Ironically, the cold war between Apple and Adobe concerning Flash on iOS devices is well-preserved in PDF documents. While Flash and Acrobat are not available on iPad or other iOS devices, this hasn’t stemmed the interest in using PDF documents for business information requirements including product catalogues, spec sheets, white papers, and dozens of other document types.
Specifically, this article focuses on the use of interactive PDF forms within your organization and by your own employees. Facilitating internal forms processing for things like document reviews, purchase order approvals, and workflows involving operation details can be streamlined with simple approaches using PDF documents that are transformed into interactive documents.
Think about the amount of time your organization spends writing words commenting on attached documents. Emails of this nature require effort to create and lots of words to describe your review or commentary about a document. Embedding fields and other form controls directly into the document makes it possible to eliminate ambiguity while accelerating responses and workflow processing.
PDF Forms and CRM
Interactive PDF forms are also ideal in customer relationship management (CRM) processes. Have you often wondered if your recent article about your business was well-received by your customers or sales prospects? Embedding a simple survey directly in the article is an ideal method for getting feedback.
As you may know, it’s possible to publish interactive PDF forms that can be filled in and submitted via email or other form posting web services. To create PDF forms, you need the ability to embed field elements such as text entry areas and checkboxes directly into the PDF document. Once a PDF document has been instrumented with form fields, it can be filled in directly from iPad with an iPad app that supports interactive forms processing.
Adobe provides a host of products that help enterprises create, manage, and integrate PDF forms into business processes. However, these tools are generally too expensive for small businesses that have relatively simple requirements.
PDFpenPro ($99) is a desktop editing tool that’s far less expensive than Adobe’s least expensive PDF authoring solution. With PDFpenPro small businesses are able to create polished interactive PDF forms that are XFA compliant. XFA is an XML standard for integrating data fields into Adobe’s open PDF format and a necessary ingredient in capturing and integrating a forms solution with your database environment. XFA is critically important for large and small businesses alike.
At least one PDF app vendor has recognized the importance of supporting interactive PDF forms. PDF Expert ($9.99) from Readdle recently upgraded its PDF reader app to fully support embedded XFA field elements. This makes it possible for iPad users to not only read and manage PDF documents, but also enter information into form fields and submit or email completed forms.
Like other PDF reader apps for iOS, PDF Expert also supports annotation capabilities and integrated signature features.
Integrating Interactive Forms Into Your Business
This is a complex topic, but there are ways for even the smallest firm to achieve a level of automation that allows data collected through interactive PDF forms, to flow into your database or document environments.
Interactive PDF forms can include a submit button which provides a processing action event much the way an HTML form can be submitted to a database or other parsing CGI script. This makes it possible to connect PDF form processing to your back office data management systems such as SQL servers or even lightweight database applications such as FileMaker Pro. This approach does require a little programming and integration planning, but XFA compliance streamlines the requirements.
Because XFA is an XML standards format, PDF forms submissions can be easily parsed with existing XML manipulation services. Your IT group or web consultants are likely already familiar with CGI scripts and database integration processes to handle this type of information submission and processing.
For some workflow processes you may not need direct database integration. PDF Expert provides a lightweight approach that allows employees in the field to complete a PDF form and submit the updated version of the document through eMail. In this model, your forms wouldn’t need a submit button. Once the fields are filled in, the user employee would simply tap the send by email option. The document, complete with the embedded and completed form fields, would be sent as a PDF to the intended email address which could be a specific email role account, and person, or even a cloud service where multiple people are able to process the incoming form.
Sometimes field sales people need to confirm purchases and the best way to do that is on site with the customer’s signature. Embedding signatures in PDF forms is now possible and again, PDF Expert provides a unique feature to make it seamless. Sales people can simply tap and hold the location for the signature on the iPad document, and hand the device to the customer who simply signs with the tip of their finger or stylus.
Interactive Forms Strategy
Before launching into a project to streamline operational efficiency using interactive PDF forms, consider a few steps to help you you create a strategic approach.
- Identify information processes that are likely to generate efficiencies with PDF forms.
- If the data to be captured from the interactive form is extensive or there is likely to be significant volume for any given form, plan to create an automated submission gateway to your back-office database system.
- Carefully consider the mobile context of the forms process. Will the form simplify or otherwise streamline workflow in the field.
- Prototype new forms conceptually with inexpensive tools such as PDFpenPro before investing in complex or costly solutions.
- Test new interactive forms with a subset of workers to perfect the form layout and processing workflows.
- Use interactive PDF forms as internal survey mechanisms to make sure your interactive workflow systems are achieving the best performance for your workers.
If you have an interactive forms project you’d like to tackle and need a little help, don’t hesitate to contact me.