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Monday, May 11, 2009

Convincing management of value of business forms

Recent discussions with leaders in the Business Forms world have again highlighted the need for a better approach to management in general about why forms are important.

There has been a tendency to overlook the real problem and just say that it is hard to get people interested. But I still believe strongly that the main reason forms consulting companies often have difficulties getting work is that the people designing the forms—and in particular their decision makers—don't really understand the importance of forms. They want to design the forms as cheaply as possible and low cost designs win out time and time again.

For example, many forms are created by people with a graphic design background. It isn't unusual to find that forms are designed by printing companies, advertising agencies, low cost freelance graphic designers or even internal staff who are trained in graphic design. I've come across a number of "specialist" form design companies that are staffed with graphic designers who know now to make forms LOOK really great. They create forms that management accepts because the appearance is very attractive and their customers like the forms. The problem is, that when examined in the light of accurate data, they often fail miserably. The result is that the organisation simply blames the "functionally illiterate" public. My claim for a number of years has been that it is the form designers who are "functionally illiterate" because they don't know how to design forms that fulfil their true function. The problem is that even the designers themselves don't understand the real issues and don't even know that their attractive designs are not working. They have a blind faith in following the so-called "rules" of graphic design. In some cases they may even follow the "rules" of "Plain Language", but still then forms don't work.

So why are forms important?

Put simply:
  • Forms are where the organisation usually gets it's data, so it is important that it collects ACCURATE data.
  • Bad data often means that the customer (or even the staff member filling out an internal form such as an HR form) doesn't get what they need. A good example is an insurance form that collects wrong information and the applicant finds that when they make a claim it is rejected because the form was wrongly filled out.
  • Badly designed forms often result in the use of expensive help desks to advise people on how to fill out the form when it would have been cheaper and easier to design the forms correctly in the first place. We're finding that with good design, such help desks can be cut right back to minimal staff levels.
  • There is a great deal of emphasis these days on "knowledge management" but do the KM people realise that a key ingredient of KM is getting the correct knowledge into the organisation in the first place?
  • Computer systems invariably rely on accurate data entry, yet most IT people (and web designers in particular) fail to see that good form design is important to the success of the computer system. There has been a tendency in recent years for IT people and web designers to try to grab the form design "turf" in the mistaken belief that they are the experts, when reality is showing that they know very little about it.  I'll have more to say on this issue in another post.
All this seems very simple, but my experience over the past twenty years or so has been that these are the most important issues.

Management must come to see that their forms are vitally important and that they take experts in INFORMATION DESIGN to make them work well.


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