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I'm building an internal web app for my company. We're a commercial printing company - I'll try and explain our situation without getting into the confusing details of the printing industry...

The short version is that we are trying to build a system so that we can track estimated ink usage vs. actual ink usage vs. purchased/mixed ink. At first glance, this seems like a very simple system to build. However, my boss is very interested in building it in such a way that it's very easy to use. He wants to minimize the amount of time on data entry, but unfortunately there's a ton of data that needs to be entered, due to the number of layers each job contains.

Data Neeeded

This is the highest level piece. All we are collecting here is a job number.

Every job can have multiple forms. The most common amount is 4 forms, but this can increase up to about 20 forms. For forms we collect a sheet size and a stock type (20 pre-defined options).

Each form can either be printed just on the front side, or front and back. At the end of the day, we will treat each side as two separate forms, but this is important because it could possibly double the amount of required data.

Each side can have up to 9 inks, chosen from a pre-defined list of about 20 available inks. Most jobs will have only 4 inks, but we have a 9-color press that is occasionally at full-capacity.

At the Ink level, we start collecting the real data. The fields we get here are Estimated Usage, Digitally Estimated Usage, Purchased/Mixed Ink, Actual Usage, Printed Density, Printed Dot Gain, and Press Unit. Keep in mind, all of these inputs are numerical.

So, a normal 4-form two-side job with CMYK (4 inks) would end up like this:

 4 (forms) * 2 (sides) * 4 (inks) = 32 (total inks to fill out)

Finally, getting to the real question, what is the best way to collect this data? Currently I have a popup form that asks one group of questions at a time (ie: What inks are on Form 1 Side 1), and automatically moves to the next question when that portion is completely filled out. Would it be better to generate one extremely long form and just let my users tab through the data themselves? Or is there some sort of alternative form that I haven't thought of?

I broke it up into multiple short pages based on this question, but I'm not sure if it applies because the data is so repetitive, and the verbiage on the forms is identical for nearly 32 pages.

Update: This image may help you understand what I'm doing so far http://www.wegnerdesign.com/files/6fa41u

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What numbers can be predicted based on earlier inputs? Say, can you figure out pounds of ink purchased/mixed and used on press? So far, I don't see anything that can be merged or automated other than these. –  dnbrv Jan 16 '12 at 14:14
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up vote 2 down vote accepted

Breaking out your form into smaller chucks of related data is a great way to go. This turns one giant, complex task into several small tasks. This makes validation of data step-by-step much easier for both the system and the user.

In addition the step-by-step model allows you to use progress trackers to show the user how far along they are, without daunting them by showing them the whole form at once. This also allows the user to easily navigate back to a previous logical step. It's hard to think "hmm, where was the Sides part of this giant form?". It's easy to find the "Sides" section when progress tracker is shown.

Make sure you practice good Wizard Design. The pattern is effective with a medium amount of steps which logically follow one another; your form seems like a perfect fit for this pattern.

Now, there are situations where a single page form is best. Tabbing through the data in a long form is fine for power users by the way; if most of a user's work is data entry they may prefer it this way as it allows their fingers to never leave the keyboard. However consider if that's how your users actually act; this is a very advanced behavior, and it's very unfriendly to users who don't already behave this way with forms.

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Ben, each user interacts with the form at least daily so they will know the steps by heart within a week. Progress trackers won't add much value (they would've been helpful if colors & forms were selected all at once & then extra info would be added). –  dnbrv Jan 16 '12 at 15:42
@dnbrv in this case a progress tracker doesn't help as much to show you what there is left to do but it does allow you to navigate back easily, especially if the form automatically continues once you've filled out one page. –  Ben Brocka Jan 16 '12 at 15:46
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