Non-bureaucratic web forms
August 21, 2017 10:56 AM   Subscribe

I'm a hobbyist programmer. Due to a combination of how I learned to code (PHP and MySQL) and my particular interests, I end up working with web forms a lot. By nature, they're pretty bureaucratic, and so I'd like to see examples of more humanistic forms.

So for example, TurboTax has a pretty human interface, although I find it kind of twee and cloying. A long time ago, Facebook had a field for friends to explain how they know each other, and you could write whatever. My girlfriend at the time wrote that we went on vacation to NYC together in 2003, for example. I know a lot of people who used it to write silly inside jokes.

So that's kind of what I'm looking for: forms where it doesn't feel like you're checking a box on some standardized test, that you're actually giving information to another person. At the same time, though, the data still has to be usable for searching and stuff, so it has to be at least somewhat bureaucratic in nature, just not in feel.

The types of forms I work with most are things like registrations, contact forms, and things like blog comments or bulletin board posts. So examples of those are best, but any examples are appreciated.
posted by kevinbelt to Computers & Internet (2 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
HCI and UX are pretty big fields. You mentioned Facebook, and they have an entire research department dedicated to it.

It may be helpful to determine in what way you want to more "humanistically" interact with a form.
  • Do you want the questions being asked to be more human like?
  • Do you want what the form collects (or how you are able to answer the question) to be more open or conversational?
  • Do you want what is collected by the form to be displayed in a more human, sentence-like way once the answers are collected?
You can approach each of these as separate parts of a form, each with functionality you can control. Some are easier than others.

The form labels - what describes each form field - is likely the easiest. You can make them paragraphs, jokes, as conversational as you like. The only requirement with the label is to make it clear enough so what is being entered into the field is what you would like to capture. If the label is 'name', clearly the field is for your name. First Name is even more descriptive. If someone enters "hfasfnasjflnf" as their answer, this isn't very good. Difficult to check for in name fields, but there are ways to check if an Email field is a legitimate email, and if a phone number matches what a phone number should be. This is done by parsing the data entered into the field, and it can done using simple RegEx with DNS lookup on the host name (for email) to much more complex.

Form fields are typically to the point as the benefit of forms is they collect data in a way that is then easy to organize and retrieve. It really doesn't matter what is entered into a form. You could use NoSQL to store the data as key/value pairs or a hash table of individual documents - one document for every field. But then, what are you going to to with all that data that was entered?

It's much simpler to organize data if it has predetermined data types - integers, datetime, text. There are existing tools built into databases that organize these for you. There are also GIS databases that easily allow you to map location, because they have built-in formulas for mapping the world. You give it long/lat and it can sort by shortest route. You give it a city, and it already has all the mapping complexity built-in for you. What all of these do is parse the data for you. This is why open ended form responses are difficult to return something useful - the machine has to figure out what information is in an open response. Parsing language is difficult, and requires a lexicon and a codex. Much like a GIS database, the machine must know the context of the word, and what information is being conveyed, how close the verb is to the object, much like coordinates on a map. But language is filled with extraordinary nuance. For example, "I read the bear likes to read but can't bear to read about bears when he read what I did, although I can bear it and the bear cannot." What? Better to just have a form field for "Animal" (bear), a select dropdown for what he did (read/slept/ate honey) and let the human decide which information is important.

The worst end of this is automated phone menus - press 1 for whatever, press 2 for something else, then you arrive at another menu press 4 for something, press 9 to something else... 2 minutes later what you really want is to just speak to another human who can credit you for gift cards sent to the wrong address.

We want the form to be more like a person, but once the information is entered to a form and sent to a machine, it's difficult for the machine to know what to do with it. It's why forms are more bureaucratic in nature, and why people spend entire careers trying to make it better.
posted by plexi at 2:19 PM on August 21, 2017

I work in UX - when I'm looking for a bit of inspiration (especially on form design), I find playing around on Codrops to be a really good starting point.
posted by Happy Dave at 1:42 AM on August 23, 2017

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