Hey tablet form software designers… Don’t insult your users

October 8, 2013

We all have different tastes. We all have different personalities. We all have different levels of technical proficiency. I like sci-fi; you like romance novels. I like Italian food; you like Indian. It should be no surprise that with billions of people in the world we each approach every day with all of our life long experiences guiding our every action.

Why then, do form designers assume that everyone who will use their meticulously designed electronic form will have a four-year degree from MIT?

Designers tend to assume that while their users may not be as skilled as they are, that there’s an inherent like if not love of technology in that user base. But as mobile forms become more commonly used as a part of daily life, the design process needs to accommodate the varied backgrounds of form users.

The good news is that a lot of common mobile form usage complaints can be solved with good form design practices and with appropriate hardware choices. Let’s take a look at a few things.

Designers are still shrinking things

Maybe because the idea of changing forms from something that is accepted to something that might challenge convention or maybe because the idea is that your users will be comfortable, it should not make this acceptable:

Yes, it’s possible on modern devices to pinch zoom and pan around with a single finger. But that doesn’t mean that your users should have to or even want to do so. When the web was new, no one liked scrolling (especially horizontal scrolling), and there’s no reason for them to like it now.

Consider instead guiding your users through the form filling process. You could, for instance take the same form and split it across four pages.

I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader, but we might want to go an extra mile and reformat the fields themselves according to our platform preferences. Some devices are suited to touch, some are suited to handwriting recognition, and some are suited to keyboard entry (remember tablets have snap on keyboards these days).

Consider which of those your users might spend their entire day with. Yes, this will mean your form design process will take longer, but in the end that’s a tradeoff you want to make rather than having users complain when your hard-to-use mobile forms are rolled out into their everyday work process. Handing out reading glasses with your tablets isn’t a valid usage strategy.

Stylus practicality

A few years ago, Steve Jobs famously said, “It’s like we said on the iPad, if you see a stylus, they blew it.” But in a recent visit with a customer, I have to respectfully disagree with him. The users I see using styluses had a much better user experience as they didn’t have to constantly lean into the device, get fingerprints on it and push it around the table (using your finger requires a bit more force than a stylus if done right). It also allowed those users with fashionable nails to effectively use the device.

In addition, these devices were being used to capture actual ink signatures. This too can be done with a finger, but you, I, and nearly everyone else have been signing our names with a pen probably since grade school. If you’re looking to bring accurate ink capture to a modern touch device consider one of the many available options. The $20/device that this may entail may be well worth it to prevent usability complaints.

In Conclusion

There’s more variety in device type, form factor, and add-ons than ever before. As a form designer, it’s your responsibility to determine which of these will work best in your environment and what will make your users’ work process the most efficient. Remember, you’re not designing the mobile form for yourself. Survey your users, find out what they like and what they don’t.

And maybe take them out to their favorite place for lunch to get the real scoop on what’s going to work for them. The time you spend up front will almost certainly be repaid with lower support costs and form revisions.


(Tablets App Development will be a key session at TabletBiz conference & expo in NYC on Nov. 13)

Chris DiPierro is the Director of Software Development at Mi-Co, which makes mobile data electronic forms software. 


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