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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.


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.

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.

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

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.

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.


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.

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.


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.