The Evil of Mandatory Fields

Forms are a vital part of an information business – they’re the primary way that organisations capture data about their users, and often the mechanism by which they understand what their own teams are doing. But, if they’re so useful, why is it that no-one likes them?

I’ve been working with a large organisation in the social care sector for the past two years (managing the tech side of an ambitious transformation programme), and in that time I’ve learned a lot about forms.

A typical social care organisation uses forms for everything: a form to record contact, a form to plan support, and a gigantic form to assess people’s social care needs – the Self Assessment Questionnaire, or SAQ. This form can have more than 100 questions, and can run to 15 pages. It’s a beast, and several sections of it can lead to more forms: a financial assessment, a visual impairment assessment, a mental capacity assessment, and so on.

No-one seems to like the SAQ – everyone I’ve spoken to believes that it is far too long, it’s too onerous for social workers, ‘clients’, and admin staff, but despite the efforts and expertise of the design team, reviews of the form lead to only incremental improvements. Why?

One of the fundamental issues with social care forms is that they need to capture unstructured information (conversations between a social worker and someone who has potentially complex social care needs) in a structured format. This can result in a social worker starting an assessment with a blank sheet of paper, making notes as they speak to their client, and shoehorning these notes into the SAQ form when they’re back at base. It’s a reasonable solution – using professional judgment to interpret a conversation into the structured information that is required for an organisation to manage resources and services across a big caseload.

The second major issue is a lack of focus – when a review of forms takes place, everyone can agree that the form needs to be shorter, but with a lack of focus on the core purpose of the form, everyone protects the elements that are useful to them, and those where information ‘might just be needed’. The result is a slightly improved, but still very long form.

The longer and more opaque a form, the less likely people are to complete it in the way an organisation intends – the usual way for organisations to get around this is to enforce compliance through over-use of mandatory fields (the form fields you see with little red asterisks next to them). This is bad.

At BathCamp 29, Joe Leech; cognitive scientist and form design guru at CX Partners, gave a brilliant talk entitled ‘Forms are Boring’ – a whistle-stop tour of the cardinal sins of form design. Foremost amongst these sins being the (over)use of mandatory fields. I had a chat to Joe before his talk about the SAQ, and he listened politely as I expounded my theory of forms – the way a stand-up comedian might listen to someone telling them the Most Hilarious Story Ever.

My theory is this: that forms should act as funnels. One size cannot fit all, and to try to cover everything that might be required in every scenario is to guarantee frustration for users.

The form funnel should start off with the simplest and most focused form first, which will meet the majority of people’s needs – the ubiquitous 80%, based around the answer to the question; ‘what do most of our users (really) want from us, and how can we best help them to get it?’

The next form (or forms) in the funnel should cater for 80% of the remaining users, and so on, until we’re at the most complex of cases, and that’s where we need our best and most experienced people, and at this stage we’re probably beyond forms.

I’ve hacked together the figure below to illustrate the point – I’ve rounded the figures in stages 3 and 4, but I’m sure you get the idea.

forms funnel

Bad forms (and excessive mandatory fields) are common, but with thought and focus, forms can set our users free.