Effective Forms Demonstrate Visual Rhetoric

There’s a place where rhetorical principles, information design techniques, visual design applications, and copywriting all meet. No, they don’t meet at a bar, and this isn’t the start of a bad ID joke.

The form. Few digital artifacts require so much of us, both as digital communicators and as information users. We dread having to analyze their requirements. As designers, we struggle between form fields (alphabetic, numeric, or both), radio buttons, and dropdown menus.

And please don’t get me started about bad error messages. I found this one http://ux.stackexchange.com/questions/26173/what-is-best-practice-for-designing-form-error-messages


As digital users, we might dread spending time to complete another online form. In fact, many of us opt to use Chrome’s pre-fill feature that recognizes information we’ve provided before. And haven’t we all felt stymied by a confusing form that doesn’t clearly state its request?

The most successful online forms demonstrate they are rooted in visual rhetorical principles.

Selling the use case (pathos)

According to Byers (2009), the philosopher Cicero “recognizes that rhetoric comes in three parts—‘proving that our contentions are true, winning over our audience, and inducing their minds to feel any emotion the case may demand’ “ (p. 13).

Users should feel secure when they enter personal information on your form. Depending on the form requirements and circumstances, your online form may need to capture:

  • Personal contact information
  • Social Security numbers
  • Credit card information
  • Medical information and history
  • Past/current prescription use

You can enhance your online form’s credibility with a logo of a security guarantee provided by a third party, or even a visually appealing image of a lock next to fields asking for sensitive information. Many top-tier online retailers, for example, ask online customers to “log in” to the secure part of their Website before guiding them through the multi-page form that collects what they want to buy, where the goods need to be shipped, and the method of payment.

Bottom line: If users don’t feel secure entering their information, your online form won’t get past the name and address fields.

Ebb and flow (ethos)

Next, the voice of the form author should remain silent so the forms speak for themselves. Few of us look forward to completing any form; having to complete a confusing and illogical form that makes little sense makes for frustrating experience. A clear layout will entrench your form’s professionalism and credibility.

According to Barnett’s summary of Wright’s and Barnard’s findings, forms should:

  • Request one response per question
  • Use easily-understood human language
  • Present lists, for example, instead of long sentences
  • Provide enough space for open-ended questions
  • Use at least 8-point type

Most forms require a signature line or acknowledgement. Barnett’s research showed that displaying a signature block in a numbered sequence helped reduce errors (para. 12).

Bottom line: Forms should logically flow from purpose to personal information, and then progress to each section as needed with clear instructions.

The Form Assembly company offers more common form errors to avoid here.

Mr. Spock would approve (logos)

With a nod to the late Leonard Nimoy character in Star Trek, forms should guide users through a logical flow from start to finish. Other ways to gain the confidence of even engineers include:

  • Briefly state the purpose of the form and how the form owner plans to use that information.
  • Display questions in a linear form to guide users
  • Use various layouts, such as columns, light background colors, and lines to show sections.
  • Allow users to skip ahead if some sections don’t apply to the situation

Hotjar.com has some terrific examples of how to design a user-friendly form here:


Bottom line: If you invest the effort to design a form that people can understand, you’ll spend less time fixing unnecessary errors when the forms are signed and completed. Your customers won’t thank you, but you’ll make their paperwork chore less painful.


Barnett, R. (2009, June). Lessons from forms research. User Experience, the magazine of User Experience Professionals Association. Retrieved from http://uxpamagazine.org/author/robert-barnett/

Byers, B. L. (2009). Enacting ethos online: Using classical rhetoric to analyze visual Web design (Master’s thesis). Available from Iowa State University Digital Repository at Iowa State University.


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