A New York trial shows that simple changes to how you design forms for your organisation can create massive performance boosts.

Designing forms with your customer in mind gets better results

Forms. We hate them but we’re forced to deal with them every week. But what about when you have to design a form for use in your organisation? It may not seem like a creative exercise but how well you structure forms can have a huge effect on customer behaviour.

Creating change in New York’s court system

For a practical example – and some useful tips – check out this New York trial to reduce the number of people failing to show up for court dates.

1 in 5 people were missing their court appearance. This has significant consequences, including a warrant for their arrest. Behavourial design non-profit Ideas 42 and the University of Pennsylavania found a number of reasons for this, including:

  • Recipients forgot in the time between receiving the summons and their court date (which could be 12 weeks later);
  • There was a misconception it was normal not to show up to court; and
  • Something called “Present bias”. That basically means immediate pressures like the financial stress of taking time off work and psychological stress like worrying about what happens in court outweighs the (often unknown) future consequences of not showing up.
In New York, 1 in 5 people ticketed were failing to appear in court. Researchers found unclear summons forms were one reason why

A range of deeper social issues obviously contribute to creating these barriers, but the research team also found that the summons form was needlessly confusing. It had been designed with administration priorities in mind, rather than the customers’ needs.

Simple changes

The researchers made a few simple changes to the form, so it was easier for recipients to understand what the form was telling them and what the consequences were for non compliance.

First, they made the title of the form clearer, changing it from the vague “Complaint/Information” to “Criminal Court Appearance Ticket”.

They also moved the most important information – what the respondent needed to do next, and the consequences for non-compliance – to the top of the form, rather than the bottom or the back.

A New York study improved court attendance by making the title of their Summons forms more clear, and moving to the top of the form the most important information for the customer to know

The team also introduced 3 text message reminders. These were sent starting 1 week before the court date, reminding recipients and giving prompts to help them make plans for attendance.

Big results

Changing the form created a 13% decrease in failure to attend. For those who received the revised form and the reminder text messages, there was a 36% decrease in failure to attend.

Combined, these two simple interventions saved 30,000 people from receiving arrest warrants, and saved US$600,000 saved in court costs.

You can read the full study here, or listen to a podcast discussion with the researchers here.

Using the lessons in your organisation

So, whether you’re designing penalty notices or sign-up forms for a VIP Shopper program, put yourself in the shoes of the recipient. The structure which works best for them is the one that will work best for you.

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