User Experience Magazine: Volume 8, Issue 2, 2009
Feature Articles: Usable Forms
When Monash University received a complaint about the use of online PDF forms to gather subject evaluation information, a number of groups worked quickly to address the problem. In developing an accessible form, with a variety of accessibility features that complement those required in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, Version 1.0, we were able to create a highly usable and accessible form. As an added benefit, the new form reduced the number of complaints from 150 per semester to zero and took much less time to create that the previous in accessible one.
When constructing a form, we often give very little consideration to the way its questions are asked. We worry about design features like spacing, colors and which control is appropriate: radio buttons or a drop down. Writing the questions is the easy part!
In reality, writing a good question is just as hard, if not harder, than interaction design considerations like selecting the right controls. A well-designed question is unambiguous and easy for the person filling out the form (the respondent) to answer. But the diversity of background, experience, culture and context means that what is clear for one respondent may be confusing or readily misinterpreted by another. Moreover, just because a respondent can understand a question doesn’t mean they can accurately and easily provide an answer for it.
To help frame these challenges we present a model for describing the questions answering process. Using this model, we demonstrate the different problems that a certain question wording can provoke, exposing the hidden complexity behind designing an effective question. We continue on to provide a series of suggestions for avoiding and overcoming these problems. Throughout, the theory is coupled with practical examples.
Over the past two years one of Australia’s largest government departments was faced with a direction from the minister to redesign all its public-use forms to make them work more effectively and to be easy for the public to complete. The old forms were typical of most public-use forms having ultra-high error rates, often with 100 percent of the forms containing one or more errors in form-filler data. Many of the errors came about because form fillers failed to read relevant instructions. The project has been an outstanding success due to a radically different approach to form design and extensive use of both error analysis studies and usability testing. The project included the development of new form design standards and guidelines for the department. This article provides an overview of the project together with examples of some of the major problems and how they were solved. In particular it shows how the problem of not reading instructions was overcome through the use of specialized graphics. It highlights the value of error analysis and appropriate usability testing.
Designing forms for mobile websites and that work well across a range of devices is challenging; as is using those forms in the mobile context. For certain mobile web applications, forms are either inevitable or can speed pathways to information considerably. Generally this comes with a risk of greater demands on the people using the mobile website. While recent devices like the iPhone and newer Blackberries have improved elements of the experience and driven mobile web usage disproportionate to their market share, catering to a wider range of devices means engaging with different form factors, interaction methods, operating systems, and browser quirks.
Sensis’ search, directory, and mapping mobile websites leant heavily on the use of forms as primary interaction methods, and their interfaces have been evolving steadily over the past five years. The evolution of technology has enabled many changes to interfaces in that time, and performing design and usability evaluations has informed the design thinking about the most effective ways for people to interact with forms on the mobile web.
Principles that emerged reinforced the importance of simplicity in presentation, an understanding and acute consideration for the context of people using the website, and maintaining knowledge of the devices used.
Practices for assessing the usability of mobile forms and mobile websites generally are not yet as established as desktop equivalents: lab-based evaluations are effective but largely missing context, in-context evaluations are technically challenging and difficult for participants, and eye-tracking is still in its infancy.
As these practices are refined, and new practices emerge appropriate to the requirements of the mobile context, understanding where people are frustrated with these interfaces will become clearer. Analysis of site statistics to validate expected behaviors will become increasingly useful. And maybe standards will be consolidated enabling intended designs to be served to the widest range of handsets. Until then, designing forms for the mobile web remains a complex and fascinating undertaking.
Joel Pemberton of Punchcut (http://idlemode.com/2008/12/04/the-mobile-web-vs-mobile-apps-an-amazon-case-study/
Allowing people to help users recognize, diagnose and recover from errors (Jakob Nielsen, 10 Usability Heuristics, http://www.useit.com/papers/heuristic/heuristic_list.html)
Barbara Ballard has noted that field testing is most useful when late in the design cycle and the most obvious usability issues have been discovered in the lab (http://www.slideshare.net/barbaraballard/mobile-usability-testing ).
Forms management is all about managing the customer experience, improving business processes and reducing cost. If you are designing a form, consider the forms management perspective: workflow analysis, process analysis, forms analysis, design analysis, container design, field mapping and programming, user testing, deployment, and forms control.
All organizations use forms and therefore have a forms management function (even if it is not obvious). The larger the organization, the more critical it is to have a forms management strategy. Forms development and management is an enterprise function, requiring agreement on what will be supported, how the IT infrastructure is involved, what back-end integration is required, and what tools will be used. Issues such as forms security and privacy requirements, user access controls, electronic signature requirements, accessibility, regulatory requirements management, and archiving must be addressed, and a plan developed that assures compliance.
It all begins with workflow analysis. Eighty percent of effective forms design is in getting the process working correctly first. Design analysis is then used to convert the requirements and business rules defined in the process into objects within a forms container. Understanding the sources and uses of data is critical. Data can come from many sources (keystrokes, bar codes, MICR, OCR, ICR, databases, audio and video input, and touch screens, just to name a few). Effective forms facilitate proper management of the data.
Forms management processes are comprehensive and complex. Forms design standards and conventions must be applied to forms development to assure a positive user experience, reduce errors in data capture, maximize process efficiency, and keep costs in-line.
Norwegian public sector bodies are obliged to follow a tough set of usability specifications for all their web-based forms for the private sector. The Norwegian government has implemented what is thought to be the most comprehensive set of guidelines for the usability of public service web forms produced by any administration.
The ELMER 2 framework covers page layout, help functionality and interaction rules for online forms – 100 requirements in all – presented in a tabular format with cross references and examples. Altogether this constitutes a unique quality check-list for form developers everywhere. It also provides an opportunity fordiscussion of both technical and instructional requirements, challenging all the different experts to find common solutions.
Some 2,000 different Norwegian web forms have already been designed to comply with ELMER. For a few important business-related forms, more than 90 percent are now submitted through the web, even though a paper based alternative is available.
Right now, the Norwegian government is holding workshops and web discussions that will lead to version 2.1 of ELMER. Our biggest challenge is how to balance the benefit of a common look-and-feel against the creativity of individual design solutions.
Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability by Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney
Web Form Design by Luke Wroblewski
Reviewed by Aaron Marcus
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