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Notes on Schwesinger’s book of forms

Before starting with the form analysis, the author establishes 9 fundamental rules for form designers. These rules are:

  1. Learn to love forms
  2. Take forms seriously
  3. Get to know your users
  4. Take your users seriously
  5. Learn how providers think
  6. Think how providers think
  7. Give forms identity and style
  8. Leave nothing to chance
  9. Do not give users one more form – give them one less problem.

When the author talks about Users, he means all those who use forms (you, any costumer, etc.), and when he says Providers he means all those who issue them (public services, business, institutions, etc.)

Form theory

Forms and their functions

According to Schwesinger a form is a “framework of communication, made up of information which can be fixed or variable”. They can be a sheet of paper with check boxes and text fields, a printed list, or even a computer interface that requests, collates and distributes the information.

Forms act as interfaces between organisations and users, they are a means of communication. They guide interaction and additionally they create internal organisation. From the provider’s point of view, forms fulfil an organisational function.

Schwesinger describes two problems with forms, that are out of designer’s hands, but with which designers need to deal necessarily:

  • Forms need to fulfil a dual function as a means of communication and at the same time as a means of organisation.
  • The content of forms is usually unpleasant.

Designers need to work to make the forms consistent. Furthermore, designers need to pay attention to details, avoiding the creation of forms that look restrictive and discriminatory. Comprehensible language and clear design are the keys to achieve the design of good forms. When companies have efficient means of communication, they have a chance to stand out from the competion (other providers of the same service, for instance).

Forms are a replacement for a personal dialogue, therefore the use of language is a key factor to achieve clarity. The following are suggestion from the author for clarity:

  • Avoid technical terms.
  • Write what you mean, not abbreviations or abstract references.
  • Avoid long strings of nouns (“Notification of our decision will be forwarded” to say “We will let you know”).
  • Don’t switch terminology to refer the same subject.
  • Use active language (is more personal).
  • Use please and thank you.
  • Be concrete.

Forms within the framework of corporate identity

  • Corporate design > Visual image > Forms as design.
  • Corporate communication > Ways of speaking to the world > Forms as texts.
  • Corporation behaviour > Ways of dealing with people > Forms as attitude.

A brief history of forms

Analysing different cases of forms, Schwesinger takes us through a sort of history of forms:

  • 1455 Letter of indulgence: It used Gutenberg’s movable type print and leave some blank spaces to be filled.
  • 1790 Tax form: Blank spaces but embellished. Additionally it has explanatory notes in the margin.
  • 1892 Passenger list: It uses division by categories. Forms divide humanity.
  • 1900 Business forms: Forms enabled the growth of industry and lithography allowed decorations.
  • 1929 Modernist forms: Experimentation with typefaces but keeping it practical and functional.
  • 1933-45 Forms in Nazi Germany: Forms can be instrument of arbitrary power, they are not always rational and neutral.
  • 1983 Electronic data processing: Changes in technology have been the main reason to change the style of forms, giving more freedom to design but not always improving the usability or being more friendly.
  • Present days E-government: This is meant to make public services more friendly, accessible and cheaper. But this is not always accomplished mainly because of problems in usability and accessibility (different visualisation in some browsers, for instance.)

Types of form

There are 2 categories of forms, communication and dialogue. Communication forms convey information and they do not expect response. Some examples are bills, receipts and certificates. On the other hand, dialogue forms gather information. There is interaction between the provider and the user and in this case, response is expected. Contract and declaration are part of this category.

