Tag Archives: form

How Adobe FormsCentral Saved My Project

Adobe FormsCentral, one of their growing number of apps at Acrobat.com, has been on my review list for some time but didn’t have a great angle to write about until recently. Adobe FormsCentral literally saved a recent project of mine, and I was surprised how its strengths dovetailed with the technical issues I was facing.

The project objective was straightforward:

  • Build an online registration form
  • Include payment integration with PayPal
  • Send email notification to the user and the client on submission
  • Store registration data or send it via email to the client

The client’s website is constructed with Ning, which made its name as a social community builder but now is a blend of that and a typical content management system. Unfortunately, Ning’s backend is fairly difficult to work with unless you are doing basic CSS or HTML changes. The Perl script that we used last year to submit the form data was not allowed by Ning, effectively scuttling our existing solution. I was worried that Ning would force the form to be hosted elsewhere until I thought about FormsCentral, which has a few characteristics that made it ideal for this job:

  • A robust set of form elements covered all the inputs I needed.
  • The ability to embed my form on any webpage with an iframe let me put this form on a Ning page with no problem.
  • The FormsCentral service handles all the notifications and submission data storage, so I didn’t have to write code to handle it myself.
  • Multiple user accounts through FormsCentral meant that my client could run reports and check registrant data as easily as I could.

FormsCentral comes loaded with 50 templates for various industries, but I only needed five text fields so a blank template was adequate. In the Design tab, I was able to make fields required, limit the total characters, include help popups and restrict input to certain types like text, number or email. These are all typically included with forms services like FormsCentral. The one design feature that is completely absent is the ability to dictate design with CSS, which I’d normally use to design a web form. I understand Adobe’s focus on non-programmers, but CSS could really make it easier to apply design elements throughout forms.

The Options tab pretty much covered the rest of my project requirements. I created a Submission Receipt that is sent to all users after they complete the form. I also set up a notification to be sent to the client and myself after every submission, though I was a bit disappointed my client had to create an Adobe ID and log into FormsCentral in order to be added to the notifications list. I also noted that I couldn’t create my own HTML email template to be used for notifications or receipts.

Payment processing is also set up in FormsCentral’s Options tab. Configuring PayPal payments with this form was the most difficult step to master. Registering the PayPal account with the form is easy enough but connecting the form fields to the purchase functionality can be confusing. In the Payment Processing settings, I had to specify the purchase field, quantity field, price and description. The user selected their quantity in a particular field on the form, so that was used for the quantity field. (I also could have set it for exactly one item, which is helpful in some situations.) The purchase field is what confused me because, in this case, the form’s Submit button is also considered a valid purchase field. It was what I needed for this project.

FormsCentral forms can be distributed up to three ways:

  • An HTML page hosted at FormsCentral. An example is https://adobeformscentral.com/?f=zGP2-N2bVVS-pV5I4D7hMQ.
  • A PDF form with interactive form fields. This can be submitted by the user when offline, and the data is stored locally until an Internet connection can be made.
  • Embedded via iframe into an HTML page. The embed code looks like this:


script type=”text/javascript” src=”https://formscentral.acrobat.com/Clients/Current/FormsCentral/htmlClient/scripts/adobe.form.embed.min.js”>
script type=”text/javascript”>
var fzGP2_2dN2bVVS_2dpV5I4D7hMQ = new ADOBEFORMS.EmbedForm({formId:”zGP2-N2bVVS-pV5I4D7hMQ”, server:”https://adobeformscentral.com/”, width:640, showHeader:false, transparent:true, widthAfterRedirect:640, heightAfterRedirect:400});
fzGP2_2dN2bVVS_2dpV5I4D7hMQ.display();

You can see some embedded parameters, such as background color, form width and the iframe size after the form is submitted and a redirect URL is specified. (I didn’t use this because FormsCentral lets you show a confirmation message after submission.)

The View Responses tab is where the client and I could see the submitted data. Everything is stored, and PayPal even returns the transaction ID and total dollar amount to FormsCentral so the payment data is complete. A report can be exported from the File menu within FormsCentral, or you can view the Summary Report tab to see some charts based on your data. These did not help me much because most of my data was non-numerical, and the charts can only display data as a full count or an average. My client and I focused on the View Responses tab, which had all the data we required.

