Filling Out Forms

It always amazes me how antiquated the process of filling out forms remains, even with so much technology available to make this task easier and more accurate. I still receive paper forms to fill out in the mail! Or even worse, I receive forms as email attachments that I have to print out to fill in, scan, and then email back as another attachment. Or sometimes I’m able to fill out forms electronically, but the formatting is weird and the information won’t line up or fit properly.

Here’s why this is problematic from a time, resource, and data management perspective. Forms filled out by hand require the applicant to spend time entering all the information. Then the recipient has to spend time deciphering the handwriting to re-enter the information into some kind of electronic system. This requires effort from at least two people.

One of the biggest problems with this type of system is the high potential for data entry errors. An “I” can turn into a “1”, last names can be misspelled, numbers transposed, decimal points missed, etc. These may seem like small typographical mistakes, but they can have a big impact sometimes. Imagine somebody getting a dose of medication where the decimal point is off by one place. Or important communications not reaching somebody because an email address is misspelled, or an address entered incorrectly.

Alternatively, some forms can be filled out online, or electronically. Although these can be easier to fill out if they’ve been formatted properly, they are often not integrated with a system on the backend to manage all the information. Essentially, the data remains static on the form where it has to be attached to the applicant’s file. The information on them can be difficult to update or search, meaning they are not always reliable.

So what’s ideal? The best system is to have the form linked directly to the data management system managing the information on the backend. This way the information gets entered one time, directly into the system. It saves time because only one entry is required and more importantly, it reduces silly errors that can cause a lot of problems later.

Formatting: Hidden Time Saver

Some years ago while working on a contract, I was given a 60-page template to write the final report for the client. The problem with the template was that the formatting in it was not done properly. Consequently, every time I updated a section and the page numbers changed, I had to spend time fixing everything manually.

Some of the things that required manual manipulations were heading/sub-heading fonts and numbering styles, page numbers that wouldn’t update, and the table of contents. By the end of the project, I had gone over my allotted time by 20 hours (approximately 3 days of work) because of how many times I had to manually fix these things in the report, which incidentally was over 100 pages by the time I finished writing it. I tracked my hours and tasks carefully during the project, so I know the extra time was spent unnecessarily fixing the report formatting.

After that experience, I decided that becoming expert with formatting documents would be a good use of my time. Everybody has competing priorities so it pays to be strategic when making a time investment to learn something new. However, I felt confident that time spent to master formatting was a solid investment. Sometimes computers do things better than humans and formatting is one of those things.

Here are some basics to get started.

Use the defined Header/sub-header styles. Defined styles make it easier to create/update a table of contents. It’s also easier to make global changes (i.e., modify the font, color, size, etc. of a header style in a document) by adjusting the style in one centralized place. When applied, it will automatically update everything with that style in the document.

Master the difference between page breaks and section breaks. A page break will push content to a new page. No need to hit the Enter button repeatedly to move text manually. Insert a page break and the text will stay firmly on a new page, even if you add, or delete something later.

A section break is for changing the formatting. For example, having text appear as columns instead of paragraphs. Or using different page numbering styles for different sections of the document.

Lastly, I made friends with the “reveal formatting” option. I used to be scared of it, but now I find it quite valuable for understanding and fixing poorly done formatting.

Saving Too Much

Saving everything (aka too much), goes against a default humans have contended with forever.  Humans could never save everything for a host of reasons, such as time to process everything and the space to store it all.

This mainly applies to physical stuff because eventually we run out of storage and it’s obvious when that happens. Of course some people will move to a bigger place to accommodate their things, or start renting external storage units.

The seemingly infinite amount of digital storage space and new technologies that help us process all of our digital belongings have influenced a lot of our habits and behaviors. Now, it’s possible to save more than we ever thought possible. And in some scenarios, it’s easier and initially less time consuming to save everything that it is to sort, label, and manage it properly. This doesn’t even take into consideration how many things are saved on our behalf, or about us, by third-party apps and services we use. This is mostly because we’re either not aware of how much is being gathered and/or we don’t care about because we never see or use what’s been collected.

Saving everything is tempting, but here are some of the dangers:

  • Losing track of what you have (if you get hacked, how would you know what was compromised?)
  • Difficulty finding what you need (searches yield hundreds/thousands of results requiring time to review)
  • Migrating content to latest format to ensure that it can be accessed with updated softwares/hardwares (the less you have, the less you need to transfer)
  • Exposing too much about your past self, when you’ve moved on to new things in your life (goes with losing track of what you have)

So what do we do to combat the urge to accumulate so much digital stuff? Of course, this is only if you feel bothered by the Digital Detritus lingering around in forgotten, neglected caches of stuff.

Some strategies are:

  • Be mindful about what you are creating and saving
  • Restrict storage limits – rather than paying for more, try to utilize the space you have
  • Save strategically
  • Go through your digital holdings periodically and purge – since there are so many things to review, I find it useful to start small with a single folder or my bookmarks bar

Cleaning up digital storage can feel tedious, until disaster strikes. Then you’ll feel better because you’ll know what you have.

