The value of well-designed forms

Forms and documents used in office work are important aids to the conduct of business. But a particular form or document must be proved to be necessary; it should be clear that the material which it contains cannot be found in an acceptable form elsewhere, e.g. in a letter or in another form. And a necessary form will only justify itself if it reflects the most efficient means of obtaining, storing or disseminating the needful information.

In fact, most offices have to use a great many forms and the resulting work occupies a significant part of the time of their staff. It is therefore essential that office forms should be well designed so as to require the minimum effort on the part of those who have to complete or use them—whether civil servants or members of the public.

The best of forms are usually capable of improvement from time to time if only because needs and circumstances change with the passing of time. The result of form review will naturally vary according to the frequency with which it is undertaken and the extent of changes in the requirements, but it is generally worthwhile.

In one department, examination of 1,613 forms over a period of 15 months resulted in major changes affecting about 10% of them (61 abolished or combined with other forms, 42 reduced in size, 60 redesigned); many others were slightly amended and a few new ones were introduced.

Many defects in forms are the result of designing forms without paying sufficient attention to the beginnings and ends of work, e.g. by concentrating on information required without considering the sources from which it will be provided, or the way in which it will be used.

Other defects can arise from different causes and are liable to be missed if there is over-hasty examination and review when the need to reprint arises or if the reviewer is ignorant of the scope for cost reduction inherent in improved design.

Even small points of design can assume importance when viewed in relation to the vast numbers of forms in day to day use.

For example, one large department uses national stocks of some 18,000 different forms in addition to 57,000 different kinds of ‘local forms’ such as hand-ruled notebooks and duplicated forms. The overall total of these forms used each year amounts to many millions of copies.

A change in the design of any one of such a range of forms might produce no tangible saving in paper or printing but if it should reduce the work content of the form (e.g. by cutting down the number of questions to be answered) the value of the effort saved could be substantial.