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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

GREAT BOOK — dealing with Jerks and Difficult People


This one of the most practical books I’ve read in a long time. While written from a Christian perspective, most of the practical issues can be applied by people of any religious persuasion.

Here are some snippets from Chapter 1.

“In its simplest form, being a jerk means “being selfish.”

"The root cause of jerkiness is a sense of selfish “entitlement” that is both inborn and learned.”Entitlement” simply says, I deserve to act, be or have what I want."

"Roughly speaking, we see the general population breaking down this way:
• 40 percent First-Degree Jerks
• 40 percent Second-Degree Jerks
• 10 percent Nth-Degree Jerks.
…you will see that that adds up to only 90 percent…Somewhere out there are people who have conquered all their jerky tendencies. We call these people Mature Adults."

"Contrary to popular opinion, men (as a group) are not more jerky than women…according to records kept on the MMPI [Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory] the millions of males and millions of females who have taken the test have scored equally."

"In our clinics, we have observed the enormous grief and human suffering that have occurred due to the tragic emotional fallout of the Me Generation."

"In the following chapters I want to show you:
• How to recover from jerk abuse
• How to strongly prevent or at least curtail abuse from jerks
• How to deal with your masochistic tendencies and their roots such as false guilt, and a sense of pervading shame that you probably aren’t even aware of, but it all sets you up for jerk abuse, just the same."

Below are extracts from the tables listing the characteristics of the 3 different degrees of jerks followed by an extract from the Maturity test. Note that these are only part of each table.


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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Back to the beginning

This past month I've had the opportunity to meet up again with Jim Groark, the man who was influential in getting me where I am today in business. In the photo below, I'm on the left and Jim is on the right.


Background
In the late 1970's I worked for Ampol Petroleum, a large Australian oil company, as Procedures Analysis Executive. (Procedures Analysis was the Ampol name for what was generally referred to at the time as "Organisation and Methods".) I'll have more to say about Ampol in a separate post. Our team was responsible for all the manual systems and human aspects of computer systems throughout the company. Most of the effort was spent on systems analysis, procedure manuals and form design.

One of the staff who worked for me had been trying to talk me into leaving Ampol and to go into business with him as a consultant, but I had been rejecting the idea as a daunting prospect. Then in January 1979, I received a phone call from a man who introduced himself as the Managing Director of a large international consulting firm. This was a big enough surprise, but his next words were even more stunning. He said:
"I'd like you to quit your job at Ampol and come and work for us". I decided to talk more and hear what he had to say.

The result was that I took his advice and entered into a partnership with my other work colleague and we subcontracted to the consultant. I need to point out that this is not the person I met this past month.

The project
The project was with the South Australian Police. They were developing a new computer system to handle firearms licensing and gun registration—a highly controversial topic at that time, just as it is now.

They had hired two specialist computer people who were experienced in such systems but had no one on the team with experience in the human side of the system—an issue that was very important given the emotive nature of the subject in South Australia. Jim Groark was one of these specialists. They also planned to use microfilm as an integral part of the system and had also hired Australia's top micrographics expert for the team.

They showed me the systems specifications and procedures that the Police had drawn up and it didn't take very long to realise that what they were trying to do was not going to work with the procedures they had written. I was able to convince them that the procedures needed to change. Fortunately, nothing had been done to develop the computer system at that stage other than some rough specifications.

So I rewrote the specifications and procedures in a radically different manner, handed them to the computer consultants to see if it would work for them. They agreed that the new specs were workable and I went ahead and wrote the manual procedures and designed the computer data entry forms that the public would have to fill in to register their guns or get a firearms licence—
ALL THIS BEFORE ANY COMPUTER PROGRAMS WERE WRITTEN. This was a radically different approach to anything I had ever worked on at either AMPOL or at Amalgamated Wireless Australasia Ltd (AWA), my previous employer. I was also on the executive of the Australian Institute of Systems Analysts (later to become its Federal President) and I'd never heard of anything like it there either.

