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How to create hassle-free fillable PDFS

 

Interactive forms streamline the process of filling in and collecting data. 

They can be filled in on any keyboard input device (computer, tablet, iPhone, etc.) and submitted via internet connection and are easy to print. This is why interactive forms (aka fillable PDFs) are a popular job request from our clients.

Creating these forms is a task that can be simple or laborious — depending on the length of form, complexity of it, and the amount of prep work that needs to be done to the original document beforehand. 

I’ve noted a few issues you can take care of on the front-end.

Not only will these save you time and money, but you'll have a better product. 

Use these to optimize your document before it comes to us — it will take us less time to turn it into an interactive form and you can get it to your clients faster.

How will the form be used?

Be mindful of the users who will be filling in your form and what you wish from them.

Will the form be comprised of questions that need only short answers (name, address, date, income, yes/no), or do you expect lengthy answers? 

Do you want to leave room for them to handwrite the answers or make notes in the margins?

How about a drop down menu, digital signature, or radio buttons?

Do you want the ability to clear a form with a single click? 

Will you want to include simple formulas in your form that will calculate user data? 

All of these things dictate the design of your document before it’s converted to an interactive form.  

Typing vs Handwriting

You can expect that—no matter how convenient and awesome your interactive form is—some your users will want to print and write answers by hand.

Maybe they’re terrible at typing, or perhaps they have had bad experiences with interactive forms before (for instance, perhaps a previous fillable form didn’t allow them to save their data).

Whatever the case, no doubt someone in your mix will want to handwrite their answers.

The easy way to deal with this is to simplify your form (no drop down menus), and leave plenty of room to allow for either typing or handwriting. 

While handwriting typically takes much more space on a page, people who type their answers - and have plenty of room to do so - can become very wordy.

In any case, leave plenty of room for lengthy answers, whether they're typed or written.

S  p  a  c  i  n  g      M  a  t  t  e  r  s

If your form requires succinct answers, don't leave too much space. If you want a paragraph response, leave plenty of room.

If you want your users to give lengthy answers, you’ll need to provide plenty of space between questions.

If you’re asking them, for instance, to state their profession, you’ll require a very small space compared to the amount of space you’ll need for them to expound on the reason they chose their profession. 

Likewise, using drop down menus and list boxes requires more room than other areas on your form.

Do you want your users to be able to doodle in the margins? 

Perhaps your interactive form contains a series of mathematical problems, and you’d like to see not only their answers, but the work they did to achieve those answers.  

Keep this in mind when you create/discuss the layout of your document.

Keep in mind the format of the answer you wish to receive. 

If you’re asking for income, typically your users expect that you want a numerical answer. 

You can limit your users to a numerical answer by having your designer create that particular field with a numerical-only value (they can even be limited to the amount of numbers you wish). 

But if you don’t limit your user to a numerical value, you may find that they try to type in something like:  “$85,000 in a typical year but this year hasn’t been typical”, “$85,000 before taxes”, or “$25,000 from my side job and $60,000 from my full-time job”. 

Again, keep in mind the type of information you want to receive for each answer. 

Your designer can customize each form field so that you only get the types of answers you wish.  (And this is important when comparing apples to apples. 

If Thomas, Joe and Fran input their income in a numerical value, but Britney gives you a lengthy essay, how will you quantify that?) 

Write on the line.

Avoid using lines for paragraph answers, even if it's a short paragraph. Lines are okay for very short answers, like a name.

Many clients give us a draft document that has been designed with lines where the answers will be.

This is great for those users who are expected to handwrite answers, but it can be a problem when creating interactive forms. 

The reason for this is that interactive forms are largely made up of text and number boxes. It’s pretty time consuming to create these boxes so that an user’s answer falls on the lines that you’ve already created.

And frequently the line size is out of proportion with the font size.  (See the fonts section below.)

However, when you require your user to answer something in few words, or perhaps a short numerical answer, it is often helpful to add lines to your document. 

SOME FORM APPS, LIKE ADOBE, WILL AUTOMATICALLY “READ” THE WORDS BESIDE BLANK LINES AND CREATE FORM FIELDS AUTOMATICALLY.

This can save a lot of time for your designer, and if she or he is working on an hourly basis, a significant amount of money for you.  

Often, auto-populated form fields still need tweaking, but typically tweaking is quicker than creating. 

Special Options

Forms are not limited to text and number boxes. You have a lot of options to choose from.

Forms can also include check boxes, radio buttons, list boxes, signature fields, executable buttons and drop down menus. 

Think about any of these that you may want to use while you’re in the planning pages of your document. 

Once your draft form goes to your designer, it’s difficult to rearrange your text in order to accommodate some of these items.  

The same goes for forms that calculate field data.  

Make sure you know what you want your form to do before you hit the final stages of the document design.

Small details    

What the font!

The form-creating apps I’ve worked with have all had a default font used in form fields - the one that the app automatically tries to use every time it prepares a form.

This is changeable, but realize that the form app may not have your fancy Kaushan Script in its library of fonts. 

My advice is that you have your designer utilize a font that’s easy to read. 

After all, you are the one who will be seeing the data in these interactive forms.

Also know that the best looking, most readable forms keep one consistent font type, style and size throughout the form.

I use Adobe, which defaults to “auto” font size (meaning its size is scalable to the space allotted). 

Auto sounds like it would be great, right?  Scaling to the size you have available sounds perfect. 

In reality, though, it’s more difficult and confusing to read a form that has multiple font sizes throughout. 

Unless instructed otherwise, I always stick to Helvetica 10pt in form fields. 

It’s a font that’s easy on the eyes and makes for a clean document. 

Character values

There are various options you have when creating form fields. 

Not only can you have check boxes and radio buttons, but the variety you can add to your text fields makes for a largely customizable form. 

Earlier, I mentioned that you should consider how you want your user to answer your question (namely: lengthily or briefly? in numbers or letters?). 

This is where character value comes in, and it can be a handy attribute to tweak. 

Your designer can limit the number of characters your user can input (many forms do this - think of state abbreviations when you’re asked for your address); the type of character (numbers vs. letters); allow for multi-line or scrolling text; and check your user’s spelling if you wish. 

Be thoughtful if you decide to limit characters; sometimes it’s just as useful to read Britney’s income essay as it is to read Thomas’ numerical value of his.

What to expect.   

With any design job, the clearer your expectations are, the easier they are to meet. This applies to fillable PDFs too.

If you know what you want from your form, and you have created a draft document that will deliver what you need, what can you expect from your designer?

Complexity and length usually determine the amount of time it will take to turn your absolutely-ready document into a form.  

A document with ten form fields should only take a few minutes to create with good software.  

But something that has several hundred form fields may take hours.  

Several hours if you've sent your designer a perfectly-ready document or many, many hours if your document needs tweaking or isn't optimized for forms. 

Design your form document intentionally by compensating for handwriting, leaving enough space, using lines only where needed, and keeping the small details in mind.

It will save you tons of time, and blow your users away.

 

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author: laura

PDF wrangler, Apple convert & unpublished writer of short stories. Always has a dog by her side.