Audio Navigation

Typically when I use a map app to get around, I prefer to type in the addresses, rather than relying on the location feature to pinpoint where I am. (Read more about why I do that here and here.) Since the location feature is disabled, this also means I need to rely on reading the map to get around instead of taking advantage of the audio feature.

However, there are a few distinct scenarios when having the location feature engaged and the instructions dictated are a life saver.

Scenario #1: When I’m navigating for my partner. I can’t even count how many times having Google maps read out the instructions has prevented an argument or dispute about which way to go. When Google maps is wrong, it’s easy to blame the app, which diffuses a lot of tension, especially when driving in an unfamiliar place.

Scenario #2: When I’m driving by myself. Even though I look at the map and directions before I go somewhere, it’s very useful to have the directions dictated to me when I’m driving solo. This means I can focus completely on the road and has prevented me from getting lost a number of times.

Scenario #3: Useful feature for people who can’t read maps. Admittedly, people who can’t read maps, or figure out how to use the map apps, are a big peeve of mine. I get frustrated when people with smartphones, especially taxi drivers, can’t figure out how to get around with the map apps. I blogged about this before in a post titled “When Smartphones Make Us Dumb.”

For these non-map reading people, the audio directions are a wonderful thing. Google maps will tell someone exactly where to go. All the person has to do is turn on location, pay attention to street signs and glance at the moving blue dot on the map to make sure s/he is going in the right direction.

On the flip side, sometimes Google maps gives too many instructions which can be distracting. For example, when driving on a highway that sometimes intersects with other routes. Google maps will repeat several times to stay in one lane or the other to continue on the same path.

The other annoying thing is when the radio is playing and Google maps interrupts with a direction. Sadly, the radio will not automatically pause so both things play at the same time.

The VR Wars: Training

Read last week’s post here.

Her first week of training, Rory was surprised how many hours she spent working out, almost the same amount of time dedicated to playing various combat video games. The games started out basic before ramping up the second week when VR equipment appeared. Special goggles were strapped to her head with a helmet at the start of each session. From that point on, she was in whatever world the trainer decided to “drop” her in.

Elbow and knee padding was provided along with a bullet proof vest. It was heavy and made Rory hot while training, but it was for her own safety. The guns would come out later and it was important she was used to wearing the vest.

Trainees had hurt themselves, or others before in some of the more advanced sessions. The equipment was wireless so technically nothing was out of bounds. Occasionally trainees would be so caught up in the action that they would unknowingly attack each other.

And all of this happened while the “kill” mode was disabled.

By week two, she realized why the exercise was necessary. These games were as intense as doing the actions in real life, like she was really on a battlefield, complete with sounds, smells, and physical sensations. In one session early on, she witnessed a classmate take a blow to the chest and a few bullets in an arm. Rory was surprised to learn later that her classmate had been badly winded from the experience and had to go to the infirmary for stitches.

What kind of VR games was she playing, she wondered. She had played VR games before and the beauty of them was that they were virtual with no chance of getting hurt in the game. With these games, she wasn’t so sure. She desperately wished she could find where Tinto was so they could compare notes.

Rory had heard that the new VR style of fighting had dramatically reduced the number of civilian casualties and had nearly eliminated bomb raids and the destruction of infrastructure. So what was going on? How could soldiers still be dying and getting injured?

Thinking about the answers to these questions gave Rory a bad feeling and put Tinto’s warning words into perspective. Bound by a strict contract, her only option now was to stay alive and get out.

The VR Wars

“Whatever you do, don’t die.”

The words echoed in Rory’s brain as she stood outside the non-descript building, her new place of employment. She drew in a long breath, filling her lungs with oxygen. This often helped to calm her down. It was her first day reporting for duty after months of training.

The advice of her friend, Tinto, had been on her mind for days. She and Tinto had met playing video games together. What started as an online friendship had turned into a real life one when they met for the first time at a game conference. Rory had surprised everyone by winning the big competition, beating out a cadre of mostly male contenders, many of whom were more experienced than she was.

It was at that same conference the two of them were…noticed. It was well known in the gaming circuit that conferences were a good way to get recruited, if you were into that sort of thing. Rory was always undecided about how she would feel if she were to get recruited. She never really thought she had a chance of being noticed, so it wasn’t something she spent time thinking about. Tinto, however, dreamed of being recruited. He knew there were risks, but also the potential for big payoffs. Money that he could use to help support his family.

Tinto and Rory had been celebrating the big win when a friendly man, with a trim moustache and a thick, bush of dark brown hair approached them. Right away they knew what he wanted, to enlist them in the government’s digital war training program.

Information about the program was carefully controlled by the government. People that had gone into the program, many of whom came out again, were sworn to secrecy. There were rumors about what it was like and what happened when you fought a war virtual-reality (VR) style. But nobody on the outside knew for sure. The added mystery heightened Tinto’s curiosity making him eager to join, but it had the opposite effect on Rory.

She was cautious by nature, it’s what made her a gaming champion. She evaluated risks and options differently than Tinto, assessing before deciding.

In the end, Tinto signed up that day with the recruiter. Rory started the program a few months later, after careful consideration.

How did one prepare to fight a VR war? Rory would find out.