One of the issues we faced was that because of the highly controversial nature of the legislation, the forms had to sit in Parliament for a number of weeks to be approved by the politicians. The new State Government had decreed that all forms had to be in black and white. They didn't want anything that reminded them of the colorful activities of the previous State Premier. On top of that the State Emblem was a black and white "Piping Shrike" (a local name for a magpie), but we decided to design the forms in colour anyway and let them sit in parliament. The new colored forms were accepted.

To cut a long story short, the procedures worked—the forms worked—and the system was implemented with barely a hitch.

Below are examples of four of the forms we designed. If we did them today they'd be a lot different as we still had a lot to learn about good form design, but at the time they were a radical departure from what was normally available. The aim was to make them not only usable, but as attractive as possible to overcome resistance. Applicants were going to have to go into a police station to fill out the forms, pass a licensing test as well as to take their guns in for registration.


The keys to success
The major key to the success of the system was something that I've tried to get systems and computer people to do ever since—that is, to get the procedures and manual systems working BEFORE attempting to write the programs. But it seems that computer people generally think they know best and then they wonder why so many computer systems fail. And many computer systems DO FAIL because the human side is forgotten. Keith London wrote a superb book on this many years ago called
"The People Side of Systems". It is technically out of date, but well worth reading if you can find a copy second hand.

Another key to success was the use of white data entry spaces on a colored background. Today this is common practice, but back then it was pioneering design. I don't recall ever seeing this practice up to that point. In fact, it was very rare to even see color on forms. I am aware that some designers in Canada and the UK were experimenting with the same basic approach around the same time. One US company (Moore Business Forms) came up with a different technique some time later where they had coloured data entry boxes on a white background, which they patented and named "Keytrack". The use of colored boxes hinders legibility whereas white boxes improve it.

The Project Team
Another key to success was the project team. When I look back over the past 30 years that I've been a consultant, this was by far the most successful project I've worked on. As stated above, much of the success was getting things done in the right sequence and making sure people came before technology. But another important key was the project team.

Below is a photograph of some of the surviving members of that team as they are today.


Left to right: Consultant Jim Groark — Chief Inspector Brett Woollacott (Seargent at time of project) — Seargent Michael Grant — Chief Inspector Bob Jolly (Seargent at time of project). All three police officers have retired from the Department.

The head of the team was Laurie McEvoy who was the driving force behind the project and one of the best team leaders I've ever worked for. Laurie retired as a Chief Superintendent in 1989 and passed away in 2002.


My most memorable recollection is that they were truly a team and an extremely happy team at that. Working with them was a real delight.

POSTSCRIPT
Well it was a great day to meet up again with my old colleague Jim and his family. I had been able to visit with them in Arizona on a couple of visits to the USA, but it was good to have them visit us back in Australia and for them to catch up with most of the old team we had worked with in South Australia. It was this project that got me started as a consultant.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Why don’t form owners listen to experts?

One of the biggest problems I have had over the years has been end users of forms and systems not accepting expert advice. It particularly applies to form and system owners in government departments, although it is also prevalent in large corporations.

The “owners” or “sponsors” think that because they deal with end users on a regular basis that they know what’s best. Usability testing and other research shows that they generally don’t know—the trouble is that they don’t know that they don’t know. They end up ignoring the advice and wonder later why things go wrong with their system. If people make errors filling in the forms, they blame the form fillers rather than themselves.

Yesterday I came across an excellent article by Jakob Nielsen on the subject. While it deals specifically with web design, the issues he raises are just as applicable to any system, paper or electronic and to any form.

The article is called “Building Respect for Usability Expertise” and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Being open-minded

Came across an excellent article on being open-minded when seeking solutions to ideas and problems. It was written by Steve Portigal and appeared in Johnny Holland Magazine on June 19 2009. Title is "Let's Embrace Open-Mindedness.".

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Dilbert on User Experience

Came across these on Harry Brignull's 90 percent of everything web site and found them so funny and true, that they are worth repeating.

