Forms management, for many organizations, is a strategic function. It is strategic because forms support every workflow process in the organization. Accordingly, every organizationlarge and small, public or private, for profit and non-profithas a forms management function. Sometimes, this function is formal and organized; sometimes it is not. Nonetheless, the forms management function always exists.

Too many organizations view forms management as a tactical function, with each form considered on its own and not as a part of the complete workflow. This generally results in inefficient and ineffective forms, which can hurt sales and customer service efforts, as well as increase processing costs.

Forms can exist in many formats, including paper (p-forms), electronic (e-forms), web-based (i-forms), and virtual (v-forms). Proper forms creation processes require professional workflow analysis, design skills and management of production and deployment processes.

One of the important decisions an organization must make is whether or not to perform forms design functions in-house or to outsource the design function. Before considering the options, it is first important to understand the entire design workflow. Designing forms is not simply drawing lines, text and objects. Forms are distinct and separate from other types of documents. Consider the following definitions:

Document: A container of information. This includes just about any type of business communication you can think of, including posters, email, financial statements, memos, forms, brochures, pamphlets, letters, pictures and much more.

Form: A specialized document (whether paper or electronic) that contains fields for the capture and/or display of variable data. It is the presence of these fields that make forms different. Fields can be explicit or implied. For example, envelopes usually have implied fields where the variable data (the address) is to be inserted. Most forms have explicit fields, instructing the user on where to enter the variable data. Forms include many different product types, such as paper, labels, computer screens, touchscreens and more.

Record: A specific instance of a document, unique to a transaction or specific set of data. A filled-out form becomes a record.

Obviously, the development process for general documents is quite different than that of forms. Design software used to create brochures (page layout) is different from those used to create letters and memos (word processing) and different from those used to create financial or analytical documents (spreadsheets). Of course, one can use word processing, spreadsheet, or page layout software to create forms, but why would they want to do so? General purpose software is cumbersome, slower and does not contain the specific feature sets required to draw a wide range of forms.

The forms design process is a specialized workflow consisting of distinct steps, including:
  • Workflow Analysis: Understanding the overall business requirement of a major business system. This is an important step in forms creation, as the form–or forms–required can overlap, cross multiple departments and can support strategic and complex needs.
  • Process Analysis: A detailed, step-by-step process map of the form use throughout the specific business process. A workflow system can consist of multiple processes.
  • Design Analysis: The process of interpreting all process requirements into elements on a form container, considering usability, accessibility, data capture and display, business rules, pre- and post-processing requirements and records retention requirements.
  • Container Creation and Proofing: The drawing of the form container and all its objects. This considers the form product type, production specifications and requirements and deployment, including proof approvals from the form owner, other stakeholders and any legal, regulatory or internal approvals required.
  • Mapping and Testing: Adding fields and field properties to the electronic or web-based form, including performing alpha testing (testing functionality with the process requirements).
  • Deployment: Includes testing of the completed form in the user environment (beta testing), production of printed forms and deployment of the forms to users (catalogs, repositories and portals, as well as requisitioning systems).
  • Forms Control: Making sure the form meets all standards for numbering, titles, use of fonts, colors, logos, design styles, etc. Includes maintenance of the official form files and production records.

Most of these steps cannot be effectively outsourced. They involve a thorough understanding of the requirements of the specific business, the applicable business rules, processing requirements (such as folding, inserting and mailing) and regular reviews of completed forms. Since many forms are used by outside persons (customers, suppliers, prospects), it is generally desirable to maintain control over these processes internally.

The actual drawing of the form container using design software is usually the easiest and fastest step in the design process. Once the design analysis is completed, converting the requirements to a container design is a production step. Of course, proper communication of the design analysis results to the designer is very important. This step can become difficult and result in a somewhat less-than-optimal form when working with an outsource supplier.

However, some of the functions can be outsourced, and sometimes, that may be the best outcome. These functions include process mapping, forms design and forms mapping. To do so effectively, proper communications between the outsource vendor and the process owner is critical.

Frequently, I am asked to draw a form container by a customer. Generally, I receive a rough draft (or a marked-up copy) of the desired container. Of course, I can simply draw the form as requested. That can work well if all elements are clear, the proper style is evident and the processing and retention requirements are obvious. There is a higher risk, however, that the completed form will not function as intended if the total use requirements are not communicated. For electronic forms (even simple print-on-demand and fill-and-print forms), the risks increase considerably. Field sizes that will accommodate data requirements, use of productivity tools, such as drop-down selections, proper masks and formats, correct data types and much more are just some of the design issues that I need to know. If I can see a map of the business process, or the results of a design analysis or if I can visit with the form owner, I can generally produce a much more viable form.

In addition to the analysis issues and questions, the decision to outsource should include an understanding of the requirements of the specific software used to create and deploy the form. Most professional design software contains many features that support requirements for many different form types. Accordingly, such software can have a long learning curve. If the software is used only occasionally, it can be difficult or impossible for the forms designer to become familiar with all the capabilities of the software. The time required to draw and map the fields of a form can increase significantly. Once proper procedures are in place, communication of all requirements to the outside designer can be accomplished such that proper design is assured. For these reasons, organizations with small or static forms populations may appropriately choose to outsource the design.

Selection and in-house use of proper forms design software requires specialized training and a lot of practice. It can be expensive to acquire and maintain. Provisions must be made for personnel back up and turnover. As a result, many organizations forego the acquisition of specialized design software and resort to the use of general purpose software for forms design. While it is understandable that an organization would want to use products that they already have, good forms design cannot be produced consistently without proper forms design software. It is preferable to outsource forms design to a supplier who uses full-featured forms design software than to produce forms in-house using a software product not intended for forms design.

For organizations with large and dynamic forms populations, keeping the design function in-house generally makes more sense. Specialized designers can quickly become power users of the design, and mapping software and forms production can be streamlined and be more cost-effective. Better communications between the workflow analysts and the designers leads to more effective forms. Internal design standards and styles can be uniformly applied. Software maintenance and upgrades are more economical and affordable.

For most organizations, a properly staffed internal forms management department can help ensure that forms function as intended. By routinely performing forms reviews, conducting workflow and process analyses regularly and by developing the expertise to design and manage all forms within the enterprise, organizations can increase sales, enhance the customer experience and aggressively manage and reduce forms production and use costs. Best practices beget optimal results.

Ray Killam is the president of Essociates Group, a firm that provides forms training and consulting services. Contact him at