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The cranky user: Bad design can be so taxing
By Peter Seebach - 2005-08-18 Page:  1 2 3

Don't overlook the obvious when you plan your Web forms -- don't reinvent the wheel

When people design Web forms, they often overlook some great sources of professional expertise in the world -- the existence of form design techniques with which nearly all users are familiar. This month, the cranky user looks at form design and management.

With the deadline to file taxes only a few days away in the United States (U.S.), tax forms are everywhere because most people have to fill one out. Tax forms can carry lessons that apply directly to Web page design, especially as you consider the design of forms. That's because these tax forms are familiar to many users of varying skill levels. The sole function of a large branch of the U.S. government is to develop these forms -- form designers can derive a great deal of advantage from the expertise and history of tax form design.

In this month's column, I look at ways in which the Internal Revenue Service (sometimes known as the IRS or the Infernal Revenue Service) has already faced, in whole or in part, many of the serious problems that forms designers face.

Reduce user errors

People who use tax forms often complain that the forms are too complicated or confusing. Nonetheless, Web developers dream of creating forms with error rates as low as what the IRS sees on tax forms.

A number of components can contribute to user error. The IRS deals both with intentional and unintentional user errors. The distinction between the two, while insignificant in terms of what a particular wage earner might pay in taxes, is significant in terms of how to correct the errors.

  • Unintentional errors presume that a user somehow misunderstood the form or doesn't have accurate data available.
  • Intentional errors require a user to consciously decide to introduce false data or a potentially unsupported interpretation into a form.

The same error may be intentional or unintentional, depending on the user; for instance, a user with retrograde amnesia who fills in an erroneous home address is probably merely mistaken, not malicious.

Unintentional user errors

Unintentional user errors pose an interesting challenge. The user is, by definition, not trying to introduce such errors -- you can't just ask the user not to make any mistakes. These errors come because the user misunderstands the form.

The first-line solution to unintentional errors is clear documentation and plenty of it. I think the IRS has focused on the quantity side of this equation, producing a volume of documentation that has to be seen to be believed (and can be at no cost). Web developers can learn from this; if a form on a Web page comes with a similar wealth of documentation, the chance of users filling the form out correctly is small.

For smaller organizations, your goal is to weigh the costs of writing additional documentation against the costs of supporting users who failed to understand the form. Ideally, each field of the form has explanatory text -- just enough so the user understands how to fill in the field. Precise legal terms, especially when their meanings are not the same as common English usage, are unlikely to increase accuracy.

Intentional user errors

Although you might be surprised by this, not all people who fill out tax forms do so with perfectly honest intent. Web companies face the same problem. For instance, companies who make people submit an e-mail address on a form, even if the company claims it won't spam you, might face a high rate of questionable or fabricated e-mail addresses.

The IRS's primary solution to the problem of intentional errors is to declare them a felony -- wouldn't businesses have an easier time of it if they could do that! They can impose stiff fines and penalties for intentional errors and charge interest on any money they are owed. Most privately owned Web sites do not have the resources to enforce such a policy, but it seems reasonable to imagine that government-run Web sites might make use of this option. You can see that some options available to government agencies for addressing intentional user errors are not available to most businesses.

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First published by IBM developerWorks

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