I've been working with a new web site that offers some pretty powerful features for multimedia, I don't want to say which one. Fortunately, I have been around the Information Technology industry for a long time now and can find my way through just about anything. Although this particular web site offers some pretty sophisticated capabilities, it is painful to navigate around and has pitiful Help facilities. Basically, it's as intuitive to use as a dead slug. Although I have found my way around the software, mostly through trial and error, I wonder how many people simply gave up due to the frustration factor involved. I suspect a lot.
You see this same phenomenon in nonprofit organizations that rely on paper forms which are confusing to read with no effective way of cross-checking the data being recorded. Consequently, erroneous data is entered which permeates and corrupts the rest of the system, thereby causing considerable expense to correct errors and eliminate redundancies.
Both forms and screens serve the same purpose, as an input device to collect data. The only difference between the two is the media used. Aside from this, both should be designed according to some basic principles:
1. They need to be "clean" and inviting to use. Consideration should be given to the types of people intended to use the form or screen and their intellectual capacity to work with it. If it is perceived as difficult to use, it will be rebuffed, and people will avoid using them, thereby defeating not only the form or screen, but the entire system as well.
2. There must be a means to validate or cross-check the data collected. For screens, there should be no reason why certain editing checks cannot be added to obtain the results desired, such as checking basic math, upshifting/downshifting certain text characters, and enforcing the use of valid entries such as state mailing codes; e.g., FL, OH, NY, CA, etc. (thereby prohibiting invalid entries). On-line help should, of course, be provided, not just for the screen, but for each entry. For paper forms, preparation instructions should be included (such as on the back of the form), sample entries should be provided, and a simple means should be provided to check math, such as tabulating columns and rows in a table.
3. They should be designed according to standards thereby making it easy to learn and use which, in turn, means improved user acceptance (since they are already familiar with similar screens and forms) thereby promoting system success. Besides, why should designers reinvent the wheel with each development project? Standards for form and screen design are certainly not new. Such standards have been available for a long time, but is anyone using them? If the web pages found on the Internet represent any indication, the answer is "No."
Forms and screens are usually designed by people who, despite their good intentions, fail due to their obsession with the technical implementation as opposed to concentrating on the human dynamics involved. I've seen some beautiful web pages that are graphically alluring but fail miserably simple due to horrible navigation, cryptic commands, microscopic lettering, and poor editing checks. They may look beautiful, but they fail due to the elements mentioned earlier.
Just remember, forms and screens are the portals to our systems. Systems begin with people and end with people; systems are for people.
For more information, see my paper on "Effective Screen Design."
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Tim Bryce is the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Copyright © 2009 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.