How to make a fillable form in excel, word or a pdf
If you work in an organization where someone collects important information (data) on a regular basis, then you are probably here because it is time to modernize your process.
If you are still trying to use excel instead of a dedicated form management system, it will be difficult to stay on track in your digital transformation goals as an organization, because in your evaluation you will find out that most still use Microsoft or even pdf files just as they would use paper. So transforming your paper-based processes to these outdated and static tools will literally be 1 step forward and one step backward.
Microsoft and Adobe are amazing companies, unfortunately, they don’t have the capacity to specialize in all your industry-specific needs or uses cases. This is where nSpek comes in.
But feel free to read-on.
The “How hard can it be to make a fillable form?” – trap.
Choosing the right software to create forms or to collect and share that data, can be hard. Especially when we look at the default tools most of us have at our fingertips like Microsoft Excel, Word, Adobe Acrobat, or some free alternatives like Google forms.
Let’s face it, we’ve certainly all filled out a form or two in our lives: a school enrolment, medical administrative records, or a satisfaction survey. And sometimes, we get inspired by someone who seems like they are doing the right thing and apply to our professional life as well. Like when a receptionist gives us a mobile tablet with a fillable form made in Excel or Word instead of a piece of paper.
Today with digitization, many companies opt for more advanced and innovative tools than the simple sheet of paper that was given to you (and that we often lose for that matter).
Real-world applications of a fillable form vs excel or word
When it comes to creating a fillable form in some of these aging tools, we often forget to put ourselves in the shoes of the daily user, like a building inspector, heavy vehicle maintenance check-up person, a quality control auditor, or others who quite frankly, need a mobile form on a mobile tool like a phone or tablet.
These professionals constantly seek ways to decrease the time spent doing their administrative work, their manual transcription time, their document and storage and issues, and all other human-error prone processes that slow them down compared to a fully digital inspection enabled competitor who doesn’t even need an office with all these remote capabilities.
So have you ever wondered why you should choose to integrate a form building software via mobile or web-based apps for your organization? Doesn’t the answer to this question go beyond the simple ecological transition, like saving paper costs, risks, and storage?
Create a full PDF form, with Acrobat or with free software
The PORTABLE Document Format is undoubtedly one of the most common file formats in business. The reason for this success lies in a number of obvious benefits. A PDF file can contain many pages of text and dozens of images while maintaining a relatively small size, making it easy to send and share it via email or the cloud. In addition, this format allows for the same display regardless of the type of device used, without any problems with presentation or formatting.
On the other hand, forms are ubiquitous in our daily lives. In your personal life, they allow you to draw up a list of conference participants, submit an application or registration, or report your taxes. In your professional life, going through a PDF ensures both compliances with the procedures in place and the transmission of important information while providing a comprehensive overview of the document.
All these elements can make a significant contribution to ending the reign of corporate or commercial paper by using a particular type of electronic document: PDF forms that can be filled out directly on a computer. It’s quicker to fill out a form on a computer than by hand, not to mention the fact that it makes it easy to correct any errors. In addition, a digital document is always easy to share with colleagues and customers, analyze, and archive.
Cons: Though you will gather data you will not be able to store it in a centralized, manageable database for global analytics.
When you modify a form, you will have to contact each form user manually and deploy them 1 by 1.
You will not be able to take pictures with your device and attach them directly in the form.
This and many more missing features is why a dedicated form building software is necessary
Here’s how to create a PDF form to fill out.
Create a PDF that can be filled from Word: is this possible?
The answer is simple: no, it is not possible to create a PDF that can be filled with Microsoft Word. However, it is not the software that is responsible, no matter what you can read on the Internet. Microsoft’s famous software allows you to create static forms to print as well as interactive forms that can be filled out directly on a computer (this is also possible with all the software in the Office suite, such as Excel.) All you need to do is activate developer tools hidden in the software’s options, which allow access to a range of features and configurations. You can add text fields to fill out, calendar pop-ups, and drop-down lists to your document; you can protect it from a change by third parties, share it with the people involved, and perform a statistical analysis of your form (subject to having the necessary skills). Word and Excel also offer various templates of documents to download, such as feedback forms or business schedules.
