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I’m quite fast making shopping lists via handwriting, and I think I’m not alone using small notes instead of trying to make lists in my phone. But when I come to the store and they give me a discount if, and only if, I fill out a form with my personal details. More than once these handwriting forms have vertical support lines which I feel makes my handwriting worse, since I need to concentrate on the horizontal spacing as well as the horizontal size of my handwritten letters.

Are the vertical support lines useful – or could they be omitted altogether making the handwriting easier?

vertical support lines

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Harder to write within comb field = Takes longer time to fill out = Clearer handwriting ? –  JeroenEijkhof Nov 30 '12 at 5:59
    
@JeroenEijkhof Good one - didn't think of it that way :-) –  Benny Skogberg Nov 30 '12 at 7:05

4 Answers 4

up vote 33 down vote accepted

The vertical support lines, generally, aren't there for the person completing the form, but instead for the person / computer reading it. So that they can ensure they have the correct data, it needs to be as clear as possible, that's why they ask you to complete each word letter by letter spaced significantly so as to determine what the character might be.

Unfortunately, many people's handwriting in this day and age (myself included) is pretty poor. Without the vertical separation, it would be hard for a human (let alone a computer) to decipher what was actually written on the form.

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+1 for funny and sad at the same time! –  Benny Skogberg Nov 26 '12 at 13:10
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this is be particularly true for doctors :) I never get a single word from their notice... –  leMoisela Nov 26 '12 at 13:23
    
+1, I had a teacher in 2003 that wrote almost everything using a squiggly line. No loops or anything like you should see in cursive... It was impossible to read anything handwritten he gave us. –  Izkata Nov 26 '12 at 19:01
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It has been shown that combs do not improve legibility (see my main reply to the original question, below), so while the logic in your thinking seems plausible, it doesn't play out in real life. –  Formulate Information Design Dec 1 '12 at 7:35
    
@FormulateInformationDesign Thanks for your comment (and the downvote), but I would disagree. I know you have referenced a study, and the findings cannot be denied. But the study was conducted a fair while ago now. OCR systems have improved over this time. We have to remember that the use of comb fields is predominantly for the transfer of form information onto a database, usually via an OCR system. Joined handwriting differing from person to person would make it impossible for the OCR to decipher, whereas separated capitals provide a constant for the OCR to recognise. –  Daniel Meade Dec 1 '12 at 9:19

These are known as "Comb fields" and make it easier for your handwriting to be recognized by OCR software. Combed fields also slow down the writer, often making each character easier to read whether OCR is used or not.

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Except the person filling out that particular form seems to be really bad at it. They placed an I right on a line, and the numbers in the year missed the boxes entirely. –  asmeurer Nov 30 '12 at 3:36
    
+1 For "Comb Field" definition. –  JeroenEijkhof Nov 30 '12 at 5:56

In 1980, a researcher named Pam Wright investigated the combs issue and found that:

  • combs slow the user down; and
  • combs do not improve legibility.

The published article was “Strategy and Tactics in the Design of Forms”, in Visible Language, Vol. 14, No. 2 and it can be requested from the Medical Research Council in the UK and is mentioned in Rob Barnett's comprehensive book "Forms for People".

Hope this helps,

Jessica

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+1 For an awesome reference –  JeroenEijkhof Nov 30 '12 at 6:29

In addition to being easier to scan for OCR systems, such comb fields may also be used to give a hint about the required/expected length.

E.g. in your example it is clear that "DAY" should be 2 characters long and "YEAR" should be 4 characters long (I'm curios why they don't want a numerical month here).

So it's some kind of "validation", especially for fixed-length fields.

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That's another issue with these. If you happen to have a really long name, it might not fit, even though there might not actually be any technical restriction on the length of the field where the data ends up being stored. –  asmeurer Nov 30 '12 at 3:37

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