designing forms that function

Once again, back to school time has me thinking about forms. I wrote about forms this time last year too… about how they’re a reflection of your organization, they speak volumes about how you care for your customers, and they can make your job easier if done right. So, let’s talk about how to do it right .

First, let’s define usability. Usability is the idea that your USER can navigate and complete the form efficiently and effectively. It is not about YOU. It’s about your customer. So, the first tip for creating a form or document is…

always think about the user and their experience with the document…

…and not just how quickly you can get this thing done and off your desk.

design hierarchy

When you design a form, you want to define the process for the user. You want to be sure your user knows what steps they need to follow, and in what order. Here are some basic tips:

  • Use font size, bold text, or underlines to define headings for your sections, and keep them consistent. Use multiple levels of headings, if necessary.
  • Define form sections on the page by using white space between sections and indents from the left margin. Make sure subsections are defined as well.
  • Be sure that the parts the user has to fill out are clearly defined from the informational/instructional text. Use arrows, space, lines or other markers to make it easy for the user to find the parts they need to complete so you don’t have to follow up with them later to get the missing information.

use white space

If there is one thing I hope you take away from this post, it’s to increase the empty space on the page. White space allows the user room to breathe and makes your form less intimidating. Here are some ways to make room:

  • Reduce your informational text. I know your instructions are important, but see if you can provide that information in fewer words. (You probably can.)
  • Use lists and columns instead of long, wide paragraphs.
  • Rethink and update the information you’re asking for. (Do you really need a fax number? Will you ever use the it?)
  • Eliminate redundancy. Do you always use the same forms together? Then combine them. Take out the redundant questions – saves you space and your users don’t have to fill out the basic “name/date/address/phone/email” information multiple times.
  • Add another page if you have to. I know, it’s so much better to have everything on one page, but don’t sacrifice usability for convenience. (If using paper forms, consider printing front-to-back to save on resources.)

Side note: Give them enough space to write. This is partly a white space thing, but also just a legibility and usability thing. If the user has to write tiny to fit their answer in, you have to try to read tiny writing. And if they get frustrated, that tiny writing will get less legible. It’s human nature.

usability tips

Using basic word processing software like Microsoft Word is an easy way to get started, and it can work as the finished product if you’re using them as paper forms. However, if people are going to be using the form electronically, you will want to consider a few things:

  • Use text boxes rather than just typing in the document to help avoid formatting issues.
  • If you’re using Word, use the Insert/Shapes/Line function to draw your “fill-in” spaces rather than using repeated underscores. This will allow your user to type in the form without ____breaking up____________ and shifting the line. (Hint: hold the SHIFT key while you’re drawing your line to keep it level.)
  • Word does have the capability of inserting clickable checkboxes, drop-downs, and other controlled content through the Developer tab. (If the Developer tab is not visible, you can add it to the menu “ribbon” at the top of your page by going to File/Options/Customize Ribbon.)

software

Remember that MS Word (and other word processing software) is not really designed for creating forms, especially when used at its most basic level. That’s why the frustrating shifts of content happen when you go back and type in your finished form.

  • Consider using a PDF writer to turn your Word form into a PDF form users can type in. You can choose what they’re able to edit and where they’re able to type. I use Adobe Acrobat, and it does a fairly good job of automating the process of turning your original document into a typeable form. (FYI: Acrobat is not free software.)
  • Another option for creating forms is Microsoft Publisher. If you’re a comfortable Word user, you’ll recognize the functions within Publisher and hit the ground running fairly quickly. You’ll be able to more easily place text, images, and spaces on the page wherever you want without things “randomly” shifting on you. However, you will need to save the finished product as a PDF for distribution, and if you want users to be able to type in it, we’re looking at Acrobat or similar software again.

Creating visually appealing and usable forms takes time and thought beyond just typing in a blank document. You’ll be rewarded for your time when you have happy customers and fully completed forms that require no follow up for missing information!

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Feel free to contact me with any questions you might have as you’re working on your next form/document. I’m happy to help!
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photo credit: pixabay.com

design with consistency

“Consistency is next to godliness.”

-Roland Nord, 2010 (and probably a million times before & since then)

Roland was one of my professors in grad school – my favorite, if I’m being honest. If there is one statement that stuck with me since being in his courses, it’s that one. I quote it often and in almost every aspect of my life, but here I’m talking about your marketing and a simple change you can make to increase your brand’s consistency.

Consistency in your marketing creates recognition. Using the same colors, the same fonts, and the same feeling in your advertising, social media, and documents helps your customers become familiar with your brand. Familiarity is comforting, and humans gravitate toward what is comfortable.


Consistency in your marketing creates recognition.


The visual look of your communications is as much a part of your brand as your logo. If you’re using whatever font you feel like that particular day when creating a new document or advertisement, that underlying branding message from your organization becomes choppy. If you consistently choose the same font(s) and colors, your separate pieces flow together as though they were all created at the same time.

Of course, a graphic designer can help you define a direction and create a style sheet (such as the one pictured below) with a color palette and paired fonts as a part of a brand design. That can be important as you grow, expand your reach, and create more advertising for your business, but it’s not always necessary as you’re just starting out.

design standards help with (say it with me…) CONSISTENCY

The visual look of your communications is as much a part of your brand as your logo.


