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Friday, March 20, 2009

Failure to Learn - Anthony Hopkins - Lessons for forms management

On Thursday I commented about IT people failing to learn lessons over the past 40 years. Then yesterday I received a copy of the book "Failure To Learn" by Prof. Anthony Hopkins of the Australian National University. The book deals with the BP Texas City Refinery disaster in 2005. It follows on from an earlier book "Lessons from Longford" which dealt with a similar disaster at the Exxon Gas Plant in Melbourne Australia in 1998. BP had known all about the Exxon disaster but failed to learn the lesson.

When I read the Longford book, I was struck by the relevance of the issues raised by Anthony Hopkins to management in general and to forms management in particular. The result was a class delivered at the Business Forms Symposium in Phoenix in 2006. The associated paper is available for download from our web site.

As I thought about the issues further, It became startlingly evident to me that it wasn't only forms management that was relevant to forms professionals, but also form design. Why are so many form designers around the world still designing forms as if they live in the 1950's. I and others have written and lectured numerous times about how the old fashioned ideas of the mid 20th Century just don't work for public-use forms. Yet designers fail to learn the lessons. They continue with old ideas such as tiny boxes with "upper left corner captions" instead of questionnaires, no lines on the ends of boxes, cryptic box labels instead of plain language, "tramline" delimiters for data entry fields, etc.

The problem is heightened in the USA with antiquated legislation such as the Paperwork Reduction Act which only exacerbates the problem by reducing the amount of paper but increasing the work. Administrators wonder why so many people have trouble filling out the forms. Organizations complain about the amount of time it takes to deal with the errors people make and provide expensive help desks for form fillers. Yet with modern approaches they could reduce all this to minimal amounts.

For example, between 80% and 100% of public-use forms typically have one or more errors in the data collected, yet with best practice design this can be dramatically reduced to as low as 5%. I know of one case in Australia where it was costing $10 million per year just to correct the errors form fillers make—and that's with a country of only around 20 million people. What is the cost in places such as the USA or India with a much larger population?

So while I was castigating the IT profession for failure to learn, forms designers and forms analysts need to learn some lessons as well.

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