Filling in the blanks
Dec.6, 2010
by Ivan Raconteur

‘Tis the season to fill out forms.

Most of us have forms to fill out throughout the year, but as we approach the end of one calendar year and prepare to dive into another, the quantity seems to increase.

The form du jour is the dreaded health insurance form. We go through this exercise every December in a feeble attempt to try to outmaneuver the pirates who run the insurance companies.

One has to admire the aggressive boldness of an industry that demands double digit price increases, regardless of the economic factors involved, but that is a subject for another day.

Our topic today is forms.

One can’t help but wonder what species of monkey businesses employ to design the forms we are forced to complete.

I only ask because it seems to me that the logical way to go about designing a form would be to try to match the space allotted for each question to the information requested.

Long answers should have long spaces, while short answers can thrive in smaller spaces.

This, however, seems to be the furthest thing from the minds of those in charge of designing forms.

For example, on a form that I completed recently, the designers allotted the same space for a question about the detailed history of every medical condition I have ever had as they did for a question about how many hours I work per week.

Even in a bad week, I can usually limit the number of hours I work to double digits, so a small space works fine for this question. However, even if one has neat, compact penmanship, it is difficult to get much detail into the space of two digits.

On other forms, I have seen questions that ask for simple bits of information, such as a date, but provide vast expanses of white space in which one is to print the answer.

When confronted with situations like this, it always makes me wonder if I understood the question.

This is especially true if I just finished trying to write my entire street address in a space of roughly the same area as a postage stamp on the same form.

The only way to get all of the information requested into some of the blanks provided would be to abandon one’s pen and carefully print the answer using a specialized ink with a particularly low viscosity, and using a gnat’s eyelash or some similarly delicate object as a writing instrument.

This would, of course, require the use of a microscope or other form of magnification, but perhaps that is what the designers intended.

It would not be that surprising if I didn’t understand a question, however.

Despite the fact that I have spent years studying the English language, and am reasonably fluent, the way some of the questions are worded leaves me scratching the old coconut, trying to figure out what the creators of the form are asking.

I am not sure if it is the same set of monkeys that creates the layout of the forms, or a different set that comes up with the questions, but logic does not seem to be a strong point for either group.

Some questions contradict other questions, and some questions ask for exactly the same information as previous questions two lines above.

It is unclear if they are trying to trip us up, or if the questions are just that poorly written.

If the purpose of a form is to collect information, it seems that the sensible thing would be to keep the form as simple and clear as possible, but in practice, that doesn’t seem to be the way things are done.

It is nearly inconceivable that private enterprise is responsible for some of the poorly designed, poorly worded forms with which one is confronted.

It almost seems that it would require the dedicated efforts of a governmental committee to generate that level of incompetence.

People can say what they want about the government, but when it comes to putting square pegs in round holes and dogged adherence to ideas that defy any recognized logic or common sense, nobody does it better than the government.

Are the bad forms we encounter the result of simple bad design, or is there some secret governmental agency cranking out forms for use by the health care industry and others?

We may never know.

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