The Vacuous Horror of Word Forms That Are Not Forms

I recently received a Word form to fill out. You know the kind—a bunch of questions, and then, after each one, a line made out of a series of underline characters. Presumably this is meant to be printed out and filled in by hand, but usually the spacing between the lines is too narrow for actual handwriting. And no one wants a handwritten form back in the mail.

And here I thought everyone loved forms   

And here I thought everyone loved forms


So you're clearly expected to fill it out in Word, or whatever program you favor. As soon as you start to type the information, the collection of underlines moves to the right, eventually wrapping and messing up the alignment of everything else on the page.

Often these spaces don't have enough room for the requested information, so even if you spend time to delete the extra underlines (yes, some people do do that), you still have to mess up the rest of the page, making the document hard to read, and stupid-looking to boot.

I can't tell you how many of these things I've gotten over the years. HR departments are particular offenders, in my experience, but all sorts of seemingly competent people create them.

Forms are an important interface with customers

Now there's a nerdy pronouncement for you. Nevertheless, it's true. My day job is marketing, and on the rare occasions when I've had the authority, I've tried to make sure any forms we send out are clear, easy to fill out, and don't ask any unnecessary questions.

Before we get to how to easily solve the "underline cascade" problem, it's worth thinking about the unnecessary question thing.

It's also startling how many questions people add to forms just...because. They aren't interested in the answer, in fact often don't even look at it or record it. They just know you should ask if the person is married, or owns a dog that weighs more than five pounds, or enjoys Scrabble.

Once I helped a Behavioral Health department remove almost a dozen questions from a complex form just by asking who tracked that piece of information. They'd been using the form for years. In fact, they just copied it over—they'd lost the original.

Your customers interact with you in a variety of ways, and forms, both paper and online, are a key one. Don't torture them. Subliminally, that makes you look like a jerk. Do you really want your customer to think you're a jerk? Except in certain types of business, mostly aimed at males in late adolescence, I'd say no.

Use fields, for heaven's sake

In the copy brief questionnaire I use for new clients, each free text answer is a field. You tab between them, and you can't actually write anywhere else on the form. They expand to contain the text you put into them. The form does get longer, but nothing reflows.

(And if you're someone who'd like some good marketing content, you should head on over to Sturdy Words, my freelance marketing website, and check it out)

Word fields are stupid easy to use. Word is an incredibly capable program, and almost no one uses it anywhere near its full capability. You can put in fields that will expect a zip code, or a date, or whatever exact thing you want, as well as free text.

I resisted the urge to fix this company's form, as I have, in the past, resisted fixing forms HR has sent me. That's just a sickness, and I struggle against it. Of course, if someone wants to pay me to fix their forms, I'm delighted to do it.

What are your company interface pet peeves?

And what solutions do you stop yourself from providing?