If you’re just starting out or if you’re just trying to create some consistency in your day-to-day business communications, start by using the same font for your communications. Here are some tips:

  • Choose a single font for now. One that came in your word processing software is just fine; choose one that has a variety of weights (regular, bold, italic) so you can create headings, subheadings, and body text.
  • If you are looking for a resource for free fonts, Google Fonts, DaFont, and FontSquirrel are great options. Just be sure to use a font that is licensed for commercial use and you read the fine print before you put it to use.
  • Make sure the font you choose is clean and easy to read. There are a lot of fun fonts out there, and you might like a lot of them, but keep your focus on what you would want to read if you were given the document you’re creating. Stay away from cutesy or decorative fonts. They have their purpose, but it isn’t here. Here you want to stick with the basics.
  • Consider your audience – do you need to be more formal, or is more casual ok? If more formal, maybe you will want to choose a serif font (these are the fonts with the small lines at the tops and bottoms of the characters such as Times New Roman, Georgia, or Garamond). If you can be more casual, or if the communication will mostly be read on a screen, a sans serif font would be a good choice (these are the fonts with no small lines, such as Arial or Verdana).
  • Be consistent. Use it in all email communications, new documents (both internal and for your customers), and wherever else you can. Make sure your employees know to use it in their communications as well.

Bottom line: don’t stress too much about choosing a font for your organization’s communications. As you grow, you can hire a designer to really dial it in and find a font family or pairing of fonts that speak to your customers and represents your brand’s personality. For now, just make sure what you choose is easy to read and you use it consistently.

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What do you think? Will you be applying any of these tips in your business?
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cover photo credit: pixabay.com user free-photos

designed to be unique

I saw a friend out and about a while back, and he mentioned he needed new business cards. He owns a painting business in town, and he said he got his current cards from his accounting software for super cheap and he’s almost out of them. But he also said, with a tone of annoyance in his voice, “Another painter in town has the exact same cards as me, so I need new ones.”

You guys, I live in a town of around 50,000 people. I don’t know how many painting companies we have, but I can’t imagine we have a ton. And the fact that two of them ended up with the exact same business cards just screams the old adage:

You get what you pay for.

I’ve seen it before too. My hairstylist used to have the same logo and business cards as a bridal shop in town. When you get your designs created by a one-size-fits-all shop online, you run the risk of sharing your branding with someone else in town, or even your competition. The internet is big, but not THAT big.

A small design company will take the time to listen to you and learn about your business, your customer, and the message you’re trying to convey. They will create something that is unique to you and YOUR company… something that stands out from your competition’s marketing instead of matching it.

Plus, if you give that designer your repeat business, they will become an extension of your team. They will grow to understand the nuances of your business, and you won’t have to explain who you are or how your business works to them each time you have a new project. It’s like having a designer on-staff, but without having to budget for it.

Sure, you will likely have to pay more for the service of custom design. But, you didn’t design your business to fit into a template; why design your marketing around a template?

photo credit: user RawPixel on Pixabay.com

why use a graphic designer?

Do you need a graphic designer?

Sure, you can put together that ad or coupon using your basic word processing software. Yes, it’s cheaper, and yes, it gets the job done.

You may not have the need for a graphic designer on payroll, but finding one that you can contract and work with consistently will build a relationship. Your designer will come to understand your business, learn your audience, and work more intuitively over time, thus needing less of your time and input. That groundwork and communication on the front end will help you immensely as you develop a relationship, grow your business together, and excellently serve your customers together.

Then this:

…turns into this:

…with minimal effort from you.

My passion is to take your message, polish it, and create a beautiful design so you can proudly put it out in the world. If it’s a print project, I’ll take care of getting it printed up for you too. Let me take care of those things so you can focus on the parts that made you want to go into business in the first place.

How can I serve your customers? Let’s find out!

cover photo credit: markusspiske on Pixabay.com

marketing kindness

A while back, I wrote about a generous gift I received from a client. I mentioned then that I had been working on a project for them that truly exemplifies who they are, and now that some time has passed and word is out, I thought I’d tell you more about it.

Frozen Yogurt Creations is a locally-owned frozen treat shop, but it’s so much more than that. Anyone who knows store owners Kelli and Bruce also knows that they see their shop as a place for community and family, for celebration and smiles, and a place to pause and reconnect with those we care about. They are intentional in their decisions – from their marketing to their cheery atmosphere to the gifts they give organizations in the community (which they do quietly and frequently).

I struggle to even call their most recent marketing campaign a “marketing” campaign, because for them, it isn’t about the marketing. They want to change the community to be kinder, and they thought of a fun way to do it that is just… well, I don’t know how to say it other than it’s just so them.

It starts with a business card sized coupon:

discount cards

The idea is that they hand these cards out to family, friends, and employees to give to people they “catch” in an act of kindness, which the recipient could turn in for a free treat.

So then the recipient comes in, card in-hand, and writes down what they did on the back of the card. The card gets added to one of 6 posters that are hanging on the wall, such as this one:

poster/wall art
24″ by 36″ custom poster

Each one of those little rectangles will eventually get covered up with a card, but for now, they each contain a little quote about kindness. The posters hang near the seating areas so customers can read them while they enjoy their treat.

Finally, the do-gooder gets their picture taken holding a sign so Kelli and Bruce can brag about them a little bit on social media, like this:

38933040_2163576540341425_2844245291803082752_n

Finally, they give that person a new, blank card so they can give it to someone else for their act of kindness and keep the campaign going.

So, yes. Technically, this is a marketing campaign. The first Facebook post they did about the campaign got around 150 “likes” and a bunch of shares and comments. Subsequent posts had strong responses as well. People got excited about it, and word is spreading, which I imagine is probably good for their business.

More importantly to Kelli and Bruce, it’s a Kindness Campaign: smiles are being spread during a time in history when maybe the world could use a little extra kindness. That’s their goal; the other stuff is secondary.

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What do you think about their campaign? How can your business create a Kindness Campaign, with the heart being in the kindness and the marketing being secondary? What kind of organizational culture needs to be there so customers know it’s genuine and not just for publicity?
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cover photo credit: user klimkin on Pixabay.com