How to solve a space/content conflict in a paper form

7 Apr 2014 - 12:22am
2 years ago
9 replies
5128 reads

I have a paper form design situation where the amount of content that needs to go on the form makes it too big for users. 

Imagine a form that tradespeople use to manage safety on worksites. The form helps the worker identify potential safety hazards and suggests techniques for minimising risk. It also guides the worker on safety measures that are mandatory in some cases (e.g. regular inspection of the site).

With a highly usable design (e.g. typeface that is large enough for the majority of the population to read), the form takes up one side of one A3 piece of paper. Two supplementary forms, which are only needed some of the time, take up another A4 piece of paper each.

In a pilot, workers complained that the A3 page was too large to carry with them on site (which they need to do). They also find it hard to manage all the different pieces of paper. They would rather have one single piece of A4 paper.

The managers, however, feel that all the information on the A3 and two A4 pages is necessary, so none of the content can be removed.

So we have a conflict between the content that's needed and the space it takes up.

Moreover, for legal reasons, there needs to be a carbon copy of the main form, so, it can't be printed on both sides of the paper.

The goal would be

  • a form whose physical size was portable
  • all the content that's needed to properly manage safety and meet legal obligations
  • carbon copy of the main form
  • all forms to be usable

I have an idea how to achieve all these (somewhat competing) requirements, but I'd really like to hear other people's ideas. This is a tough one! Note that going electronic is not an option for the near future.


7 Apr 2014 - 5:53am

I hate to say it but reducing the font size is likely your best option.  You can investigate some layout tricks, such as making lines or spacing between form elements smaller, as well.  Finally, look for industry-standard abbreviations and conventions that would allow you to condense the text letter-count.

I sympathize - I work in the petrochemicals industry and although our forms are online I've seen what the printed ones look like.

7 Apr 2014 - 9:16pm

Thanks for your suggestions. 

Font is currently Arial 11pt (Arial being a corporate style) but I could look 10pt and perhaps condensed. I know that will cause some readability issues for some users, but it might have to be sacrifice some individual experiences for the good of the experience as a whole.

7 Apr 2014 - 10:09am
Larry Tesler

I worked on a project a few years ago that was very similar. Compromises must be made. A key step was the involvement of lawyers. Having your team leader ask the lawyer whether you can leave something out or make something smaller will always receive a "no" reply. You need to personally involve the lawyer as a problem solver.

Do the workers have to write on the form while on site? When they write on it, does the carbon copy have to be made? If Yes and Yes, doesn't that mean there is no way around their carrying multiple sheets of paper to the job?

Could the sheets they carry be joined at a fold? Bound together at an edge? Or must they be loose?

I don't understand why you can only print on one side of the paper. Are the copies made with a sheet of carbon paper sandwiched between two copies of the main form? Or with carbonless paper? Is it acceptable to print read-only information like legal boilerplate on the back of the original (sheet 1)? On the back of the copy (sheet 2)? Can the content on the back of sheet 1 differ from the content on the back of sheet 2?

What is the minimum allowable size of the legal boilerplate text? What is the smallest font size that you consider sufficiently legible for text that really must be read every time (form field labels and checklist reminders)?

Do the workers carry pads of blank forms? An envelope or binder containing blank forms? Could all the boilerplate be printed in the legible size on the envelope, pad back or binder cover? If some or all of that info needs to be attached to the portable form, could it be printed there in the minimum allowable size for boilerplate? 

Have you experimented with condensed fonts?

If the lawyers put a lot of text in all caps can you persuade them that some of it could be mixed case (at least on the portable forms)?

Do workers on certain job sites need to read only a relevant subset of the mandatory text? If so, could you provide two or more versions of the form packet, one for each type of job, saving space by omitting irrelevant text? Of course, the versions would have to be clearly distinguished by title, color and the matching envelope/binder/pad they are supplied in.


7 Apr 2014 - 9:26pm

Hi Larry

Thanks for all your suggestions.

I perhaps wasn't very clear that there is very little informational text on the form. The vast majority of the content is tick-box questions about different hazards and safety measures (already not very wordy). So while we could print on the reverse of the page, I'm really looking for space for form fields, which can't go on the back. (We are using carbonless paper, with the main form printed in a book. We've already pushed one key reference table to the inside cover of said book.)

Binding the separate forms into a set is the idea I had, and will explore with the client. I have a sinking feeling they are going to balk at the cost. Compromise is challenging in this particular organisational culture. :-/

I think condensed fonts is a great idea. The corporate style guide stipulates Arial, but like most style guides it doesn't actually consider forms, so I could probably get away with Arial Narrow. I'm not an expert typographer so if there are some other reasonably-light, neutrally-styled and highly-legible condensed fonts that you would recommend, please do share.

7 Apr 2014 - 9:52pm
David Sless


We had similar problems with many paper forms back in the 1980's. Probably the best source in the public domain is:

 SLESS D. 1999. Public forms: designing and evaluating forms in large organisations, in H.Z., T. Boersema & H. C. M. Hoonhout (ed.) Visual Information for Everyday Use: Design and Research Perspectives: 135-153. Taylor & Francis.


