Process

When I tell people that I'm a designer of forms and questionnaires, most think of the graphic elements of the job, such as where to put this button and how big that field should be. That is, the Layout layer of the form comes to mind.

A smaller portion people think my focus is on language and all I do is write good questions, i.e. the Q&A layer of the form.

(The remaining people just stare at me blankly and think I'm insane.)

What people generally don't think of is the work a good form designer does on the Process layer.

Form designer as a business analyst

In many ways, a good form designer is like a Business Analyst.

Business analysts work hard to ensure an organisation operates in the most efficient and effective way, engaging systems as necessary. Similarly a form designer—or forms analyst, as we could call ourselves—works to ensure data is collected in the most efficient and effective way, engaging systems as necessary.

How process matters

The importance of a well-designed forms process is nicely illustrated in a recent article appearing in The Economist. The article, titled “The Electronic Bureaucrat” introduces a special report on e-government. In it, the author describes two radically different processes for applying for a visa for travel to another country.

In the first example, the visa application form must be completed by hand, paid for with cash and delivered in person. This leads to long processing times, which in turn lead to hundreds of people queuing before the embassy opens.

In the second example, the visa application form and associated payment are submitted online. The applicant still has to turn up to the embassy in person but the emailed receipt for their application contains a barcode with all their information. The barcode is also required to gain access to the embassy, providing an added level of security. As one can imagine, there are no large, early morning queues here.

The two application forms themselves could well be collecting the same information. What differs is the process around the form and therefore efficiency and effectiveness for both consumers (i.e. visa applicants) and the form owner (i.e. the embassy).

The form as a tool

The visa example illustrates that the form itself is just a tool used to get something done.

Whether a tool is ‘good’ depends not just on the quality of the tool but also on how suitable the tool is for the particular task.

Consider garden tools. Some garden tools are better designed and constructed than others. One spade may break the first time you use it while another will last for many decades. Here the varying characteristic is quality.

However, no matter how well a spade is made, it will be no use to you if you want to gather up fallen leaves from a lawn. This is a problem of suitability.

Forms, like gardening tools, do not exist just for the sake of it. They are there to serve a purpose. It should be this purpose that guides the design of the process and then the form itself.

Begin with the end in mind

So how does one go about ensuring the form serves its purpose?

Many people jump straight into designing their form. Here at Formulate we think it is better to pause for a moment to document the information need.

This is “Begin with the End in Mind”, one of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. As mentioned already, beginning with the end in mind is leveraging the fact that information is needed in order to do something:

Thus, to design the right form you need to know exactly what information is needed:

Documenting the specific information need is a great way to work out the appropriate form process (i.e. who needs what and how). It also ensures that any debate about the wording of individual questions can be steered away from personal preference and assumption toward best match for the information need.

Backwards is forwards

This article advocates an approach to form design that some readers might find frustrating. It's so tempting to design the form itself without documenting the information need.

Yet you wouldn't do this with anything else that really matters, like building a new home. Rather than begin by drafting up a plan, any architect worth their salt will talk carefully with the client about what they need the house to do.

The same applies to forms. Working with the end in mind is not backwards, but forwards. It's the only way to ensure creation of the right form: a tool that's high on quality and suitability.