Forms design: Gerry Gaffney interviews me

Gerry Gaffney gave me an opportunity to talk about forms in a podcast for UXpod.

You can find the original on Uxpod.


Caroline Jarrett: And you’ve got my permission to play this to whoever you like under whatever circumstances you like.

Gerry Gaffney: All right. I haven’t asked anyone else for permission but that’s actually a good start. We should think about things like that I guess when we’re working on forms. Well, after that start I should mention that today’s guest on the User Experience Podcast is Caroline Jarrett who’s based in the UK. Caroline, thank you very much for joining me today.

Caroline: You’re welcome.

Gerry: Can I ask how did you first get interested in forms design?

Caroline: Completely by accident. I mean it’s such an obscure thing to be interested in.

Gerry: Tell me. [Laughter.]

Caroline: Well, what happened was that I was running a small software house…. this is the long version if it’s too long I’ll go back and do the short version, OK?

I was running this software house and the business disintegrated because we had too much business with one organisation and they left the market place and I ended up having to make myself redundant… I then had to get a contract job in a hurry, contract project management. I ended up working for Rank Xerox (known as Xerox in the rest of the world) on an optical character recognition system which was scanning patents for the European patent office, and I got really interested in optical character recognition because it just didn’t work very well at all but there were ways in which you could make it work better.

I became fascinated by that problem and then, as contracts do, that contract job came to an end and I was looking for another job and I think I came number one on a shortlist of project managers with experience in optical character recognition. I think I was the only one on the short list. [Laughter.] At that time optical character recognition was a very rare skill. But I went up, I started to work for a big computer systems integrator in this country [England] who were doing optical character recognition systems for the Inland Revenue. They were doing all the PCs for the Inland Revenue, and one of the things that they were offering were these optical character recognition systems. And they didn’t work at all, and so I sort of got really interested in, well, why doesn’t it work, and it turned out that why doesn’t it work is the way people fill in the forms.

Gerry: So it wasn’t a technical or a mechanical issue?

Caroline: No, no.

Gerry: It sounds like you came from the technical end of things into realising or focusing or becoming convinced about the importance of the human element in the whole forms process.

Caroline: Absolutely. I mean the whole cost of dealing with forms is completely dominated by the mistakes people make and the mistakes people make is a cognitive problem. It’s about how they think about it.

Gerry: Okay, now that brings me fairly neatly I think to your three layer model for forms. Can you tell us a little bit about the three layer model?

Caroline: Well, the three layer model came around because for a long time I was grappling with this whole problem of tax forms. And I was trying to get a grip on the problem that tax forms are intrinsically frightening, They’re frightening while they’re still in he brown envelope.

Gerry: In fact we were having a conversation prior to this episode, where we were both afraid of doing our respective quarterly returns.

Caroline: Oh No! You’ve told the world! [Laughter.]

Gerry: Sorry about that.

Caroline: Yeah, so I was trying to get people to understand that there are different aspects of forms design and, so, many times people will approach forms design thinking about, okay, what font shall I pick? Shall I print it in puce, magenta or viridian or something?

Well, that’s fine and all but it still isn’t going to stop people hating the tax forms… So I started to think about how I could explain this to people, and I came across the concept, I thought of the concept of thinking about relationships, conversation and appearance.

We basically are always going to hate certain types of forms, and that’s because of poor relationship problems. Many of us feel that tax for example is onerous and worrisome and we worry that we’ll get it wrong or that we might get horrible fines and investigations and so on, so there are issues about how we feel about it.

And there’s also issues about, for most of us dealing with our tax is an irregular thing, we’ve got to gear ourselves up to it, it’s not something you do like logging into your computer system at work – you do it every day, you don’t even look at the screen, there’s no worry about it. Something like doing your tax which you do it once a year or once a quarter depending on the regime, you don’t ever really get to understand it, so that’s all things about the relationship. What the task is, how you feel about it.

Gerry: I guess that’s something typically, sorry Caroline to cut across you, I guess the relationship is something that typically I guess somebody working on just a form for, you know, website registration or something like that typically doesn’t put all that much thought into it. Would that be fair to say?

Caroline: I think it often people don’t think about the users of their forms at all. They just don’t, it just doesn’t occur to them to ask the question: How does this person feel about what I’m asking them to do? You know, are they going to enjoy filling in this form? If not, why not? You know, I’m just about to put together some guidelines on writing better instructions and one of my opening remarks is going to be “OK, how many people come to this form with the intention of enjoying reading the instructions?” Well the answer to that is clearly none.

