Form usability, empathy, and Leslie Knope

I was working on a lesson about form usability when, to demonstrate the principle of ‘in-line placeholders,’ I designed a form and pre-filled it with the placeholder name Leslie Knope and the placeholder address [email protected].

It looked like this:

If you know your American sitcoms, you likely got the reference as soon as you read the title. If you don’t: Leslie Knope was the lead character in the 2009-2015 show Parks and Recreation, and I (like many others) think of her as the patron saint of passionate overachievers with a big heart.

So I sneaked her name into a form, because I thought it would bring a smile to anybody who got the reference.


Empathy has many shapes. One of them is finding common ground with the people who are coming our way. A shared reference, when used well, can help do such a thing—out of all possible options, I picked Leslie Knope to build a virtual bridge with whoever would get the reference. It was my way of saying ‘hey!, I’m here teaching you about forms, but I am also a human who loves Parks and Recreation.

The trouble with shared references is that it’s easy to assume something is shared when, in actual fact, it isn’t. Sometimes, you build a bridge with someone and inadvertently close all roads for everybody else.

Before publishing, I had to pause and ponder: could my little in-joke confuse and/or alienate those who didn’t know about Parks and Rec? I came to the conclusion that those people would simply see an unusual in-line placeholder and keep doing what they were doing. It would not distract them. So I went ahead—but the lesson here is: one has to pause and think first.

As content makers and product creators, we are given the privilege of speaking from many a platform. We have the opportunity to create bridges but also—just as easily—the power to make people feel excluded by our work and our actions and our words

We have an obligation to check ourselves, is what I’m saying. That should be part of the job description, too.