If you have a special interest in public servants and forms, just go to my last blog and substitute ‘forms’ for ‘standard letters’. Government continues in its misguided attempts to see IT as transformative. Today, a tender crossed my desk for a government-wide project to create a common technology platform—SmartForms—for all government forms.

Forms are a special, highly constrained type of conversation. When people complete a paper form they bring their intelligence and previous experience to the task. They use a great many physical clues to guide them through the form: layout, number of pages, typography, sections and headings, spaces, and other visible features. Paper forms have an added advantage: people can conveniently use material tools, such as collecting together with a paper clip the pages they have completed, sticking post-it notes on pages where they have a query, or temporarily using a pencil to sketch in a reply.

Well designed paper forms that take care to incorporate physical features can be successfully navigated. Users can scan them to quickly find what is relevant to them and ignore what is not. Badly designed forms—and most forms are badly designed—are much harder to complete, and users have to bring other skills into play, such as searching for guidelines or instructions, finding out who to contact for help, or using guesswork, inspiration, and familiarity with forms. But even the worst paper forms have some physical clues to help the user.

People are smart, and make good use of what they are given.

With a digital form, smart users are confronted by a flat non-manipulable screen with the physical clues and opportunities missing. Losing their opportunity to use their smart thinking they start feeling stupid. When the original paper form is badly designed, the electronic version will be even worse. Much more work will have to be done by smart public servants to make the flat form usable. The SmartForm system eliminates the user’s smartness which then has to be compensated for by smart public servants. Of course, one could argue that the transition to digital might be smoother if public servants exercise smart thinking on paper forms. Common experience suggests this is not the case.

All of this makes the design of a digital form much more complex than a paper form. Thus the term ‘SmartForm’ is deeply ironic. Forms cannot be smart, only people can be. Badly designed paper forms result in digital versions that are worse because the potential for user smartness has been eliminated from the process, replaced by the potential for user confusion. The likelihood of a user’s errors is multiplied and the likelihood of an organisation’s return on investment is slim.

As a senior public servant in charge of forms design you have a choice

Start preparing next year’s budget for the extra 100 smart public servants you will need to adapt and change one of your stupid forms in preparation for the new technology,


Become a CRI Member and read our Case Histories which give you a lot of pointers to smart practice in forms design, and explain in detail why new technology will not necessarily result in smarter forms.

Good luck!

forms case histories