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Getting started with forms

jordanholtdev profile image Jordan Holt Originally published at blog.jordanholt.dev on ・9 min read

Forms are one of the most common ways that users interact with a site or app. From a simple newsletter subscription to a complex multi-line shipping form, they are found on almost every site and app on the web. In this article we’ll build a basic form that introduces some commonly used concepts and elements.

What is an HTML form?

A form is a component of a web page that a user can interact with, and provide data to, which will then be submitted and sent to a server for processing (e.g. submitting an email address to subscribe to a newsletter) or in some cases used client-side (e.g. update the UI to add or remove elements).

Forms have various control elements that users can interact with such as buttons, text inputs, range controls and checkboxes. We’ll have a closer look at those elements shortly.

The steps to creating a form

Creating a form can generally be broken down into a few steps:

  1. Designing the form
  2. Creating the user interface
  3. Creating the server-side or client-side code to process the form data
  4. Configuring the form to communicate with a server.

Form design and server-side form processing are beyond the scope of this article and deserve some thorough attention. If you’re interested in reading more about form design check out these articles:

Form design:

Server-side form processing:

Defining the data

In this article we’ll be creating a form for ordering a hamburger. Let’s quickly define what data this form needs to collect.

  • User information

    • Customer name
    • Telephone number
    • Email address
  • Hamburger type

    • Beef
    • Veggie
  • Toppings

    • Cheese
    • Ketchup
    • Mustard
    • Pickle
    • Onion
  • Delivery instructions

    • Any special comments for delivery (e.g. enter through side-door)

Now that we have a better idea of what data the form needs to collect, let’s go ahead and start building the form.

The form element

The first thing we do when we create any form is to use the <form> element. All of the form controls will then be placed inside.

<form
  action="https://tasty.hamburgers.example..com/order"
  enctype="application/x-www-form-urlencoded"
  method="POST"
></form>

The form element is a container element that defines our form. While the attributes are optional, you’ll find these are very common for web forms.

  • action - The form action takes a URL that defines the location where the form data will be sent for processing. In this case when a user submits this form the data will be sent to https://tasty.hamburgers.example.com/order for processing on the server.
  • method - Forms interact with servers in a few ways, most commonly is the HTTP GET and POST methods. This attribute defines which method the form uses.
  • enctype - Defines the type of content that is used when submitting form data.

Now we can start adding the form controls.

Form controls

The form controls will be contained inside the form element. Let’s start by adding an input that will collect the users name.

<form
  action="https://tasty.hamburgers.example.com/order"
  enctype="application/x-www-form-urlencoded"
  method="POST"
>
  <p>
    <label>Name: <input name="custname" type="text" required /></label>
  </p>
</form>

Inside of a <p> element we added our first form control, a label and an input to collect the users name. Inputs are the most common type of form control. You’ll notice that the label and input is contained inside a <p> element. It’s very common to see forms that are structured using list elements such as <ul> and <li> but in this article the form controls will be contained in <p> elements.

  • <label> - The label element represents a caption for the form control, in this case an <input>. In this example the form control (the <input) is directly inside the label element, however you’ll often see them seperated like this:
<p>
  <label for="name">Name: </label>
  <input name="custname" type="text" id="name" required />
</p>

When the control is not directly inside the label, you need to use the attribute and a corresponding on the control. When users click / activate the label, the form control will be activated as if the user clicked on it.

  • <input> - The input accepts data from the user. It accepts a huge number of data types and attributes and is fairly complex HTML element because of the countless combinations. Here are the attributes we are currently using in our example:

    • name - For every form control that is submitted, we need to give a name to the data. When a user submits the form to our server, the server will expect to receive that data in this case as parameters in a HTTP POST body. In our example the “custname” represents a parameter that the server is expecting.
    • type - The type attribute defines and controls the data type of the input element. In our example we are using the keyword “text” whose data type is “text with no line breaks”.
    • required - This is a constraint attribute that is used in simple client-side validation. When required is used, the user will be notified when attempting to submit the form without the corrosponding input fields completed.

Let’s finish off the customer information controls by adding the telephone and email fields.

<form
  action="https://tasty.hamburgers.example.com/order"
  enctype="application/x-www-form-urlencoded"
  method="POST"
>
  <p>
    <label>Name: <input name="custname" type="text" required /></label>
  </p>
  <p>
    <label>Telephone: <input type="tel" name="custtel" required /></label>
  </p>
  <p>
    <label
      >Email address: <input type="email" name="custemail" required
    /></label>
  </p>
</form>

Grouping form controls

Let’s add the ability to choose the hamburger type to our form. There are two types of hamburgers patties available, “Beef” & “Veggie”. The most intuitive way for a user to select the option is by using radio buttons. Radio buttons also use the input element and are often grouped together.

To select a radio button, the input attribute type must be set to “radio”. For the radio buttons to work as a group they must share a common name attribute, in this case the attribute has a value of “patty”.

<form
  action="https://tasty.hamburgers.example.com/order"
  enctype="application/x-www-form-urlencoded"
  method="POST"
>
  <p>
    <label>Name: <input name="custname" type="text" required /></label>
  </p>
  <p>
    <label>Telephone: <input type="tel" name="custtel" required /></label>
  </p>
  <p>
    <label
      >Email address: <input type="email" name="custemail" required
    /></label>
  </p>
  <fieldset>
    <legend>Hamburger patty</legend>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="radio" name="patty" /> Beef </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="radio" name="patty" /> Veggie </label>
    </p>
  </fieldset>
</form>
  • <fieldset> - This element is used when grouping a set of form controls together. It usually contains a caption that is supplied by the <legend> element.

