Be Informed – Be Confident
We understand the cautions and concerns that come with being tasked with delivering solution to automate data extraction. We understand that companies broadcasting their products’ features and benefits can all become one big blur. We understand.
We feel it’s important for decision makers to be fully informed before deciding on their solution. It’s important to realise existing forms being used for manual data entry might not work with an electronic solution – therefore it’s important to understand the need to use a form designed specifically with an electronic solution on mind.
To get the very highest recognition rates in your new forms, you’ve got to embed these thirteen key design principles.
1.Keep it simple
OCR (optical character recognition) software loves machine written text. Problems only tend to arise with handwritten characters. So pre-populate as much as possible. Put in everything you can – name, address, and so on – whatever’s appropriate. One client designed an order form which included pre-populated product codes, so that the customer only had to fill in quantity and PO number. This little feature significantly reduced processing time when the forms came in.
If the form seeks one of a finite number of responses in one particular area, use checkboxes. The salutation ‘Mr’ ‘Mrs’ ‘Ms’ etc. is a good example. And prompt the user to use an ‘X’ rather than a tic – it puts more ink in the box and makes the software’s job that much easier.
3. Use constrained fields
Control all that can be controlled. Suppose the user needs to enter an address. Don’t just provide a line and a blank space to take this information, use a series of boxes – what we call ‘constrained fields’ – in which the user enters a single character per box. In a similar vein, it’s always a good idea to separate out the alpha characters from the numeric ones – so a separate set of boxes for building or street numbers. Therefore the system will not confuse an ‘S’ for a ‘5’ and so on.
If you need to put a serial number of the form, don’t do it once, do it twice. That way, if one of them gets smudged or over-written or torn, the software has a backup.
5. Stay back from the edge
If you’re using a tearaway page, be sure to keep fields the software has to read well away from the perforated edge. That way, if the tear goes wrong, it’s less likely to cut through data you need to capture.
Image zones are a common feature of electronic forms, and can take a variety of forms – barcodes being an obvious example. You might also need to use what’s called a ‘freetext’ field, which is just an empty box the user is invited to fill – these are frequently used if a signature is required, or if there’s a need for further information. Suppose the user is offered a number of options from which to choose, with an additional ‘other’ box if those choices are not exhaustive. Inevitably, the software will have trouble reading information of this nature, but it can take a snapshot of the box, and prompt the operator if there’s information there to be read.
7. Signed or unsigned
This freetext box is also great if you’re dealing with a document – a proof of delivery docket for example – that has to be signed or stamped. You direct the customer to sign in the freetext box and the software can then confirm whether or not the signature is there. Consider too the precise placement of the signature box. Most of us don’t sign, we scrawl. If you site the box too close to a field that the software must capture, there’s a risk that the scrawl may run over into that section, making it difficult to read, and bringing down that all-important recognition rate.
8. Data Lookups
Here’s another great way of cutting down in the need for long, unreadable handwritten descriptions. If you use product codes, the system can read the code from the docket, then go to the database and pull a detailed description of that product. You get less errors and faster processing.
9.Drop out colour
You’ll often see a machine-read form which uses drop out colours. Take a date section, where each box is inscribed with a feint DD/MM/YY. The user overwrites those feint figures, and the system is configured to ignore the colour (usually green) in which they’re drawn. It’s a very handy feature, but we’ve seen it go wrong. On one occasion, the client went to tender for a new set of forms and appointed a printer who used a different colour ink. The result? The software suddenly started reading colours it was once blind to, and mass confusion ensued. The lesson? Don’t use drop out colour unless you have total control of the printing process.
A related matter: Will this form be downloadable from the internet? If so, you need to plan for the multiplicity of printers and formats that customers will use. One measure we always recommend is the inclusion of corner boxes, so the software knows exactly where the right information is to be found. And of course, never use drop out colour with a downloadable form.
11. Keep your audience in mind
Always think about who is going to be filling out the forms you create. A recent client had a customer base largely composed of older people. For that reason, we advised using slightly bigger check boxes to facilitate those with vision impairments or motor skills issues.
12. Get sign off
This is critical: Find out who in your organisation needs to sign off on the new forms. We had a client that neglected to inform the legal department of impending changes, which meant that the timetable for the introduction of the new forms had to be revised at the last minute. Always ensure you have all of the stakeholders on board before you move to the production stage.
13. Any colour as long as it’s black
Finally, always ask that forms be filled in in black. Blue is ok, but any other colour is likely to cause problems.