The cost of bad forms

If you've ever dipped into the world of forms, you'll know that no matter what their background, people can spend hours debating incredibly fine points of forms design, such as whether to use colons after field labels, or how those field labels should be aligned.

Formulate has weighed in on these debates through various forums, including the publication of articles like our recent one on alignment. We do this because we want the community to have access to considered and researched recommendations, to at the very least fast-track the debate.

Valuable debate or vapid distraction?

But should we even bother debating such issues at all? Potential clients (and members of the general public) regularly question the need for expert form design. After all, it is reasonable for the buyer of a service to want to be reassured that that service is going to deliver value.

Recently, though, we have also come across some people inside the forms profession who question whether form design really matters, especially in the case when the consumer or citizen doesn't actually have a choice about whether or not they fill a particular form in. One example of such a form would be a certificate of marriage: if you want to be officially and legally married, you have to complete the paperwork.

In this article we will argue that quality form design does matter, even when people have to fill the form in.

Matters to whom?

If we are to argue that the design of a form matters, we need to say who will be negatively impacted if form design is not done well.

Thinking both micro and macro

As we see it, poor forms design has an impact at two levels: the micro and the macro.

Micro level

At the micro level are all the people who directly interact with the form or its associated processes. This includes the people who have to fill the form in (“form-fillers”); the people who distribute blank forms and process completed ones; and the people who use the data that comes from the form.

Macro level

At the macro level is the wider community. You can define community at whatever level suits you, from the local region right up to the whole planet. What sets the macro level apart from the micro level is that people at the macro level need not have anything at all to do with the specific form in question.

Dissecting the implications

Now we're ready to look at what the impact of poor forms might be along two dimensions:

  • the micro versus macro level; and
  • whether or not people have a choice about filling out the form.

Putting these two dimensions together, we can summarise the implications of bad forms in a matrix, as shown below:

Impact at micro level Impact at macro level
Form-filler has choice Loss of custom Unrealised potential
Form-filler does not have choice Higher costs Unrealised potential

Form-filler has choice

Micro level

If the form-filler has a choice about whether or not to complete the form, then poor form design will increase the chance that they will choose another form over yours or not go ahead with the task at all.

For a private company, this means the potential loss of customers to competitors, especially if other aspects of the product or service on offer are similar across the market. Remember, forms are often one of the earliest and most influential methods of communication that potential (and existing) customers have with a business. Sadly, many companies have great products or services but their success is hindered by poor quality forms.

For a government agency, poor form design in a situation of choice means that citizens may not be getting the things that they need. For example, a carer might be entitled to a government pension but feel intimidated by the form used to apply for that pension. As a result the carer may decide not to apply and just provide the best care they can with whatever other sources of income they have.

Macro level

These are the implications at the micro level; the extension to the macro level is all about the missed opportunity that these micro decisions represent. If a carer has less income because they are not receiving a pension, then the care that they are going to be able to provide is probably less. This makes things harder for the carer and the person being cared for, in turn putting greater stress on the community at large.

Similarly the broader community suffers when the private company uses a poorly designed form. Consider the example of two competing businesses who provide web-based accounting systems: Company Good Form and Company Bad Form. Company Good Form has a simple and easy-to-use sign-up form but their accounting system is hard to use. Company Bad Form offers a very nicely designed accounting system, but the sign-up process to use it is confusing and long.

Company Good Form makes it easy to start using their product. This, together with people's reluctance to change — once they have made a decision — means that there will be people using Company Good Form's accounting system when they would have been better off (i.e. more productive and happy) using Company Bad Form's. In the greater economic and social model, this inefficiency and dissatisfaction costs us all.

Form-filler does not have a choice

Micro level

There are many cases when we may not have a real choice about whether or not to fill out a form. The form may be the only mechanism to access something we must have, or fines, jail terms and other penalties are imposed for non-compliance.

In this case one could argue that it doesn't matter if the form is poorly designed as the form-filler has to do it anyway. This may be true, but the form owner will still have to wear the cost of the errors and omissions that result. These are unnecessary costs that, in this time of market squeezes, efficiency dividends and staffing freezes, most organisastions really cannot afford, regardless of whether they are public, private or not-for-profit.

Macro level

As per the case where the form-filler has a choice, at the macro level the implication of bad form design is a society which is not as effective, efficient and content as it might otherwise be.

For governments, this is a serious matter. After all, the whole aim of government is presumably to create the best possible state for its citizens with available — and very much limited — resources. These resources are being doubly wasted if they create unnecessary work at the micro level and hinder the realisation of potential at the macro level.

In the case of private businesses, we're willing to concede that the concern for helping society achieve its full potential is probably not as high. But remember that we're talking here about businesses with forms that people have no choice but to fill out. Surely the number of companies that have a pure monopoly, that is, that provide either a good or a service that nobody else provides - either now in the near future - must be quite rare.

Similarly, we don't know of any businesses that have a monopoly on good staff. Sure, the staff you have now may have to fill out that awful leave form, but you can bet it will make matters worse if there is discontent with any other aspects of their employment.

A broader bottom line

We've seen that regardless of whether the form-filler has choice, bad things come from badly designed forms.

Certainly in the case of an optional form, the biggest impact on the bottom line comes when the consumer or citizen doesn't fill in the form at all. But this doesn't mean that a completed form equals success: the burden on the form-filler and the resulting errors and omissions eat away at the bottom line just as much as no form at all. Extend the cost to the macro level, and the impact of poorly designed forms becomes quite frightening.

How much are bad forms costing you?