The usability of paper forms

Why are paper forms designed to make you feel like an idiot? I can’t keep track of the number of times I’ve looked at a form and felt like I needed help with the form or felt like I could strangle the designer of the form.

Passport forms, bank forms, applications for credit cards, tax forms, to name a few; all of these seem to be designed to make you feel confused and irritated. If the aim of the forms was to get you to ask people questions, then they’d have succeeded. However, that is not the case. You want your forms to be filled out with the minimal of help from support staff.

See, I was trying to fill in a form this morning. Five minutes into the form, I gave up because I need clarifications from someone who works at the bank. It’s a simple form to transfer an account from one branch to another (same bank, mind you). Now, instead of going to the bank with a fully-filled form, I’ll have to go and get clarifications and then fill up the form.

I waste the bank’s time and I use up more of my time. Isn’t this a waste of time and money?

Shouldn’t forms be tested on users BEFORE they are mass printed? Shouldn’t the form or the instructions be clear enough that a person with average intelligence wouldn’t have to resort to guesswork or ask for help to fill out the form?

Forms are the interfaces between the customer and the service provider and yet they are treated as something that customers (users) need to suffer. Why?

Here are a few ideas that I have to improve the usability of forms.

Choose fonts carefully: Doing this will make the forms readable and not require a magnifying glass.

Provide space for information: It’s a no-brainer really. You want the information, so give the user enough space to write the information. Duh.

Eliminate clutter: A well-laid out form with whitespace and lines used to demarcate content is visually appealing, and easier to fill. With clutter and too many elements, you get an overload of information. Keep it simple.

Be clear: If you ask for my address or phone, do you want the details of the home or office? If you use abbreviations, you may know what they mean but I don’t. Sometimes, you may say, If age of account to be transferred is less than 6 months, address proof required and I may wonder what my account’s age is.

Provide instructions, if necessary: Not all forms need instructions, but some of them do. By eliminating instructions, you may save paper but you’ll spend more on wasted forms and customer service. Also, if you want users to tick or circle something, let them know.

Allow corrections: People make mistakes. Allow them to make mistakes and recover from them. Put an instruction in the form that if someone writes something wrong, they can strike it out and write the correct information. This may not work with machine-readable forms but for other forms, it would work just fine. Humans aren’t machines.

Test the form: If you don’t test it, how will you know if it works? Really, this should be automatic.

Designing a form is not brain surgery, though in hindsight you may require brain surgery after filling some forms.

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