document design: “boring” but necessary

It’s back-to-school time, and for all who are parents, it means forms. So. Many. Forms. As I was filling out the same forms I’ve filled out each year for 7 years now, I got to thinking about how many businesses and organizations have poorly designed forms, or documents that just don’t take advantage of that small opportunity they have to market to their customer.

Our boring (but necessary) forms and documents are an important place to provide good customer service, and they can be an easy place make sure your messaging is on-brand.

Here are some simple pitfalls to avoid when putting together your more “boring” documents:

It’s Good Enough

When’s the last time you looked at your organization’s documents? Have you been photocopying the same ones for 10+ years? Even worse – have you lost the original so you’re photocopying photocopies? Maybe it’s time to review them, make sure you’re still asking for information you need and use (i.e. still asking for fax number despite not even having a fax machine anymore), and that the document looks fresh and in line with your current marketing, instead of like it’s been in use since the Reagan Administration.

No Branding

This one is simple! Make sure you include your branding on the form/document, including your logo. If the form is something that is printed in color, be sure to use splashes of your branded colors in headings and other design features. I recommend you use a consistent typeface across all of your forms/documents, even if you don’t have an “official” one with your branding. It helps bring cohesiveness into the suite of documents your organization uses, as well as provides familiarity and a kind of comfort for your customer as they move through your processes. Depending on the form and its use, you may also include your address, website, social media, etc., but not at the expense of keeping the document clean and simple.

Thinking about Your Processes, Not Your Customer

When you are developing your forms, think about the person using the form. Who is your typical customer? Under what context are they reading and completing this document: in your office or at their home to be sent in later? If it’s in your office, do they usually have a bit of time to fill it out, or is it just a few moments? When people use the form, do they typically have distractions: Do they have kids with them? Have they just gone through some kind of crisis or are they under stress? Is your service/organization a very small part of their otherwise busy life? (Answer to that last one: probably.) These are all questions to consider when deciding how much content to include and how to design your document.

Your own processes should also come into consideration of course – you want to be sure the work that needs to be done with the form afterward can be done efficiently. But, your processes should be secondary to the needs of your customer whenever possible.

Too Much Content

Think about the information you truly need. When putting together the content, don’t just throw things on the paper in order to have them; know your purpose of asking for the information. For example, if you ask for birthdate because you send out a promotional coupon to customers for their birthday, that’s great! If you ask for birthdate because that’s a thing that’s on forms and you might use it one day, consider omitting it. If possible, try to pare down the text to bullet points and brief sentences rather than lengthy explanations. Again, think about the customer and how much time they have to read what is included in your form or document.

Poor Design

We’ve all filled out forms or perused documents that have all of the information smashed together, there are no breaks or heading dividing the content into manageable sections, and the spaces are too small to actually write in your answers. This is a chance to provide better customer service! At best, a poorly designed document makes an already annoying task even more so. At worst, your customer will register a negative opinion of the service they are receiving from your organization.


Tying It All Together: Case in Point

When I worked for a local non-profit a few years ago, we had a form each participant had to fill out. We had a problem with many participants filling out the basic identifying information, but skipping some of the essential information we needed in order for them to participate in the program. We spent so much time tracking people down and calling them (often repeatedly), it was a huge drain on our human resources. We decided to do something different.

We talked about who our “customers” were, and what their lives were like. Then, we took a close look at our form and realized the information provided about our program was too wordy and used terms that a new participant wouldn’t necessarily understand. We found that we didn’t highlight the areas of the form that the participant needed to fill out; those parts were crammed in among informational text with little white space. We also realized we could cut out a couple of unnecessary questions.

I completely redesigned the form to significantly reduce the amount of text and call out each of the three steps the user needed to complete on the form. This increased the amount of white space and made it much more clear and usable. We saw a huge decrease in the number of forms that needed follow-up work, so that was good on our end. More importantly, because the forms were more complete when we received them, we could assume that they were easier for the user to fill out, which means they had easier access to our services. It was a clear win-win.


To wrap up, even those boring documents that we don’t think much about are opportunities to showcase your branding and serve your customers better. Give them a little love!

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What success have you had with changing a document’s design? I’d love to hear about changes you’ve made to an organizational document/form that improved your customers’ experiences and/or your processes.

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photo credit: user “myrfa” on Pixabay.com

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