December 14, 2022

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Hiding in plain sight: The paper form problem

OnBase has three forms solution choices: HTML-based for completely customized forms, configurable forms for easy design and maintainability, and an image form product to replicate paper forms exactly as they appear on paper.

Photo of Carolyn Kane

Carolyn Kane

OnBase product evangelist

Person in conference call on laptop in front of a white brick wall.

In this piece:

  • Paper is a bad user experience
  • Lack of technical resources = reliance on paper forms
  • Flexibility in your form solutions
  • Leveraging electronic signatures for data population
  • Recreating forms as HTML
  • Proprietary forms products
  • OnBase forms products

Years ago, at a Hyland CommunityLIVE conference, I started each of my forms sessions by asking the attendees whether they still had paper forms in their organizations.

In every class, filled to capacity, almost every hand went up.

All of those organizations were already Hyland customers, so they knew the value of eliminating paper from their processes. But somehow, paper forms were still a problem.

Think back ever farther to 2008, when electronic forms (also known as eforms, e-forms, and digital forms) were a hot topic in ECM. All our forms were going to be electronic forms! They could be easily routed within a workflow, accessed more easily by remote workers or even the general public, and they would bypass imaging requirements entirely.

It didn’t take long to realize, however, that creating these forms in electronic format was difficult and time-consuming. Not to mention the issues that arose when technologies kept changing, rendering some forms obsolete soon after people created them.

Paper is a bad user experience

Many of us still have some paper forms. It’s an interesting problem, because forms are arguably the most visible documents in any organization. Many times, your first contact with a service provider, business, government organization, or school is through a form. Whether it’s an application, profile, or request, the paper experience is a bad one for everyone.

For example, when I enrolled my daughter in kindergarten this year, I filled out all of our information in triplicate—by hand—for the school, after-school program, and transportation department. As much as I disliked filling out the forms, I’m sure processing them was an even bigger nightmare.

We all know having an efficient, maintainable forms solution is the ideal, but there are so many variables and roadblocks that it’s difficult to find a single solution for all your forms needs.

But what if a single solution isn’t the answer? Paper forms all share the same medium—paper and ink—but are rarely the same when rendered electronically. With electronic forms, things like mobility, data collection, signatures, and routing are important considerations and start to distinguish certain types of forms from others.

Lack of technical resources = reliance on paper forms

You know that paper forms are slowing your processes and bogging down your organization, but someone has to create them—and own them. Unfortunately, that often takes time and resources you don’t have.

I often see customers searching for a ‘magic bullet’ for their forms problems. They tell me they have hundreds or even thousands of paper forms that they would need to recreate, so they want something that makes it easy to transform paper into electronic forms.

But it’s important to invest in a forms technology that will be upgradable and maintainable so that you’re not reprogramming all your forms in a few years. Web programming standards change rapidly, and without an innovative solution, you would have to rework many electronic forms to accommodate an evolving business process, new browser versions, or new devices.

You definitely don’t want to be reworking your thousands of forms every few years!

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Flexibility in your form solutions

The good news is that there are solutions that can help. Hyland’s OnBase content services platform has three forms solutions:

  1. HTML-based for completely customized forms
  2. Configurable forms for easy design and maintainability
  3. An image form product to replicate paper forms exactly as they appear on paper.

These three options allow you to choose the best electronic forms for your organization—and sometimes it’s not a matter of which one but about using a combination of products to meet your needs.

The good news is that we built all of these products on a single platform, so you’re not maintaining three completely different solutions—just tailoring your electronic forms to your specific needs.

If you are still trying to solve your paper form problems, I encourage you to look for a rapidly deployable electronic forms solution that will evolve with changing technologies (and devices) and allow you to upgrade with minimal troubleshooting or changes to your forms. And once you get rid of that paper, you’ll see decreased cycle times, better/more complete data in your system, and less frustration from your users!

Leveraging electronic signatures for data population

Let’s discuss why your organization should stop printing forms to capture signatures and how using electronic signatures gives you a competitive advantage.

You can recreate electronic forms to look exactly like the paper-based versions when you are required to do so by regulations or laws. We’ll also discuss how to make them user-friendly with options like auto-population.

Not every electronic form needs to be signed, even though it seems like forms and signatures often go hand-in-hand. Obtaining a signature may be part of your processes, but adopting electronic signatures can be a major culture change that is difficult to initiate. Most signatures can be categorized as one of three signature types, and identifying the type that you need can help you move forward with your solution. 

Let’s take a closer look at the three types and how they might be a good fit for your organization.

Signature type 1: Acknowledgement

Sometimes you just need someone to sign off on a document or process. Their signature means “I saw this and it’s correct to the best of my knowledge,” or “I saw this and it’s OK with me.” On a paper form, we would have them apply a pen-and-ink signature to indicate that they have viewed and/or agree with the document, but it’s not always a requirement to replicate this exactly once you’ve moved to electronic forms.