Dialogue forms

Communication forms

The following list explains 11 types of forms:

  • Application: They express claims and requirement. They collect sensitive information.
  • Registration: They give access. They declare the desire to be part of something.
  • Declaration: They obtain required information and for that they need to win the user’s trust.
  • Orders and contracts: Standardised agreements to purchase, rent or work. Maintaining trust is part of the form responsibility.
  • Invoices, bills and receipts: There is no payment without proof and there is no proof without form.
  • Notices and statements: Pre-formulated communication addressed to one or more receivers providing information about a specific subject.
  • Questionnaires: They collect personal data, attitudes and opinions through pools, surveys and ballots. They hold a dialogue.
  • Certificates and passes: What they announce is demonstrably true. They make statements about people, situations and rights.
  • Tickets, cheques and shares: They bear information about their value, who issued them, who owns them and what right do they have.
  • Records and checklists: They can both be produced without the aid of forms, but forms speed-up the process an insure that all the important information is noted down.
  • Direct mail (that demands response): This is most of the time used for advertising purposes, such us coupons. They need to follow-up the loud and often obtrusive approach of the ad and create dialogue.

Form practice

Macro-level design

The design process include different stages that allow to address the problems of creating a form from abstract to concrete:

  1. View and sorting the existing forms.
  2. Analysing channels of communication and administrative structure.
  3. Optimising and reducing the amount of information and the number of forms needed.
  4. Categorising and dividing the content of the form.
  5. Visualising on a macro and micro level (this is where the book focuses).
  6. Developing prototypes or draft versions.
  7. Testing on users inside and outside the company. (Then go back to visualising).
  8. Implementing the design system through manual, style sheets and templates.
  9. Checking the form effectiveness through observation and analysis.
  10. Adjusting the design and content. (Then go back to implementing).

This process considers that testing is fundamental to check the results.

The author goes deeper into graphic variables that need to be taken into consideration when designing a form. Many of these variables are basic references about legibility, use of colour,  grids and layouts, typefaces, paper, formats, hierarchies and how all of the elements work together. Some of the variables need to be considered from the beginning, for instance if the form needs to be read by a machine. If so, gathering the date will be easier and automatised, but the design will need to fit the requirement of reading equipment.

Micro-level design

In this chapter the author explains basic language and punctuation rules such as spacing, hyphens and dashes, quotation marks, etc. He mentions that choosing a point of view as the tone involved in the dialogue is also part of this level of design. Some examples of tones are:

  • Questions and answers: What’s your name? > John Smith
  • Explanatory perspective: My name > John Smith
  • Neutral perspective: Name > John Smith

In the rest of the chapter, Schwesinger gives his opinion and advices about different possibilities for every graphic decision. He analyses and compares real cases, showing many options to solve common problems of form design, such as dealing with more than one language.

Digital forms

Some advantages of digital forms over paper-based forms:

  • Digital forms are non linear, there have links from one section to another.
  • Digital forms can check inputs avoiding simple mistakes of the users.
  • Digital forms can help people to fill them, with dynamical explanations.
  • Digital forms can do calculation, making easier for the user to respond accurately.
  • They can be accessible and more flexible (Fonts re-size, change colour, reading text aloud, etc)
  • They are easier to update and it is immediate.
  • The process (from the provider point of view) is faster with digital forms because data is delivered immediately.

Some disadvantages are:

  • The process can fail for “mysterious” reasons and it is not always possible to go back easily.
  • Sometimes when the form is sent, there is no evidence of the information.
  • Digital forms are not always secure enough. Personal information can be transferred which make people feel insecure.
  • They require technology and not all the users have the same access to it.
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Notes on Donald Norman’s book Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things

Donal Norman is an academic of cognitive science, computer science, design and usability engineering. His approach to user-centred design in his previous books was focused in usability, trying to figure out, from a scientific perspective, what makes something a good or bad design. He didn’t take emotions into account, only usability and functions from a logical, dispassionate way (as he states). Emotional design, represents a change of his viewpoint about how people relate with products. He now states that there are different emotional layers to consider, beyond the logical perspective of usability. In his opinion, emotions and cognition are thoroughly intertwined. So, the question arose: Can beauty and usability go together?

1. Attractive things work better

In this chapter Norman explains that the affective system works independently of the conscious thoughts, but that both are equally important and extremely related. Decision making that was believed to be a logical, rational process, was proved to be wrong by scientific studies that demonstrated how the affective system influences the decision by giving fast warning of what is good or bad. Moreover, research also showed that when people are relaxed and happy, they become more creative and more imaginative in problem solving situations. Attractive things work better because they make people feel good, thus people are more tolerant of minor difficulties and they think more creatively. Plus, they are willing to work harder to find the solution to what they are trying to do.

