Play: Design simple and effective forms for benefit programs

In this play:

This play was written by Civilla, one of the partners in the Social Tech Collaborative

Many people are turning to federal, state, and local benefit programs to support their families during the COVID-19 pandemic. Benefit forms that don’t account for the needs of clients can jeopardize their ability to quickly receive and maintain the benefits they’re eligible for. When faced with confusing requirements, difficult-to-follow directions, and unclear next steps, clients often make errors or fail to submit the required documentation. Here are best practices for designing simple and effective forms – whether it’s online or through fillable PDFs.

Best practices for this play

Overall, agencies should use three primary design directives to guide their form design:

  • Short. Forms should collect what is necessary and no more.
  • Simple. Design and copy should be clear and easy to understand.
  • Relevant. Only ask for information necessary to the programs that clients are applying for.
What can be done quickly
  • Use plain language. Update policy and legal language on forms to ensure it’s easy for clients to understand. Write like you’re talking to clients one-on-one, but with the authority of a frontline staff member who can actively help.
  • Trim the excess. Respect the gravity of the situation clients are in by stripping out all language, questions, and requirements that aren’t absolutely necessary. Include only what someone needs to know so they can complete their task.
  • Write for a universal audience. Improve readability by choosing words carefully and user testing forms to ensure that they resonate with a wide audience – including people with low literacy and language barriers – while respecting people’s abilities.
  • Design forms with clear hierarchy and scale. Increase the hierarchy between page titles, section headers, and body text to help clients read efficiently and focus on what’s most important.
  • Group questions around key themes. Organize pages around a single topic (ex: Household Members, Assets, Income, Expenses) to allow clients to focus on one part of their life at a time. Group similar information together to improve clarity and flow – enabling clients to orient to each section and contextualize questions within it.
  • Focus on a single call to action and simple steps. Focus forms on a single call to action. Include simple steps (10 words or less) to help clients understand what they need to do next.
  • Avoid paragraphs. Break up large blocks of text. Utilize lists with numbers and simple bullets.
  • Use tool tips. Include tool tips to answer common client questions and clarify complex information that may be required due to policy and legal requirements.
  • Avoid capitalization. DO NOT USE BLOCK CAPITALS FOR TEXT. It makes it sounds like you’re shouting and it’s hard to read. Unless mandated by law, consider other type treatments for uppercase text.
  • Update the typeface. Choose a sans-serif font that is clear, warm, and easy to read. Some open-source typefaces to consider using include: Source Sans Pro, Public Sans, and Roboto Mono.
  • Increase whitespace. Update forms to provide as much whitespace as possible. Use less whitespace to group elements and more whitespace to distinguish them from each other.
  • Provide confirmation and next steps. Include details that give clients confidence and set expectations for what comes next.
What to aim for long term
  • Design integrated and streamlined applications and renewals. Integrate benefit programs into a single, streamlined application and renewal to ensure residents only fill out information that is relevant to their case. Separate information into a core form (with information that is required for all or most clients to complete) and program supplements (information that is program-specific and tailored to each client’s case).
  • Design a proofs page. Create a guide that provides plain-language examples of the documents clients may need to submit to include with their application and renewals.
  • Design an information booklet. Create a dedicated space for required policy and legal information that isn’t needed directly on forms. This provides clients with a portable resource to reference online or take home with them when they have finished completing their task.
  • Design a standardized interview guide. Create a standardized interview guide that is paired with applications and renewals to ensure that all federal, state, and departmental policies are covered. This will provide a helpful tool for caseworkers and create a more consistent experience for clients.
  • Include pre-fill information. Where possible, pre-fill information from the client’s case file to give them a head-start on completing their forms.


Related categories

Mobile Interviews Self-service Renewals User experience


We encourage feedback, comments, and contributions to the Social Tech Playbook. Do you have experience with this play that you can share with your colleagues in the social services sector? We’d love to hear from you.

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