In a recent posting on the “Adobe® Acrobat® Solutions Group” on Linked-In, Mike Ellis posted the following question about eForms:
It would be useful to see a positioning statement on the various eForm options available:
- Forms Factory vs
- PDF(XFA) vs
- PDF(XFA) with Form Guides vs
- AcroForms (now redundant?)
What was the motivation for the creation of Avoka Form Factory?
What is the long term thinking between HTML forms, PDF forms, and Flash forms (Form Guides)?
You can see the discussion (if you are a member of the group) here:
This discussion was in response to a blog entry by Mark Grilli here:
This blog entry is my take on positioning the different eForm options, as requested by Mike. I’ll start off with what each of these “things” are, and then provide my 2c on positioning and long term…
What are the options?
As Mike says, AcroForms are now largely redundant. You can do pretty much anything in PDF(XFA) eForm that you can do in AcroForms, and much more. There are probably members of the Acrobat community who still like and use AcroForms, but we would recommend XFA to any customer thinking about building eForms.
XFA (XML Forms Architecture) forms are the current state-of-the-art for creating interactive PDF eForms.
There are two ways to build PDF SmartForms (interactive eForms):
- LiveCycle Designer. Designer is a sophisticated Windows-based tool that allows you tremendous flexibility and sophistication in the types of eForms you can build. It gives you pixel-perfect design capabilities for your eform elements, and access to an extensive programming API that allows you to add a large variety of functionality to your eforms. However, it can take some time to become proficient, requiring a combination of design and programming skills to build even moderately sophisticated eforms
- Professionally designed (and customizable) style sheets, so that your eforms always look good, and always conform to your organizational style guide.
- Rule-oriented rather than code-oriented. You specify a business rule, and Composer generates all the code to implement the rule.
- Layout managers. You provide “hints” about how you’d like your fields laid out, and Composer takes care of sizing them, lining them up, and positioning them.
- Dozens of pre-built objects that allow you to create sophisticated forms without any programming knowledge.
- Built-in features and best practices, such as automatically generated XML schemas, recolor on print, Wizard style forms, advanced error handling, and more.
More information here: http://www.avoka.com/smartform-composer-overview.html
LiveCycle ES Form Guides
Form Guides (or just Guides) are a newer way to create data collection forms – and leverage the Flash platform to provide a modern wizard style “rich” user interface. While they achieve the same ultimate outcome as PDF eforms (collecting data) they are really completely different technologies. A previous version of Guides was more tightly integrated with LiveCycle Designer and PDF eforms, but the latest version has eliminated this dependency. As Mike says, Form Guides run in the Flash player, using a Wizard-style metaphor, with Next/Previous buttons, and various skins, navigation and animation options.
Guides are built using a special Eclipse plug-in provided by Adobe. You start by constructing a “model”, which contains the definition of the data being collected, and validation rules. Then you construct the User Interface of the guide, by creating Guide sections and panel, and placing fields into them. A Guide is not a standalone file like a PDF – you need to render it using a web application, using services provided by Adobe LiveCycle Forms.
We’ve found that Guides do an excellent job of certain types of data collection problems, and they look and function great. It is also possible to customize your Guides by augmenting them with Flex code. In general, our experience has been that if the “out of the box” experience provided by Guides suites your needs, you will have a great experience with Guides. You will be able to build engaging data collection experiences that users love without requiring advanced development skills. However, if you find you need to do a lot of tweaking and changes to the way Guides work, then things can get quite complex, and you will require sophisticated Flex development skills.
More details here.
Adobe FormsCentral is a new (as of Feb 2011) cloud-based form creation, distribution and collection service from Adobe. The announcement of this new product is what inspired the Linked-in discussion.
Adobe provide a web-based application for designing your form, and you then publish your forms on FormsCentral, where they appear as html forms to your form-fillers. FormsCentral forms are very simple to create and publish, although they have quite limited features and scalability.
From the Adobe blog: FormsCentral is “a comprehensive solution for customers that need a simple to use tool to quickly create a form and collect data with no IT involvement. This new service is targeted at the Empowered Knowledge workers across a wide variety of disciplines.”
The bolding is mine. Like Adobe, we believe strongly that in order for your forms strategy to be successful, you need to separate yourself from IT release cycles – Forms should be considered just another type of content, similar to publishing marketing collateral on a web-content-management system. You should be able to create forms easily, and publish them whenever you need to. In these ways, the motivation for Forms Factory is identical to the motivation for FormsCentral – except Avoka Form Factory can be installed and operated “on-premise” rathen than operate as a cloud-based service.
More information here: https://formscentral.acrobat.com
Avoka’s SmartForm Factory is a combination of SmartForm Composer and SmartForm Manager and is built to fully leverage the Adobe LiveCycle ES platform. Typically large organisations use these products to provide a private Forms hosting and management service that can handle very large numbers of transactions, and sophisticated forms and interactions.
- Composer. See above.
- SmartForm Manager. SmartForm Manager is a form publishing, hosting, and management system built on top of Adobe LiveCycle. It’s not really about how you create your forms, or what technologies you use – FormCenter supports various types of forms, including both PDF/XFA forms, and Form Guides. FormCenter is all about how you publish your forms, version them, pre-populate them, save them online, provide receipts and tracking, integrate with payment gateways, add attachments, and much more. Without FormCenter, you need to build all of this into a customer web-application – with FormCenter, you’re ready to publish your forms in a few hours. For more information click on SmartForm Factory.
