This post was migrated from Justinโ€™s personal blog, 'Codethinked.com.' Views, opinions, and colorful expressions should be taken in context, and do not necessarily represent those of Simple Thread (and were written under the influence of dangerous levels of caffeination).

Form

You might be thinking, what kind of silly question is that? The census is produced by the government, and everyone knows that the government can’t do much of anything correct. Right? Well, today I received in the mail the same letter from the U.S. Census Bureau that people across the net have been decrying for a while now. It is a thin envelope, and inside of it is a letter letting me know that in about a week I will be receiving a census form. At first glance you might think “What a waste! They mailed you a letter to tell you that they were going to mail you something?!” In the immortal words of Tracey Morgan, “That’s just crazy!” And at first, it does seem that way, but I think that the truth is a bit more involved.

A Little Sleight Of Hand

So, what is a U.S. census? Well, it is a 5 or 6 page long form with dozens of questions which you are supposed to fill out in tiny boxes. It is a bit like one of the forms that they give you when you go to the DMV, only worse. And how much do you enjoy filling those forms out? Would you do it if it was optional? Heck no you wouldn’t! But you know, we face the same problem as website designers/developers. When you show someone a giant form on a page, are they likely to fill it out? Nope. Unless they absolutely have to fill the form out, they are very likely to abandon the process and move on. Thankfully, unlike real-world forms, we aren’t limited by the laws of physics. We can break down a form into a “wizard” and present each piece to the user, showing them along the way how far they have gone. This lets the user know that they are entering a long process, but since the form isn’t presented to them all at once, they don’t feel that it is such a daunting task.

The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t have this luxury. They can’t exactly break the form up into multiple letters and send it to you piece by piece over time. That would make it both incredibly hard to tabulate, very annoying to fill out, and very costly to send. They have to mail the entire form at one time, in a big thick envelope. And if that were to show up in the mail one day unannounced, you would probably feel how thick that envelope is, see U.S. Census written on it, and promptly drop it in file 13 (the trash can).

Give A Little, Get A Little

So they take another approach that we as web developers also have at our disposal, they inform the user up front of what they are going to do, and why they need to do it. You see, that letter which the U.S. Census Bureau sends me isn’t just a letter that says “Hey, you’re getting a letter!” It is a plea to fill out the U.S. census, telling me that if I don’t, me, my family, and my community may not get our fair share of the resources. The letter explains that my responses help the government determine how they are going to dish out the goods. Whether or not there is any real truth to that, I’m not entirely sure, but they dig at one of our deepest and darkest fears, that I may not get mine. I jest, but at the same time, there is truth to that statement. People want to be treated fairly, and if they think that not filling out the census might hurt them in some way, then they are probably more likely to fill out the census.

You see, it isn’t just some silly letter that was generated by layers of government bureaucracy. It is a simple lesson in basic usability. Users don’t like surprises. If the user can’t figure out why they would want to, or need to, do something; then they probably won’t. So next time you are presenting a user with a large form, consider for a second what your user is going to get out of it. What is the result of them filling out the form? What is the result of them not filling out the form? Draw some conclusions, and then communicate that to them. You never know, the user might feel better about filling out your form, and you could end up with a much higher success rate. It seems to work for the U.S. census.

7 Comments

Jonathan Pryor

[quote]
telling me that if I don’t, me, my family, and my community may not get our fair share of the resources. The letter explains that my responses help the government determine how they are going to dish out the goods. Whether or not there is any real truth to that, I’m not entirely sure
[/quote]

The short answer is [i]yes[/i], it matters. We’re a representative democracy, and the number of representatives is limited to 435 house members. The number of house representatives a state gets is proportional to the state population (minimum 1 representative), and how do we determine the population of a state? Via the census.

Thus, if you don’t fill out the census, the official population of your state is reduced, and your state may [i]lose[/i] a representative if the population falls too much.

See e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_congressional_apportionment#Projected_changes_following_the_2010_census, where states like Texas may gain 4 representatives while Ohio may lose 2. The actual gains and losses will be determined by the official census.

Reply
Justin Etheredge

@Jonathan Yes, I know that indirectly there is a relationship, I just didn’t want to get in an argument with someone over whether one person filling out a census form actually affects the distribution of resources.

A variation on the "does a single vote count?" argument.

On a side note, I agree with you completely. ๐Ÿ™‚

Reply
Al Tenhundfeld

So, wait. Are you saying that sometimes spending money now actually results in [i]better[/i] fiscal results later?

On a software note, I have come to greatly appreciate transparency in software. By that I mean, I like it when software tells me what is happening and sets expectations.

For example, I’m using a web app with a "Generate Report" button that takes 90 seconds to create the report. Worst case is I click the button and get no feedback except the browser showing the status bar loading, globe spinning, etc. Only slightly better is some type of AJAXy indicator that appears telling me the report is generating.

What I prefer to see is an AJAX indicator telling me each step as it happens:
Querying Data
Step 1 of 4
Tabulating Data
Step 2 of 4
….. and so on

In an ideal world, the software would also let me cancel at any time.

I guess this is common sense, but that type of feedback takes effort in the design and implementation of a system.

Reply
Justin Etheredge

@Al Excellent point, and I completely agree, software should inform the user. At the very worst, the button should say that it is a very long process and could take several minutes. At least at that point I could make an informed decision about whether or not I want to click it!

Reply
Lee Dumond

"It seems to work for the U.S. census."

Yeah… and so do hefty fines and the threat of a possible jail sentence.

Given that the government has the rule of law and essentially unlimited resources to force you to force you to fill out their form — and we do not — I don’t think your analogy holds much water. Sorry. ๐Ÿ™‚

Reply
Justin Etheredge

@Lee No no, the purpose is to get you to fill out and mail the form back so that they don’t have to send a census taker to your house. It is about getting the maximum response with the least amount of effort.

Yes, there are fines, and I’d bet that they never enforce them. In fact, they can’t even enforce them unless you refuse to fill out the form, *and* you refuse to answer the questions of a census taker. So, your argument doesn’t hold any water. Sorry. ๐Ÿ™‚

Reply
Charles Feduke

[quote]They can’t exactly break the form up into multiple letters and send it to you piece by piece over time. That would make it both incredibly hard to tabulate, very annoying to fill out, and very costly to send.[/quote]

Great. Please don’t give them anymore brilliant ideas.

Reply

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