Cons: This solution will still only allow you to use that digital form, as f you would be using paper. It’s a digital transformation blindspot.
Word hides its game well: in the options, it is possible to activate the Developer tab by going through “Customize Ribbon” in the English version of the software.
You get what you pay for, and free is not the way enterprise-grade issues are solved, but Microsoft Word offers a wide range of form templates, to download and use for free anyway.
Cons: Despite taking an enormous amount of time to create and customize your industry-specific digital form, all Microsoft Word form templates (and Excel) can be adapted and modified to suit your wishes.
However, these are .doc files and are probably very useful, but do not have the same advantages as a PDF (such as displaying identically regardless of the medium).
However, it is possible under Word or Excel to record files directly in PDF format. The problem in most cases, unless you find a workaround or hire a developer, is that the PDF registration process removes all the interactive elements of the form, which can no longer be filled out on a computer. The same applies if you use a PDF file creator like the good old PDF24 as a driver for a virtual printer.
When you save it in PDF format, your form created under Word loses all its interactive elements.
The fault lies in the lack of compatibility between Microsoft and Adobe file formats, and it is unlikely that both companies will be prompt to resolve this issue quickly. For example, online application and survey forms made using Microsoft’s software and recorded in PDF format can only be filled out by hand after printing on paper. Under these conditions, you may as well forgo interactive input fields and create a table with empty cells. This is perfect if the goal is to create a simple attendance list, for example. On the other hand, for more complex projects, it is a solution that puts you back to square one in your enterprise digital transformation process.
Free solutions: how to create a fillable PDF in OpenOffice
Cons: Despite still not having a database management, a smart dashboard, or a dedicated mobile form management system, OpenOffice and LibreOffice are free software suites that offer a solution. Indeed, the forms created using these programs retain their interactive elements once registered in PDF format. Those who are used to working with MS Office will be able to easily use these competing software: in fact, the creation of forms works in much the same way.
It will be close to impossible to fill these on a robust tablet, or a phone.
To give you an example, we will rely on OpenOffice Writer, Microsoft Word’s free counterpart (in principle, it is possible to create such forms in all other OpenOffice software, including Calc).
- Open OpenOffice.
- Click “File,” then “New” and “Form XML” to open a new document from which you can create forms.
- In the “Show” tab, click “Toolbars” and then “Form Controls” to view the form control toolbar. It appears in a separate window, which can be attached to the ribbon.
- To start creating your form, simply activate the “draft mode” from the toolbar.
From there, you have carte blanche. Create your form using all the means and tools available to you by OpenOffice: text, images, objects, shapes, tables, etc. You can insert the interactive elements of your form with a mouse at any point in the document.
Just as with a PROFESSIONAL enterprise-grade inspection form builder, you can select the following items from the toolbar:
- Checkbox: an empty box that the user of the form can check or uncheck at leisure. This can be used, for example, to select your gender in an application form.
- Text zone: a free field in which the user can freely write a certain number of characters. This may allow you to write down specific remarks or provide feedback on the form.
- Formatted field: It is possible here to enter a numerical value subject to pre-defined rules by the creator of the form. For example, you can choose to limit the choice to between 1 and 10.
- Button: This feature creates a button that can be associated with a macro. Macros are more or less complex command sequences that can be called with a button, so the user doesn’t need to hand-perform all the commands involved. For example, you can automatically enter your address in a form at the touch of a button. Macros are mainly used in OpenOffice Calc and work in the same way as their counterparts in Microsoft Excel.
- Options box: a special form of a checkbox, useful especially for multiple-choice questionnaires. If you combine several boxes of this type, it is possible to check only one at a time.
- List Area: This feature shows a drop-down menu with a selection of options pre-defined by the form creator. The list area can also be linked to an existing third-party data source.
- Combined Box: Works as a list area, but allows the form user like a quality control inspector to add additional information if they don’t want to select the default options.
- Legend field: used to add descriptive text (legend) to all interactive elements of the form. This allows you to associate with each element a text that appears and describes what that element is for.
- Other command elements: Depending on which version of OpenOffice you have, other features may be available to you. This could be, for example, an order that allows the user of the form to access a list of numbers (for example, years of birth). The date field adds a pre-formatted entry field to your form.