Check out Harry's site for more interesting material on usabiity and related subjects.








Monday, June 8, 2009

Australian Government forms review video

In April, Region 8 of the Business Forms Management Association had a live webinar at which I made a presentation on the work we've been doing with the Australian Government. Centrelink, the agency that handles all Australian social security payments, is conducting a corporate-wide forms review and we've been part of the project.

The webinar covered a summary of the lessons we learned about the way people use public- use forms and the form design guidelines we set up to deal with the issues.

Although the webinar wasn't recorded, we've now produced a video of the slides with a professional commentary overlaid.

There are two versions, which are both large files. Version 1 is in QuickTime format that will run on both Windows and Mac if you have QuickTime Player. The other is a much better quality standalone player that runs on Mac only and doesn't require any other software to run.

The slides were produced using Apple Keynote, a part of iWork, which I prefer to Powerpoint as it is much easier to use. The movie was produced with Boinx FotoMagico, a great Macintosh application. It is also very easy to use and amazingly versatile.

The movies can be downloaded from the following URLs.

QUICKTIME (30 MB):
http://www.RBAinformationdesign.com.au/downloads/CWFR.zip

STANDALONE MAC PLAYER (96 MB):
http://www.RBAinformationdesign.com.au/downloads/CWFRP.zip

Australian Usability Conference and Workshops

UX Australia is to hold a three-day conference and workshops in Canberra, the National Capital, from 26 to 28 August 2009.
Details are available from this link at UX Australia.

UX Magazine — Special Forms Edition

The latest edition of UX magazine is a special edition devoted to the usability of business forms. UX is the magazine of the Usability Professionals' Association.

I strongly recommend joining UPA for all forms professionals. Given the extensive usability problems associated with both paper and web forms, it is worth the cost of membership.

A video that covers my article on Centrelink is also available from our web site. See previous blog entry for details.

For Australian forms people (and those who would like to visit our beautiful national capital) there is a three day conference in Canberra in August.

Contents of this issue
  • Forms and Usability: Editor's Note. By Aaron Marcus
  • A Fascination with Forms: By Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney
  • Thoughts as Art. By Tema Frank
  • Making Forms Accessible: Accessible Forms Help all Users — deals with the design of a form for a handicapped student. By Gian Wild, Monash University
  • What do you mean? How to write good questions. By Jessica Enders
  • Redesigning Centrelink Forms: A Case Study of Government Forms. By Robert Barnett
  • Forms on the Go: Usable Forms for the Mobile Web. By Ben Green
  • Forms Management: What Forms Managers Think About — deals with the management of electronic forms. By Ray Killam
  • The ELMER Experience: A Standard for Government Forms [Norway]. By Tor Nygaard
  • Formally Speaking: Two guidebooks about Designing Forms. By Aaron Marcus
  • Ballot Forms. By David Kimball and Martha Kropf

Monday, May 18, 2009

Forms ballot box text alignment

This has been one of the most controversial form design issues for at least the past 20 years. No matter how often professional forms analysts advise placing the text to the left of the boxes, form owners still disagree because they want to base their decision on tradition rather than the practical issues for the form fillers.

Only this past week we had a form owner asks us to change the design of a new form and put the boxes to the left of the caption text.

Here are two examples of where to place the ballot boxes and text.

In the first example above, the vertical list has the text right aligned. Contrary to popular opinion and non-conformity with tradition, it is faster to read and causes no problems for the form filler. However, we do recommend that each caption begins with a capital initial. Remember, people read from left to right, so it is logical to read the caption and then mark the box rather than working backwards.


The second example above shows the value in a questionnaire form where there is follow-on information after the box is checked. Again, this is because the form filler reads from left to right.


Exceptions do occur.


The main exception to the above is where a form has its data preprinted and the ballot box is there solely for the use of the person READING then form since it is a machine that enters the data. In this case it would be logical to palce the box before the caption since that's the reading order.


