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Form Follows Function

Regardless of the structure, forms need to serve the needs of the person who will eventually be filling them out.

In the rush to establish a new business, many entrepreneurs craft a short list of the key items they feel are worthy of their full attention: legal and tax setup, office space rental, phone and internet connection, office furniture and equipment, and marketing items. Without a doubt, these components are critical elements of establishing a new enterprise, and failure to address each up front will cause unavoidable hassles and delays further into the process. But one of the unfortunate casualties in the rush to tackle these elements is the basic yet critical aspect of devising an efficient, usable way to capture information from clients or customers.

The whole idea of filling out a form is so distasteful to most people that they may tend to shy away from developing them for their own small business or nonprofit. When driven by necessity to come up with something to capture information about the people they’re serving, some business owners will default to a quick internet search and an even quicker download of the first generic template they can find. They hastily review the layout, make a tweak here or there, plop their company name and logo into the largest open space, and print 100 copies. This approach may be passable as a stop-gap measure, but failing to be intentional about how to correctly structure a form will immediately make the completion of it more tedious for the client and the interpretation of it more difficult for the business.

At a time when digital forms are growing in popularity and prominence, it can be tempting to believe that the convenience of on-line documents is the only consideration, without actually investing effort into really developing a comprehensive tool for gathering information. As with a print template, a brief web search will yield various basic shells which can serve as the prototype for a business to craft their own. Simply working in an electronic versus a print version can foster the illusion of being “cutting edge”, but merely lifting someone else’s layout and hoping that it works for you carries with it little chance of success.

For the business owner trying to soberly decide the best way to proceed with forms design, “paper or digital?” is certainly one of the first obvious questions to answer. There definitely are many advantages to crafting electronic forms, but the honest answer is that both types are valid and can be appropriate depending on the circumstances under which they’re being used. Tempting though it is to try to force a digital choice on everyone, the fact is that some individuals simply don’t have experience with computer-based solutions and aren’t likely to embrace them just to satisfy your needs for data collection. Even if the form is presented as an app capable of being used on a smartphone, the presumption of everyone having the technical savvy to access and effectively use it is a fallacy.

The environment in which the form will be filled out can also be a huge influencing factor in the paper vs. digital dilemma. The lack of internet connectivity, mobile coverage, or even electricity might make the printed form an attractive choice. There could also be situations where the person completing the document needs seclusion for the sake of privacy, or wants to be able to have a physical copy to review with someone else prior to filling it out. A paper form can also live in both worlds: scanning it after it’s completed can allow for the physical one to be archived while the digital one can be backed up to the cloud. Certainly, electronic forms can be printed after they’ve been filled out, but starting in the paper realm can be a workable solution as well.

The great selling point of the digital form is the ease with which the captured information can be manipulated. Without the need to perform additional manual data entry, online forms can tabulate responses, generate reporting, and provide the easy dissemination of the information captured. Google Forms and Microsoft Forms are both popular options, and there are certain aspects of functionality unique to each. The Microsoft product is convenient due to being fully integrated into Microsoft 365, which also allows for captured data to be automatically fed into an Excel spreadsheet for additional manipulation. And perhaps the most compelling underlying reason for using digital forms is that they can be synced for cloud backup, permitting effortless document archiving and remote access.

The reality is that, regardless of whether in a paper or electronic format, the design of forms needs to be done in a thoughtful and intentional way, being careful to structure them to best serve the needs of the person who will eventually be filling them out. One of the most helpful design approaches is to carefully divide the form into distinct sections, each containing logically-grouped questions or data fields, and to sequence the flow from one section to the next to foster ease of completion. Randomly asking for information throughout a form is a definite recipe for frustration, and the accuracy and completeness of the data provided may suffer as a result. Electronic forms carry with them the additional advantage of being able to be structured so that completion of questions or fields is mandatory, preventing the person from moving to the next section prior to the current one being completed.

The phrase “form follows function” was first coined in 1896 by an innovative architect named Louis H. Sullivan, one of the pioneers of skyscraper design. His belief was that the functions that would be carried on in the interior of a building should influence the design and style of the exterior. Ironically, “form” can have a double meaning in the context of data capture – referring to both the instrument used to gather the information as well as the design and layout of the overall document. Clear, descriptive headers will help the person completing the form to understand why a certain piece of information is being requested, and will also serve to maintain their focus as they respond to questions about similar items. Likewise, questions should be detailed and concise, with an emphasis on explaining clearly what’s needed without unnecessary clutter.

Since the completion of a form is often times one of the first interactions a client or customer has with a business, effort and intentionality should be invested in making the experience mutually pleasant. A properly structured form can set the appropriate tone for all further dialogue in the business processes as they unfold, so getting this right at the start is truly a “win-win”. By their very nature, forms may always seem tedious to complete, but crafting yours in a way that creates ease for both your customer and you will get you the information you need with a minimal chance of creating frustration for anyone involved.


Are you interested in learning more about how to create your own professional forms using digital technology? If so, check out our recent video on YouTube by clicking HERE. Or,

visit to download a free PDF entitled "Taking Your Organization's Temperature". It'll guide you through a quick analysis of the health of your organization, and it can be real eye-opener as to what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong.

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