Forms! Don't you wish there was a universally accepted, easy to use way of offering electronic forms to your clients?
It used to be that you could just make something look good in your word processor and then have your client print and fill it out by hand. However in today's world of electronic documents and the paperless office, this just isn't good enough anymore. And as for fax machines, few individuals have ever had one and even businesses are watching it go the way of the dinosaur.
On a personal side note, having been a professional eForms developer for several years, one of my pet peeves shows up each time someone sends me an electronic form that was made using underlines (____). As I complete the required information, I have to keep removing the underlines in order to keep some kind of consistency in the look of the form. This is not an electronic form folks, it's a document with a lot of underline characters in it! Ok, I'm finished my rant. Back to the topic at hand.
Fortunately there are a couple of solutions.
One is to use Microsoft Word to create a form. About 90% of the people out there will be able to use this. Of course creating a form is more involved than simply making it look half descent. It also has to work as a form, locking people out of the parts you don't want them to change while enabling them to still enter information in the pre-designated locations. Accomplishing this is relatively simple using a five step process:
- Create a new document and type up all of your information, leaving space for where your clients will fill in the information. If you already have your form typed up, you can use it instead.
- Add fields. These come in shapes including check box fields, text fields, and drop down list fields. Starting in Word 2007, a new type of field called Content Controls is included however I recommend you stick with the Legacy Controls (fields) until more people can use them. Although there are ways for people using older versions of Word to open the newer Word files, any features that didn't exist in the older versions of Word will simply vanish. What this means is that any Word 2007 or later type fields will turn into plain text and not be editable. The only exception is if you know with absolute certainty that your clients will all be using Word 2007 or later. The only situation I can think of this happening is if your form will be for internal use only.
- Protect your document, making sure to set the Editing Restrictions to allow Filling in forms. Don't forget to set a password so that clients won't be able to make changes to it (especially important for contracts and agreements). DON'T LOOSE THE PASSWORD!!!
- Save your new form. If you are going to make it available on the Internet, I recommend you save it as a regular Word document. However if this is a form that will be stored on a computer and used many times, save it as a Word Template. What's the difference? If you save your form as a document, double clicking on the document will open it for editing. This is fine if someone is just downloading it and filling it out because each time they click the link on the Internet, they get a new copy. If you double click on a locally saved Template, you get a new unsaved document each time. To edit your a template, right click on the file and select Open. Oh, and be sure to save your file as a Word 2007-2003 file ending in either .DOC (for documents) or .DOT (for templates) to ensure maximum compatibility with your clients.
- The final step is to test your form. Try filling it out as if you were your client. I can't begin to tell you how often I have seen someone create a form that either had too little space available for someone to enter their name or address or way too much space for them to enter something short like a date of birth. Speaking of which, if you are asking for a date, be sure to specify what format it should be in. With a date like 02/06/08, could you tell which part is the month, the day and the year? Something simple like indicating YYYY-MM-DD is all most people need.
Sounds great! It's almost a perfect solution. Why almost? There are a few things you should be aware of when it comes to Word Forms:
- Consistency: You can not guaranty how the document will look on someone else's computer. Their computer may be using a different printer with different capabilities. They may not have the same fonts you used in your form. Instead of Word, they may be using OpenOffice Writer, a free compatible alternative to Word. You may have worked hard to ensure it all fit on one or two pages only to find out that it ended up being two or three pages on someone else's computer. Also, depending on how you created the layout of your form, some information may shift around the page as it is being filled out.
- Restrictions: Once you Protect a document, there are certain features in Word which no longer work. The most noticeable ones will be the fact that your clients can't click on links (this is finally fixed in Word 2010) and that they will not be able to use the Spell Checker. They won't be able to format text either using bold, underline, italic, or make bullet or numbered lists. These limitations are somewhat lifted if you use Word 2007 or later content controls instead of field controls but then you end up back with the problem of compatibility with most of the Word users out there.
- Compatibility: About 90-95% of the people out there use Word. However there is still that 5% minority that have their reasons for not using it. Although they may be able to open your form, it may simply not work for them. For these folks, you will need to provide them with an alternative. You could send them a copy of the form by fax or snail mail or you could create a PDF from it. The client would have to then print out the file, fill it out by hand and then send it back to you by fax or snail mail. At least this way, it goes quickly in one direction and hopefully you will be able to read their handwriting when you receive it.
So what's the alternative? I'm glad you asked.
ADOBE ACROBAT PROFESSIONAL 9.0 or later
While this approach has a slightly higher learning curve, it is still very doable. As an average person with word processing sills, you may not be able to take advantage of the full power of this application but you will still be able to accomplish your goal.
The easiest first step is actually to create your form in Word WITHOUT any fields. Why? First of all, hopefully you know your way around it. Second, you'll be able to import your form into Acrobat which will then bring us to the second step: adding fields. Adding fields in Acrobat takes a little getting use as it is a little more involved than in Word. For example, you'll be able to specify exactly how a field looks and how tall and wide it will be. You will also have more choices when it comes to the types of fields.