Now let’s go ahead and add the ability for a user to pick the hamburger toppings. For this we will use the input type “checkbox” since people will usually want more than one topping on thier burgers. Again we will give these controls a shared name attribute and contain them inside the <fieldset> element.

<form
  action="https://tasty.hamburgers.example.com/order"
  enctype="application/x-www-form-urlencoded"
  method="POST"
>
  <p>
    <label>Name: <input name="custname" type="text" required /></label>
  </p>
  <p>
    <label>Telephone: <input type="tel" name="custtel" required /></label>
  </p>
  <p>
    <label
      >Email address: <input type="email" name="custemail" required
    /></label>
  </p>
  <fieldset>
    <legend>Hamburger patty</legend>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="radio" name="patty" /> Beef </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="radio" name="patty" /> Veggie </label>
    </p>
  </fieldset>
  <fieldset>
    <legend>Toppings</legend>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Cheese </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Ketchup </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Mustard </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Pickle </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Onion </label>
    </p>
  </fieldset>
</form>

Add a text area

A common part of a form for deliveries is a special instructions text area. This input allows users to add a small amount of instructions for the delivery. Let’s go ahead and add one to this form using the <textarea> element.

<form
  action="https://tasty.hamburgers.example.com/order"
  enctype="application/x-www-form-urlencoded"
  method="POST"
>
  <p>
    <label>Name: <input name="custname" type="text" required /></label>
  </p>
  <p>
    <label>Telephone: <input type="tel" name="custtel" required /></label>
  </p>
  <p>
    <label
      >Email address: <input type="email" name="custemail" required
    /></label>
  </p>
  <fieldset>
    <legend>Hamburger patty</legend>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="radio" name="patty" /> Beef </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="radio" name="patty" /> Veggie </label>
    </p>
  </fieldset>
  <fieldset>
    <legend>Toppings</legend>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Cheese </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Ketchup </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Mustard </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Pickle </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Onion </label>
    </p>
  </fieldset>
  <p>
    <label
      >Special instructions:
      <textarea name="comments" maxlength="500"></textarea>
    </label>
  </p>
</form>

You’ll notice we added a maxlength attribute to the text area. This was done to prevent really long special instructions and is another example of a constraint attribute and client-side validation.

Add a submit button

We now have all the markup we need to collect the customers data for their hamburger order. However, they need a way to submit the order. Let’s go ahead and add a submit button that will send the data to the server when activated.

<form
  action="https://tasty.hamburgers.example.com/order"
  enctype="application/x-www-form-urlencoded"
  method="POST"
>
  <p>
    <label>Name: <input name="custname" type="text" required /></label>
  </p>
  <p>
    <label>Telephone: <input type="tel" name="custtel" required /></label>
  </p>
  <p>
    <label
      >Email address: <input type="email" name="custemail" required
    /></label>
  </p>
  <fieldset>
    <legend>Hamburger patty</legend>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="radio" name="patty" /> Beef </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="radio" name="patty" /> Veggie </label>
    </p>
  </fieldset>
  <fieldset>
    <legend>Toppings</legend>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Cheese </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Ketchup </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Mustard </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Pickle </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Onion </label>
    </p>
  </fieldset>
  <p>
    <label
      >Special instructions:
      <textarea name="comments" maxlength="500"></textarea>
    </label>
  </p>
  <p><button type="submit">Submit</button></p>
</form>

The default action for a button is submit but it was added to the markup for clarity.

Adding autocomplete functionality

Some browsers try and help users fill out forms by autocompleting certain fields with previously stored information such as name and address. We can add the autocomplete attribute to certain inputs in an attempt to make it easier for the user to complete the form.

Let’s add the autocomplete attribute to the following inputs:

  • customer name
  • telephone number
  • email address
<form
  action="https://tasty.hamburgers.example.com/order"
  enctype="application/x-www-form-urlencoded"
  method="POST"
>
  <p>
    <label
      >Name: <input name="custname" type="text" autocomplete="name" required
    /></label>
  </p>
  <p>
    <label
      >Telephone: <input type="tel" name="custtel" autocomplete="tel" required
    /></label>
  </p>
  <p>
    <label
      >Email address:
      <input type="email" name="custemail" autocomplete="email" required
    /></label>
  </p>
  <fieldset>
    <legend>Hamburger patty</legend>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="radio" name="patty" /> Beef </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="radio" name="patty" /> Veggie </label>
    </p>
  </fieldset>
  <fieldset>
    <legend>Toppings</legend>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Cheese </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Ketchup </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Mustard </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Pickle </label>
    </p>
    <p>
      <label> <input type="checkbox" name="topping" /> Onion </label>
    </p>
  </fieldset>
  <p>
    <label
      >Special instructions:
      <textarea name="comments" maxlength="500"></textarea>
    </label>
  </p>
  <p><button type="submit">Submit</button></p>
</form>

Wrap up

We covered the basic markup of an HTML form, form controls and introduced client-side validation and features like autocomplete. While this only scratches the surface of HTML forms, hopefully you now have a better understanding of the structure and functionality of them. In future posts I’ll continue with this example and style this form and build on the client-side validation by using JavaScript.

You can find the source code for this form here:
Completed hamburger form

Further resources

Discussion

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