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Cash-for-clunkers has a major form usability #fail

COLMA, CA - JULY 31: A sign advertising the '...

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Jakob Nielsen points me to an astonishing statistic from the cash-for-clunkers programme currently being hailed as a great success by the White House.
From the New York Times:

The government is tripling the size of the work force assigned to handle the applications. In many cases, the administration says incomplete forms or errors in the information submitted by dealers are slowing the process. Workers have reviewed about 40 percent of the applications filed, and many have been rejected and then returned to the dealer for possible resubmission.

Laura Sodano, a sales manager at Curry Chevrolet in Scarsdale, N.Y., said dealers were not told why their applications had not been approved and were having to review the entire form to determine what went wrong.

The New York Times doesn’t say it so Jakob has to:

The 13-page form(!) is too complicated and many people fill it in wrong, leading to double work in both car dealerships and the government agency processing the applications.

Think of how much hassle and work they could have saved if they had spent
a few days on usability and iterative design before inflicting this form
on the public. The same user-testing methods can be used for paper forms
as for online forms, and the error rate could have been cut to half of the
current numbers by a day’s worth of iterative design and testing. (It’s
often possible to cut errors to one-fifth through a few weeks’ work.)

Jakob also points to another New York Times piece which reminds about one of the oft-forgotten basics for usable forms, plain English.

John Aloysius Cogan Jr, the executive counsel for the Rhode Island Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner, and talks about the need for forms (and policy documents) to match an eight-grade reading level.

He says:

The health care reform bill now under consideration in the House of Representatives includes a proposal that certain disclosures in insurance policies be made in “plain language.” Another piece of legislation now being considered by both houses of Congress would likewise require uniform and simplified coverage information, much like what’s required on nutritional labels. These are excellent proposals, but they do not go far enough. Plain-language disclosures of some policy information and consumer-friendly labels are no substitutes for making an entire policy readable.

Cogan Jr. says that the state of Rhode Island now requires health insurance documents to be written at the 8th-grade reading level:

Says Nielsen:

We have long recommended writing Web content at this level for sites that target a broad consumer audience:
> http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20050314.html

Some designers complain about this guideline, claiming that it leads to
overly simplistic sites. But check out the before/after writing samples in
the RI article: you’ll probably agree that the 8th-grade writing
represents the material just fine and is much easier to understand (even
if you personally have the skills to read university-level content).

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