People from all income and education levels are intimidated by poorly designed and ill-conceived forms and notices. In many other projects that we’ve undertaken over the years — from simplifying bankruptcy forms to tax forms, school enrollment forms, credit card statements, insurance applications, and program-related forms — the findings are consistent. The organizations may be different, but the problems remain the same.
If you’ve ever tried to figure out an Explanation of Benefits Notice, you’ll sympathize with the person who said:
With these forms, I never know my complete bill. Our doctor sends bills to [the insurance carrier], which sends money back to the doctor. We get a sheet with explanations that we can’t decipher. Sometimes there are doctors’ names that we never heard of. How can we know if we’re paying too much? Or getting too little?
Or with this person from McMinnville, Ore.:
When I receive what I think might be a form, I postpone opening it as long as possible.
What common problems do people have with forms?
If you suspect that your organization’s paperwork might elicit similar reactions, it helps if you understand what people go through when they have to deal with it. You can’t fix any of the problems unless you identify them.
So, when it comes to forms, know that people often report that they:
- Are overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork and by how complex forms look
- Don’t understand all the technical terms
- Find key issues confusing
- Aren’t sure where to put the information
- Aren’t sure how much information is wanted
- Leave items blank that they should fill in — but they’re uncomfortable with that outcome and then they second-guess this choice
- Don’t know what to do if particular questions don’t apply to them
- Don’t know what to do when they don’t see themselves in the choices
- Don’t have enough room for their answers
- Were forced to get help before they could complete the document
- Often quietly accept that they can’t understand the form and give up
- Are afraid they’ll make a mistake they can’t fix
- Get frustrated and blame themselves.
More than you probably realize, your business depends largely on your ability to collect and use accurate information efficiently and effectively. Remember that the routine paperwork that your company produces and uses — the forms, the notices, the letters, the memos — all speak for you when you’re not there to speak for yourself.
Don’t leave your readers frustrated, confused, or angry. Remember these common problems and use them to spot-check to see if your paperwork is out of control.
About the author: Carolyn Boccella Bagin, a recognized national figure in communication and founder of the Center for Clear Communication, Inc., has conducted some of the most high-profile plain-language projects in the U.S., including revamping the entire set of forms for the federal bankruptcy system, creating the Social Security Statement, and devising innovative IRS forms. She has won two ClearMark awards for legal documents.