I have seen this work well both ways, and users accept both ways. Is there a general standard though? What is the Principle of Least Astonishment here? Does it have to do with how things are grouped visually?

With screens being wide these days, ticking down through columns is easier, for the same reason that "newspaper columns" is easier: a shorter "retrace" by the eye to the next line. What say you-all?

  • It does have something to do with how things are grouped visually, which has a lot to do with how the data/information are grouped logically. – Michael Lai Apr 7 '16 at 22:33

My understanding is that people visually have a preference towards reading columns or shorter text. But apparently, people actually read better with a little wider text. (I dont know if this is completely true when dealing with forms).

(See point 18): http://www.graphics.com/article-old/how-people-read

Susan Weinschenk PhD. - Behavioral Psychologist

I think your form navigation will be subject to it's application.

If this form is going to be used for a data-entry type of application, where it will be used repetitively. I would suggest a little wider form. The wider form may also cut down on a user's vertical scrolling.

If this is a form that may only be used once or twice by users, I think the column approach may be more visually appealing.

  • +1 a good reference, but I don't see how you came to the conclusion that the column approach is more visually appealing if it is a form that may only be used once or twice by users. – Michael Lai Apr 7 '16 at 22:35
  • I meant, the column approach is more visual appealing in general. But because a longer line is easier to read, I would choose a longer line for repetitive data-entry type of application. If it were lets say a long registration form that someone may only fill out once or twice, I think providing a more aesthetically pleasing approach (column) would be ok. Is that any clearer? – Mark Apr 7 '16 at 22:40
  • So, if it is visually obvious that things are in columns, people will just assume that is how it works. Same for rows. So the sin would be to make neat columns and then move across? What about a large number of checkboxes? Probably the same. In the industry I used to program in, the paper forms users were entering from sometimes went down columns, but I could not mimic that in the system I had to work with, so we had to apologize to the users. They got over it though. Eventually I fixed it, but it took extra effort to change the Tab order. – user67695 Apr 8 '16 at 12:11

I would consider the type of data you're collecting. If several fields relate (e.g. city, state, country), then horizontally is appropriate (and, in my opinion, preferred as it tips me off that they are grouped for a reason). This would help condense the form a bit and allow a user to keep their hands on the keyboard longer before needing to scroll, thereby aiding the user in completing the form efficiently.

There's no single right way to do it, and there are often many factors to consider (what devices will be used, who your target audience is, what data is being collected, how frequent a user will see the form...). There are a lot of resources on form design, and I would recommend doing additional research of your own before deciding what's right for your use case.

  • Forms should be able to be navigated entirely with the keyboard. Windowing is an accessory, not the whole point. Forms have been around longer than computers have. (And mice even longer than that...) I think that the research still stands which says that non-window screen forms are faster for experienced typists - who may well not look at the screen anyway, so what is all the fancy stuff for? I prefer substance over... form. Er, whatever... – user67695 Apr 8 '16 at 12:08
  • @nocomprende Oh, I absolutely agree with you and didn't mean to imply otherwise. I believe that for the "power user" you're referencing who "may well not look at the screen anyway" the exact positioning wouldn't matter much, but for those users who are not nimble with computers, I believe these suggestions are of more significance. – maxathousand Apr 8 '16 at 13:59
  • Yeah, I was just adding a thought to what you wrote, not disagreeing... I don't have much experience with tablets and smaller devices. It seems that all the usability knowledge we developed over decades goes out the window when you have no keyboard, no mouse, a 5 inch touch screen, and not a lot of (reliably fast) bandwidth. I think that "apps" are really a different world from desktop or browsing scenarios, and require entirely different "world views". I read a joking analogy years back about the development of computers: "Electric motors are great, every household should have one." – user67695 Apr 8 '16 at 15:19

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