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Editors Notes: Forms and Usability

By Aaron Marcus, Editor-in-Chief

This issue of UX explores forms, one of the most ubiquitous but under-noticed areas of usability among technology-oriented interactive communication. Where would we be if we could not log on to our computers or email systems, order products or services, search for data, and compare the results? In some cases, these displays of text, graphics, matrices, ruled lines, grayed or colored bars, rows, columns, cells, data entry widgets, and labels all work well. We may be unaware of how these complex and subtle organizers of knowledge are making workflow or playflow a breeze. On the other hand, when they don’t work well—when developers have not done a good job of finding out what people are doing, saying, needing, or wanting; when the developers have not iteratively designed and tested these complex typographic layouts—then the results are poor usability, lack of usefulness for our lives of decision-making, and growing confusion, frustration, alienation, fear, and anger when things seem impenetrable, even hostile. It needn’t be so.

As guest editors, former UX managing editor Gerry Gaffney, along with Caroline Jarrett, have harvested a bountiful set of authors who provide both theory and practice, and technical insight and professional wisdom when it comes to analyzing, designing, and building forms.

Gian Wild presents a case study on developing an accessible form. Jessica Enders writes about framing questions: good forms evolve from good questions about what data and functionality need to be present. Ben Green writes about the special challenges of designing for mobile environments. Ray Killam discusses forms management. Robert Barnett describes how an Australian government agency approached the challenge of improving its entire suite of forms. At the opposite end of the planet, Tor Nygaard writes about Norway’s progress in making government forms easier and more efficient. We also review two excellent books on analyzing and designing forms.

Much work in forms is now going on around the globe. Readers can explore within the borders of UPA, but also can find examples from other professional organizations such as ACM’s Special Interest Group on Human-Computer Interaction (SIGCHI), the Society for Technical Communication (STC), International Institute for Information Design (IIID), the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES). And of course, there is a professional organization that has forms at its heart: Business Forms Management Association (BFMA), whose president has contributed an article to this issue.

This UX issue may offer you a new professional area of evaluation and design. I hope you are inspired to look for books and publications in this field and explore the activities of UPA and our sister organizations.

We are all equal stakeholders in the world-wide effort to make the experience of working with forms more humane and pleasant.


A Fascination with Forms

By Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney, Guest Editors

A few years ago, when we needed a book on usable forms to recommend to a client, there was little available. Now there are several, two of which (one our own) are reviewed in this issue. In the course of researching our book, we came across Robert Barnett, the distinguished Australian leader in the world of forms and the author of several books and papers. His recently revised Forms for People is a must-read for anyone working on complex forms or spanning the worlds of electronic and paper forms. We believe this is a sign that a neglected topic is now being given the attention it is due. After all, forms are the point at which users so often give up; the business end of the relationship that organizations try to foster with their customers.

In many ways, a form is the organization writ small. Within the form we can see whether the organization cares about, understands, and values its customers. We can see whether it is dominated by marketing, burdened by legalism, or intent on quality.

Improving a form is not about making a momentary interaction better. Often, it’s about making deep-seated changes. Sometimes, it’s about acknowledging imperfections and working around them. Frequently, it’s challenging and, at times, surprisingly difficult.

The form is firmly embedded in the customer interaction. It can help open doors and create lasting relationships, or it can do the opposite.
We’re delighted that so many have contributed to this special edition; we hope that it helps readers re-think the importance of good forms design, and that it proves useful, practical, and even, dare we hope, fascinating


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User Experience Magazine is by and about usability professionals, featuring significant and unique articles dealing with the broad field of usability and the user experience.

This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 2, 2009.

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