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The cranky user: Bad design can be so taxing
By Peter Seebach - 2005-08-18 Page:  1 2 3


I find the use of worksheets on forms of particular interest. Worksheets supposedly make it easier to follow the logic of a form. But do they make it easier when a page or so of additional fields on a worksheet can easily produce a single field in another document?

Worksheets are best used when:

  • The main form has a fairly consistent flow to it.
  • Interrupting that flow to do the calculations needed to produce an exact number for a specific field is intrusive.

Of course, it's rare when they're actually used this way.

You might apply the worksheet concept to many aspects of Web application development and form design. For instance, many forms ask a user separately for a first and last name. Suppose this were instead a worksheet which displays a single value on the screen when filled out. The user then selects the text, copies it to the clipboard, hits the back button twice, and fills it in.

Make sure you don't allow the user to fill in the value without running the worksheet first. Also, you might discover that users working on a particularly difficult worksheet forget what they were doing on the original form Try to control this by setting a very short session timeout on the front page, allowing them to restart it if they've been away for too long.

Some users might not appreciate worksheets, considering them distracting or intrusive. A solution to this problem might be to make each worksheet a Flash game so users enjoy the process and come to see each worksheet as an opportunity to escape the drudgery of online paperwork.

Although the IRS takes minimal advantage of this notion, recursion is a good match for worksheets. Worksheets allow a task to be broken down into simple steps, so it might make sense to have a worksheet whose fields were each, in turn, calculated by another worksheet.


When people don't fill out forms, they often use the excuse that it's too much work. Consider how to encourage them with negative or positive incentives. The IRS appears to have entirely solved this problem, too. Once again, the key comes from the close relationship with the criminal justice system that the IRS enjoys. Willful failure to file your taxes can result in criminal charges. However, the IRS also has an elaborate and complicated set of financial penalties available for people who fail to file their taxes or pay them in a timely manner.

On the other hand, the IRS offers rewards too. As many people overpay taxes during the year, customers who are unsure about their taxes often fill them out early in the hopes of "winning" a refund of their overpayment. This helps keep users interested.

Companies can offer similar techniques. For instance, a Web store I recently frequented had URLs ending in ?price=X.YY for every object in the store. This provided a possible incentive to fill out the form very carefully, although not accurately. (Luckily for them, U.S. fraud laws probably provide them with a criminal penalty for false filing!)

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