Case Study: What’s In A Form?
Inclusive Design in Form Creation With NYC’s Department of Health
Please Take a Moment…
There’s a good chance you’ve filled out at least one form this week, digital or physical: given your name and email address for a mailing list, completed customer information while shopping online, or interacted with government bureaucracy. Forms, big and small, are present everywhere in our lives. Often, they’re annoying; even more often, they go completely unconsidered: they’re just part of life. Unless you’re a designer, you rarely consider questions like: who made this form? Why did they make it the way they did?
__Forms are part of the glue of modern society: they allow us to transmit information, sometimes a great deal of it, to someone (or many someones) we probably won’t directly interact with. Like any other way to capture information, there’s good and bad ways of doing it: ask the wrong question, or word it the wrong way, and you’ll get inaccurate information. Fail to ask the questions you should be asking, and you won’t get the information you need at all. Make the form too labor-intensive, and people may just not bother completing it, if they can avoid it.
While no one probably ever got excited about completing a form, creating one represents an exciting challenge to designers: how to communicate the need for information clearly and efficiently, ensuring you’re understood and that you’ll get the information you’re looking for.
Capturing A Community’s Data
Public health is about making decisions about large groups of people using the facts available to you about them- distilling and extrapolating the health experiences of individuals to thousands or millions. With stakes like these, accuracy- and completeness- of information can literally be a matter of life and death.
__We recently worked with the NYC Health Department’s HIV Prevention Program in developing new forms for their collaborative HIV prevention program- an initiative designed to eradicate HIV in New York by empowering both community-based organizations and clinical providers with improved data sharing and communication. The NYC Health Department was using paper forms to collect information from clients, which were then scanned as PDFs and manually transcribed into electronic records by program staff. The data from these forms would ultimately be used by NYC to monitor program implementation and evaluate the impact of the program in improving health outcomes.
__The NYC Health Department’s HIV Prevention Program brought us on board after realizing that their existing data collection methods weren’t working. The forms or their entry methods couldn’t be changed, because they were thoroughly integrated with NYC’s existing back end. But the content of the forms themselves could be revised, and they recognized this as an explicit challenge of inclusive design.
An Inclusive Design Approach
All media is designed with an audience in mind, but forms have two “audiences”: the people being asked to complete them, and the people who then use those completed forms for their goals. A well-designed form must consider both- and this was the beginning of our work for the Department of Health.
__Both “audiences” for the HIV prevention forms were extremely diverse: varying levels of English ability, familiarity with medical jargon, cognitive skills, even visual acuity. We began our fact-finding by spending time with everyone involved at the health provider side, from the office personnel who would transcribe the forms to the healthcare professionals that would use and report the data, observing their processes (as these were beyond our scope of change) and their ability to clearly interpret the information on a completed form.
__The diversity of the clients themselves was nearly infinite: we relied on reporting from the DoH team about their experiences thus far and the particular challenges to developing a better document.
The DoH team understood the importance of a well-designed form, the inclusion and exclusion challenges, and were dedicated to working closely despite the many limitations they faced.
Operating Within Constraints
It was also necessary to be clear about the limitations on our scope of change: there were many ways that the data collection process might be dramatically improved, but the constraints of the HIV Prevention’s existing infrastructure were immovable due to time, budget, and resources: the forms could only be paper, black and white, and had to have margins that would accommodate the legacy printers and scanners representing the lowest common denominator across the infrastructure of HIV Prevention Program and it’s network of providers.
__Legibility was one example of a major consideration and challenge- it demanded efficiency in the use of every page, with the lack of color options demanding bigger fonts and better spacing for clarity.
Common Structural Elements
Layout was the first element we tackled on the revised form, to address legibility but also the clarity of content. We developed unified visuals and a consistent format of question and answer, relying on the flow of the page to reduce wasting space on unnecessarily long or complex instructions for completing the form. This required us to address design considerations like, “what does a question (as opposed to a statement) look like? What should be multiple choice (without sacrificing clarity or the full range of possible responses)?”
__Language was wrapped into this: requests for information, as well as clarification of the information needed, had to be comprehensible for consumers and data processors without leaving anything out. The form’s language was carefully calibrated to have a casual, accessible tone and use natural wording, avoiding medical jargon or complex vocabulary.
Form design is an underestimated but vital element of any research, diagnostic, or even commercial process requiring information gathering. Every line of a form has the potential to defeat the form’s purpose, collecting information poorly or demotivating the user with confusion or fatigue. How many forms have you begun filling out online just to get a free copy of X, only to abandon it when it goes on far too long or seems to demand unnecessary information?
__By their very nature, forms are likely to face a diverse audience, calling for principles of inclusive design to build them. This project stressed one of the most essential of these principles: engage all relevant stakeholders in the design process. Understanding the constraints of both sides of the action was essential to delivering the NYC Health Department’s HIV Prevention Program an instrument that would fully and accurately inform their program. As the front line of data collection, a well-designed form can be of immeasurable value.
__Want to know more about how inclusive design principles can deliver better forms, user experiences, and interface? Contact us to get your next project off to the right start.