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

creatively giving

For 12 years, a young lady in our town hosted “Lauren’s Treat Stand” – an annual bake sale held on the first Saturday in June. It benefits the BackPack Food Program, which is a local non-profit that sends meals home with elementary students on Fridays so they don’t go hungry over the weekend. Through the treat stand, Lauren has donated almost $20,000 to help fill hungry tummies! That is amazing! Lauren is now graduating from high school, so she is passing the torch (or more literally, the rainbow umbrella) to another aspiring leader.

Jade’s Treat Stand debuts on June 1, 2019, and her mom reached out to ask me to help with the marketing. Let’s walk through the process of building the event marketing from the ground up!

it starts with a logo

While we wanted to create Jade’s own “brand”, carrying forward the tradition and history of the fundraiser are important – not only to make sure that Lauren’s incredible contributions are recognized, but also to capitalize on customer recognition of the event. So the rainbow umbrella stays, and the name “Generous-organizer‘s Treat Stand” stays – not just with Jade, but also when she passes the event on to someone else in a few years. But how can we make this JADE’S Treat Stand for now?

I drew the the rainbow umbrella and “treat stand” image to keep tradition, incorporated a light teal/mint color and drew Jade’s pup Bailey, then left plenty of space to grow and modify as the event continues to change hands. We created a logo that nods to the past but also looks ahead to the future!

building for the future

From there, we created business cards. We decided to leave the date off and really dial in on “The First Saturday in June” so customers would know when to expect this event – not just in 2019, but EVERY year. Also, printing a larger run of cards that can be used in future years decreases the per-card cost, and allows us to maximize the donation to BackPack by minimizing expenses.

The plan is to continue to use the poster design each year as well, with just the modifications to the date, sponsors, and new photo of the event host. This will continue the visual identity of the event from year to year.

The event banner is just basic information with no date – it will be used as a sign for customers to identify the actual treat stand location. Keeping specifics off means the banner can be used for a few years.

relying on social influence

From there, we created a Facebook page and named it Jade’s Treat Stand, but intentionally gave it the more generic link/address www.facebook.com/MankatoTreatStand for a seamless hand-off in a few years. A Facebook page will collect her fans in one place, and they will get notified when the event is coming each year.

Of course, we created the Facebook Event as well. Facebook now allows you to add Event Sponsors, which is a great tool. We can add the businesses that are sponsoring her event, and by doing so, it adds the Event to those businesses’ Facebook pages. So not only are we giving them recognition for their contribution and connecting Jade’s customers with them, but it’s expanding the event’s reach to those businesses’ customers too!

The Page Profile Photo, Page Cover Photo, and Event Cover Photo all contain the same imagery; again, for consistency and to build that recognition with her customers.

Side note: We didn’t create an Instagram page because we are being mindful of the amount of time/energy that is going in to this marketing plan, but I did size some images for Instagram so Jade and her mom can share the event information on their own Instagram pages.

wrapping up

The goal here was to create fun, simple marketing that catches the eye and lays groundwork for the years ahead. We put in a lot of work this year creating the logo, document layouts, and social media; but, because of the way we set it all up, the workload will be significantly reduced in future years. (Work smarter, not harder, as they say!)

And of course, we want it to lead to the big dollars needed to fill those hungry tummies!

Interested in helping? Here’s how:

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What do you think of the process? Of the designs? What would you suggest we consider for future years?
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cover image credit: user “silviarita” on 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

5 marketing ideas to make winter feel shorter

Whew! We made it through the holidays, and all that remains is the scattering of pine needles in the carpet. Can we all take a collective deep, cleansing breath together? On three: one… two… three!

In Minnesota, the months of January, February, and March are loooong. They’re typically our coldest months, our snowiest months, and our darkest months. There are no cheery holidays to pull us out of hibernation. It’s mostly grey and slushy and miserable, so we hunker down and wait for spring.

But wait! As business owners, couldn’t we find a way to bring sunshine to those dreary months? I decided to think of some ideas to build community, get people out and spending time together, and get them into your store. Of course, the details will depend on what kind of business/store you have, but here we go!

Ladies’ night

A lot of businesses do sales and events for ladies encouraging them to spend money leading up to the holidays. What about after the holidays? Try hosting some kind of make-and-take hosted at your store. Even if you don’t typically have handmade items in your store, or even if you’re not typically open in the evenings, you could hire a local person to do a wine & painting (or craft & draught for us beer people). That gets groups of ladies out of their homes and into your business with smiles on their faces.

Community over competition

Can you partner with other businesses to do a cool event? Back in November, a local car dealership hosted a “Heels and Wheels” event. Women bought inexpensive tickets (I think they were $20?), and came to the dealership first for appetizers and drinks. Then the dealership staff drove them to various boutiques and shops that had partnered with the event. There were drinks, appetizers, and light desserts at each shop, and the groups had an allotted amount of time to shop at each store. Women loved going out for an evening with their friends, and it got them into shops maybe they wouldn’t have visited without the event. Many of the shops stayed open later than normal just for the event. It was a creative way to get businesses to collaborate and think about community rather than competition!

Or try partnering with a local restaurant or brewery for an event? Is there an aspect of your business you could highlight while offering unique foods? This is great if there’s a new restaurant or bakery that is trying to build their reputation too!

Reward kindness

Dogs at the local animal shelter need to be walked, and when the weather is bad, they have a hard time getting volunteers. Homeless shelters and soup kitchens are also busy and full this time of year. How about offering a reward to people who volunteer? You could partner with the organization of your choice, have some kind of coupon* that the staff stamp or initial to verify, and the volunteer gets a reward for donating their time! Or, do a food drive for your local food pantry or backpack food program and offer a discount in exchange for a donation. (Many organizations prefer cash donations because they can stretch the dollar further, so keep in mind that customers who didn’t bring in a food item can still contribute!)

I recently wrote about a local shop that started a “Kindness Campaign”. Read about that here, then think about how you can do something like it to bring sunshine to your community during the grey months!

Celebrate the cold and snow!

Could you do some kind of promotion with the temp/inches of snow to make the weather a little less painful? Try something like, “If it stays below zero for 3 days, take 30% off…” Or give a free gift with purchase the first time it snows over 6 inches (of course, make sure that gift has your branding on it)!

Family time

What can you do to get families out and spending time together? Kids love crafts, and moms love crafts that happen outside of their house, so could you use your business to get kids doing something hands-on? Build something, create something, DO something! Make sure to put an age range in your marketing, and get some extra helpers for the day too. (Teenagers are a good option here!)

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What ideas do you have? I’d love to hear them! Let’s get through these next couple of months together!

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*I’m going to talk about coupons in an upcoming post… stay tuned!

 photo credit: pixabay.com user MabelAmber