What is an electronic form?

Here's a little exercise. Write down, in 25 words or less, what is meant by the term "paper form". Now write down, in 25 words or less, what is an "electronic form". If you're anything like me, you'll find the second exercise much harder than the first.

Let's look at that definition of an electronic form. Did it include forms for which only the distribution is electronic (e.g. forms that must be printed to be filled and submitted, but can be emailed)? How about documents that don't have any forms widgets (e.g. check boxes and date pickers) but can be typed into? Did you make reference to connectivity — to an internal network and/or the Internet — in your definition? How about the degree of interaction and responsiveness?

By this point the difficulty of defining an "electronic form" is probably becoming apparent. But all too often, we discuss electronic forms without ensuring a common understanding. This is a sure path to problems — what is and is not meant by an "electronic form" can have significant repercussions for both design and business process. This article aims to help by proposing a simple, technology-independent description of the different types of electronic forms.

The spectrum of electronic forms

There isn't just one type of electronic form. Rather, electronic forms differ in their degree of:

  • Interactivity: how responsive the form is to entries that the respondent makes; and
  • Intelligence: the ability of the form to use information inside and outside the form to minimise errors and reduce the respondent's workload. (This is the "clever" C in the 4 Cs of Good Form Design.)

At the lowest end of the spectrum, there is no interactivity and no intelligence. The form is static; the only thing that makes it "electronic" is its distribution method. A non-fillable PDF document is an example of this type of form — the form must be printed out to be completed and submitted.

At the highest end of the spectrum, there is extensive interactivity and intelligence. The form-filler can put their answers straight into the form, which makes use of all the relevant form widgets. Where relevant, answers are pre-populated using existing data sources. Conditional branching is done programmatically — with questions only being asked if they are relevant — and answers are validated using both internal and external information. Desktop applications, such as Microsoft Access, and quality web forms are examples of this type of form.

6 types of electronic forms

We propose that this spectrum in electronic forms can be divided up into 6 levels:

Level Name Content
1 "Static" Electronic distribution
2 "Editable" Level 1 plus typing
3 "Fillable" Level 2 plus form widgets
4 "Validating" Level 3 plus feedback based on internal rules
5 "Smart" Level 4 plus form changes based on internal rules
6 "Connected" Level 5 plus connectivity

These levels will make more sense after reading the descriptions and examples below.

Level 1: Static

This is the previously described lowest level of the electronic forms spectrum. The form is essentially a paper form distributed electronically. It could just as easily be posted or faxed, for all the interactivity and intelligence it has (i.e. none). Also, getting data from the form to a database or system is usually manual (e.g. data entry from printouts).

Level 2: Editable

At this level, the form-filler can type into the form but it does not respond intelligently. The form must be printed or saved and attached to an email to be submitted. In most cases, manual processes are still required to get data from the form into a database or system.

An example of a Level 2 form is a Microsoft Word document that has been prepared without using any specific forms functionality. In such a form, the places where data should be entered are often indicated by rows of underscores, dotted lines or tables.

Level 3: Fillable

Level 3 is where electronic forms begin to offer real value. The use of form widgets — such as drop down boxes — reduces both errors and workload, as there are now limitations on the type of data that can be entered.

This is the first level at which data may be able to be programmatically extracted from the form and placed into a database. Whether this can be done, however, depends on how the form has been developed.

Examples of Level 3 forms include:

  • Fillable PDFs
  • Word forms
  • Web forms (i.e. forms that are filled out using a Web browser like Internet Explorer or Firefox).

Level 4: Validating

The change between Level 3 and Level 4 is the introduction of interactivity. At Level 4, the form provides feedback in response to entries from the form-filler. This feedback is triggered by rules that are 'internal', i.e. contained entirely within the form.

Validation is the typical Level 4 interactivity. Validation is the checking of answers provided against definitions of what is acceptable. For example, a Level 4 form will report back if mandatory fields have been left unanswered.

Level 5: Smart

Level 5 forms now have two ways that they can respond to form-filler answers:

  • present feedback; and
  • modify the form itself.

When we talk about modifying the form itself in response to answers provided, we are most often referring to as 'conditional branching'. For example, it doesn't make sense (usually!) to ask a male respondent if they are pregnant. The question on pregnancy is conditional upon the answer to the question about the respondent's sex. In Level 5 forms, this branching is managed for the respondent and the form adapts to ensure that the respondent is not burdened with irrelevant questions.

Level 6: Connected

Level 6 is the highest level in the electronic forms spectrum. Forms at this level have full interactivity and intelligence thanks to connections with either a network or the Internet (or both). These connections allow the form to:

  • apply rules that rely on external data (e.g. check that a requested business name isn't already registered); and
  • submit data directly to a database.

Therefore, level 6 forms can leverage all that the electronic medium provides.

Most Level 6 forms are interactive applications (e.g. on the desktop) or web forms. This is because these platforms provide the connectivity and programming capability that enable Level 6 forms.

Summary of the levels

The table below shows the functionality offered by the different levels. The table suggests what is true about electronic forms: they are more useful — but also more work — the further away they are from paper.

Can be filled in without being printedMakes use of form widgetsUses internal rules to validate answersUses internal rules to adapt the form to contextApplies rules from external sources and connects direct to database.

Can be filled in without being printed Makes use of form widgets Uses internal rules to validate answers Uses internal rules to adapt the form to context Applies rules from external sources and connects direct to database
Static
Editable ✔︎
Fillable ✔︎ ✔︎
Validating ✔︎ ✔︎ ✔︎
Smart ✔︎ ✔︎ ✔︎ ✔︎
Connected ✔︎ ✔︎ ✔︎ ✔︎ ✔︎

A decision tree for defining electronic forms

So how can we put the definition described here into practice? We propose that the next time someone says to you, "can you make this paper form electronic?", you run through the following decision tree to find out exactly what they mean.

Figure 1: Use this flowchart to work out what kind of electronic form you have or want.