Form UX Design – Visual vs. Text Questions

Art Harrison

As makers of smart forms, we get pretty excited about the best way to collect information from customers or staff so that it sounds natural, is easy for the user to understand, and allows them to get through a form quickly without compromising information quality. Basically, form user experience (UX).

We’re always asking ourselves:

Is there a better way to ask this question so it’s faster, easier, and less cognitively stressful for the user?

One way to do that is to use visual questions instead of text-based ones. Here’s the problem with form design now, and how using images instead of words can make it better.

Why form UX sort of sucks

The problem we notice is that a lot of forms are:

  • Designed by committee rather than by designers
  • Filling multiple roles at once
  • Created by someone who's focusing all their attention on the form, when that's rarely how forms are completed by end users.

These factors lead to questions that are difficult to understand with lots of clauses and subsections. They often require two or three focused readings just to understand what an organization wants to user to do.

All of which is further complicated by the fact that forms are frequently laden with bizarre, formal language.

For example, asking ‘What is your place of birth?’ instead of asking ‘Where were you born?’

These factors all conspire to make completing forms an awful lot harder for the user than it needs to be.

How visual question can help

Lots of these challenges can be solved with better form UX.

For example, asking only one question at a time instead of asking a bunch of questions at once makes the information far easier to process.

But visual questions in particular have a lot of benefits over text ones.

1. Visual questions can be processed much faster

Humans are really good at specific pattern recognition. For example, we can get a glimpse of someone’s face down the street and instantaneously know if we know them or not. That’s incredible, given that people’s faces are all pretty much the same.

If form UX designers can identify areas where there’s an image that has extremely wide spread recognition among their target users, they can leverage that for better questions.

Icons are a great example of this. Imagine you were asking marketing managers:

‘What social networks do you use?’

Presenting the Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc… logos will likely create faster response times than listing out all the social media names.

2. Visual questions can convey more information

A picture says a thousand words. Well, maybe not quite a thousand, but it’s often easier to understand information when it’s presented as an image rather than as a paragraph of text.

Form UX has, for a long time, not been able to capitalize on this particularly effectively. For example, the Canadian government’s passport renewal form does include a picture to help explain who’s eligible and who isn’t.

Canada passport renewal form UX

…But it doesn’t take the time to explain what specs a passport photo needs to have – even though that’s a requirement listed in the very next section.

For more complex web forms, even simple images like this are rare. Which is a shame… because we think that’s exactly where they’re needed most.

When visual vs text questions work well (and when they don’t)

Now even we recognize that, despite all the reasons to use pictures, there are plenty of cases when it’s just not a good idea. Generally speaking, the more abstract the concept you’re hoping to convey, the less practical an image is going to be. For example, here’s a question from Wealthsimple’s new account process:

wealthsimple form design

Imagine trying to express each of those account as a picture! It’d be a confusing nightmare.

Maps, on the other hand, are one area where images can work far, far better than words. Map are form UX designer’s best friend. Why? Because people will probably see where they live before they can recognize the name.

Take, for example.

While they have a… dated design, their use of images is spot. In just a few clicks, users can choose exactly where they want to look for property without having to draw an area, enter a post code, or trawl through dozens of useless properties they’ve never going to rent.

form UX maps


Visual information can be incredibly powerful. Humans can recognize visual (rather than text) incredibly quickly. Plus, users who can’t read (non-language speakers, kids, etc.…) are not nearly so disadvantaged by pictures compared to words.

However, for years now form UX hasn’t responded to these obvious benefits and committed exclusively to text-based questions regardless of circumstances. But that doesn’t serve the user and, ultimately, fails the organization.

Fortunately, smart form technology and form UX makes image/text incorporation easier and more common. Interactive features like those used by allow users to quickly provide the information organizations are looking for, and it’s easy to see how that experience could be used in other form settings. Of course, there’s always going to be a place for text-based questions and answers. But with smart forms, the decision is made based on the needs of the user, not the constraints of the organization.

Image credit:

Where's Waldo - Troy via

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