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A menagerie of government forms

Imagine this: You search the internet for information on how to apply for a permit that you need. It leads you to a government website with seven paragraphs about eligibility. You read it and are still a little unsure if you meet some of the criteria, but decide to apply anyway. The apply button leads you to a prompt to download a PDF document. When you try to open it, it says that you need to download PDF editing software, which you don’t have and don’t want to pay for. You decide to print it off and fill it out by hand. The form is four pages, and 37 questions long. Yikes, this is going to take a while. You decide to leave it until you have a good hour to sit down and tackle it properly. When you finally do a week later, it turns out that only half of the fields apply to you, and for those that do, you’re not even so sure exactly what information you’re being asked to provide. You scan and email the completed form, cross your fingers, and wait.

Maybe you don’t have to try so hard to imagine that, because it’s an experience you’re familiar with.

Government forms have a reputation for being tedious and convoluted to fill out, but they’re used for some very good reasons. Forms are designed to reduce miscommunication between the person filling it out and the people collecting the information. They’re also an efficient, consistent, scalable way to help with service transactions for large numbers of people.

Format determines function

There are three main formats that forms are offered in: paper, downloadable document, or interactive online form. While paper forms can be a better option for those without online access, they can pose accessibility issues and have some limitations compared to their online counterparts. Paper forms are not responsive – meaning they can’t reduce the number of questions they present based on new information about an individual’s situation. In addition, a paper form would have to be scanned and emailed, or mailed to be submitted, which takes more time.

By contrast, online forms offer many opportunities for simplification that save people time and frustration by eliminating questions that aren’t applicable, providing interactive guidance on how to format responses, allowing submission with the click of a button rather than a trip to the mailbox, and making them accessible to people who use assistive technology.

Helping the helpers

Public servants are the people on the other side, who use forms to deliver services effectively. How a form is designed can have a big impact on the efficiency of their workflows. Well-designed online forms offer advantages for public servants as well, but the act of getting a form online is far from simple for them. Our team has heard from many public servants who have a paper or PDF form that they want to put online, but are facing months, or year-long wait times for a custom form to be published.

This is where we saw an opportunity to help public servants who administer forms and use the data they collect to provide services to the public. That’s why we started working on one of our latest products: meeting the need for a simple forms drafting and publishing platform, designed and built for the Government of Canada.

Categorizing the different types government forms - take one

To start small, we needed to narrow our focus to a few features that would meet the basic needs of public servants and end users. And to decide where to start, we needed to understand how forms, and the needs that go along with them, differed. As our team waded into a sea of government forms, cataloguing things from fishing licence applications to training registrations, variations started to emerge.

Initially we classified forms according to the kind of program they supported:

  • Individual benefits and services
  • Grants and contributions
  • Internal services
  • Other

These categories were helpful to understand who would be filling out forms and why. They also revealed policy and governance structures that would impact how and when forms are published.

But when we tried to define the ultimate purpose of forms in each category, the picture was less clear. There was too much variation within individual types of programs, and we also saw data goals – what would ultimately be done with the form data – that overlapped across multiple program types. This made it difficult to determine where to start.

Categorizing the different types of government forms - take two

Thankfully, our discovery research had uncovered an insight that pointed towards another way of classifying forms. Speaking to public servants who specifically create and implement online forms, we learned that best practices for effective form design are determined by the process that the form supports: where the data goes, what decisions it enables, and the ultimate outcome that it contributes to.

This inspired us to dig more into what happens after a form is submitted. We conducted a series of process mapping sessions with public servants from seven different teams that use forms, and also drew data from a previous CDS partnership that involved a public-facing form. We used what we learned to create an alternative categorization scheme, containing three data processing use cases: request processing, candidate selection, and business intelligence. We outline these more in detail below.

Types of data processing

Request processing

Some forms are used to collect data needed to process a request. Someone uses a form to request an action or enact a change.


  • A request to reschedule a citizenship appointment
  • A request to update one’s marital status on a tax return

The request is actioned according to predetermined rules, criteria, or policy, using the data submitted through the form. For example, a request for information is sent to one department if one box is checked, and a different department if the other is checked.

This means that it is very clear up front which data needs to be collected, and in what format. For the most part, open ended questions are undesirable, because only very specific information is needed to make a decision. Of course, there are always edge cases, but the majority of requests are handled in a consistent routine way.

Candidate selection

Other forms are used to collect information about choices that are in competition with each other for a limited resource.


  • A job application
  • An application to receive a grant
  • An award nomination

These forms are more likely to collect unstructured data, giving the person filling it out freedom to determine which information is relevant. The goal for the public servants collecting the data is to get the full picture of what each candidate is offering and reveal opportunities that couldn’t be otherwise anticipated.

Often the people making a selection don’t know what range of options exists until candidates provide more information. This makes it difficult to create multiple choice questions, because it’s impossible to anticipate what relevant information form respondents will want to provide. Instead, open-ended questions give candidates more flexibility to describe what they are offering.

The data received through the form triggers the collection of other complimentary data from internal and external sources: searching to see if there are other initiatives already doing work similar to what’s being proposed, requesting expert reviews of the methodology or credentials, or looking for proposals that complement each other.

Business intelligence

The third type of form we noticed were those used when a program wants to know how it’s performing, to inform changes to the program or strategy. Business intelligence in general comes from many sources, but business intelligence forms focus on data that comes from people’s thoughts and experiences rather than their observable behaviours.


  • A feedback survey
  • A questionnaire or test that gauges comprehension to evaluate the effectiveness of a communication

The information collected is non-transactional, meaning a person isn’t requesting a service or action by filling out the form, and in many cases doesn’t receive a response in return.

Tell us about your form!

These use cases are preliminary and will likely shift as we learn more. But for now we’re using these three categories to guide our design approach: thinking about how form data is used, what features are needed to support each process, and unique implications the process has on form design best practices.

Does your Government of Canada form fit any of the descriptions above? Is your process a hybrid of two or more of these use cases? Or is it something completely different? Regardless, we’d like to hear from you!