Notes and instructions
The notes and instructions on a form are usually of two main kinds:
- General notes and instructions about the number of copies to be completed, where to send them, what to send with the form and miscellaneous background information about statutory requirements, regulations etc.
- Instructions about how to answer the questions and complete the entry.
This broad distinction should be kept in mind when arranging items on the form.
It is essential that the form should contain all the information and directions needed to achieve its purpose. Sometimes a form can be designed for a particular group of users, but more commonly it is likely to be filled up by people of a wide range of competence and understanding and the instructions must be in phraseology suited to them all.
If, however, the result is a series of long notes which, in the mass, appear to be very complicated they may not be read at all and the object will be defeated. To get the right effect it may be necessary to paraphrase the detail of departmental or legal requirements; or to deal with main requirements only and to make the most general reference to exceptions.
Considerable judgement is therefore necessary, in deciding the scope, character and number of notes appropriate to any form especially if it is to be used by the public. The aim should be to produce something which is as brief as possible but which is quite clear to those concerned.
Forms designed purely for internal use seldom need lengthy instructions printed thereon because verbal explanations and help can be given by supervisory staff. Thus the extent of notes and instructions on a form depends greatly on the conditions under which it will be completed or processed.
Useful points in relation to the wording of notes and instructions are:
- Re-examine the wording of a question on the form that needs a long explanatory note; the question itself may need alteration or possibly breaking down into a number of separate questions.
- Avoid unnecessary words, e.g. the phrase ‘In every case in which particulars are furnished’ (eight words), can be reduced to ‘When particulars are given’ (four words): a phrase such as ‘It should be noted that the obligation to furnish particulars’ (ten words), is no less clear when reduced to ‘The obligation to give particulars’ (five words).
All wording should help the user by being specific, using an example where this is necessary.
- Consider other ways of instructing or explaining. Specimen entries are sometimes useful as examples and may obviate the need for lengthy instruction. Diagrams or pictures can help to make technical matters easily understood, and reduce the need for words.
- Words should be kept simple and unambiguous. To ensure that this is so, it is advisable to try the draft of any new form on someone who is unfamiliar with the document and its requirements. The clarity and style of wording may be improved by studying the publication, The Complete Plain Words (H.M.S.O.).
The instructions needed to make a correct entry on a form are most likely to be effective if they are placed immediately before and adjacent to the entry.
The use of asterisks involving frequent reference to elusive footnotes, or reference to instructions overleaf, during the process of completing the entries, interrupts the business and can be irritating, especially if the form is in a typewriter. This kind of inconvenience also increases the possibility of errors in completing the form.
Other general instructions concerning regulations, the number of copies, the disposal of the document etc. can be confusing if they are scattered about in different places on the form.
The users of a form do not always read the whole form before starting to complete the entries, and generally start at the top and work through it to the bottom. Generally any important instruction seen too late may be a source of inconvenience.
Care may sometimes be needed to avoid asking for what is difficult or impossible. For example, a request ‘Please do not fold’ may be difficult to meet if the document cannot be easily accommodated in the average sized pocket, envelope, or handbag.
Storage of the form is another factor to be considered when considering the quantity of notes and instructions. When the notes etc. are unavoidably lengthy they can sometimes be printed on a separate sheet and are then retained by the person filling in the form.
As a first step, all notes and instructions should be classified, e.g. notes about entries, background information, notes about regulations, general notes about the number of copies, disposal of the form enclosures etc.
The layout and grouping should then be decided and (especially if the form is to be completed by a member of the public) the aim should be to make it easy for the filler-up to comprehend and complete the form; as far as possible the following points should be borne in mind:
- Bring together in one place all general notes and decide their order of importance. If any instructions need to be noted before the entries are started (e.g. ‘Complete two copies’ and ‘Use block capitals’) place them all where they will be noticed before the entries.
The order in which they are set out may provide sufficient emphasis, but, when necessary, special points may need bolder type, or underlining etc.
- Place all notes about entries where they can be seen before entry and referred to while the entry is being made, e.g.:
- At the top of spaces for entries. This is very suitable for short instructions and notes.
- At the side of entry spaces. This is also suitable for short notes and may enable the binding margin to be used. If the notes are of irregular length this method may however be wasteful of space.
- Grouped at the head of a number of entries. Related questions can be grouped and the instructions similarly grouped and positioned before the questions. This method may succeed in placing notes where they are needed and help to break up a mass of printed matter into readily assimilated groups.
- Relegate other essential background notes to a position where they will not interfere with the completion of the form; avoid breaking up the entry area with such notes, and do not let them clutter up the heading of the form. If these notes are lengthy consider separating them from the main part of the form.
Care is, however, needed to ensure that cross references between the form and notes are clear and unambiguous. Be consistent and uniform in the method of identifying parts of both documents—do not refer to ‘Section A’ in one place, and ‘Part A’ in another place. The occasions for cross reference should be kept to a minimum. Short notes which ought to be placed on the form for the convenience of the user, should not appear on an accompanying leaflet.
The application of these precepts may be difficult when the layout requirements of the office user conflict with those best suited to the person filling up the form.
For example, speedy completion of an office process may depend on having all the entries in a predetermined position on the front of the form, and this requirement may make it difficult, if not impossible, to place all the notes and instructions in an ideal position.
Problems of this kind are a challenge to the ingenuity of the form designer and it is necessary to evaluate and decide the resulting effects of different layouts, accepting such compromise as seems reasonable.
For an internal form (or whenever a book of forms is supplied) a set of instructions (with or without specimen entries) on the inside cover of the pad etc. may facilitate the work and reduce the consumption of paper.