements called controls along with normal text and mark up. These controls can take the form of checkboxes, text boxes, radio buttons, menus, etc. Users generally fill in the form by entering text and selecting menu items and then submit the form for processing. The agent could be an email or Web server.

Web forms have a variety of uses and are a way to get specific pieces of information from the user. Web sites with forms have their own specific set of problems and need vigorous testing to ensure that they work.

Designing Forms

Some of the key things to consider when designing your form are:

Mandatory Fields

Making fields compulsory can cause problems. Occasionally a user may feel that the question you have asked is inappropriate in context or they just can't provide the information. You need to decide if the information needed is absolutely necessary. Users will be more likely to give information if you explain why the data that you're asking for is needed. It is acceptable to ask the user if they meant to leave out a piece of information and then accept their answer.

Validation of forms can be carried out either client side or by processing on the server. Client side validation requires the use of a scripting language like JavaScript and can be problematic if the user's browser disallows scripting. However server side validation can be more complicated to set up.

Drop Down Lists

Sometimes the categories you offer in a drop down list do not match the answer that the user wants to give you. Sites from the USA often ask for states, which UK users cannot provide. If you want to use a drop down list make sure that your error messages are helpful rather than negative and allow users to select an 'other' option. If you have given a good selection of categories then you should rarely get users picking this.

Also consider if the categories you have provided are subjective enough. There may be issues over the terms used to refer to particular countries (for example if a land area is disputed. If you have to provide a long drop down list then it might be worth offering the common categories first. You could also try subdividing the categories into two-drop downs where the selection from the first dynamically creates the options in the second.

Separate Display

You may wish to have the user see a new page or sidebar when filling in a form. A new page may be easier to look at but can be annoying if it is perceived as a diversion or, even worse, an advertisement. It may also be prevented from opening by window blocking software available on newer browsers.

User Errors

Users will often make typing or transcription errors when filling a form in. These errors can occur in any free text fields on the form.

Occasionally users will press the submit or send button either deliberately or inadvertently when only part-way through the form. Make sure that you have an appropriate error message for this and allow users to go back to the unfinished form. Users also often fill in part of a form and then click on the back button. They may be doing this to lose the data they have filled in, to check previous data or because they think they have finished. These activities suggest poor user interface design.

It is important to provide a helpful message on the submission screen explaining the form has been submitted successfully. You could also give replicate the details inputted for users to print out as hard copy.

Testing Forms

Once you have created your Web form you need to test it thoroughly before release. There are a number of different free software products available that will help you with your testing. Tools such as Roboform [1] are freely available and can be used to store test data in and automatically fill in your forms with data.

When testing your form it is worth bearing in mind some problem areas:


  1. Roboform,
  2. BabelMap,