This is the first, and best, question to ask about any new tool, particularly when looking at a market as crowded as this one.
Form builders have been around for ages, googling “form builder” comes back with around 500,000 results.
I was working in a department of the UK government when the idea started to germinate. Existing form builders all seemed to do nearly but not quite what was needed and many, many, teams within the department needed web forms doing quickly, and doing well.
UK government IT is in a special place — budgets are being squeezed at the same time as entire departments are struggling to get systems integrated and online, all the while wrestling with contracts with big IT suppliers that, at best, penalise change.
So what makes central government web forms so special?
Building and deploying new systems is time consuming and expensive. Even now that cloud computing has made its way on to centralised purchasing frameworks, it’s still far from trivial to assure that a new application is secure; that it meets its accessibility requirements; that a relevant team is in place and is notified if there are any problems with the running system. This overhead is too much for anything less than a medium-sized bespoke tool. For everything else, you want a reusable tool that has already jumped through those hoops.
But, as ever, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Complete control over generated html and css
GDS (Government Digital Services) enforce a set of processes around how departments can provision services. For instance, they insist that web pages abide by their user-centred design principles. This means the form builder must be flexible enough to provide complete control over the html and css so the GOV.UK theme and accessibility requirements can be met in full.
Our government deals with some of the most sensitive details of our lives. We trust them with our finances, our identity and, in some cases, details of our past that we simply don’t want to become common knowledge. Therefore how these details are handled is critically important; they can’t be stored on a computer that sits somewhere governed by laws that allow those details to be shared elsewhere.
Sound engineering principles
Just because you’re building “just another web form” doesn’t mean you should have to do without the sound engineering principles that a larger, bespoke, system would expect to have in place. Forms should be versioned, with a traceable audit history of who made what change and when. They should be promoted to the production environment in a controlled manner. They should be able to be rolled back to a previous version if the new one has problems.
User research and continuous improvement
Nobody gets software right the first time around, especially when it deals with people. What becomes important, then, is to gather as much feedback as you can, as quickly as you can, and use that to iterate on the form’s design. A form builder needs to actively support gathering intelligence about how well a form is behaving so that you can quickly respond and improve people’s experience.
Forms are important
The more time you spend looking at how you interact with the web, the more web forms you see. Every time you log in, comment on a blog, tweet, you’re filling in a form. How those forms are presented speaks volumes about the organisation asking for that information. Every question asked, every field displayed, costs the person filling in the form time and energy to understand and complete. We owe it to everyone on the web to make these interactions as simple, painless and easy as possible.
Making better forms won’t just happen by itself — we need to pay attention to what they’re for, how they’re being used and who is using them. If the 500,000 or so hits on google had this nailed already, then there wouldn’t be so many awful forms out there on the web. So, yes, there’s room for a better form builder. One that makes it easy to build first-rate forms for the web. One that can provide data back to form authors about which questions are working well and which need further work. One that encourages form design to evolve along with its authors’ understanding of how it is being used. One that has user research baked in to its core.