It really gets down to whether you consider ease of use for the form filler has priority.


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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Focus groups and recollection of the past

I've often commented about the problems with focus groups for "testing" forms and especially the reliance on memory of past events. Here is a link to an article by Jessica Enders on a different subject that also deals with the problem of recollection and is worth reading.
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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Major changes to Pantone PMS color system

Pantone® has made major changes to the Pantone Matching System (PMS) in recent years that have both positive and negative implications for designers.

1—Additional solid color range
Since the start of the system the use of the terms "coated" (with a "C" suffix) and "uncoated" (with a "U" suffix) have been misleading as they really referred to "gloss" and "matte" and it is possible to get "matt" coated paper.

In addition to the various video colors, they have also introduced a set of "Matte" (with an "M" suffix) colors. The main difference between the "U" and "M" range is that the samples for "M" are printed on heavier paper. Matte is printed on 100 lb (148 gsm) paper whereas Uncoated is printed on 90 lb (133 gsm) paper.
The positive side of this is that the numbering is more realistic. I can't see any negative issues here.

2—New numbering system
This is the most significant change. The new system is called the Goe (pronounced "go") system. For the time being the old system remains in place and they are running both, but designers need to be aware of the change. For more information visit the Pantone web site.

The new system is better suited to modern graphic design and has 2,058 colors c,pared to the 1,114 colors in the PMS system. I suspect that there will be confusion for a time till people find out that the Goe system exists. It was introduced in 2007 and, to date, we have not had any of our customers refer to it.
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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Making forms work

All forms are designed for a purpose and that is generally to collect data that, hopefully, will provide useful information for the organisation. If that data is incorrect or incomplete in any way, then the form hasn't worked. Likewise, if you are providing data to someone else such as on a customer's bank statement or a report about an incident then that data needs to be understood by the recipient. If the recipient of the form doesn't understand the content or misinterprets it then the form hasn't worked. Of course, that may be a problem with the recipient's knowledge, but nevertheless the form still hasn't worked as intended.
It is possible to guarantee successful forms. This doesn’t mean that all forms will be
100% accurate, but error rates should come down to as low as 5% with one or more errors.

To achieve success, at least two things are necessary and a third is recommednded.

Best practice: forms should be designed according to ‘best practice’.
Go back thirty years and our knowledge of what made a good form was severely limited. But today there has been a large amount of research and we know how to design good public-use forms.

This is a big subject and can't be covered in a short post here, but you will find a lot of information on this in my book
Forms For People and in Caroline Jarrett’s book Forms That Work. There are also a number of free papers on form design on our company’s web site and also on Rob's Perspective.
Usability testing: the next step is usability testing, which I’ve covered in more detail below as well as in Forms For People.
Traditional methods of ‘testing’ include opinion surveys, pilot studies, readability scores and focus groups. But for the most part, they don’t TEST forms, they only provide opinions or inaccurate recollections. They often concentrate on treating people as machines and ignore the mind.

One of the most useless techniques is readability scores such as the
Flesch Reading Ease Scale method. We have an excellent paper on this downloadable from our company’s web site.

Another useless method is focus groups. Many people place a lot of ‘faith’ in focus groups, but they provide little useful information for forms usability. Again, I have a lot more to say about this in
Forms For People.

Modern research methods show the form in action and show us WHY people make mistakes. Most of the methods mentioned above don’t TEST forms to find out whether or not they are actually working. They concentrate on treating people as machines but ignore their minds and the complexities of their social interactions.

To produce quality forms we need a different approach—one that lets us see the forms in action and work out in advance if the form is going to work. We need a method that give us empirical evidence about their form filling behaviour—why users make mistakes, why they don’t carry out what was expected of them and the problems they face.