Now comes the really cool part, the reason we have gone to the expense of purchasing Acrobat Professional and taken the time to learn how to use it.
Even if they look like a form, regular Acrobat PDF files are not fillable using your computer. They must be printed, filled out by hand and then returned to you on paper or scanned back into the computer and emailed back to you.
Unless your clients all have Adobe Acrobat Professional, a PDF Form can only be filled-in electronically however it still needs to be printed on paper and either returned to you in physical form or scanned back into the computer and emailed back to you. If you have got yourself to this point, you can do one extra step that will change everything for you and your clients. It's called Extending the rights to Reader. What this will do is enable your clients to save the form with the information in it and that includes filling it out partially and coming back to it later to finish up. Once it is filled out, they can email it back to you.
Adobe Acrobat PDF files have several advantages over Word. First of all, the format of your form is locked down. That means that the layout of the form won't keep changing as your clients fill it out. Second, the fonts are stored in the form itself, which means that everything will appear exactly as you intended it to on everyone's computer. Although it still has some restrictions, there are fewer. For example, links will be clickable and spell check will work too. Printing will work properly regardless of the make or model, although there is till no magic that will make colour show up in anything but shades of grey on black and white printers. As for compatibility, Adobe Acrobat Reader is installed on most of the computes in the world. Those few who don't have it can download it for free from get.adobe.com/reader. It's available for Windows, Mac, Linux and many other platforms.
So how do you Enable Reader Extensions for a PDF?
With Acrobat Professional 8 and 9 you can extend the rights to Reader so that clients have the ability to save their completed forms. If you are still using version 7, you may be limited to enabling the typewriter tool which just makes things more complicated for your clients -- never a good thing! Consider upgrading.
Just to be clear, You, as the author of the form, will need Adobe Acrobat Professional 8 or 9. Your clients will only need the free Adobe Acrobat Reader software.
For Adobe Acrobat Standard and Professional version 8 and 9
In addition to enabling clients to save their filled in forms and email it back to you with the information, extending Acrobat Reader functionality will allow clients to control features such as the ability for clients to add comments, use the typewriter tool and even digitally sign the PDF file.
Here is how you would go about making a PDF form saveable:
- Open your PDF form in Acrobat Standard or Professional
- Edited the form using LiveCycle Designer by clicking on Forms in the menu bar and then on "Edit Form in Designer"
- Click "Advanced", "Enable User Rights in Adobe Reader"
- Read the instructions that appear and then click Save Now.
- Click on Forms, Distribute Form instead of Save As. This will give you the option of extending Acrobat Readers abilities enabling you to save filled forms.
Note there are some limitations on how you can legally use this feature so be sure to check the End User License Agreement (EULA). Also be aware that this setting will only affect the current PDF form. To extend the functionality in other PDF forms, repeat this process in each of the files.
As a LAST step when the form is all ready to go and everything is how you want it select 'Enable Usage Rights in Adobe Reader…" from the Advanced menu.
Still using Adobe Acrobat Professional version 7? Extended Reader features are not available in Acrobat Pro 7 however you can still take advantage of the typewriter tool though it isn't as nice of a solution or convenient for your clients. The disadvantage of the typewriter tool is that it allows you to actually type ANYWHERE in the document, not just in form fields. If this is all you have and you are not ready to invest in an upgrade, it might be a viable solution. Just be sure to provide instructions to your clients on how to use the tool. It's not really that complicated. Once you enable the typewriter tool and save your PDF, clients need to turn the feature on in Reader, click and type.
I haven't tried it myself however Adobe provides the following instructions:
For you, the author of the form: To allow Adobe Reader users to use the Typewriter tool in Adobe Reader to type text in a PDF document, commenting must be enabled for that document. Here are the steps to enable the typewriter tool:
- Open the document in Adobe Acrobat Professional
- Click Tools > Typewriter > Enable Typewriter Tool In Adobe Reader
- Save the document
This step need only be done once per form.
For the client, they will need to turn on the Typewriter tool in Acrobat Reader by completing the following steps:
- Click Tools > Typewriter > Typewriter. You can also click Tools > Show Typewriter Toolbar to display the Typewriter toolbar.
- Then it's a simple matter of clicking the Typewriter button, clicking where you want to type and then type away!
Making professional looking forms will have a direct impact on your professional image and inspire clients to trust you as someone who knows what they are doing.
REMINDER: Be sure to always test fill your forms before making it available to your clients. You can make sure it works now or ask for forgiveness later while you are under pressure to fix it.
Contact me if you want help in creating professional looking forms, whether you choose to have it done in Microsoft Word or as an Adobe Acrobat Professional fill and save PDF form.
Life and Tech Coach Michael Milette