Saturday, April 05, 2014

Pro forma

Having created a fair number of forms, surveys, applications, etc., over the years, I know full well how easy it is to think that something is perfectly clear, obvious, and easy...and to be quite wrong.

This past week I had the interesting experience of filling out a form whose designers needed to do some additional thinking before they put it online. (Hint: Ask someone who is not involved in the project have a go at filling out the application. Other hint: One size does not fit all.) Some of the more blatant problems:

• It asks me for employment information. No problem. Except this is the 21st Century, and I know for a fact that I am not the only person in these United States who has more than one employer. I’m scheduled for 20 hours at each, so one is not “job ” and the other one “other job. ” The application’s designers clearly never planned for the possibility. Fields for, say, First Employer and Second Employer (if Applicable)—and maybe even a third employer, given the current state of the economy—would not be out of line.

• It asks for present landlord/mortgage holder. I am happy to report that there isn’t one, so I put down None, and the same thing in the box asking for the rent amount. But upon my sending the form, it bounced back and insisted I had to enter a telephone number for the nonexistent mortgage holder. Fail.

• It asks for the same mortgage information for my previous domicile. Sorry, I have almost no recollection about a mortgage that we paid off 20 years ago. Including the mortgage holder’s telephone number.

• It asks if I’ve ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. Fair enough. Except the question is followed by a checkbox, a single checkbox with no label next to it! (See below.) Is it a Yes box, or is it a No box? It kinda makes a difference, guys! Having no use for pigs in pokes, I left the box unchecked and, in the text field below it, which was there to explain a Yes vote, said that I had never been convicted of anything but, since there was no label next to the single checkbox, I wasn’t going to check it. Helpful Hint: If you’re asking a yes-or-no question, provide a means for people to indicate yes or no.

• Above the Submit button, it says “I hereby sign and accept these conditions. ” I maintain that the statement implies that pressing the Submit button indicates that I am, you know, signing and accepting the specified conditions. But no. An error box comes up to inform me that I must accept the conditions. Um, isn’t that what I just did? Well, no...for, as you can see below, there is a small, faint, unlabeled checkbox waaaaay off to the right of the statement (and, for that matter, the Submit button), which, apparently, must be checked. And the existence of which makes the “I hereby sign... ” statement inaccurate. There should be an “accept ” statement, with the checkbox right next to it, and then a statement above the button to the effect of, “Click the Submit button to electronically sign and submit the application. ”

• Having finally divined everything the form’s designers were trying to communicate, I was rewarded with a screen that included a button that said, “Click Here to download a copy of your application. ” Nice. Only it didn’t. It opened a PDF copy in a new tab, which is fine, but it didn’t “download ” it. Which also is fine—I’ve been on the scene long enough to know that I need only save the PDF from my browser...but I’ve also been on the scene long enough to know that there are plenty of people on this planet who would not know that. They would accept the button’s label at its word—“Click Here to download a copy of your application ”—and somehow think that by clicking here they were downloading a copy of their application. Clear instructions would be helpful: “Click here for a copy of your application, which you can save to your computer. ” Too long for the button, but placed above the button, it would be helpful to a fair number of people.

In that spirit of helpfulness, I plan to pass along these observations and suggestions to the company in question. After the application’s been improved, that is.