Skip to main content

Scoring form complexity with RateMyPDF

RateMyPDF is a tool built by Suffolk LIT Lab to help you measure and improve the usability of court forms.

RateMyPDF assigns your PDF a score that reflects 14 different dimensions, including:

  • Reading grade level (a consensus score)
  • Percent of difficult words (currently drawn from the Dale-Chall word list)
  • Use of calculations
  • Number of pages
  • Number of legal citations per field
  • Average number of fields per page
  • Normalized answer length per field
  • Sentences per page
  • Percent of passive voice sentences
  • Percent of words written in all capital letters
  • Percent of "slot-in" fields
  • Percent of "gathered" fields
  • Percent of "third-party" fields
  • Percent of "created" fields

RateMyPDF compares your score to a benchmark that was created by gathering 24,000 forms from 46 States and the District of Columbia in the USA. It also includes specific recommendations to improve several of the measurements.

View and cite our work

Live demo

Visit RateMyPDF

Our dataset

Download our dataset or browse the forms we gathered on the Form Explorer.

View the code on GitHub.

Download and cite our paper

Download our paper

Please cite our paper, our dataset, and this website as follows:

Quinten Steenhuis, Bryce Willey, and David Colarusso. 2023. Beyond Readability with RateMyPDF: A Combined Rule-based and Machine Learning Approach to Improving Court Forms. In Proceedings of International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Law (ICAIL 2023). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 10 pages.

Bibtex format:

@article{Steenhuis_Willey_Colarusso_2023, title={Beyond Readability with RateMyPDF: A Combined Rule-based and Machine Learning Approach to Improving Court Forms}, DOI={}, journal={Proceedings of International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Law (ICAIL 2023)}, author={Steenhuis, Quinten and Willey, Bryce and Colarusso, David}, year={2023}, pages={287–296}}

Why readability scores aren't good enough

Readability has been one of the only available tools to measure the ease of use of court forms. Forward thinking courts have readability targets of 6th grade. But because people don't just read forms--they answer questions and follow instructions--readability isn't a very good measure of form complexity, at least not on its own:

  1. Forms use lots of short text (like: Address, Name, and so on), while readability scores are designed to evaluate long narratives.
  2. Litigants answer questions and follow instructions on forms as well as reading words.
  3. Answers can require getting information from a third party, finding a specific piece of paper (like an ID card), doing math, or making a decision.
  4. Answers can be very sensitive, either because they are about private information, like a Social Security Number, or because they evoke a traumatic response, like details of an assault.
  5. Answers come in different formats, too. The difference between checking a box and writing out a long answer is significant.

Complexity and sensitivity can't always be avoided. For example: a complaint asking for protection from abuse needs to disclose some information about the abuse. But forms should never impose a burden on the litigant that doesn't have a matching benefit.

How we created our score

We built the RateMyPDF score by combining feedback from:

  • Form automators
  • Form authors
  • Legal aid experts
  • Court staff
  • And our own in-house experience from building the Document Assembly Line.

The tool leverages a custom ML model, GPT-3, and heuristics to do the hard work.

A key feature of our score is that it leverages Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney's framework that classifies form responses as either:

  • Slot-in
  • Gathered
  • Third-party, or
  • Created

Use and limitations

The measurement effect

As soon as form authors are aware of the concrete score that our tool provides, we recognize that its value will decrease. A form specially tuned to score well on an automated assessment may do so by manipulating features of the form that were only proxies for the usability of the form itself.

We think our measure will be helpful to provide an initial score for a form. But use the general principles contained on this website to improve your form thereafter, and don't focus too much on the specifics of your score after revision.

Inherent limitations in mechanical scores

Automated scores like the RateMyPDF score have limitations in accuracy. Our score takes only attributes that are easily measurable and combines them into an overall score, but it misses nuance and specifics to the form and its context.

The gold standard for improving forms is an individual usability test. You can run a usability test for as little as a few hundred dollars and half a dozen hours of time, and we think you should! We have written up a short guide to usability testing here.

But usability testing:

  • Can still be expensive or difficult to do at scale
  • Requires applying judgment to disaggregate the causes of poorly performing forms.

We think mechanical scores can be very helpful to sort and classify large numbers of forms at once and to provide a basic direction for improving even individual forms when not applied dogmatically.

Who built this

  • Bryce Willey
  • Quinten Steenhuis
  • David Colarusso

And we worked closely with:

  • Caroline Robinson
  • Lily Yang
  • Michelle B.

to identify and validate the features the RateMyPDF score measures.

