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Feb 2006 Contents

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Thumbnail: Caroline Jarrett

By Cliff Anderson
Senior Usability Engineer
Wachovia Corp., Charlotte, North Carolina
clifford.anderson@wachovia.com

Caroline JarrettCaroline Jarrett is “the forms lady.” Though she doesn’t “just do forms by any means,” they remain her first love. “Forms are the thing I really like to specialize in,” she notes. “I think forms are very interesting.”

Why forms? “They tend to be really terrible,” jokes Caroline, “so there’s a good possibility that you’ll fairly easily be able to make some major improvements.”

Caroline’s first exposure to forms came at the Inland Revenue, the income tax arm of the British government. After a degree in mathematics from Oxford and time spent as a software engineer, Caroline found herself working for them as a project manager on an optical character recognition system.

Caroline approached another contractor who was working there, wondering if there was “a way to measure how easy or hard the forms were.” He explained usability testing to her, and Caroline has “never looked back.”

With very few resources to rely on (back in the early 90s), Caroline was largely self-taught. This is why she is “fairly adamant that do-it-yourself usability is perfectly acceptable – it would be extremely hypocritical of me to say otherwise.” Though she “totally understands the point of view” of those with advanced degrees, “I wouldn’t want people to be put off getting started by thinking they have to get a higher degree.”

In fact, Caroline would like to see the profession become “much broader.” She continues: “I would really like to see that everybody thinks about usability, everybody thinks about users, in the same way that the quality profession moved from being the preserve of a few specialists who did inspections at the end of the process to becoming part of everybody’s job.”

Caroline has continued with her particular interest in tax forms. “They are particularly revolting,” jokes Caroline. “Tax forms the world over are much hated forms.”

Caroline does have respect for the people who design the forms: “You’ll never believe it, but lots of dedicated people work extremely hard on them. They are trying to make them the best they can. They’re highly committed to good forms.”

One of the problems is that forms are typically designed “under a lot of constraints.” For Caroline, though, this is one of their main appeals. “The difference between creative artistry and design,” she points out, “is that, in design, you’re working within constraints to solve a problem. Something that has loads of constraints is actually very intellectually challenging and interesting.”

Another appealing characteristic is the people skills involved. “You do have to have strong nerves to work in tax,” warns Caroline. “Originally,” she observes, “I was of the mind that when I found there was a problem, I thought everyone would unite with me in trying to fix it up straightaway.” Instead, Caroline found that it took “a lot of persuasion and a lot of time studying the clients as users themselves.”

Such discoveries have helped her in her work outside of forms, on websites and applications. One of her favorite clients in this area has been the Open University, the “UK’s largest university for higher education” and the only one “dedicated to distance learning.”

“The university is very committed to usability,” states Caroline- “They sell a lot of courses through the web. It’s an extremely important medium for them, one that is crucial to their business model.”

In addition to helping with their website, Caroline worked there for a time as a tutor in project management and interface design. Her work there also led to her first book, User Interface Design and Evaluation, which she co-authored with three colleagues at the university – “three academics and me.”

She is currently working on her second book, with Gerry Gaffney. This book represents a return to her favorite topic: “I was trying to do research on forms and I found that there was very little available.” What does she hope to accomplish with the book? “Stopping people asking me when it’s going to be finished,” she quips. The book will be published by Morgan Kaufman and will come out early next year.

Though “really not a writer,” Caroline has actually done quite a bit. In fact, Caroline teaches a course on web editing and also has a regular column, “Caroline’s Corner,” on the Usability News website. Of the latter, she jokes that “it’s nice to have a little forum, if I want to have a little rant about something.”

Even more than writing, Caroline enjoys teaching. “There’s very little out there to help people with forms,” she notes. “They’ve got no framework to hang it on. It’s just bringing it together in a coherent whole for them. They really enjoy it, and I love doing it. It’s fun seeing people pick up an idea and run with it, becoming enthusiastic about something that you’re enthusiastic with.”

Along with teaching, Caroline relishes “actually being with the users.” “You think we might have some problems here,” she explains, “and there really are. You get that great data from the real people. That’s bringing you back to earth. It makes it all worthwhile.”

Caroline has done most of her testing and other work through Effortmark, the company she created in 1994. Though she enjoys the freedom and flexibility that comes with being a consultant, she does find that “life as a consultant is pretty much constantly panicking. Either I’m panicking because I don’t have enough work coming in and I’m wondering where it’s going to come from, or I’ve got too much and I’m wondering how I’m going to do it all.”

About two-thirds of Effortmark’s work is in the UK, but “the rest is worldwide.” “There’s really not that many people who specialize in the usability of forms,” Caroline points out. “There’s people who do usability, and there’s people who do forms, but there aren’t many people who do usability of forms.”

“It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Caroline observes. “The more I learn about forms, the more I know about them, the more people come to me, the more I find to learn.”

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