Everything I needed to know about information collection for decision-making I learned while filing college applications

By Steve Weissman posted 04-24-2013 12:01


File this under "when a good idea goes bad":

The scenario involves the selection of a college for my son, a graduating high school senior. He's the third of my children to travel down this path, and it is interesting indeed to see how the advancement of the technologies involved promises to make the application process easier than ever. But it's abundantly clear that the people charged with applying those technologies have done almost everything they can to negate that potential and create what we in the biz would call a very poor user experience.

The theory is certainly sound: fill out a couple of online forms one time and push the button for that information to be sent to the colleges of your choice. Those colleges then parse the information you’ve provided, corroborate it with data from the high school and the IRS, and (hopefully!) return an acceptance and a financial aid offer.

The problem is that, in practice, there is nothing at all common about the so-called Common Application. Every school seems to want variations on what the name suggests would be a single set of data, and they seem to think that because you file taxes electronically, you can easily present it in the way they desire. Many also seem not to understand that the IRS works at the IRS's own pace, and in this time of sequestration, the agency simply hasn't got the resources to process everyone's tax returns and produce the corroborating material in time to meet the decision deadlines.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the questions on the forms themselves are often very badly written; one notable example asks you to provide “current information at time of your original submission.” Does this mean “current information,” as in, what that account balance is today, or “information at the time of your original submission,” as in, what that account balance was two months ago? Can't have it both ways, and yet that's exactly how the process designers have set it up.

The lessons here are obvious to anyone with any kind of experience as an information professional:

1) Think about what you're asking users to do from the perspective of those users – you may know what you have in mind, but they probably don't, and they may well be nervous about making a costly mistake.

2) Don't leave people feeling accountable for things that are beyond their control. This requires that you first understand what things are within their control – leaving them to sort it out and then stress about falling behind is not a good way to curry favor with people whose cooperation you ultimately will need.

3) Be as clear as you possibly can be in your instructions and explanations. Show your materials to a control group that is unfamiliar with your activity and see if/where confusion arises.

Then maybe you have a fighting chance to collect the information you need and support of the decisions that need to be made in anything resembling a painless and timely fashion.

#Capture #ScanningandCapture #userexperience #planning #forms