Optimising business forms for maximum efficiency
How making small changes to the way you design even manual paper-based forms can make a big difference.
There are so many tools to integrate business systems, automate everyday tasks, choreograph workflows, and to give us 24/7 access to our work. We use them every day, and we certainly have our favourites! It is worth remembering though, that some manual tasks just cannot be automated. For example, you’ll always need to capture details from new employees. As clever as your systems are, some user intervention is required for this.
Sometimes these intrinsically manual processes are overlooked during business process improvement exercises. However, sometimes small changes to the way these manual tasks are completed can make a big difference. A big difference to speed and accuracy of processing.
Sticking with the example of a new employee, think about the process for a moment. You need the new team member to provide you with their basic information. You either need to transpose this into a HR system, or at least a payroll system. As an alternative, the employee could enter that information directly, but that doesn’t seem like a good idea! You can’t have people inputting their own salaries into payroll! Either way, the employee must complete a form. The form could be paper or on screen, but there will always be a form.
The aim is to make the process, efficient, painless and risk-free. Now let’s think about what could go wrong:
First, the employee in our example could misunderstand the questions and provide incorrect details. Putting today’s date instead of their start date is quite common. Transposing start dates and date-of-birth happens surprisingly frequently. Providing work emails instead of personal addresses, that sort of thing.
Secondly, you need to avoid errors from copying this information into your system or systems. That is, you need to reduce the latent risk that comes from re-keying data from one place to another.
Let’s think about what we can do to reduce the work and the risk of each.
Consider the medium
It is important to consider the medium first. Is the form online, a fillable PDF or a paper form? This will impact layout, which we’ll think about later. It will also change the risk of error –you can build checks into an online form to ensure the data is reasonable. For example, check the address is completed and actually exists, check the start date is in the past, check the date of birth is long enough ago – not yesterday!
With online forms, you also remove the risk of error that comes from re-entering the data into your systems.
We are going to concentrate on paper forms, because these are the riskiest, and for small business, more common.
Optimise the layout
To optimise a form, we need to improve its layout. We can improve the layout to make it easier for the users (those filling in the form) or we can optimise it for the business (for those who have to use the form’s data).
Large forms should be optimised for the user. There is no doubt about this. The larger the form, the more chance of mistakes – and if there are mistakes in the form, you are very unlikely to get the right data into your systems.
Online forms should also be optimised for the user, because no-one else is going to use it! No operator is going to have to re-type that information, because it exists digitally.
Optimise for the user
We have all seen confusing forms. The forms that make us feel stupid. The form that makes us want to give up. The form that makes us want to scream.
Obviously, you want to avoid making your users feel stupid, scream, or worse, give up. Your “users” will be your staff, your customers, potential employees, and potential customers – these are people you want to keep on side! You don’t want your form to be a barrier to business.
Some simple tips when designing your form:
- Firstly, think carefully about what you need to know. Make sure you get all the information you need, but no more. This will keep the form short and relevant. When collecting personal information, this can be especially important for another reason. The UK Data Protection Act requires that you use data that is "relevant and not excessive". So, don’t overdo it asking for inside leg measurements!
- Arrange the questions logically. Break it into sections, keeping contact information together, financial information together etc. This makes it seem less daunting, helps the user to concentrate on one thing at a time, and leads to more accurate responses.
- Guide the user to the answer. Include notes throughout. Start off the form with an instruction block, stating in plain language what the form is for, who should complete it and why. It is also important to make sure users know what to do with the form after they have completed it. Do they need to send it to you, get it witnessed or anything else? Similarly, start each section with instructions.
- Having set the tone with your instructions, make sure that each field is labelled clearly and concisely. Make it obvious which label goes with each field (or data-entry box). To do this be consistent. If you want your labels above or to the left of each box, great – just now stick with your choice!
- Make it clear which answers are required. If some answers are optional, make this clear too.
- Leave enough space for the answers. There is nothing worse than trying to squeeze your email address into a box the width of your thumb! Leave plenty of space both horizontally and vertically. I tend to make each line of my printable forms 70mm (¼ inch) high. This leaves room for fairly neat handwriting without wasting too much space.
- Finally, get someone else to look at it! Ask someone who is not connected with the process to try to complete the form and get their feedback. Make changes as necessary.
And it really is worth putting the effort in to optimise your forms for your users. For example, Outré Creative report that by redesigning a form for the Office of the Public Guardian, they reduced the number of incorrectly completed forms from 33% to 9%.
Imagine how much time is wasted handling incorrectly completed forms in your office?
Optimising paper forms for the business
The second risk associated with handling forms was for re-keying the data into a system (or multiple systems).
Before I go too far on this topic, we must acknowledge that there are systems out there to handle this “secondary capture” of data. And of course, wherever possible we avoid re-keying information. There is usually a better way – such as scanning, or the use of online forms. Even Adobe PDFs can be configured to export the raw data provided by the user, which can then be imported. This is always preferable to typing.
But, we also acknowledged earlier that some manual tasks cannot be avoided. Some solutions may also be too expensive for the small business. With that in mind, we’ll consider how to improve the manual task.
Again, careful thought when designing your form can help mitigate the risk of error.
Where possible group the form fields in the same order as they appear on the screen. This will make it easier for the operator to keep their place when keying it in. The worst mistake to make is to make the operator input data from different sides of a paper form. I remember one particular example of this; The form collected bank details, customer contact details etc, and spilled over two sides of paper. The operator would key in the bank details first on one screen, move on the next screen, turn over the form, enter the name and phone number, turn the form back over just for the company name, and then back to the second side to complete the address. This process involved thousands of such forms a year. Think of the time wasted. But also, think of the risk: what if two sheets are stuck together? Oh, then the system would have bank details from one customer linked to the address from another customer! Disaster!
Moving on… where possible use the same jargon as the system. Make it easy for the operator to locate the correct information on the form. If the operator is expecting to type in a “Surname” for example, don’t call it “family name” on the form – this adds confusion and slows down the process. Keep it simple and consistent.
And most importantly, do make sure that you ask your users for all the information that the system requires! I saw one process where the system required a “Title”, “Firstname” and “Lastname”, it wouldn’t move on without these three things. But the paper forms only asked for “Full name”. This left the operator guessing at the applicants’ Titles and even genders based on their names. Needless to say, many corrections where required, not to mention the time wasted Googling less common names to find out their gender! A simple change to the form would have saved hours.
While we see lots of solutions to automate the workplace, even manual tasks can be improved with some careful thought. Information design agencies, such as Outré Creative, have proved that even paper-based forms can be optimised with amazing results.
At Middlestone, we look at every aspect of businesses processes and find practical ways to improve accuracy, and speed while reducing risk and cost. And we practice what we preach; even within our own business we have designed our own forms for new employees, which we have optimised to Xero payroll. In fact, you can download them for free and use them in your business.
If you would like some advice on how to improve your business processes, please do contact us! We’re happy to help you with practical advice, system suggestions and custom apps. We can also recommend information designers too!
This article represents my own experiences and opinions – and isn’t professional advice. If you would like help streamlining your business processes, please contact me for a consultation. If you have had a good or bad experience with a process improvement initiative, or you have any tips to share, please do tell us about them in the comments section below.
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About the author
Middlestone Business Analysis helps small businesses achieve more with their existing resources. We help reorganise operations, automate tasks and install customised processes and systems to keep small businesses organised and to speed up administrative work. To learn more, visit our services page.
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