Forms and Function

In life, we all encounter redundant, taxing, and seemingly purposeless forms. At your campus, do your forms serve a purpose? When you ask your users for information, is it information that you actually need? Actually use? Or are you wasting your users' time and needlessly causing frustration?

Where I live, Walmart has not succeeded in driving out the regional shopping chain, Mieijer. Mieijer has nearly succeeded in driving me out of its stores as a customer due to its placement of televisions hanging from the rafters in store aisles, and especially in checkout lanes, but that's another story. I hope. I hope it's not really giving the customers what they want. Sigh.

Anyway, quite some time ago Mieijer installed self-service checkout lanes in its stores. They were, ostensibly, for people in a hurry, but in fact they were a method of reducing the number of employees who get paychecks, also another story. These self-service checkouts permitted the use of a credit card, and, as part of the procedure for paying, a customer is told to use a plastic pen to sign inside a virtual signature box. I have yet to sign my real name.

When I was first asked to sign on one of those I had two immediate thoughts. The first was, "Do I want someone to have a digitized version of my signature?" That assumed, of course, that my signature was going to be recorded. I thought about that for a moment and realized that if my signature was going to be recorded, then in future trips the signature on file could be compared--by some computer algorithm--to previous signatures. That would be a security feature of note.

But I could not make myself accept that assumption. I sort of felt like our most security conscious prospective students who are handing over their Social Security numbers to a college or a university for a first time. It must happen. Some students must ask, "Do you really need this?"

Then I thought, "No, they aren't spending that much money on this." And I wondered for a moment why they were asking for this. It then occurred to me that they might, in fact, include this step both as a way of causing those committing fraud to hesitate and as a way of creating for others a perception that Mieijer had security for their credit way beyond expectations. Why should they care that I and others have angst about signing or that it slows down the process of checking out at what on the surface is intended to appear like a faster way of checking out?

So, I quickly signed the name, "George Washington," and that has been my credit card signature identity at Mieijer ever since. Lowe's, too, although sometimes with hesitation there because they print out a receipt with your signature and I always fear that the checkout clerk will notice what I wrote. No one has yet noticed, but I, as a consumer, am occasionally consumed by irritation that thousands of customers are every single day wasting their time with part of a process that does not appear to have any significant value to anyone.

Do your online or LAN-based processes for students and others include steps that are wasteful, appear to make no sense, or appear to be redundant? If so, you might think about changing them. I'm not the only "user" who gets annoyed by things like this. And it's funny how the various "forms" we make people fill out get to very little attention, whether they are digital or on paper, so little attention that they can be full of weirdness.

The large university from which I receive my monthly paycheck, digitally now, has a step in its monthly timesheet reporting process that could drive me mad, if I think about it too much. Every month I am handed a piece of paper to complete that says on it that I must complete it on the last day of each pay period, sign it, and turn it over to my supervisor.

What galls me is the apparent official power and pomposity of such a statement. It's not like I have a choice, this is one place where I must just stand there and be ordered around: Complete this on the last day of the pay period, and turn it in ... or else!

Except, in fourteen-plus years, I have not completed it on (or even after) the last day of the pay period. Instead, some official university requirements that I've never been able to understand always force me to complete it before that last day. Sometimes as early as two weeks prior to that last day, so when I complete it I am guessing whether I will really not be sick on the 29th or decide to take a vacation day on the 30th.

That really makes me uneasy. I am a reason- and logic-based person, not a faith-based person, and I like what I say or write to mean what it says if you hear or read it. And it also makes me suspect some of the other official requirements of the timesheet, like the insistence that I use a black pen. But that's another story.

It also lessens my respect for the institution, just a bit. I love my university and think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread. It's been a central feature of my life for 34 years. However, every month I complete a time sheet that looks like it was first typed on a manual typewriter and has been photocopied thousands of times since, during which time no intelligent person has since looked at it and analyzed its style or function. (I know that's probably not true, but....)

I don't trust Mieijer. I don't think that company would hesitate for a second to waste my time and that of all of its customers, if it thought it could gain an economic advantage. I do trust the university, though, and this timesheet pains me.

I think the problem is likely that at the university end of things there are only a handful of people who look at the entire process and at the content and the appearance of the forms. They're no doubt smart and dedicated, but just like "insider jargon" can mislead nonprofit association staff as to the perspectives of their members, the campus folks must look at that timesheet and see it from their own, professional perspective--which is not the perspective of the user.

The problem is that something they overlook causes angst for hundreds, possibly thousands of staffers, once each and every month. My own angst about it is a tiny thing beside the behemoth of the university. The angst of thousands, once a month, 12 times a year, builds like I wish the balance in my 403(b) would.

Are there similar processes on your campus, on paper or on the computer screen? Doesn't it make sense to conduct user focus groups on something like the piece of paper that gets all your staff a paycheck each month? And maybe to spend a little time formatting it so that it looks like a professionally printed piece?

Oh, and as for signatures with credit car use: I knew when fast food restaurants began accepting plastic--without signatures as that would slow them down--it was the death knell of requiring signatures when using credit cards. Now I am seeing the practice spread to other retailers, at least for small amounts of money. I suppose that means that Mieijer will soon start asking for fingerprints or small pieces of DNA.
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