Evolution of a Form

I’m not sure how long they have had it posted, but I came across Statistics New Zealand‘s archive of historic census forms a few weeks ago.  Starting with the household form from 1906, it covers every census up to 2006 and provides a window into the social changes the country has gone through as well as the evolution of our understanding of good form design.  It is fascinating to see how our language, norms, and data collection technologies are captured for posterity in Stats NZ’s version of a family photograph album.

I’ve only had a quick glance through the archive, but took note of a range of interesting things in a short space of time…

About the information collected:

  • In the 1916 questionnaire, (1mb pdf) the ‘Infirmity‘ section asked how many “imbeciles and feeble minded” people resided in the household.  Instructions under the ‘Particulars as to Marriage‘ section also dictated that “A Chinese is to be set down as ‘never married’ unless he has or has had a wife in Australia” (wtf?)
  • Beyond 1916, questions relating to disability disappeared.  It wasn’t until 1996 (83k pdf) that a question on disability was included again.
  • Understandably, the impact of the world war II can be seen in the 1945 (381kb pdf) questions.
  • We were a nation obsessed with fowl.  From the first form in the historic series right through to the questionnaire in 1966 (353kb), there was a section devoted to the ‘Census of Poultry‘, asking things like the gender, age and number of live fowl kept.  In fact, even the 1971 form (261kb) asked how many ‘fowls‘ the household owned (there was also a question asking whether the household had a flush toilet!).

About the question structure and overall form layout:

  • The early forms were verbose in their instructions and short on space.  This was probably partially due to the cost of printing and an assumption that there would be a ‘learned’ person in the household to complete the form.  The questionnaires were also mostly open-ended (i.e., no check boxes).  All collation of figures would have been done by hand (ouch!), so there may not have been much incentive to have the data highly structured on the form itself at that point.
  • As time progresses, the instructions become clearer, shorter, and better distributed throughout the questionnaire.  The shift from a columnar format to a vertical format also happened fairly quickly.  This makes the forms much easier to read and follow.
  • In the 70’s, checkboxes and specific navigational elements like arrows were introduced.  I wonder how much of this was due to advancing computer technology (it is easier for data entry operators to work with more structured forms) and how much was due to advances in our understanding of good form design.
  • 2001 (484kb) saw a change to the way people were asked to indicate a response.  Instead of using a tick, they were asked to fill in the circle with a horizontal line.  This was no doubt required so that optical scanners could read the millions of forms that were returned, but it actually goes against people’s learned behaviour (we like to use ticks because we’ve been doing so all our lives).  It would be interesting to know how many 2001 forms were returned incorrectly completed.

There are bound to be other interesting insights to be unearthed.  If you come across any, please drop a note in the comments (hit the ‘reply’ link at the top right hand side of the post).


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