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In forms and forms conversion, everything old is new again

Thanks to a new client, your humble servant has been spending a lot of time lately in the realm of forms and forms conversion, and it is nothing short of amazing to see how relatively little has changed since my introduction to this space 20 years ago.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since a great deal of what hasn’t changed has to do with the fundamental value associated with ‘electronifying’ paper forms, tying them tightly to some form of routing or workflow, and using them as front-ends to databases (for both information input and output). This all was a good idea then, and it’s all a good idea now. Period.

More good news: the tools required to move forms from paper to screen (and to stay there) have gotten better and better, and not only are they are making e-forms more accessible to more people than ever before, they’re becoming increasingly crucial to business-critical applications in core industries like financial services, insurance, and health care.

But here’s the kicker: too few people still seem to understand that a form that doesn’t work well on paper won’t work any better on screen. If the design is confusing and the wording is unclear, the e-outcome still will include incompletions, inaccuracies, and other productivity-sapping, time consuming, and potentially costly errors – perhaps in record volume given how much easier it is to distribute forms electronically vs. physically.

Further, there’s more to converting from paper to “e” than simply scanning to PDF – sure that can get the ball rolling, but the ultimate goal isn’t simply to recreate a form’s look-and-feel in the new medium. Instead, it’s to activate the form’s fields so they can check for errors, apply formatting filters, and properly populate some back-end system with the information filled in.

Happily, these nigh-exclusively and heavily programmatic tasks of 1990 are now well within the ken of any half-savvy forms designer or line-of-business manager. However, too many of them don’t yet know it, and – despite the best efforts of Adobe and other, now mostly departed, vendors – they remain stuck in the scan-to-screen mindset.

This tale is told not so much to lament the cloud of non-understanding that still seems to shroud e-forms adoption but to remind us to keep up with the latest technologies while remembering that they are not magic bullets. At the end of the day, it is your experience and expertise that will make your new systems sing – but only if you are both alert to their presence and sufficiently adept in your craft to understand what they can and cannot do.

Just as it was 20 years ago.

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