For our purposes, behaviour includes:
  • The way in which the person carries out the task
  • Physical things such as turning pages or moving through the document
  • Facial expression and other mannerisms that might indicate problems, frustration, lack of understanding and confusion
  • What the person says
  • Most important of all: finding out as much as possible about how the person understands the document. What is the cause of any misunderstanding? Do they give answers to form questions that the processors correctly understand? Do they carry out instructions or do what is expected with the information given?
Observational studies are a method whereby you can find out why people are going wrong—where you can highlight specific user problems and fine tune the design to get rid of them.

Using structured observational studies we watch users filling in or using the forms and, with appropriate questions, we can learn why they make mistakes. We learn about their real requirements, what they really need and want, and we collect information about their behaviour when using the form. The aim is to study the document in action in an environment as close as possible to the real world. We don’t just want to know what people think of the form or how they think we should ask the questions. We want to know about their behaviour—what really happens when they fill out the form.

One of the most valuable aspects of observational studies is that you can actually SEE the form improving through the testing stages. They also provide a great amount of fine detail and yet they are relatively inexpensive.

While each round of testing uses only a few people—perhaps 6 to 10—over the course of the study these can add up to a large group.
Error analysis: In most cases we also recommend error analysis of existing forms to determine where the problems are.
Error analysis involves examing a hundred or more completed forms  and determining where errors occur. It won't necessarily show WHY they are occurring and it won't show you all errors, but at least you will find out the number of errors that are detectable and where the form needs to be improved in the first instance. It also provides you with a useful benchmark for further evaluation after redesign.

In most cases errors will fall into the following categories.
  • Missing data
  • Data entered that wasn't required
  • Mistakes—data entered that is incorrect
Conclusion

It is possible to have good forms and to collect accurate information from form fillers. This in turn leads to much more accurate information for the organisation.
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Monday, May 11, 2009

Convincing management of value of business forms

Recent discussions with leaders in the Business Forms world have again highlighted the need for a better approach to management in general about why forms are important.

There has been a tendency to overlook the real problem and just say that it is hard to get people interested. But I still believe strongly that the main reason forms consulting companies often have difficulties getting work is that the people designing the forms—and in particular their decision makers—don't really understand the importance of forms. They want to design the forms as cheaply as possible and low cost designs win out time and time again.

For example, many forms are created by people with a graphic design background. It isn't unusual to find that forms are designed by printing companies, advertising agencies, low cost freelance graphic designers or even internal staff who are trained in graphic design. I've come across a number of "specialist" form design companies that are staffed with graphic designers who know now to make forms LOOK really great. They create forms that management accepts because the appearance is very attractive and their customers like the forms. The problem is, that when examined in the light of accurate data, they often fail miserably. The result is that the organisation simply blames the "functionally illiterate" public. My claim for a number of years has been that it is the form designers who are "functionally illiterate" because they don't know how to design forms that fulfil their true function. The problem is that even the designers themselves don't understand the real issues and don't even know that their attractive designs are not working. They have a blind faith in following the so-called "rules" of graphic design. In some cases they may even follow the "rules" of "Plain Language", but still then forms don't work.

So why are forms important?

Put simply:
  • Forms are where the organisation usually gets it's data, so it is important that it collects ACCURATE data.
  • Bad data often means that the customer (or even the staff member filling out an internal form such as an HR form) doesn't get what they need. A good example is an insurance form that collects wrong information and the applicant finds that when they make a claim it is rejected because the form was wrongly filled out.
  • Badly designed forms often result in the use of expensive help desks to advise people on how to fill out the form when it would have been cheaper and easier to design the forms correctly in the first place. We're finding that with good design, such help desks can be cut right back to minimal staff levels.
  • There is a great deal of emphasis these days on "knowledge management" but do the KM people realise that a key ingredient of KM is getting the correct knowledge into the organisation in the first place?
  • Computer systems invariably rely on accurate data entry, yet most IT people (and web designers in particular) fail to see that good form design is important to the success of the computer system. There has been a tendency in recent years for IT people and web designers to try to grab the form design "turf" in the mistaken belief that they are the experts, when reality is showing that they know very little about it.  I'll have more to say on this issue in another post.
All this seems very simple, but my experience over the past twenty years or so has been that these are the most important issues.