OpenOffice allows you to create forms using different tools (check the red arrow in the image above) that you can adapt to your specific needs by double-clicking on them.
Just double-click on any interactive element to change its properties in every detail. This includes the height and width of an input field as well as its border, title and presentation style (flat or with “3D effect”). To simplify your work on creating the form, you can also copy items and all associated parameters to insert them elsewhere in the questionnaire. Turn on the draft mode to test your interactive elements.
Once you’re done, click “File” in “Export as a PDF” to turn your OpenOffice document into a PDF to fill out. Your field workers or inspection users will be able to easily open, complete and print or save the form using virtually any PDF reader before sending it back to you.
Cons: This is still not a recommended solution for mobile needs or database management.
You can read, fill out, print and save a fillable PDF file on most PDF reading software.
Paid software solutions: how to create a PDF file that can be filled with Adobe Acrobat
As we have seen, it is possible to create a free PDF to complete. Some users prefer to use an official but expensive business solution: Adobe Acrobat which only builds static forms. These do not speak with your ERP, your CMMS, your SQL server, your business intelligence tool, and cannot deploy new digital inspections to all remote users at once.
For example, they may not want to use OpenOffice or LibreOffice. In addition, Adobe has equipped its in-house software with a few specific features that are not accessible to its competitors. The most prominent is the automatic detection of form fields in digital files and even from scanned documents, with amazing reliability. Acrobat even allows you to convert to PDF to fill out a document created on Word.
Here’s how to do it.
In the toolbar, click “Forms” and then “Launch the Form Creation Assistant” (the method and name of each item may vary depending on which version of Acrobat you use; for our example, we relied on Adobe Acrobat 9).
In the window that opens, select your form. Acrobat can open existing electronic forms (under PDF, Word, Excel and many other formats) and convert scanned documents into forms (you can also create a new form using existing templates).
The form creation assistant automatically recognizes all static form fields and renames them from the text around them. This process takes place almost instantaneously with a high success rate. Acrobat may forget a field or interpret a visual dividing line as a signature field. In this case, you can quickly correct the error by inserting, moving or deleting the relevant form items.
In addition to this highly practical tool, the selection and operation of Adobe Acrobat’s tools are very similar to what is done under Word, OpenOffice and LibreOffice: text and list areas, checkboxes, option boxes, option areas, list areas, combined boxes and buttons can be configured very simply with a double-click.
The program also offers other interesting features, some of which are presented in more detail below.
To fill out a changeable form faster, you can press the Tab button to select the next field rather than having to click on each item with the mouse. Adobe Acrobat allows you to define in which order the different items will be selected using the Tab button, so as to make the process of filling the form as fast and efficient as possible.
In combination with Adobe Sign, it is possible to add an electronic signature field to the forms.
The barcode field is another tool specific to Acrobat. This feature automatically converts all form entries into a single barcode that can be read and interpreted using specific hardware. This makes it easier to analyze and archive forms that are sent back to you by mail or fax.
Adobe Acrobat can also distribute PDF forms to your customers and colleagues via email or internal server. The program also tracks the status of feedback messages and sends automatic reminder messages in case of delays.
On its website, Adobe offers useful tutorials on all the additional features available on Acrobat. In addition, a 14-day trial version of Adobe Acrobatvalide is available; it allows PDFs to be modified and documents of this type to be reduced.
It is important to note that many alternatives to Adobe Acrobat offer similar features. However, creating PDF forms to complete is usually only possible in paid versions of these programs (e.g. Qoppa PDF Studio, PDF XChange Editor) or as part of a paid trial version (e.g. Foxit Phantom PDF, Nitro Pro).
In conclusion: It is possible to get a convincing result using free software at the cost of using it just as if you would use paper.
Building fillable and interactive PDF files helps to mitigate the all-paper paradigm in business. That’s why it’s crucial to be able to create them quickly and easily. But with Microsoft Office, we can only do preparatory work towards a true digital transformation. To create a fillable PDF, you need Adobe Acrobat or another program. However, for those who do not wish to use a paid solution, it is possible to switch to free apps like OpenOffice or its french counterpart LibreOffice. The forms obtained are quite satisfactory and can be read and filled out using almost all PDF readers on the market, or once printed.