Life Lessons from Form Building
When we hear “programmer,” many of us picture the stereotypical image of someone hunched over a computer, typing code on a dark screen; but what comes to mind when we hear “form builder”? Probably the term draws something of a blank. So just what do the four members of the CATLab Forms Team do? In listening to the reflections and advice from our Forms Team, we found that underneath their descriptions of their day-to-day activities were a lot of insights that apply to life just as well as they apply to web design.
1. Take charge of your learning
The Forms Team is a new division of the CATLab that started just this summer. Kristen Mohrhoff, who has managed our forms for the last two years, is now training a new generation of developers to take her place. All three of the new members—Kat Smith, Landon Moir, and Madison Huntington—mentioned that the learning curve seemed overwhelming at first, but once they “jumped in,” they were able to find their bearings. Kat especially said she appreciated how Kristen “pushed us to go and learn” without micromanaging or hand-holding. Landon shared that he actually built his first few “from scratch” so that he could gain a deeper understanding of how the different parts of the system worked together. Madison expressed a similar sentiment when she said what’s been “most helpful” is “trying it out and learning through doing.”
2. Lean into your community
Just because you have to make your learning your own doesn’t mean you have to do it absolutely alone. In fact, Landon said the “collaborative spirit” was one of the things he enjoyed most about working on the Forms Team. Kat mentioned that it was helpful for her to spend time “just asking a lot of questions to people who already know what they’re doing.” In our lives, we should seek out people who have more experience than us and try to learn from them. Madison emphasized how there’s an element of humility involved in relying on your teammates:
“At the beginning, embrace the intimidation factor and just go ‘yes, I don’t know what I’m doing.’ By leaning into that, you’ll be able to reach out confidently to other members of your team who have more experience and can help you. In building those relationships you’ll find the skills, the confidence, and what you need to succeed.”
3. Listen well
The first step of form building always involves talking to the people who requested it. The Forms Team actually has a “form request” form—a form where people specify all the details of the form they want to be built. “It’s pretty in detail what we ask from them,” said Kat, “so normally we have a pretty good idea of what they’re expecting.” Getting all the expectations nailed down early can save a lot of time later. As Justin Davis, a staff product manager at AppFolio, put it, “Ideally you know your product will be successful before you even start on it because you’ve done your homework.” Doing the homework, according to Justin, means spending time in conversation with the people you hope to serve so that you can truly empathize with them and design with them in mind. Just as you would when getting coffee aside with a friend, you need to be willing to put aside your own agenda and assumptions and simply listen.
4. Build on what already exists
Once our form builders have an idea of what kind of form is needed, they usually start by finding a form with similar functions and duplicating it. Landon, who’s building forms for upcoming CATLab events and for the theatre department, explained: “That allows us to quickly copy over the different Salesforce settings that we need instead of having to rebuild it from scratch every time. Usually, they’re completely made forms, like [taking] a basketball event sign-up and transforming that into some sort of theatre ticket option.”
The head of the CATLab Events Team, Emily Greig, shared that this summer is all about the “heavy-lifting” of creating templates and preset sections that can be dropped in to save time. Once the team has created these resources, they can also share them with other departments. The less time we spend trying to duplicate things that already exist—whether it be a form, a piece of technology, or a salad recipe—the more time we have to invest in the things we truly care about.
5. Be adaptable
One of the reasons our form builders are able to reuse so much of their work and save so much time is their framework of adaptability. They’re able to see the similarities between forms and also realize the small details that might need to change for a given situation. A great example of this is the Student Leadership Application that Kat has been working on. In the past, Westmont had different forms scattered all over its website—one for RAs, another for student body leadership, another for Intercultural Programs, ad infinitum. Now all of those applications are being consolidated into a single form. “To do that,” said Kat, “it was a process of getting all of the different organizations to collaborate and send me the information.” Then, based on what organization a student is applying for, only the relevant questions get displayed. This form also cleans up the back end of the application process since it packages these applications for easy review within Salesforce.
6. Pay attention to framing
An important aspect of forms might not be immediately apparent: What they’re titled. Even simple keywords like “registration” or “payment” or “agreement” help the user know what to expect. From the moment a person clicks on a form, what it’s called will “confirm whether or not they’re giving their info in to be registered or if they’re going to have to pull out their wallet or it’s just like ‘Yes, this information is right,’” explained Landon. When putting together these forms, his goal is to do “anything to make it easier for the person filling out the form is my goal.”
7. Let your goal inform your process
The reason the Forms Team was so essential this summer was that Westmont is changing the way events are run, migrating everything into their Salesforce database. Because of that, “a lot of times you have to start in Salesforce, building out the landscaping for where the information is going to go,” said Kat. “ You build backwards and then the part that is actually outward-facing to the person who’s filling out the form is normally the last step of it.” In life, too, whether you’re repainting a room or budgeting your money, it’s important to keep your ultimate goal in mind so you don’t get caught up in the details or sink time and resources into the wrong thing.
So there you have it: A lot of the principles that inform good form-building are not esoteric rules about data or coding, but rather worthy reminders of attitudes and insights we should have in our own lives.
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