Did you know that changing even the smallest item on a form after data collection has begun could compromise data quality? Editing items during or after data collection can lead to information loss and a change to the type of data that has been retained. What can initially seem like a minor update to a field, may later lead to major headaches and several hours of data cleaning. If you want to avoid a future data mess, make sure you follow our series on do’s and don’ts of form design.

Form Design Tip #1: When possible, avoid the use of text fields

Although our natural inclination is to capture as much as we can in a text field, this data is unusable without hours and hours of data cleaning. Any data that is being captured in a text field can (and should) be captured in a more restricted field.

DON’T Provide the participant with a blank space for any diagnosis to be written if you’re interested in collecting diagnosis data.

DO Provide a list of possible diagnoses and allow the participant to select the diagnoses that apply.

DON’T Provide an open-ended box for the participant to enter anything they want (e.g., Relationship).

DO Present a predefined list of options (e.g., Caregiver (choose one) Mother, Father, Maternal Aunt, Paternal Grandfather, Other-Enter Text).

There may be some instances when you just can’t possibly predict all the necessary options for a field. A good data management practice is to use an  ‘other’ option and provide a text field to specify details. If you decide to provide the ‘other’ option, make sure to regularly audit these text fields and decide if it’s worth adding a choice to capture ‘other’ options that appear consistently. Adding the choice would not negatively impact the data since the ‘other’ option was always available.

If you ever have doubt about the best way to represent a field, just ask yourself, “will I be able to make sense of this data if this field was filled out a thousand times?” If the answer is no, take a step back and reconsider the field’s formatting.

Found this article useful? Check out the next two posts in the series Form Design Tip 2: Usability and Form Design Tip 3: Avoid Redundant Data Fields.