In it there is a brief mention of this work on pp 141 - 142, including an illustration. One of the consequences of this work was a massive reduction in form completion errors, aswell as a massive reduction is the size of the form.


I'll try and dig out some of the detail of this work from our project archives, and make it availlable through our publication program.



11 Apr 2014 - 3:53pm


Interestingly enough I saw your post while going into our DATS system to complete some online safety training. I know you said that online hazard assessment forms are out of the question but have you looked at some online examples for ideas on how to organize the paper form?

Look at the free iPad DATS app. It comes with some generic prejob safety assessment. They have a "view report" feature which lays out the completed report rather nicely. Look at this report and pretend it was a paper form. Pretend the" Yes No buttons are checkboxes as per a paper form. Note how the form is divided into sections that match the workflow of a hazard assessment.

 I wondered when I read your post, despite the managers insistence on including everything, what is the most important questions? Are the crucial sections on top? I am sure you have observed workers in the field. Make a form too long and they take shortcuts on the paper work. A driller on an oil rig told me he had so much paper work that he needed a secretary. He then checked off safety orientation complete despite not  providing me with one.

Your usability tests clearly shows the customer does not like different paper sizes or lots of paper. Since the questions are short and mainly checkboxes wouldn't it be better to use two sheets of A4 rather than one A3 sheet? And as others suggested- test with a smaller or condensed font to see if you can save paper.

 If Management insists you must have everything and the customer doesn't like different paper sizes then use as many sheets of A4 as necessary and use a consistent page format on all. I would not use double sided even if was allowed. If the worker is doing a job hazard analysis by walking around the site with a clipboard, a double sided sheet of paper will have them cursing the minute they flip the paper over and discover they need to lean against a wall, or their leg to get a hard surface to write on.

13 Apr 2014 - 11:36pm


Thanks for the link to DATS. My form has been laid out in a very similar fashion, so unfortunately not much that can be learnt from that.

You make a good point about focusing on what really must be included. There are already not many questions on the form: personnel details, site details, summary of job, then hazards and controls, and signature. So hazards and controls are the place to look for reductions, but at this stage the client isn't able to do the required work to identify which are most important. Having said that, I completely agree with you about the pressures of the field (yes, I have been out to observe) and I think there is altogether too much bureaucracy associated with manual works, and that does lead to shortcuts. Better idea, as discussed in The Checklist Manifesto, is to focus on just a small, critical, impactful subset. 

The different paper sizes aren't an issue; field staff just didn't like the A3 because it was large. But the client tells me they have since "discovered" that they can fold it in half to be A4 size, so that is less of an issue than it was. And they complete the form in the site office, so at least they have plenty of space and a hard surface for writing.

Thanks again for your input.

11 Apr 2014 - 4:16pm
I would define the goal be something like - How might we make it easier for tradespeople to use paper forms in their work. 
In this context, I would look at possibilities outside of the form and see if some of the physical constraints can be overcome. For example, can there be some storage mechanism built in, that allows people to pull out optional forms. I don’t have enough info to suggest specific ideas. In general, understanding why they want A4 and understanding the overall process will help. Customer Journey map could help here.
Within the form, here are some thoughts:
  1. Can you abbreviate - I would imagine people using this go through training and use these forms very regularly. So abbreviations could help save space. Also, If a legend can be put somewhere outside of the form, then new people can still find help if needed.
  2. Can Visualization techniques  - For example, can something be converted to a symbols, or can you use bipolar scales (and not have to label in between items)
  3. Personalize - Often times, the paper forms include extra questions to cover many different possibilities. If there opportunities to categorize forms based on usage, then you optimize the number of questions includes. Forms can then be color coded.
  4. Use 1.5 paper - I understand that flipping whole paper can be cumbersome, but can use you use 1.5 of A4, and fold the .5 back. This .5 can include optional questions. Further fold marks can make it easy unfold.
I would keep font size reduction as the last option, as reading and identifying what’s written is a core micro-interaction, that they would do over and over, So being able to quickly find something on paper would be critical.
Alok Jain
13 Apr 2014 - 11:43pm

Hi Alok 

You make a good suggestion about storage; for the pilot, form sheets were loose but in reality they will be bound in a book, so that will help.

Abbreviation, working with visual design and personalisation are all great ideas which have, I'm afraid, already been explored to their fullest extent. We use abbreviations and compact visual design. We could personalise a little more by pre-printing the site name, but because sites often share books of forms between themselves, they don't want to do this. And it's only one field with 20 or fewer characters, so it wouldn't save much room anyway.

I like the 1.5 pages idea. Alas, there are no optional questions (we've done a lot to reduce the form to only what's necessary)! So half a page won't really be any different to a whole page.  

I agree with you completely about reducing the font size. I never like resorting to that to make a form work, as variability in eyesight is well-known. At least in this case there is very little need to scan or search the form after it's been completed, and the same form is used over and over again (so people will get to know what the content is by its placement). It may have to be the lesser of many evils.

Thank you for taking the time to make suggestions.


Syndicate content Get the feed