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Guidance on how to ask the right questions on GOV.WALES.

First published:
31 August 2021
Last updated:

Designing good questions makes it easy for users to provide the right information and understand why they need to provide it.

If they need it, you can add help text and error messages to nudge them in the right direction.

Before you start, make sure you know why you’re asking every question.

Ask questions that users understand

Closed questions are easier to answer than open questions. Especially in government services, where users are often afraid of being caught out.

An example of a closed question might be ‘Do you live at more than one address?’ An open version of this question would be ‘Tell us about your living arrangements’.

A series of simple questions can be easier to answer than one complex question. Especially if parts of it aren’t relevant to all users.

Let users answer with ‘I’m not sure’ or ‘I don’t know’ if these are valid answers.

Change the questions until you find what works

If people are struggling to understand a form, think about re-framing the question or changing the form structure as well as the language.

For example, try reversing the question so the user is invited to say ‘no’ rather than ‘yes’ (or the other way round). Sometimes users make assumptions about what the ‘right’ answer is.

Or try more descriptive labels for radio buttons or checkboxes.

If some radio button or checkbox labels are phrased differently from the others, it may make the page more readable if you separate the options that are different with an ‘or’.

Add help text where necessary

Sometimes it’s useful to provide help text to explain things like:

  • legal jargon
  • where to find obscure information
  • what format the information should be given in
  • what you’ll do with a user’s personal information
  • the consequences of making one choice over another

Only do this if you see in research that your users need it.

How to add help text

Help text options:

  • ‘Input description’ pattern - for hint text, positioned immediately before the input fields for that question
  • ‘Input example’ pattern - for hint text about the answer format, positioned immediately before the input fields for that question
  • ‘Helper’ pattern - for expanding help text, positioned either immediately before or immediately after the input fields for that question

An example that shows all 3 patterns is Find out how your Welsh rates of income tax is spent in Wales.

You might occasionally need to add more detailed text to help users make particularly complex or difficult decisions.

But bear in mind they’re unlikely to read anything longer than 3 lines, so try to keep any text brief and action-focused.

Do not use help text to explain the interface. If you have to do that, you’ve made your service too complicated.

Help users give you the right information

Do what you can to help users avoid failing validation and getting an error message. Set up your validation so it’s as tolerant as possible of users entering information in different ways.

So, for example, if you’re asking for the user’s National Insurance number the input field should accept the number both with and without spaces. So either ‘QQ123456C’ or ‘QQ 12 34 56 C’ and stripping out the spaces before it passes the number through to the back end.

You’ll probably need to create multiple error messages per field, so they’re as specific to the problem as possible. Focus on telling the user how to fix the problem rather than describing what’s gone wrong.