Our reading list

  1. Barbara Bezdek. 1991. Silence in the Court: Participation and Subordination of Poor Tenants’ Voices in Legal Process. Hofstra L. Rev. 20, 3 (1992 1991), 533–608.
  2. G. Bradski. 2000. The OpenCV Library. Dr. Dobb’s Journal of Software Tools (2000).
  3. Kylie Brosnan, Bettina Grün, and Sara Dolnicar. Cognitive load reduction strategies in questionnaire design. International Journal of Market Research, 9.
  4. Kevyn Collins-Thompson and Jamie Callan. 2004. A Language Modeling Approach to Predicting Reading Difficulty. (2004), 8.
  5. Alice Davison and Robert N. Kantor. 1982. On the Failure of Readability Formulas to Define Readable Texts: A Case Study from Adaptations. Reading Research Quarterly 17, 2 (1982), 187–209. DOI:
  6. Anne Fernald, Virginia A. Marchman, and Adriana Weisleder. 2013. SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. Developmental Science 16, 2 (2013), 234–248. DOI:
  7. Thomas François, Adeline Müller, Eva Rolin, and Magali Norré. 2020. AMesure: A Web Platform to Assist the Clear Writing of Administrative Texts. In Proceedings of the 1st Conference of the Asia-Pacific Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics and the 10th International Joint Conference on Natural Language Processing: System Demonstrations, Association for Computational Linguistics, Suzhou, China, 1–7. Retrieved November 9, 2022 from
  8. Dr Jörg Fuchs, Tina Heyer, and Diana Langenhan. 2008. Influence of Font Sizes on the Readability and Comprehensibility of Package Inserts. Pharm. Ind. (2008).
  9. Pamela Herd and Donald P. Moynihan. 2018. Administrative burden: policymaking by other means. Russell Sage Foundation, New York.
  10. Matthew Honnibal and Ines Montani. 2017. spaCy 2: Natural language understanding with Bloom embeddings, convolutional neural networks and incremental parsing. Retrieved February 2, 2023 from
  11. Caroline Jarrett, Gerry Gaffney, and Steve Krug. 2008. Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability (1st edition ed.). Morgan Kaufmann, Amsterdam ; Boston.
  12. Lukas Lamm and Christian Wolff. 2021. GCS: A Quick and Dirty Guideline Compliance Scale. Journal of Usability Studies 16, 3 (2021), 24.
  13. Shelley Miller-Shaul. 2005. The characteristics of young and adult dyslexics readers on reading and reading related cognitive tasks as compared to normal readers. Dyslexia 11, 2 (2005), 132–151. DOI:
  14. Hein Pieterse. Towards Guidelines for Error Message Design in Digital Systems.
  15. Janice Redish. 2000. Readability formulas have even more limitations than Klare discusses. ACM J. Comput. Doc. 24, 3 (August 2000), 132–137. DOI:
  16. Luz Rello, Martin Pielot, and Mari-Carmen Marcos. 2016. Make It Big! The Effect of Font Size and Line Spacing on Online Readability. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’16), Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 3637–3648. DOI:
  17. John P Sabatini. 2002. Efficiency in Word Reading of Adults: Ability Group Comparisons. Scientific Studies of Reading 6, 3 (July 2002), 267–298. DOI:
  18. Mirjam Seckler, Silvia Heinz, Javier A Bargas-Avila, Klaus Opwis, and Alexandre N Tuch. 2014. Designing Usable Web Forms – Empirical Evaluation of Web Form Improvement Guidelines. (2014), 10.
  19. Quinten Steenhuis and David Colarusso. 2021. Digital Curb Cuts: Towards an Open Forms Ecosystem. Akron Law Review 54, 4 (2021), 2.
  20. Survey Monkey. 2008. Smart Survey Design. Survey Monkey. Retrieved December 7, 2021 from
  21. Susanne Trauzettel-Klosinski, Klaus Dietz, and the IReST Study Group. 2012. Standardized Assessment of Reading Performance: The New International Reading Speed Texts IReST. Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science 53, 9 (August 2012), 5452–5461. DOI:
  22. Washington Law Help. 2022. How to File Petition for Order of Protection. Retrieved February 6, 2023 from
  23. Antoinette Welsh. 2013. Effects of Trauma Induced Stress on Attention, Executive Functioning, Processing Speed, and Resilience in Urban Children. Seton Hall University Dissertations and Theses (ETDs) (December 2013). Retrieved from
  24. Jenny Ziviani and John Elkins. 1984. An Evaluation of Handwriting Performance. Educational Review 36, 3 (November 1984), 249–261. DOI:
  25. (2015). Paperwork Reduction Act (44 U.S.C. 3501 et seq.). Retrieved February 2, 2023 from
  26. (2023). Textstat. Retrieved February 7, 2023 from
  27. Field labels to use in template files | The Document Assembly Line Project. Retrieved February 3, 2023 from
  28. How to estimate burden | A Guide to the Paperwork Reduction Act. Retrieved November 9, 2022 from
  29. How to write good questions for forms - NHS digital service manual. Retrieved February 6, 2023 from
  30. Restraining order/abuse prevention order court forms | Retrieved February 6, 2023 from


  1. Our own page on readability
  2. Readability Scores: Reference guide, by team member Bryce Willey
  3. Benchmarking everyday documents, Martin Evans, April 2011
  4. What makes a good document?, Rob Waller, April 2011
  5. How to estimate burden,
  6. The power of white space
  7. Clearmark awards criteria