Thursday, February 12, 2009

Writing in Sand

Jane Fountain has written convincingly about the historic role that online forms played in creating the conventions that govern the design of government websites as a site of Weberian bureaucracy and the resources of the virtual state. It is also worth examining how some online forms may inspire more user frustration than others. I am thinking specifically about writable PDFs, which seem like a good idea in that text is more legible than hand-written versions, but these forms suffer from the defect of not allowing users to save work as they write.

Consider the state of California's form to "Request for Orders to Stop Harassment," a common form used in domestic violence cases and other potentially lethal situations in which a victim is being stalked, threatened, or tormented by a fellow citizen who has not been caught in the act by a law enforcement officer. The form allows the injured party to make a case in complicated "he said/she said" situations.

Unlike forms that only emphasize descriptive checklists, such as the Los Angeles County's inspection form for substandard housing, which catalogs common situations requiring remediation like "Overgrown vegetation, weeds, and debris constituting an unsightly appearance or a danger to public safety and welfare" or "Attractive nuisances in the form of abandoned or broken equipment and neglected machinery," the restraining order form contains a number of open-ended questions that require references to specific records or careful choices of language, such as "How do you know the person in 2?" and "Did the person in 2 engage in a course of conduct that harassed you and caused substantial emotional distress?" and "Should the other people listed in 3 also be covered by the orders described above?" Those who fill out the form are frequently instructed to "describe" or "explain."

And yet, one accidental brush of the mouse can delete the entire carefully composed narrative of abuse or humiliation, requiring the victim to start over from the very beginning. Furthermore, in Firefox the button marked "Print This Form" did not lead to the expected result while the all to easy to activate "Clear This Form" worked perfectly.

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