The beauty of forms

10 Nov 2011

I recently read the book the “Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande In the book Atul describes how by creating and using checklists of common tasks that should be performed before, during and after surgery the incident of deaths following surgery was reduced by over 20%! That is pretty impressive when you think about it. A simple piece of paper has saved thousands of lives. I have been using checklists in the form of forms for my entire forensic career and while they may not have saved any lives they have probably saved my career once or twice.

In my previous lab we had a number of different forms for common tasks, this included acquisitions, search warrants, previews (triage) and analysis preparation. The forms serve two purposes, they act as a checklist to ensure that essential tasks are completed and they make it easy for another examiner to identify the key actions you have performed.

The checklist aspect was driven home to my when I had a job interview where I was asked to demonstrate the acquisition of hard drives in a computer. Of course I did not have any of my forms handy so I ran through the process through my head and then demonstrated it to the panel. I thought had completed the job pretty well (especially since I had been teaching it a month or two before) when it was pointed out that I had not checked the system clock. If I had had my trusty form this would not have happened and I would have made a much better impression in the interview. It is this sort of simple oversight that can make the difference between having your evidence admitted for rejected in a criminal case.

Designing a good form is not simple, I was lucky when working with the NSW Police Force to have a couple of collegues with great attention to detail and visual design skills. These address the two critical aspects of form design, working out what to include and fitting it all on a page (or two). If you are seeking ISO17025 accreditation there are also specific requirements for what must be included on a form.

When working out what to include one approach is to walk through the process and identify what should be recorded. That way you identify items in the order in which they are likely to be recorded. As a result the form will flow with your actions and steps are unlikely to be missed. As you handle each device think about what needs to be recorded, and how. Can you take a photograph of the serial numbers on a hard drive, or should you write it down? Do you need a checklist of photos that should be taken? Or just a checkbox that the exhibit was photographed?

Once you have worked out everything you need on the form you need to design the layout, make sure you leave enough space for your notes, but try to be efficient and fit everything to as few pages as possible. You also need to make sure that it looks tidy and professional, it is probably going to end up in court at some point after all. This is an area I really struggle with, being very much a function over form kind of guy, so you will have to look elsewhere for advice on that one.

For samples of forms we will be making the ones we are using in the LCDI available on our document management system ( which should be going live in the next week or so.