Management must come to see that their forms are vitally important and that they take experts in INFORMATION DESIGN to make them work well.

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

New Mac Slim keyboard

Just bought a new keyboard for my Mac. What an improvement.

Apart from being very light weight and much thinner it is so much easier to use. The keys are far easier to type on and don't have to be pressed so far down. They are also larger and I'm finding I'm making far less mistakes in typing.
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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Knowledge Management

I've added a new paper to Rob's Perspective on the importance of good form design to effective Knowledge Management.

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

VISION Journal — Winter 2009

We received the latest Vision Journal this week.

Vision used to be very academic in tone and often difficult to read for people without a university background, but  I must say this is the most readable edition I've received and well worth getting. See the LINKS listing at the right of this blog for web URL.

The three articles on communication are particularly relevant to an earlier post on this blog.

All in all it's a great read and there is no subscription price, although I'm sure the producers wouldn't reject a donation if you like it. You can also read the articles on line.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The value of saving emails and old files

I often clean out useless emails to save space, but I learned a long time ago not to remove genuine business emails.

We recently had two situations where this has proved of extreme value to our business.

1) We were asked to provide information about a difficult situation to a supplier. We were able to go back through the emails and provide a paper trail going over a number of months.

2) Today we were asked to provide a copy of a purchase order from 1979. Now it happens that our history files are all stored on a ZIP disk. Problem is that the only ZIP drive we have is a SCSI drive that doesn't fit any of our current computers. So we are unable to access the files. Fortunately our email files go back that far and while we couldn't provide the original document we could at least provide emails that referenced it and gave all the correct details.

SO DON'T DISCARD THOSE EMAIL FILES !!! You never know when you'll need them. And being email they are easily moved from one system to another as you update your computer. Even small businesses like ours need to have this type of backup in place.

That brings up another matter. The rapid changes in technology mean that you need to be aware of being able to access old files.

So when you update your computers you need to make sure that the files on your old computer are still accessible. Ant that applies to software as well. We actually have old data files that we can no longer access because the software we used doesn't work on the current operating system. The safest way seems to be to save old files as PDF. We even have very old word processor documents that can't be read, although we could extract some information from them. Even worse are old graphics files that were done in software that is no longer available.

The moral of the story is that you need to think of the future every time you update hardware or software.

Turn off Mac startup sound

Ever been bothered by the startup chime on a Macintosh? It can be a real problem if you're in a room full of people such as a class or conference and you need to start your computer as it is annoying to others.

Well you can turn it off. CLICK HERE to download a prefPane that does the job for you. All you have to do is go into System Preference to set it.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

We've come a long way with form design

Take a look at the following book cover. It's typical of the technology when I first started to design forms.

I've recently been archiving a lot of old books in my business library and it's been interesting to see how far we've come in my lifetime.

What I found surprising is that while the technological emphasis was on the use of the typewriter, some of the design philosophy was sound and are still ignored by many systems and IT people. Take this quote for example;
"It will be observed that the forms designer must apply a wide knowledge of the many requirements which go into the functional design of a form. Furthermore, form design is usually one part of the total result of skillful application of the principles of work simplification to clerical operations. Only in the simplest applications may one safely disregard the services of the experienced designer."
Elsewhere the book says:
"The techniques of designing efficient business records are of such breadth and complexity as to require several years of specialized training before they are mastered."
Something which still applies today if the forms analyst is to be fully equipped for the task.

Usability book of essays

Interested in finding out more about usability? The Usability Professionals' Association has a great introductory book called "Essays on Usability" edited by Russell J. Branaghan.


I found it very informative. It contains various important essays that UPA has published since 1991 when the Association started, including an introductory essay by Janice James, the founder of UPA. Not that it contains a lot of new information for us—but I took a lot of comfort in that it backs up things we were doing at the Communication Research Institute of Australia as early as 1985 and still do today.

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