The curse of the fillable forms

fillable forms - for some reason we don't have an alt tag hereWith OSes like iOS, Android, WebOS etc tablets no longer suffer from running software that isn’t optimized for touch screens. Most things are simple to do using a touch screen as long as everything is designed properly as far as user friendliness goes, but there is one thing that is still in the dark ages in terms of tablet optimization: fillable forms. There is nothing I hate more than having to fill in forms. Be it a simple password field, my address for a webshop or a full all-details-ever form for a website, I hate it no matter what device I’m using, PC or otherwise.

You’d think that this far into the tech revolution someone would have come up with the idea of having a user account connected with every personal use device, so that these fields could be populated automatically. To be fair, some have tried, including LastPass and Apple but neither work anywhere near reliably enough to make a make a dent in the pile of “paper work” you have to go through on a daily basis. It’s getting to the point that you need a 3 year degree in order to successfully fill out all the forms on a forum registration page, and that is not how it should be- especially not on devices as user friendly as many tablets.

On a tablet or cellphone, filling in forms is even more annoying because you often have to access the special characters when filling in email etc. If you use secure password, the same goes for those. What makes it even more pointless is that these devices are often personal and only used by one person, so there’s no reason this information should be unknown to the device.

What I’m imagining is a simple system where you fill in details like address, email, name etc somewhere in the settings of the tablets. Then, whenever you’re asked to fill in a form, it will look for terms like “first name”, “email” etc and automatically suggest what should be there. If wrong, you could select the correct one form a drop down list. To make sure it works everywhere, you could have a key on the on-screen keyboard that when pressed pops up a window with all your details in it so you can then drag and drop the pieces of informationonto the appropriate fields- sort of like how you can cut/move text on a computer. Drag and drop name, email and address onto the appropriate fields and you’re all ready to go without having to type it in manually each time. It would save and enormous amount of time and frustration when dealing with forms, and it’s an incredibly simple thing to add to an OS. I think it’s absolutely pathetic that in a world where our devices know where we are, what direction we’re facing, how we can get from A to B, the weather etc they still draw a blank when asked for the name of their owners. Heck, there are even phones that can be used as wireless wallets through NFC, I think it’s about time they added a feature to help people not having to fill in 258 different forms each day.

Passwords is another matter, and I for one like secure passwords. However, there’s a difference between secure passwords online and locally. I tend to have everything as auto-login on my phone and iPad and instead use a passcode to unlock the device- 10 failed attempts, and everything is deleted. I can also delete everything remotely using Mobile Me. This system of having a local simple password that unlocks access to more complicated online passwords works well, because that simple pin code is only stored on the device and cannot be remotely hacked. This is not something I do on a PC or Windows tablet though, as any semi-geek can get to files regardless or whether you have a password protected OS. It’s also a bit tedious to still be using numbers and letters for passwords on these devices when you see the system that some Android devices uses of drawing a pattern to unlock the device- much more tablet friendly.

There there are the captchas… Did you know that Google owns reCAPTCHA, one of the most popular word confirmation services? They use it to digitize books, or all things. Google is in the process of scanning millions of old books to add to their Google Books service, and a lot of these are old. OCR (Optical Character Recognition- turns images of words into text) can only do so much if the page is bent, the ink is smudged or faded etc. Whenever the automated scan system comes across a word it can’t read, it’s fed into the reCAPTCHA system. When you are asked to type in the words you see in the reCAPTCHA box, it will show you two words but only know one of them. It assumes that if you get one right (the one it knows) you will also have the other one right, and it then knows what that word is. Bad guys also use captchas a similar way: captchas are meant to stop automated systems from registering accounts, by showing images of words only humans can interpret. However, some bad guys offer services for free- like porn, and uses captcha systems on those. Those captchas are mirrors of the captchas their bots have encountered, so when you type in the right word you help robots register on sites by telling them what the image says.

So where am I going with this? Well, the point with this piece of trivia was that captchas are often not made by humans, but automatically generated by scanning 100 year old books. The problem with this is that no human has actually confirmed if it’s possible for any human to decode what it’s saying. If there are two words and one is unreadable you can of course assume that’s the one from a book and just type anything (and hope for an interesting book publication in which the main character of Hamlet is Batman) but often you can’t tell what either one is saying, especially on the other captcha services with random lines and colors everywhere. I often have to refresh the image several times to find one I can actually read, and that is a problem no matter what platform you’re on. I’ve seen instances of websites using several captcha systems in a single registration form, which is just wrong. An anti-spam feature is useless when it turns into an anti-human feature.

Considering the state of electronics and software today, I don’t think it’s too much to want to be free of piles of paper work every time I want to try something new. I also don’t think I’m the only one who’s been frustrated about having to fill in yet another form and having to type in everything several times because the service in question figures you’re too stupid to get it right unless they double check. Maybe we’ll see a universal log in system one day, one with retina scans and reliable fingerprint readers…but at the pace this part of tech is going, I’m not holding my breath.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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