Inside Technique : Evaluating When Documents Need Reformatting
Legacy Data and the Web Series
This time out we want to deal with the documents that simply are not usable if you simply image them to the web. By using the term image we mean getting a form of the document onto the web in a way that exactly matches the document as it currently prints. If you have documents with extremes in typography or exceptionally narrow margins, you have a document that is a candidate for reformatting before it moves to the web. As always, if you have questions, comments, or criticisms, let us know. We'll take questions, too! Address them to email@example.com.
To evaluate documents that may need reformatting, first consider the basics:
What you are looking for are the key points that will drive the migration and reformatting.
Not every document in your organization is a candidate for dispersal as a web page. Blasphemous as that may be, it's true. In fact, a bit of review of the documents catalogued and maintained by your company may uncover many documents that no longer have any use, but remain in the catalogues as available because someday they might be needed. A bit of common sense applies here. If you have a dense form that is used to request Telex transmissions, but your company has moved forward and no longer uses TWX transmissions, don't migrate the form to the web.
Some of this may seem a bit simplistic, but a look at an average company will show that you can eliminate at least 20 percent of the internal documents on the company's books. Many are redundant, and many have become obsolete with the introduction of new technology. So, the first rule is to be sure that the documents you want to move to a web-enabled environment really belong there.
The next concern is more legal than graphic. Many documents in many industries must meet some government or agency requirement to be considered in compliance for information distribution. For example, OSHA, the FDA, and others have strict formatting requirements for the paper versions of the documents they regulate the use of. Things like Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) must meet rigorous requirements for formatting, legibility and readability. To move regulated documents to a web-enabled delivery environment requires careful consultation the regulators to enusre that you do not spend tme and money creating a document that they will not permit you to use.
The next point should be fairly simple. Is the document one that has fill-in-the-blank spaces or does it simply provide information. The design issues are a bit different for each type of document. For forms that require interaction where the ultimate output is to paper, the information collection screen on the web does not have to be the same as the paper version of the form. For a variety of reasons you might want it to be, but in a strictly technical sense you can collect data and reformat it on the way to the printer. If you choose to do this you must still ensure that the reader has the same access to any instructional information available on the printed version of the form, but this can be done with rollover tips, instructional popup windows, or other techniques.
Many articles have been written to describe the best way to format web documents created for the purpose of data collection. Some advocate chunking the input fields into small groups with continuations at the bottom of each screen. They advocate keeping the screens to a single panel. But there is ample evidence to indicate that users of web applications do not require the hand-holding that such a plan requires. Companies like the User Interface Engineering group, under Jared Spool's leadership, have been demonstrating that users tend to work more quickly and accurately on long forms without breaks.
Remember the basics, though. Give users enough room to enter the information you ask for. Constraining fields by length or types of characters should be avoided whenever possible. Use color to indicate required fields. Use strong typography so that the text is easy to read and follow. Avoid extraneous lines and boxes unless they add value to the data gathering process.
For documents that are for information only, go back to the tips and techniques you can find on dozens of web sites about usability, color, density, and typography to reflow the documents for ease of use. If your organization still has people using older monitors with lower resolution, be kind and test any documents you reformat to ensure that they can be seen on the oldest and newest of the monitors in use. Remember, your company may have purchased the PCs over time, so video drivers and video memory available may vary throughout the organization. Keep the pages simple, easy to read, and easy to navigate.
That's it for this time. Let us know if you have questions. As always, we are are at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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