General forms design principles: Language
Language plays an important role in forms design.
We need to use language carefully to help respondents understand what we are asking so they can provide the data we have requested.
Conduct testing to get a better sense of the language respondents use to describe the issues you want to measure.
Refer to the additional resources for further guidance on the use of language.
Understand your respondents
Respondents are people of all social strata who hold different perspectives.
Use language that assumes respondents:
- have varying levels of literacy
- have varying levels of statistical knowledge
- know nothing about your procedures or structures.
Use simple and clear language that all respondents can easily understand.
Write brief and meaningful form titles
Keep form titles short using as few words as possible.
Communicate the content of the form through the title. Let respondents know straight away what is being asked.
Structure the form title around two key components:
- a subject (e.g., Monthly Population)
- a function (Survey).
Using this template, an example of a form title is 'Monthly Population Survey.'
Add a time reference period at the end of the form title if it is applicable to the collection (e.g. business surveys). For example, 'Economic Activity Survey 2020-21.'
Aim to strike a balance between having a meaningful form title and one that resonates with the population of interest. For example, unemployed or retired respondents might think that a form titled ‘Employment survey' is not relevant to them, even though they are part of the target population.
Create section heading that act like signposts
Communicate the specific topics in a form by using section headings.
Help respondents identify sections of a form that are relevant to them by using clear section headings. This is particularly important where respondents must manually skip over sections of a form (e.g. following 'go to' instructions when completing a paper form).
Avoid section headings that can be potentially misleading. For example, if respondents see a section heading stating 'Cereals' they may skip over it if they only have data to report for cotton. In this instance a more specific section heading provides a more useful signpost (e.g. 'Cereals and other crops (including cotton and sugar cane)').
Include clear instructions to guide respondents
Write clear and concise instructions to help respondents to understand:
- what to do with the form
- where to get help
- how to answer questions.
Group instructions covering similar topics together. For example, instructions about what to do with the form and where to get help are grouped together right at the start of the form. In contrast, all the instructions about how to answer a particular question are placed as closely as possible to that question.
Repeat the same instruction each time it is to be acted upon. For example, an instruction telling respondents to exclude something for domestic use could be repeated throughout a form because it applies to several questions.
Use the same wording for each repeat of the instruction to help respondents interpret it quickly.
Use short sentences
Convey only a single item of information in each sentence. Short sentences are easier to understand than long ones.
Use bullet points to improve the layout of the sentences (Diagram 1).
Keep each item on lists short
Convey only a single item of information for each point in a list (Diagram 2).
Place clauses in chronological order
Arrange clauses in the order action should be taken. This makes it easier for respondents to read the sentence and understand the instruction.
- Do say - 'Submit the survey form to the ABS. Once everyone in your household has completed their part of the survey, click the 'Submit' button.'
- Don't say - 'Submit the survey form to the ABS. Click the 'Submit' button once everyone in your household has completed their part of the survey.'
Make the call to action clear
Avoid inserting an explanatory phrase between the clauses naming the respondent and the action.
- Do say - 'You will need to report an estimate of time taken when you have completed this form.'
- Don't say - 'You will need to, when you have completed this form, report an estimate of time taken.'
Ask positive questions
Positive questions require a 'yes' response for an affirmative answer and a 'no' response for a negative answer.
Positive questions are easier for respondents to understand and reduces the likelihood of errors (Diagram 3).
Conversely, negative questions require a 'no' response for an affirmative answer and a 'yes' response for a negative answer.
Avoid asking negative questions because people are generally slower and more prone to making mistakes when answering them.
- Don't say - 'Are you not of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin?'
Also avoid using 'not' in question wording and instructions wherever possible. It is easy for respondents to miss, so they interpret questions in the opposite way to what was intended.
- Do say - 'Complete failure of any crop should be noted by '0' in the Total production column, but the area of the crops that failed should still be reported.'
- Don't say - 'Crops which were planted but did not grow well enough to be harvested should be noted.'
Another reason to avoid the word 'not' in questions is that it creates double negatives in combination with some response options, which are highly burdensome for respondents to understand.
For example, respondents may 'disagree' that 'it is not a bad thing':
- Do say - 'To what extent do you agree or disagree that it is a good thing for a society to be made up of people from different cultures.'
- Don't say - 'To what extent do you agree or disagree that it is not a bad thing for a society to be made up of people from different cultures.'
Use an active voice
Write sentences using an active voice because most people find it easier to understand. An active voice describes the subject performing the action. For example, the example in Diagram 4 describes the respondent ('you') acting by contacting the National Relay Service.
Avoid using a passive voice, where the subject is acted upon.
Don't say - 'The National Relay Service can be used to contact us if you are deaf or have a hearing or speech impairment.'
Use verbs to write clearer sentences, particularly calls to action. For example, 'correct' is used as a verb in the statement: 'Please correct any errors.' In contrast, the statement: 'Please make any errors correct', shows 'correct' is being used as an adjective.
Adopt a conversational style
Use a conversational writing style because it is generally easier to understand.
Don't leave out words that clarify instructions and questions.
- Do say - 'Complete this paper form and return it in the Reply Paid envelope. '
- Don't say - 'Complete form and return in envelope.'
Use plain English
Choose shorter words over longer words, for example, 'help' rather than 'assistance.’
Choose words that are well understood, for example, 'looking for work' instead of 'seeking employment.’
Avoid overly formal words. For example, use 'people' rather than 'persons'.
Avoid technical or statistical terms when possible. If they must be used, provide a definition to make sure respondents understand them (Diagram 5).
Use commercial terms (brands, model names and business names) when respondents are more likely to understand them compared to another description (e.g. brand name of a fertiliser in an agricultural survey). Be careful not to endorse any particular brand, model, and/or business.
Test your form to see if respondents understand the words you are using (e.g. through observational studies or interviews with respondents).
Definitions of specialised terms are not always needed when testing shows that the target population know what they mean. For example, testing may show that respondents who complete the land management section of an agricultural survey know what the terms 'scarifying and harrowing' mean in that context.
Explain the context
Tell respondents why you want their information. This includes the purpose of the survey, how the information will be used and any legal obligations (Diagram 6).
Explaining the purpose of the survey alerts respondents that everyday words may have a different meaning in a specialised context, drawing their attention to the definitions provided. For example, the word 'purchases' has a specific meaning when used for the Australian National Accounts and respondents need to take note of the definition (Diagram 7).
Use simple punctuation
Use commas, full stops, and question marks to help respondents understand the survey completion task.
Use Latin abbreviations sparingly
Only use Latin abbreviations such as 'i.e.' when you are confident that they are commonly understood.
Include full stops when abbreviations are used (for example, 'e.g.' and 'etc.').
Italicise Latin terms (e.g. 'ad hoc').
Avoid using symbols as short forms of words unless you are sure respondents understand it.