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Forms and Complex Processes and Bad Press - by Lisa Lee

Posted By Kelly Halseth, Friday, March 6, 2015

A form is getting some attention at the moment, and – guess what – it’s not the good kind. The form is the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), completed by virtually all US college aspirants seeking to qualify for financial aid. This form is the cause of such widespread aggravation that the president and first lady are talking about it.

What’s the problem? Well, the form is considered by many to be intimidating and difficult to complete. Let’s take a look at why this form is problematic. It stems from the requirements that are reflected in the form.

The FAFSA is a combined form. A brilliant idea when it was created. It replaced the separate applications issued by institutions of higher education. It meant that applicants would complete just one form, and the information would be used by all the participating institutions. Not only that, but the separate associated fees charged by each institution were eliminated.

Great so far. However.

There are many questions on the form and, of course, there are reasons for all of them. The institutions need to obtain the information required to make financial aid decisions, and other parties have information requirements too. The combined form must serve the needs of multiple stakeholders. By the time all the fields for all the stakeholders are added the form becomes complicated, and usability goes down.

Simplifying the form would have downsides to consider as well. Removing fields could produce less efficient processes, because not all the information is available up front. It could lead to the creation of supplementary forms, possibly with associated fees. Proliferation.

Not so great.

Processes with complex rules make for complex forms! Without examining the workflow, it is impossible to ascertain the quality of the form. But the form gets the blame.

It if were easy to gracefully meet the needs of both the business (information) and the form fillers (ease of use), of course, this problem would have been solved long ago and it wouldn’t be a pain point. It wouldn’t be in the news. But solving it isn’t easy.

What’s the business perspective? When the stakes are high on a business process, it is important to collect pertinent and accurate information to support the process and make good decisions. There can also be a desire to collect comprehensive information up front in the process, even when that information is not always needed, to avoid having to go back to the user later.

What’s the human perspective? Just skimming a complex form can be discouraging. A form that asks for information not readily available may require interrupting the form filling task to do research. The form becomes hard to complete. Applicants may give up before they even begin filling it, or quit part way through, and not submit the form.

This behavior is called form abandonment, and it means that the form is failing. The user did not accomplish his/her goal, and the organization providing the form lost a transaction. The business process was not initiated. Bummer for everyone.

How many times have you faced complex forms that ask for information that is not easy to provide? I remember working on a claim form for long term disability benefits. It is an important form. It has to communicate with the claimant and collect a lot of information to enable timely claim decisions. I remember contemplating this extensive form and resolving, at a deep level, that I was never going to become disabled because I didn’t want to have to fill out that form!

As a forms professional, how do you balance the legitimate need to collect information for a business process with compassion for the form filler? Forms people occupy that critical middle space to be able to understand business requirements and also be an advocate for the users.

Keeping forms reasonably easy to complete is critical to prevent form abandonment. Understanding the business process and working with your form sponsor to identify the right information – and no more – to include on the form is essential. Designing for usability and clear writing can help. Pre-populating fields when possible, using conditional questions, employing reasonable edits and testing can help. Revisiting business processes to find appropriate opportunities to move collection of selected information to other parts of the process can help.

The most significant improvement that can be made is also the most difficult to pull off. It entails studying the workflows behind the application form. Are all those questions really necessary to make an assessment? Do they provide essential information or are they just "nice to have"? Can the process be simplified, using fewer elements? This kind of solution depends on a strong partnership with your client, among other factors, and provides the biggest payoff.

Forms should not be dissatisfiers. Just look at the bad press the FAFSA is getting. We don’t ever want to give our users grief or – even worse – have a form be the cause of reputation damage.

Forms should not dissuade people from accomplishing their goals. Unless it’s actually part of a diabolical plot to dissuade them, and get rid of those pesky transactions. But that’s not really what we’re about either. We don’t want users to abandon our forms.

There are legitimate reasons why some forms are complex, and thus more difficult to fill out. When there are no easy solutions, we can bring our knowledge of the art and science of form systems to these challenging situations. We can help develop solutions that address both business and human needs in order to produce the most successful form possible.

We can’t make all of the people happy all of the time, but with a little luck and a bit of skill, we can provide forms that let users accomplish their goals while they never really much notice the form. With a little more luck and skill, our organizations will be considered easy to do business with. That’s the reputation we want to be known for. Put that in the news.

You can find the news story here.

Tags:  business process  FAFSA  forms  process  process improvement  usability  workflow 

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Comments on this post...

Ray Killam says...
Posted Friday, March 6, 2015
Great blog, Lisa. Here is another example of forms taking the blame, when the fundamental issue is the complex workflow requirements and business rules that the form must support. It is IMPOSSIBLE to analyze the efficiency of the form without first analyzing the requirements of the business process.
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