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Filling out forms can be a daunting task, but it needn’t be if the designer of the form puts the user’s needs first, says Trish Lorenz

It’s that time of year when Income Tax self-assessment forms land with a thump through letterboxes across the country. If you receive one and groan at the thought of completing it, you’re probably not alone.

However, it’s actually a relatively well-designed form. Created by the Inland Revenue’s in-house design team for the launch of the self-assessment programme in 1997, it is clearly colour-coded, effectively signposted and relatively simple to understand.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of many forms. An NHS form, the less than clearly named HC1, was so poorly designed it attracted media comment and a question was tabled in Parliament regarding its lack of usability.

Information design is generally perceived to be firmly at the unglamorous end of graphic design and it seems that often neither clients, nor many consultancies, are motivated to bring their best efforts to bear. But, says Butcher and Gunderson client services director Leo Beaumont, that would be a mistake.

Beaumont has worked with organisations ranging from the Department of Health and Ministry of Defence to Legal & General and Shell on information design programmes.

‘Organisations think of it as at the bottom of the [design] list,’ he says. ‘But, in fact, it is a major part of the whole marketing mix. Application forms reflect an organisation’s processes and customer service. And, after all the emphasis and investment on branding, it could be a badly designed form that loses the sale.’

Dinnis Design design director Rachael Dinnis agrees. The group has recently been appointed to revamp the Yellow Pages (DW 15 April) and she maintains that forms and directories are ‘an extension of the brand that can let the customer down at a very basic level’.

What constitutes good information design? Both Beaumont and Dinnis agree that ‘not overloading the user’, is a vital first step. ‘The key requirement is not to put applicants off before they’ve even started,’ says Beaumont.

But there is often a dichotomy between enticing users to complete a form, by making it appear simple and accessible, while simultaneously collecting all the required, and often complex, information.

According to Beaumont, ‘intelligent routing’ – making it easy for people to understand which sections of the form they need to complete and then directing them clearly through the form – is the solution.

Dinnis describes using ‘a layering and hierarchy’ of information to control the user’s journey through both forms and directories.

‘You need a clear start and a clear end and questions must logically follow each other,’ she advises. ‘Designers should question the language used and the order of the elements, as well as the physical layout.’

This means it is important for designers to understand the application process – the most likely combination of sections that applicants will complete and the order in which they’ll complete them.

Obvious considerations such as font size and colour play their part in maximising usability. Colour, in particular, is important in helping to define and codify different sections clearly. Coloured panels can both highlight information and act as a sign off.

‘Clients often say, “We only want one or two colours because it’s just a form”,’ says Beaumont. ‘They should be saying the opposite.’

At the same time, it is important to remember that a form’s function is not to create impact, he adds.

‘You’re trying to create the effect of a nice, quiet room, where people can work through the form steadily and happily. White space calms things down and I’d advocate the use of light tints of colour rather than bright, bold colours.’

Dinnis says visual imagery is extremely important. ‘Pictures communicate an idea much more quickly than language,’ she says. She believes forms and directories should make greater use of iconography to improve accessibility and readability. ‘Good iconography transcends language,’ she claims.

Dinnis points out that user engagement – so important in other aspects of branding and graphic design – is often a secondary element in information design. Imagery, which can be much more involving than language, is one way of upping the warmth.

‘[Forms and directories] tend to be quite dry and unemotional. It’s important to try to make them engaging and warmer,’ she says. ‘Most designers use typeface and colour, but don’t think about what it’s like when people come and interact with the piece in any meaningful way.’

It seems, then, that information design principles are universal design principles – consider the user, balance form and function and convey brand. You might never enjoy paying tax, but at least the process should be as painless as possible.

Information design – key considerations

• Maximise white space and deliver clear and simple instructions up front. It is important to avoid giving the impression of a tedious, baffling or onerous task ahead.

• Use colour to code the form and break it down into sections.

• Clearly route people past the pages they don’t need to complete and make it obvious early if customers don’t need to complete the whole form, as it reduces the fear factor.

• Use light tints of colour rather than bright colours, which can be perceived as challenging and frightening.

• Pay close attention to words, they can be powerful magnets or, at the other end of the scale, very disconcerting.

• Consistency of labelling is important.

• Focus on customers not the database – consider what the user is most likely to do with the form and their circumstances, rather than simply thinking about the data you need to gather.

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