Often a simple checkbox will suffice for these types of signatures. Combining a checkbox with a very granular document history that shows the user name and time/date of the signature is a very powerful and simple solution. It’s very easy to implement this type of signature and usually doesn’t require any special hardware.

Another solution for acknowledgement-type signatures involves using a workflow management task to “mark” the document as signed. If someone presses a button to acknowledge the document, they can be prompted to re-enter their password, and they can add a note to the document with information about the signature event. The right solution will automatically save this information in the history of the document.

Signature type 2: Signature capture

In other scenarios, you need to capture an image of the signature and apply it to a form. Fortunately, you can capture signatures via dedicated signature hardware (signature pads), touch screens, or even using mouse-driven devices like graphic tablets.

When this type of signature is required, it’s important to determine if the signature capture method will be convenient and accessible to users. For many users, filling out forms on an iPad is both convenient and intuitive, and signing them is a matter of using a stylus or their finger right on the screen. Other users may be filling out and signing forms at a desktop computer or even from their mobile phones.

Signature type 3: Certificate-based signatures

There are also times when laws or regulations require that the forms must be signed using a certificate-based signature to ensure that the document remains unchanged. When this is required, the signature should be applied at the end of a process, as any subsequent changes to the form will invalidate the signature.

Whichever electronic signature type you wish to accommodate, your organization will see gains in turnaround time for signed documents and cost savings in both labor and hard materials used to sign paper forms. You’ll also minimize security concerns as your solution manages and tracks the entire lifecycle of the documents and guarantees they remain protected, instead of sitting in somebody’s in-tray waiting for them to process the documents. You can also make signed documents immediately available in a secure, central repository, speeding other processes that depend on them.

Adopting electronic signatures on forms is a large step with many factors to consider, but it is a project that will offer a quick return on your investment. And it offers speed and convenience to those signing the documents, as they don’t have to be onsite to sign.

Now we’re going to address the issue of when you have paper forms you need to re-create exactly in an electronic format, either because the process depends on their structure or because they have been through an approval process with a governing body. Your electronic form needs to look exactly like your paper forms, but what can you do to make these types of forms electronic?

There are several ways you can re-create your forms to look exactly like your paper version, but how do you choose what’s right for your organization? Time and technical complexity are great places to start. How difficult will it be to re-create that form, and do you need a programmer or highly technical resource?

Ease of use is another important factor in deciding which method is best for your electronic forms. The forms have to be intuitive enough to accommodate different levels of technical knowledge for those filling out the forms. The best scenarios for end users are when electronic forms are pre-populated with known information (if available) and are able to dynamically guide them through the process of entering any additional information. 


Demo: Electronic signatures with OnBase

This video covers the two integrated signing solutions available with Hyland's OnBase platform.

Recreating forms as HTML

Re-creating a paper form exactly using HTML and CSS is very difficult, and not always advisable. Paper forms are often designed with information stacked closely together, which is limiting and may not allow for adding the conveniences of electronic forms (think drop down lists, radio buttons, and date pickers).

HTML forms generally require a highly technical forms designer to create a sophisticated eform with user-friendly features to support end users. And technology evolves rapidly, meaning that you have to maintain eforms so they are still operable on the newest devices and in the newest browsers.

Proprietary forms products

There are many third-party forms products on the market that promise to help create electronic versions of regulated or highly structured forms. Some of these products are “niche” players and may absolutely be effective for your forms needs.

Considerations for these types of products are security of the forms, storage, and integration with other business applications. Will this system work with your existing systems, or will it be an information silo? Will the forms be stored securely? Will retention policies apply to them?

These are important questions you need to answer before you move forward.

OnBase forms products

OnBase has a native eforms product called Unity Forms. We built Unity Forms with a WSYWIG editor and designed it to integrate natively with OnBase Workflow, document management, and even integration platforms your organization might use to interact with other business systems. Unity Forms have a lot of benefits for users and administrators alike, but for years, they were not ideal for re-creating highly structured or regulated forms because they do not have the fine formatting control needed.

Ease configuration and usability of Unity Forms with Image Form Composition. Image Form Composition maps the values from a Unity Form to placeholders on an image of the paper form. After filling out the Unity Form electronically, you can permanently burn the data on an exact replica of the paper form with a click of the mouse.

The advantages of using OnBase eforms extend beyond the simple calculations of determining paper, toner, and labor associated with moving from a manual process. OnBase securely stores eforms, where they can be automatically routed for approvals, initiate timers for follow-up, and available for retrieval from a variety of devices (including mobile). In addition, you can leverage the data from the forms for future use of the record, real-time reporting, and even to enforce retention policies.