I sadly missed the USPS delivery of my rad new Patti Smith poster. I bought it two weeks ago while I was in Oakland, and decided it would be safer to ship it home to Brooklyn than squash it in my suitcase.
I’d been wondering what was taking so long, and then on Friday, my mail carrier left me that ubiquitous yellow double-sided card to let me know I’d missed him.
It seemed I could pick it up at the Post Office, but with 1 week left before Christmas — peak package delivery season — there was no way I was about to take a non-required trip to wait in line alongside throngs of last-minute gift senders.
So redelivery it was.
It took me nearly ten minutes of flipping the card back and forth and back again to tentatively figure out how to get it redelivered. I decided this form had some serious problems.
- The form has poor information hierarchy and separation of concerns.
- It’s repetitive to make up for that, and as a result wastes space. Even when it’s not repetitive, it uses space inefficiently.
- It uses vocabulary and font sizes that might be inaccessible for many US residents served by the Post Office.
- All of the above makes the form very confusing.
- It’s pretty ugly.
I started to think of the hundreds of thousands of people who were also likely pondering this card with frustration this holiday season, and I wondered whether I could do a better job. Inspired by Peter Smart’s thoughtful proposal to redesign airline tickets and Citizen Onboard’s critiques of food stamp applications to make them more accessible, I decided to give it a try.
So ten minutes of confusion turned into a design project that took much of Saturday. (For the record, hours of pondering a government form was surprisingly just what I needed after a relentless week of holiday parties…)
The form has 1 main goal: Get your mail to you.
I started by laying out the different aims of the form in service of that goal. Then I tried to turn each aim into a clear, distinctive section.
I’ll articulate each of those aims, explain why I think the form ineffectively achieves them, and show how I tried to solved those problems.
First, a few notes about my design:
- I decided to use a vertical layout for my design to avoid the confusing and uneven columns that plague the original. With a background in web UX, I tend to favor the vertical reading experience.
- I used the same size card, since I imagine the Post Office has rooms filled with this 3.5 inch by 5.5 inch card-stock. Also, I wanted to see if I could use the space as a constraint.
- I went with Helvetica, since people in the US have a lot of experience reading it.
- I’ve never done anything like this before!
- For the record, my form is most definitely not an official USPS form.
1. The 5 Ws of your package: Delivery and Item Details
When you see the slip sitting in your mailbox, you want to know… Why is this slip sitting here in my mailbox? To answer that, you need to quickly understand the other 4 Ws: Who is this package for? What is it? Where was it delivered? When was it delivered?
The answers are scattered across the front side of the page.
I decided to place all these sections at the top since you want to know this information first. I made it more readable by putting them within a single Mad-Libs style human-readable sentence. This is the main section the mail carrier will need to fill out, too, so it should also make her job quicker to have all the writing in one place.
I moved the article number to the back, since you might need it later to set up redelivery, but it doesn’t make any sense by itself when you’re trying to learn about the package.
I also placed your final notice and payment required section at the top, rather than at the bottom. I wanted to get your attention if you are about to lose your package, or if you’re going to have to actually hand over cash to receive it.
2. Your options for getting your package
Once you know what your package is, you want to know what you can do to get it. The 3 options (Redelivery, Post Office, gopost) to get your package back are listed multiple times, though in certain places there are only 2 options listed. Do I qualify for all these options? It’s not totally clear.
I gave the options section a header and refactored the form to present the three options clearly. If the option box is checked, then it is available to you. (For example, if you don’t have gopost available, it won’t be checked).
3. The steps you need to take to actually get your package once you’ve picked an option
To make a decision about which option is best for you, you’ll want to know what’s involved if you pick that option.
This is where the USPS form really breaks down. What you need to do is scattered all over card. And even though they listed your options in triplicate for the former step, they decide to confusingly get efficient and reuse a single agent and signature section for two separate choices: redelivery signature and sending someone else to pick up your package for you.
When I’ve worked on website forms user experience, I’ve made sure that conditionally available options don’t appear until you’ve satisfied that condition. It’s a lot hard to do that on a piece of paper. But strong visual hierarchy can help let you know what to pay attention to, and what to ignore.
I placed the “what you need to do” information inside the option, so you can clearly see what’s involved in each option and also ignore instructions for the options you don’t want. I actually decided to duplicate the signature sections so that it would be clearly associated with your choice, rather than duplicate the choices like the USPS.
Redelivery seemed to be the most complicated, so I placed that on its own side. Once you pick that option, you actually have two more options, and I wanted to leave space for an additional hierarchical layer. Additionally, that is the only side you’d potentially leave as a note to your mail carrier, so it will be clear what side you should leave visible.
I placed the “you need to sign” information in the redelivery section, where it is most relevant. I also added the contact information here, since it seems to be the most confusing part.
Mine is definitely more text-heavy, but I think it’s worth the trade-off for clear instructions. I’d love to see less text-heavy suggestions, though.
4. Confirmation of Receipt
The USPS also uses this form as a receipt when you need to sign for your package. But on their design, it seems mighty tempting to sign in the big signature box when you might need to authorize redelivery.
I explicitly state that you should only sign in that box when your package is being delivered. I also took a guess that those checkboxes might be checked upon delivery, or at the very least, by your mail carrier and not you.
5. Bureaucratic stuff
The USPS uses these forms for record keeping. I kept the barcode roughly the same size, since I imagine scanners would be hard to change. I made the name of the form much smaller and put it on the side, though, since anyone in an Post Office recording this will know what form it is, and the customer doesn’t need to focus on it.
I also moved the article numbers to the barcode section, since these would probably only be used if someone asks you for them, and then they could tell you where to find it.
6. Finally, Accessibility and readability
The USPS delivers to all addresses in the US. Many people speak languages other than English, or if they speak English, might not be comfortable with the definitions of the following words as they’re used on this form: agent, authorize, specify.
These words are especially important to understand if you want to send someone else to take care of your package — something that might be more appealing if you have trouble communicating with people at the Post Office. I changed these words to “sending someone to pick up” and “have another person sign for you”
Additionally, the font is so small! Somehow in the digital age, the expression “read the fine print” is always used metaphorically. I understand where it came from. It should be much larger so that people with poor vision can understand what to do. I made my font larger.
I’ve never designed a government form before. I’d love to know what you think, how you’d improve it, and who designs the original forms. You can reach me on twitter: @alizauf
And this fantasy mail form, alas, will not help me get my Patti Smith poster. So I humbly submit the USPS 3849g, October 2013 to my postal worker and wait.