Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Forms and users just don't mix

"It looks far too complex"

is a common phrase heard by software consultants and professional services people when proudly presenting the new prototype UI for a document centric application. It might be a great collaborative, document management or BPM based application, but either way the business users just don't like the look of it.

Attributes for classification

Many simple automated business processes, collaborative environments and document centric applications benefit greatly from an appropriate level of structured attributes or metadata to identify documents. Otherwise it is no easier to find your documents than a large folder on a shared file system on a Windows server.

A nice example of a business process centered around documents is legal contracts authoring, negotiation and management. This is a use case that is relevant to most organizations, so I'll talk about it as its easy to understand. It uses a document-based collaborative application to facilitate the interactions between lawyers inside the company and the basic processes that they must go through to write new contracts, negotiate with external organizations, keep records of executed contracts and handle the expiration and renewal processes around their agreements.

In a reasonable sized company, to enable effective legal contracts management some attributes need to be applied to the contract package (a folder, workspace or some other object collecting all contract documents). These are there to facilitate:

  • Search
  • Audit
  • Process enforcement (review/approval and expiration/renewal processes)
Most of the required information is entered up front, such as contract value, type, company name, expiration date, etc. On seeing the nice, structured browser-based form for capturing this information (or right at the end of the presentation) a user will come out with the comment I started with: "It looks far too complex".

A sad story

I have experienced this reaction with this type of application and more complex BPM applications for new business processes and just assumed it was my lacklustre demonstrations skills that had failed yet again to wow the users. Colleagues regularly tried to reassure me that "its the application, its just too ugly/complex [select as appropriate]". I was never entirely convinced until just last week when I stepped in to help show a new document-centric use case, based on a typically very well received collaboration product. Again, at the end of the process I got the 'too complex' line, something that I was just not expecting.

Thinking that I could not blame the application I probed a little deeper. What was the source of the problem? Surprise, surprise it was the presentation of a nice browser-based form to capture a limited set of attributes at the start of the process. Comments included:
  • Users will find it too complex
  • Users won't fill it in correctly
  • Users will just enter random key-strokes quickly to cheat the system
  • Users will just refuse to use it

What is the issue with these users?!

Why is it that users that do not typically work with structured applications become hesitant or plain defensive when they see a structured form designed to capture attributes quickly, accurately and efficiently? I have taken some guesses, and would love feedback from anyone that has more ideas or can point me at other valuable resources. My guess is that users are threatened by forms due to:

  • Previous bad experiences with badly designed forms
  • Overwhelming appearance of lengthy forms
  • Belief that too much information is being captured
  • There is no understanding of how the information is used
  • The information requested is not relevant to this user or at this stage in the process
  • Belief that 'data entry is not my job'
The crazy thing seems to be that many users would be happy to hammer in a freeform email that contains most of the same information and send it through to another person describing what they mean.

Not placing blame

The outstanding acceptance of document collaboration tools by users provides some insight into what a typical untrained user will accept from an application, with the common features that:

  • Shy away from structured data
  • Dictate little enforcement of process, defined usage patterns, document formats, styles or layouts
  • Encourage freeform communications
  • Do not enforce the entry of any attributes
The tools reinforce the proposition that it is good to capture unstructured documents such as the freeform email my crazy user was happy to write in my example above. The problem is that this information is often not obviously reusable in this format for the next user that needs it.

I'm not blaming collaborative tools for the problem, but they do highlight how much users hate entering data. By introducing just a small structured form and process into these tools leads to the original user feedback, as my sad story recounts.

Placing blame

There is only one place to look. I can no longer entirely beat myself up for demonstrating so many applications so badly. Rightly or wrongly I'm going to blame the forms UI. Not just the one in this application, but the whole concept of data capture forms UIs.

Many applications and business processes can benefit from a bit of data entry, and in structured business processes (like new account opening) this is even more necessary. So it is hard to escape this 'new evil', the forms UI.

In the next post I'm going to offer some opinions that represent my non-expert status in user experience design, to help encourage less of the original response that "it looks far too complex", and more of the "when can we start using it!".

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