I’m fascinated by making forms easy to use
Forms are everywhere – government relies on them, financial institutions use them even more than government, and most people have to fill in at least one form every day (even if that’s only to get access to a computer). But for most people, and most organisations, the forms are just there – not the best part of the day, but we deal with them and move on.
So how does someone end up as the forms specialist?
My work as a project manager led me to forms
When I’m running training courses, I sometimes tell attendees that as a child, I used to cut up paper forms and play with them. This is just my little joke. Like everyone else, I did not think about forms at all apart from maybe being somewhat annoyed by a bad form occasionally.
After I graduated from Oxford University in 1980 where I studied mathematics, I got a job as a software engineer and rapidly moved into project management. I worked on computer systems for shops, control systems for steel coil and cardboard production lines, the early days of what we now call ‘the cloud’ (specifically, X.25 boards for personal computers), and workstations linked to private mobile radio systems. Nothing to do with forms.
My route into forms started in 1990 when I project managed the development, delivery, and some of the training for a system for Rank Xerox after they were awarded the majority of the contract to digitise patents for the European Patent Office. This relied on using Optical Character Recognition artificial intelligence technology (OCR) to convert digitised images into text. I learned a lot about the strengths and weakness of AI in this area, and this led to a job in 1992 delivering OCR systems to the UK tax authorities (at that time called the Inland Revenue) to deal with tax forms.
My OCR systems worked OK for one type of tax form and worked badly on another type. I got permission from the Revenue to visit the sites and inspect the forms, where I discovered that the ‘worked OK’ forms were mostly filled in accurately by staff in banks, and the ‘worked badly’ forms were full of every possible mistake because they were mostly completed by elderly people on low incomes. There was no AI system in 1992 that would accurately deal with a form which said “please read my letter attached”. (Nor is there today, despite the claimed advances in AI).
This started me on the challenge that has powered my work ever since: how to design forms so that people can fill them in correctly.
I set up my business Effortmark Ltd in 1994, working on a wide variety of forms (paper and web), websites, transactions, and surveys.
I use techniques from user-centred design
I use a mixture of techniques from what we now call user-centred design, primarily user research. For example:
- user research site visits to investigate the error rates on forms, and to observe staff dealing with the forms to find out where the problems might be
- usability testing of the forms and guidance, where I (and people from the team who will make changes to the form) watch a participant filling it in, finding out what parts are difficult
- content design of the forms, guidance, and pages of the website that lead users to the form
- service design to explore why the form is needed, how the data that it captures is used, and whether it is necessary in the first place
- (for digital forms) interaction design to help the team creating the digital form choose appropriate interaction patterns, components, and overall form structures
- (for paper forms) paper prototyping and visual layout techniques in a similar way to interaction design for digital forms.
Forms led me to researching surveys
My research on topics like “How do people answer questions?” led me to explore the literature on survey methodology, the concept of Total Survey Error, and start advising clients on how to improve their surveys, as well as their forms.
My research on surveys contributed to my book on forms, published in 2009 and co-authored with Gerry Gaffney.
My book on surveys came out in 2021: Surveys that work: A practical guide to designing and running surveys (Rosenfeld Media).
Designers and developers get forms advice from design systems
Although I greatly enjoy working with the teams who are creating and maintaining services, in large organisations (such as most government departments) it is very time-consuming to work with one team and one service at a time. It’s more effective to provide teams with central advice and guidance – previously often referred to as ‘best practice guidelines’ or ‘body of knowledge’ but currently typically called a ‘design system’, a ‘service manual’, a ‘pattern library’ or some combination of these.
I’ve worked with a variety of these over the years, most recently, I worked with:
- the UK Government Digital Service (GDS). My main focus there was on design patterns for forms, which I spoke about at the SDinGOV conference. My work helped GDS to create the GOV.UK Design System, released as a public beta in June 2018. I also contributed to the GOV.UK Service Manual
- NHS Digital (now part of NHS England) on the NHS Digital Service Manual, working primarily on the section How to write good questions for forms
- the Australian Government Style Manual team on their guidance on forms.
From 2019-2021 I worked as forms specialist for the Future Farming programme, part of DEFRA – working mostly with the co-design team. In 2018 and 2019, I worked with NHS Digital, providing advice to their team working on the NHS Service Manual.
My volunteer life got me interested in accessibility
My husband has volunteered at Woodlarks Camp Site Trust, where disabled people can camp with their friends, since the 1970s. Helping disabled people to enjoy an open-air holiday taught me about many of the practical aspects of disability, such as the challenges of negotiating space as a wheelchair user.
That led to a commitment to making forms, websites, and online experiences accessible for everyone – especially for people with cognitive or learning disabilities. For example, I co-founded the Design to read project, which led to guidelines for designing for people who do not read easily.
I have written some books
- Surveys That Work: a Practical Guide for Designing and Running Better Surveys, published by Rosenfeld Media 2021
- Forms that work: Designing Web Forms for Usability, published by Morgan Kaufmann/Elsevier 2008
- the textbook User Interface Design and Evaluation published by The Open University/Morgan Kaufmann/Elsevier 2005
My clients are mostly government and non-profit
My government clients have included:
- Government Digital Service (GOV.UK)
- NHS Digital
- NHS England
- HM Revenue and Customs
- Ministry of Justice
- Internal Revenue Service (USA)
- Australian Taxation Office
- Australian Digital Transformation Agency.
My non-profit clients have included:
- The Open University
- The European Molecular Biology Laboratory – European Bioinformatics Institute
- Wellcome Trust
- IEEE (USA)
- The Mayo Clinic (USA)
I also help other clients with lots of forms and surveys
Other major clients have included:
- The Co-operative Group
- Telegraph Newspapers
- Equitable Life
- Royal Mail
- Sun Life Assurance, an AXA company
Some of the partners I work with
I work frequently with COMUZI, the Black-owned, majority Black creative tech and design research company.
Much of the work I’ve done for the Open University has been in collaboration with Whitney Quesenbery.
In the US I offer consultancy in association with TecEd who specialise in user experience research and design.
I’m also a Public Digital associate.
Closer to home I’m supported at Effortmark by Malcolm Jarrett and Jane Matthews.
Professional qualifications and memberships
MA (Oxon) in Mathematics
Diploma in Statistics (Open)
Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication
Member of BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT
Member of the Association for Project Management
Member of the Market Research Society
Member of the User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA) and charter member of UXPA UK
Member of the European Survey Research Association
Member of Clarity International, advocating plain legal language
My work in usability and design
For the 2014 UXPA (User Experience Professionals’ Association) Conference I was interviewed about surveys and forms design – and why I do it.