Guidelines for designing a successful online application

Last Reviewed Date
September 22, 2023

This section outlines the principles used to design the child care assistance model application. Following these principles will help you design an application that is easy for families to use.

Make the application layout simple and accessible

On the first page of your application, clearly state:

  • what information is asked 
  • what documents are required
  • approximately how long the application will take to complete.

By doing so, applicants will be better prepared to complete the application correctly and quickly for first time.

  • Only ask for information that is required to process the application. Asking for extra information makes it harder for the applicant to successfully complete the application, creates more opportunity for unintended errors, and takes longer for front-line staff to process.
  • Ask for one item per page. For example, ask about an applicant's information on one page and about a child's information on another.
  • Label each step of your application. As a user progresses through the application, clearly show what step they are on and how many more steps remain.
  • Flag incorrect information as a user enters it (like a phone number with letters in it or a child's birth date that makes them too old for the program), allowing them a chance to correct the information before moving forward. This will reduce error rates and the need to ask for corrected information later.
  • At the end, tell applicants what to expect next. Provide accurate estimates of how long they should expect to wait for an update or decision. Even if the wait time is long, knowing upfront what to expect helps reduce anxiety and allows applicants to plan ahead.
  • Make sure your online application follows best practices in user interface design and is accessible. Using the United States Web Design System or your application for your website in encouraged!
  • Ensure the application is available in all of the languages that are spoken in your jurisdiction.

Use plain language

  • Do the hard work to keep the wording very simple. If applicants don’t understand what you’re asking for, they might not apply or submit accurate responses. This creates burden for applicants. Your agency will also spend more time investigating and correcting these errors.
  • Include helper text or examples. This allows applicants to know exactly what you are asking them to enter. If you find your helper text is very long, consider redesigning your question to make it simpler.
  • Use a conversational, warm tone.
  • Use active voice. Readers are more likely to understand sentences with active voice than those with passive voice. It can also help readers understand who’s responsible for taking what action.
  • See for more guidelines and examples.

Personalize the application

  • Leverage information that applicants have already entered to tailor subsequent questions. Allow applicants to skip questions that do not apply to them. For example, if an applicant enters that they are not working, do not ask them to list employers.
  • Ask questions in an order that quickly determines if an applicant can bypass certain requirements (for example, because they are homeless or receiving protective services), then let them fill out a streamlined version of the application that removes all the non-required questions. Don’t wait until the end to ask questions that would have allowed the applicant to skip things they have already completed.
  • Ask applicants questions in small bite sized chunks. Based on their answer, they may need to answer additional questions. If no additional information is needed on their answer, move them along to the next screen.
  • When asking for information, clearly label what information you are asking for. For example, clearly state which jobs need paystubs for documentation and which do not need them.

Ensure your application is online and mobile-friendly

  • Offer an online application option, not just paper-based or a fillable pdf. Applications that require access to a printer, copier, and the mail system create accessibility issues
  • Design for mobile first. Making your application work well for small screens will ensure that it is usable on all devices. Test for compatibility with a range of browsers
  • Test how the application loads with low bandwidth internet and remove unnecessary graphics or use lower resolution options
  • Make your online application easy to find on your website and adopt search engine optimization (SEO) principles to ensure it is a highly ranked result when applicants search for key terms.
  • Make document submission easy by allowing applicants to take pictures with their smartphones. Accept a range of file types and sizes.
  • Consider the whole online application process, and make sure it works for people who may not have consistent phone numbers, forget their passwords, or get locked out of email accounts.