2. The multiple faces of emotion and design

Norman’s studies of emotions suggest that there are 3 level of the cognitive and emotional system for humans: Visceral, Behavioural and Reflective. These are response mechanisms that analyse and generate physical responses. The visceral is a biological level that reacts to certain things like temperature, shapes, lightning, textures, smells, etc. It is about appearance and touch&feel. Behavioural and reflective level are directly affected by culture. Behavioural is about function, performance and usability, whilst reflective is about interpretation, understanding and reasoning. The question is how to combine these 3 levels or 3 designs in one product. There is no clear answer to that question but it should be take into consideration that no product will never satisfy everyone.

Products must be attractive and pleasurable but also effective, understandable and appropriately priced. Products must strive for balance among the 3 levels.

3. Three levels of design: Visceral, Behavioural and Reflective

Each of the 3 levels of design (Visceral, behavioural and reflective) play its part in shaping the experience of use. Each is as important as the others, but each requires a different approach by the designer.

Visceral: People learn sometimes to overcome the visceral response of the body (to be in noisy places, to eat spicy food, etc.) when for instance a thing is viscerally negative, but reflectively positive (i.e. to ride a roller-coaster in an amusement parks). Effective visceral design requires the skills of the visual and graphic artists and industrial engineers.

Behavioural: What matters here is function, understandability, usability and physically feel. When designing for the behavioural level, the hardest is to understand the unarticulated needs of the user, because they don’t know what they need. Observation is the appropriate type of research for this situation, instead of focus groups, questionnaires or surveys which rely to much on the user opinion.

Reflective: There is nothing practical or biological about the this level. Attractiveness is to visceral, what beauty is to reflective. Beauty comes from conscious, it looks below the surface. The overall impact of a product comes through reflection (again, the example of the roller coaster), that is why costumer relationship plays a mayor role in the reflective level.

4. Fun and games

How to maintain excitement, interest and aesthetic pleasure for a long time? Like in music, literature and art, through the depth and richness of the things. That way, it is possible to perceive something different on each experience. Products that give joy over the pass of time usually follow these 3 steps: Enticement (make an emotional promise), Relationship (continually fulfil the promise) and Fulfilment (end the experience in a memorable way).

5. People, places and things

In chapter 5, the author refers to humans and the natural tendency to interpret emotions in people and objects. Computer anger is a case in point of how people humanise and interpret as animated something that is not. The reflective level is the one that relates past events and makes conclusions. People tend to blame the computer as if it was its fault, similarly to team work relationship. Moreover, the fact that computers do not express shame or blame makes it more frustrating. People naturally want to trust, but trust comes from experience and it must be earned. It implies reliance, confidence and integrity.

6. Emotional machines

Norman describes how in this time (back in 2004) machines have reasonable amount of intelligence but no emotions. He states that non-verbal feedback, facial expression and body language will be needed in robots in order to understand them better. Machines will not be smart and sensible until they have both intelligence and emotions. Emotions not necessarily similar to humans emotions, but any other way of affective system. He goes deeper imagining possible home-robots and how they should interact. He discusses their shapes and general behaviour. He mentions that robots should have at least these 3 emotions in order to improve their performance: Pride, fear and frustration.

7. The future of robots

In this final chapter, Norman analyses possible robots and the implications of their role in society. For instances, robots for highly risk missions, educational robots (tutors) and robots for medicine. The increase of the amount of robots doing regular jobs would led to unemployment, among other social problems. Norman concludes that if robots combine intelligence with emotions “The positive impact will be enormous. The negative consequences will also be significant”

Epilogue: We are all designer

Norman includes in this epilogue some of the comments that he received through a survey for his personal study of emotions. There are mainly quotes that evoke one or more of the emotional levels, whilst explaining a product that they love, hate or maintain a love/hate relation.

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