These are five of the main things that I think make InfoPath 2007 such a great piece of software.
1. Repeating Tables
Unless a form has a ridiculous number of rows in a table, sooner or later, someone will have more items to enter than there are rows provided. Whether you’re listing items to claim expenses for, products to order or reasons why you’re the perfect person for a job, sometimes, you have more things to list than others. If a form has ten rows in a table, you will hate the day that you have eleven, because it means filling out another copy of the form.
But not with repeating tables. This is one of the inbuilt controls in InfoPath that can be used in both desktop and browser-based forms. It looks like a table with only one row, but it takes a single click of a button to get another row, as many times as necessarily. You don’t have a stupidly long form, but you have exactly the number of rows you need. And it’s still possible to do totals and functions over the elements in the table.
There are also repeating sections, which work in a similar way. With these, you have a section of the form that you can put controls, text and so on in exactly as though it were another section of the form. But the person filling out the form can get another copy of this section to fill out if they need to.
2. Conditional Formatting
I have filled out several forms that have whole sections that only certain people need to fill out. My student loan application came with a booklet so huge it barely deserved the “let” explaining exactly who needed to fill out which bits. When you apply for a passport, there’s a service where you can get someone to check that you’ve filled in all the fields that apply to you.
I have to wonder how much time and money is wasted because these complicated forms are filled out incorrectly.
With conditional formatting, you can easy hide or show parts of the form based on responses to the questions. This can be something really simple, like hiding a section unless a particular check-box is ticked. Or it can be based on a complex rules with multiple conditions on various fields in the form.
There is also the option to change the appearance of parts of the form based on conditions, but it’s the ability to hide sections and controls that I think really makes the program shine.
3. Tick boxes you can actually tick.
I’ve been emailed forms that are Word documents on many, many occasions. This is fine when you’re wanting to enter text in fields. It’s a problem when there are check boxes. In Word, these are generally done by having a small rectangle. These forms are clearly designed by people who are used to paper forms and they work well if the form is printed out. But what if you want to email the form back? You have to find some way to indicate which of the little auto-shapes you want to select and there’s no obvious way to do this. So people will do something with the highlighter or typing text, or they might just ignore the check boxes entirely. Either way, it’s an irritation.
4. Data Connections
Despite how some organisations might make things seem, people don’t want forms for the sake of it. They want forms for the information people write into them. With InfoPath, it’s incredibly easy to make connections to databases that either read data into the form or send it out.
Instead of having a form of information that someone has to manually copy over into a database (leading to problems of duplication if two people perform the task, issues of human error because there’s now twice the chance for typos, not to mention the time spent), the user can just click a button and send information instantly from the form to wherever it needs to go. And if you want to update a record, you can make a form that pulls data from wherever it’s stored and displays it in the form, so you only have to change the fields you want.
5. Form conversion
Let’s say you have about a hundred forms in Word that your business uses on a regular basis. Maybe you have some expense or sales forms created in Excel.
I’ve just gone on about some of the wonderful features of InfoPath. But you’ll be thinking about the stack of forms that you currently use and you’re wondering if the improvements InfoPath can offer will be worth all the effort of recreating them as InfoPath templates.
What if a lot of that effort went away? You can convert Word and Excel forms into InfoPath forms extremely simply and InfoPath is pretty good at spotting what should be a check box or a repeating table and so on. It’ll even name all the fields for you. Sure, you’ll almost certainly need to do a little bit of tweaking to get your perfect form, but that will take a lot less effort than rebuilding the form from scratch. And you’ll be left with a form that has a similar layout and appearance as the old one, but which will be a lot nicer for everyone involved when it comes to being filled out.
This is just a taster. There are a whole host of reasons, big and small, why I think InfoPath is a brilliant program. The biggest reason of all: it’s so easy to use.