How do I choose?
Now things get interesting… There is probably no “correct” choice in all cases, but I’m going to give it my best shot based on our experience. Lori DeFurio of Adobe mentioned some, which I’ve shamelessly stolen, and added my own. I will also state for the record that I’m definitely biased – Avoka SmartForm Composer is one of my projects, and I think it’s fabulous
Also please note that these criteria are subject to change very quickly. Adobe is working very hard on multiple fronts to enable new devices, and new ways of working.
You have 3 choices of Form Technology:
- FormsCentral-style forms
- Guides, or
Choose Adobe FormsCentral if…
- You need to it to work on any device, including tablets and mobile devices.
- You don’t need it to work offline
- You don’t need high fidelity or very specific look-and-feel
Choose LiveCycle Guides if..
- You like the Wizard-style user interface
- You like the slick look and feel of a Flash/Flex-based user interface
- You are largely happy with the “out of the box” functionality provided by Guides, including navigation and error handling paradigms
- Your form fits well with the two level “section/panel” structure of Guides
- You don’t need multiple levels of repeats in your forms
- Your form’s validation rules fit into the types that Guides provide
- You are willing to engage your IT department to integrate Guides into your web site
- You understand that you need moderately technical developers to create your Guides
- You do not need your form to operate offline
- You do not need to be able to print your form (or are happy to print the form data in some other way)
- You are willing to build additional features you may need such as save-online, payment integration, pre-population, or a printable receipt.
Choose PDF/XFA if…
- You need your forms to run offline
- You need a printable record of the filled in form
- You need Forms that look similar to existing paper documents
- You need Digital Signatures, or 2D barcodes
- Your form contains tables or repeats, especially nested repeats
- You have complex validations or calculations
PDF Form Design Tool
Assuming you want to build PDF/XFA type forms, you have two ways of building them:
- Adobe LiveCycle Designer, or
- Avoka SmartForm Composer
Choose LiveCycle Designer if…
- You need to build forms that are pixel-perfect with existing paper forms
- You have very complex requirements
- You have a mix of landscape and portrait pages in the same form
- You’re willing to invest significantly in programmer and designer skills in order to achieve the results you want
Choose Avoka SmartForm Composer if…
- You need to crank out a large number of forms quickly
- You have a corporate style guide that all your forms must conform to
- Your corporate style guide may change over time, and all forms need to be updated
- Your forms fit into the basic structure of Composer-style forms
- Your forms may need to look very similar to your paper forms, but there is no requirement for them to be pixel-accurate
- You don’t have design skills
- You don’t have programming skills
- You need to localize your forms into different languages
- You want to build wizard-style forms in PDF
Form Management Server
You have three options for managing your forms online:
- Adobe FormsCentral (which only works with FormsCentral style forms)
- Avoka FormCenter, or
- Build your own form management system.
Adobe FormsCentral allows you to directly publish and manage your forms. However, when you implement a forms solution using Adobe LiveCycle (either PDF/XFA or Guides) you need to create a web application to host and manage the forms you create. You can either build this web application, or you can acquire a pre-built solution. Avoka FormCenter is the combination of the requirements of dozens of different clients, and caters for most of the needs you’re likely to encounter in a form management platform.
Choose Adobe FormsCentral if…
- You’d like to run your data collection service in the cloud
- You have very simple form hosting requirements
- You want to be able to publish, and manage the data collection, without IT involvement
- You don’t need to integrate it with your own web site (other than a simple link), or any backend systems
- You don’t need to allow your users to log in, or to pre-populate their forms
- You don’t need to provide your users with a printable receipt
- You don’t need integration with a payment gateway
- You don’t need to allow your users to save a partially completed form online
Choose Avoka SmartForm Manager if…
- You are a medium to large organization and would like to run your data collection in your own private cloud or inside your firewall.
- You need to get to market as soon as possible. (There is nothing to build or design with FormCenter – just install FormCenter, and start publishing your forms.
- You need to publish and manage forms without IT involvement
- You need to allow users to save partially completed forms online
- Some of your forms require attachments to be collected after the form has been submitted
- You need to easily integrate forms into backend systems
- You want to allow users to self-register, store a profile, and use their profile data to automatically pre-populate their forms
- You need to provide a flattened receipt at the end of the form fill experience, or at a later time
- Some of your forms require payments
- You want to provide feedback to your users about the progress of their application
Choose a custom-built solution if…
- You can afford to wait several months before your form management solution is ready to use
- You need specific features that FormCenter doesn’t provide
- You need explicit control over the features in your form management system
- You have a well-trained team of developers available to build your form management system
Mike asked about the motivation for Form Factory: We built Form Factory for many of the same reasons that Adobe built FormsCentral. We believe that most interactions with an organization begin with someone filling in a form. Therefore, we believe that it should be easy to build forms, and you should be able to deploy them without being restricted to IT release cycles or project backlogs. The only difference is that Form Factory provides much more sophisticated capabilities than FormsCentral.
Choosing the right form solution is complex, and there are no definitive answers. This blog tries to give some sort of guidance about both the capabilities and limitations of different types of form technologies, tools and management platforms. Ultimately, only you know what business problems you need to solve – I recommend you use this blog only as a guideline, and determine for yourself which of these technologies best suits you. Of course, if you’d like some more detailed guidance from someone who has been there, please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org