About being sensible

Missives from Hothouse Design

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Your boring forms are a major cause of stupid work and brand damage

Deirdre Wilson – Monday, June 06, 2016   


Boring forms – Stupid workStupid work is what we used to call poor productivity. Brand damage is caused by anything that annoys your customers, users or staff. Stupid work that causes brand damage would therefore seem to be a good place to make changes – and quickly! The source will be easy to find in any organisation – go and take a look at your forms.

I was recently asked to specify on a form whether I am a Mr, a Mrs or a Doctor. Being neither male, a married woman nor a doctor it was a bit like being asked the famously loaded question "have you stopped beating your wife?". Unfortunately the question was required which meant I had to answer it in order to proceed.

This then begged the question: why is it important to an electricity supplier to know my gender, marital status and whether or not I have attained my doctorate? And why hadn't someone done a better job of designing the form? Maybe the information was pertinent. Perhaps they charge different rates for doctors or married women. I put Doctor because I was feeling aspirational and hoping I would get a better rate on my electricity!

Form design is so much more than making the layout look pretty. A good form will take you through questions that seem reasonable, that are asked in a way that makes clear what type of information is required, and ideally responds to your answers with the next, appropriate question.

We helped an HR department sort out the numerous forms they supplied to new employees. One form had questions about the age of the employee's children and whether or not they had bicycles. The information was useful in one very specific circumstance that had nothing to do with starting a new job, and depending on the employee, may never be relevant – especially for childless staff. Happily, we convinced them to make a new form to collect that data for use if and when the appropriate circumstance arose.

Bombarding a new staff member with lots of awkward, poorly designed forms tells them a sad story. It tells them that you are not organised, that you don't respect their time and that it is ok to produce poor quality work.

I recently went through a long drawn out process to secure some insurance and not unexpectedly, the worst part was filling in the forms. The process was worse that I expected because I was sent a powerpoint file with a scan of a document in it – something I could not fill out digitally at all. This meant I had to print it, fill it in without error and then either scan or photograph to send back. At the other end, they had to interpret my handwriting and type my details into another form – and check to make sure everything was spelled correctly. At each end of that process, and many more just like it, were two university educated, well paid people doing stupid work.

Boring forms

What a waste. Guess how unhappy I felt about the whole insurance thing by the time I had filled in several of these forms? For the company organising the insurance,  a whole lot of costly brand value got flushed down the toilet.

Getting your forms right is about respect, efficiency and branding. Get it wrong is a bit like offensive body odour – the damage is done by the time you are aware of the problem, and like the smell, the memory lingers and lingers!

This post is by Deirdre Wilson, Director of Hothouse Design – Australia's most sensible information design company.
Deirdre applies her background in industrial design and design management to the complex and wondrous projects undertaken by Hothouse Design.

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