Gerry: Except for Caroline Jarrett. [Laughter.]

Caroline: Well, yeah, but don’t design for me. I’m a weirdo, you know.

Gerry: No you’re not.

Caroline: The thing is to think about your users and their goals, and that’s something we know about in user-centred design in general but seems to be even more overlooked in forms design than in the rest of user-centred design.

Gerry: So the next layer then is the conversation layer. Is that right?

Caroline: Well, I was trying to bridge the gap. I was saying, well it’s not all about how it looks, it’s not all about how you feel about it, what is the thing in the middle? In the end, a form is really a series of questions and answers. It’s a sort of conversation where you ask a question, you expect the user to have an answer and so things like how is it worded, are the topics grouped in a way that makes sense to the user, all of those things are things I’d describe as the conversation.

And generally in forms design I find the biggest amount of time goes into designing the conversation, but once you’ve understood the relationship once, you’ve done it for that form for a long while, and the appearance is relatively simple to get right once you’ve pinned down your questions and answers.

Gerry: So the appearance is that final layer or that third layer.

Caroline: Yeah.

Gerry: But the appearance is the thing that most designers… that would be forefront in many peoples’ minds when they’re doing form design presumably.

Caroline: Yes.

Gerry: So do these layers apply then to all forms?

Caroline: Oh yes, definitely.

Gerry: Without exception?

 Caroline: Well, yeah. I mean, you might say there are other aspects we want to think about. Like technology, you know, are there different considerations which apply if you’re designing for PDF for example compared to designing for paper or designing for HTML forms.

So there are other things that you could add to the mixture but I’m not trying to solve the entire problems of the world here, I’m just trying to give people a way of getting at the issues in forms that they sometimes don’t think about.

Gerry: And of those three layers, you’ve talked about three layers and I’ll just re-iterate, relationship, conversation and appearance. Which of those is the most important?

Caroline: All of them. …If you’ve got a beautiful clearly worded form that looks gorgeous but you’ve addressed it to the wrong audience and they just don’t want to give you that information they’ll answer “Mickey Mouse”.

Many a time I’ve come across a perfectly attractive looking registration form… No, I’m not going to do your registration form, I’m sorry, I’m not prepared to divulge that information to you even though you’ve put perfectly nicely worded questions in a sensible order. And that’s a relationship defect and you can’t solve it. But you know …people will persist with forms no matter how ugly and no matter how convoluted, how bad the conversation is, how bad the appearance is if they really want to do that thing, then they’ll fight their way through it.

Gerry: Yep, the concept of reward at the end of the process.

Caroline: Exactly. But we’re user-centred designers, I hope, or usability people. We’re trying to create good experiences, not say well we don’t need to worry about this part of the experience.

Gerry: I did some work with a taxation department who told me in an initial briefing that if people didn’t fill in their forms they would send them to prison so they didn’t care about usability. [Laughs.]

Caroline: Well it’s an attitude. But it’s not perhaps one we would most strongly defend from the point of view of user-centred design. [Laughs.]

Gerry: Obviously this is a very, very big topic but I did have one question left to more or less finish up, Caroline, and that’s my experience people who are involved in doing forms design often have very limited time and very limited experience so they get thrown this job of designing form X; whether it be a paper form or an online registration form or whatever. What can people in those sorts of circumstances do to try and ensure their forms are usable within those constraints?

Caroline: … Supposing you had, like, a half a day, the best thing you could do with that would be to find a bunch of filled-in forms and see how people have filled them in. Really look at them, and then that will give you inspiration as to where your time should go.

And it’s something people don’t do nearly enough of. And you might say, well, okay that’s impractical, because this is a web form and there is no filled-in form, or the data is all cleaned up, apparently cleaned up by the time I get it, and the answer to that is, well you have to do your usability testing then. You have to get people to show you how they’re thinking about the form and that blows away so much of, you know, things that might be your opinion / my opinion about it, and puts it squarely back with the users. This is how real users are struggling with your form, fix those problems, not something that someone has written in a guideline. It’s what your users are really doing that really matters.

Gerry: Caroline, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.

Caroline: Ah it’s been a pleasure. I always enjoy talking about forms, Gerry.

Published: August 2006

Caroline and Gerry co-authored Forms That Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability. Caroline’s consulting company UK is Effortmark.

featured image ‘Taxes’ by Pictures of Money, creative commons licence

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