Tips & Tricks for Filling Out Forms

6 minute read

Ever had to fill out a form like this one? A lot of people waste large amounts of time working with forms because they don't know a few simple shortcuts (namely, the Tab key!) Here's how to get it done more quickly and less painfully.

0: Screencast
I'm trying something new this week—a screencast. If you don't know, a screencast is a video of someone's screen as they perform some task (in this case, purchasing a cash register online), usually with a voiceover explaining what's going on. I'd suggest you read the article first, but I think checking out the video afterwards will probably help you see what I'm talking about, and perhaps put the information into a form that will be a little bit easier to apply. And above all, if you take only one thing from this article, let it be this: Use the TAB key. It will save you hours over the course of your lifetime.

1: Terminology
Before I can cover how to move through a form quickly, you probably want to know some terminology--if you already know it, feel free to skip over this section. So here are the elements that often appear in forms (all these are in the screenshot, so you can reference it if you need to):

  • Text Box: You probably already know what this is--a (usually white) box that you can type text into. Usually you can type whatever you want into here, though some text boxes may have validation--for instance, an email address has to contain an @ and a ., and the CAPTCHA code where you have to type in the funny letters to prove that you're human has only one correct answer.
  • Drop-Down Menu (or simply drop-down): A (usually gray) box with a little arrow on one end. When you click on it, a list pops open and you can scroll through it and select one of the choices. These are usually used when there are a lot of options, but sometimes form designers might put short lists in a drop-down.
  • Check Box: A small square box; when you click on it, a check appears or goes away. This is (usually) for on/off and yes/no questions only.
  • Radio Buttons (or option buttons): Little round buttons, typically used for short lists of options. When you click one of the radio buttons, any previously selected one gets unmarked.
  • Field: Any one location asking you to enter data (i.e., "first name", "state", "telephone number", and so on).

In addition, forms can contain text, lines, and pictures, but you can't enter any information with these.

2: Moving Around a Form
Your TAB key is your best friend when filling out a form. It will advance automatically to whatever the creator of the form has defined as the next field (hopefully this is an order that makes sense to you!). If you accidentally skip a field or need to go back and change something, you can press Shift-TAB. When you use the key to move into a text box that already has something in it, it will usually highlight any previous text so that you can just start typing over it (be careful that you don't accidentally delete anything).

When you're moving through a form that has a text box, then a series of check boxes, then another text box, you can save a fair bit of time (and a lot of effort) by avoiding the mouse, because you don't have to keep switching from mouse to keyboard. If you use the TAB key and the following tips, you should have no reason to touch your mouse. (If you're filling out a form that consists entirely of check boxes, drop-downs, and radio buttons, such as a survey, then these tips are probably a waste of time for that particular form.)

The next sections tell you how to deal with each individual element; they assume that you pressed Tab to move to and select that element.

Text Boxes
There's not much to say about these--the biggest factor here is your typing speed. Unfortunately there are no magical efficiency-improving text box tricks.

Drop-Down Menus
There are several tricks with drop-down menus. Don't even think about reaching for your mouse to use a drop-down menu. All you really have to do is start typing, and the menu will scroll to that choice. For instance, if you're asked to fill in your state, you don't have to scroll through the entire menu hunting for your state--instead, just type the first couple of letters and it should be selected for you.

If you aren't sure what options are in the drop-down menu (and therefore can't type the first letters of it), just press the spacebar. This will open the drop-down menu so that you can see the options. You can then start typing the option you want.

If all the choices don't fit on the screen, you can use the arrow keys and Page Up/Page Down keys to see the rest of the list. If you select the choice you want with the arrow keys (instead of typing to move to it), just press Tab twice to close the drop-down and move to the next field. (Enter and then Tab also works, but double-tabbing is faster.)

Check Boxes
Check boxes are very simple to manipulate--to turn them on or off, just press the spacebar. If there's more than one, just press tab and repeat.

Radio Buttons
Radio buttons are funny because they have a different state after you've selected something once--before you choose a button, nothing is selected, but after you make a selection it is impossible to return to having nothing selected.

Unlike other sets of elements (like multiple check boxes) radio buttons are selected as a set when tabbing, so pressing Tab while the first radio button is selected will tab to the field after all the radio buttons, rather than to the next radio button.

To select the first radio button, you can press the spacebar. To select any others, simply use the arrow keys, and buttons will begin being selected as you press the keys.

When you finish entering your data, you can press Enter to send it. At this point, Murphy's Law states that the site will usually return an error and require you to retype some or all of the information (often because you missed the little tiny button that states you agree to the terms and conditions that have been read by approximately five people, or because you mistyped the eye-straining verification code). If it's only one field, clicking on it and fixing it is probably best, but otherwise you can reuse the tips above.

If you haven't seen the screencast yet, I suggest you watch it now.

Soren "scorchgeek" Bjornstad

If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me:

Copyright 2011 Soren Bjornstad.
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is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.