Writing a form sounds simple, but isn’t. Public servants must balance readability and logic with the needs of complex policy and legislation

By Stephen Easton

Monday August 5, 2019

Professor Michael Hiscox, former research director of the federal behavioural economics team.

Filling out forms is still one of the main ways people interact with government. Each government jurisdiction will have its own priorities when designing a form, so Mandarin Premium has taken a look at three different approaches from Australia and elsewhere to showcase what else public servants can do to improve their forms.

WISER guide to better paperwork

The Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government (BETA) hosted a full day “masterclass” in the ultimate bureaucratic art — the design of forms — for over 200 public servants from 38 agencies.

The nudge unit, part of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, has also produced a new five-point framework that uses the acronym WISER to help guide the development of better paperwork.

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The single-page framework urges public servants to focus on: who the form is for; a good introduction; a simple and logical structure; expressing information in plain English; and repeating the improvement process after testing.

The event was called “Form-a-palooza” after a similar event hosted by the The [email protected], which works for the municipal government of the US capital and has a broadly similar role to BETA in bringing more academic evidence to bear in government policy and practice. But while the Americans tried to fix as many forms as they could, BETA’s event focused on five.

Senior behavioural economics adviser Amelia Johnston went through the WISER approach in one of several speeches that were recorded on video and uploaded for all to enjoy after the event.

She began with examples of forms that could do with some fixing, such as one asking for a person’s “expiration date” along with their date of birth, and the ACT government’s “Rescission and refund application form” — Johnson dares to suggest the noun that describes the act of rescinding something is not quite plain English.

Another she found was a paper form that still asked a person to confirm they were “not a robot” by ticking a box. Jokes aside, she explained how the new framework was meant to be a practical “starting point” that public servants could pick up and use back in the office right away.

Form-a-palooza kicked off with an address from BETA’s managing director, Dr Simon Cooper, and a 30-minute keynote from its former research director, Professor Michael Hiscox, on the general topic of applied behavioural economics in the public sector.

Rachel Evans from the Department of Human Services — one of the major producers of long and complex forms in the Commonwealth arena — explained some of her work trying to listen more closely to “the voice of the customer” under DHS chief citizen experience officer Mukul Agrawal.

Ben Newell,  a professor of cognitive psychology and deputy head of the School of Psychology at the University of New South Wales, dispensed his thoughts on how behavioural science might improve child protection, one of the most challenging areas of government, particularly at state level.

Writing a form sounds simple but participants heard of a vast field of research and established design principles that can make all the difference to busy public service teams when trying to balance readability and logic with the need to include all the right information and questions based on policy and legislation that can be very complex.

Helping the user by not wasting their time

The UK government’s design community collated their own approaches to structuring forms into five lessons:

  • Design your forms for the format they’ll appear in. Don’t just put your paper forms online; paper forms and digital forms have different strengths and weaknesses.
  • Know why you’re asking every question. Create a ‘question protocol’ around how you’ll use the information, ensure accuracy, and maintain the data. This will force you and your organisation to question why you’re asking users for each item of information and gives you a way of challenging and pushing back against unnecessary questions if you need to.
  • Design for the most common scenarios first. You need to decide which group of users you want to prioritise. Start with questions that will let users know if they’re not eligible for the service, so you don’t waste people’s time.
  • Start with one thing per page. Not all guides recommend this approach, but it has the advantage of help the user understand and focus on what you’re asking them to do, find their way through an unfamiliar process, use the service on a mobile device, and recover easily from form errors.
  • Structure your form to help users. Some questions, like date of birth, might be better captured in multiple form fields instead of a single text field. For page titles you can use either a question or a statement. But use questions or statements consistently to help users get into a rhythm of answering and lets them focus on the content of the questions rather than their presentation.

Gary Pettengell noted the lessons from the UK government’s standardised online forms, and how they’ve improved the user experience beyond what was possible with paper forms. In particular, having the ability to edit previous answers, adaptable typography and layout, unambiguous error messages and large green buttons with self-explanatory text, such as “I accept the above”, make the action simple to understand.

The four layers of every form

Formulate Information Design created a detailed guide for Victorian state public servants that uses the following four layer model for understanding forms: Questions and their corresponding answer options, the order of and relationship between questions, the presentation of the Q&A and flow on the page or screen, and everything that happens around the form but impacts on data collection overall.

Some of the key choices that public servants can make while designing forms, according to Formulate’s model, are whether to pre-populate the form with default answers, or auto complete field — assuming the underlying list is trustworthy — for common questions such as address or occupation, or how to phrase questions. For example, open and closed questions each have their uses, as does second and third person questions, and full sentence questions or short stubs.

Question order is another of the key choices, with many things to consider:

  • Follow the form-filler’s natural train of thought. For example, when registering a birth, form- filler’s are likely to be thinking of the baby first, then probably the mother, then the second parent.
  • Collect ‘core’ information first, then ‘collect’ supplementary information. For example, in a complaint form, the ‘core’ is the complaint itself, whereas the supplementary information is the complainant’s contact information. This is a particular instance of following the form-filler’s natural train of thought.
  • Ask simpler, easier and less intrusive questions before complex, difficult and intrusive questions. This eases the form-filler into the process.
  • Ask anticipated questions before surprising ones. Dissatisfaction comes from not meeting expectations.
  • Ask questions applicable to everyone first, then ask questions applicable to only some form-fillers.
  • The more related two questions are, the closer they should be to each other.
  • Be consistent in question and sub-question order. For example, if you collect email before phone in one part of the form, collect email before phone in other parts of the form

Another worthwhile tip from the Whole of Victorian Government’s digital group: keeping a record of where forms are used and then reviewing them periodically for best practices as they change, for example, ease of use, relevance, entry, and validation techniques.

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