The Ning platform could accept FormsCentral’s embed code since it’s pure HTML, and the form itself worked perfectly. This got us around the limitations imposed by Ning and also provided me the data handling that I normally would have executed with my own scripts. Ultimately, FormsCentral gave me more tools with less work and helped both me and my client be more efficient. FormsCentral does have its limitations, mostly imposed by the product’s emphasis on the non-programming user. However, FormsCentral is designed for projects like this one and I was lucky to consider it!

FormsCentral can be run as a 30-day trial for 99 cents or paid monthly for $14.99 per month. This allows up to five forms and up to 500 responses. An annual rate of $143.88, recently reduced, provides 5,000 responses per form with unlimited data storage and unlimited forms. Note that the Acrobat.com apps, including FormsCentral, are not included in Adobe’s Creative Cloud product.

Dom Sagolla’s 140 Characters: Fragmented Writing Creates A Difficult Book

140characters

The thought of reviewing 140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form excited me in several ways. Author Dom Sagolla is not only a respected Twitter user (almost 10,000 users) but he was one of the engineers on the original “twttr” project, so he has a trove of stories and insight into the creation of this brilliant media. I later learned he’s “an English major at heart,” having a writing degree from Swarthmore College. Besides these points, being a writer myself I was intrigued by the notion of “a style guide for the short form,” thinking this book could have something in common with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, one of the great rulebooks for great writing. 140 Characters could have been another timeless book….

Writing style breaks the book

…But I found 140 Characters to be ultimately a disappointment, a difficult book to read—too many random thoughts, not enough organization, and difficult to digest. I felt like I was reading a collection of quotations or sentences, each one making sense and seeming to be a valuable bit of insight, but not gelling together into a well-structured book. I wasn’t sure why I felt this way, but began to suspect that perhaps the book was rushed to publication. I later learned from Dom that this was true: in a direct message on Twitter, he told me he “wrote it from a sense of responsibility, in 3 months.” He also confirms this on page 68 of the book. 140 Characters could have benefited greatly from an extra three months of writing time.

But the book, despite its short writing time, suffers from something worse: the fragmented writing style itself. Only a sentence or two is devoted to an idea at any one time. It reminds me of the “stream of consciousness” method of writing, which can work well in fiction and drama but doesn’t do well with non-fiction and guides like 140 Characters. On page 68 Dom admitted to not just the short writing period but also some writer’s block, and described how he adopted a fragmented writing style (as he declared on Twitter):

“Fragment. Then there is a sentence. Sentences become paragraphs. Inch by inch, a book is written.”

It’s an interesting theory of writing but 140 Characters is a weaker book because of it. Some sections of the book are fully fleshed out in paragraph form, but most is a series of thoughts on a variety of Twitter topics: followers, retweeting, tweeting frequency, capital letters, “small society,” and a hundred other topics including writing for the short form, which is what the book is supposed to be about. Chapter 10 is about the only consistent coverage of this last topic, and it’s an interesting read, but the rest is a melange of random thoughts on related topics.

Other annoyances

There were a couple other aspects of 140 Characters I found annoying:

  • Sometimes a tweet is placed beside a paragraph, as if it is supporting the point, but the connection isn’t clear:

    “Someone is always there to read and listen. There is always an audience for anything. Never doubt that.”

    ((supporting_tweet)) Shut up, or I’ll blog you.

    or:

    “@DarthVader is the original gangster.”

    ((supporting_tweet)) “Away for a few days & when return I have 50K+ followers. Pretty meh for a backwater world. On Coruscant I’ve got 1.2 trillion.”

    I’m sure the connection is clear to Dom, but not necessarily to me or other readers.

  • 140 Characters is structured around chapters and sections titled with single words. “Value”. “Master”. “Branch”. “Iterate”. They are terms Dom uses for particular methods or actions, but they are not explained very well and are confusing. Sometimes the meaning is clear enough but the chapter doesn’t match the title. Chapter 17, “Iterate,” is a particularly weird example: the first couple paragraphs illustrate the meaning of “iterate” (which I think is a good process for any kind of improvement) but the rest of the chapter has nothing to do with improvements through iteration, focusing on unrelated topics as where to write, casual gaming, Threadless Twitter Tees, referencing one’s home state, and “being the change you want to see in the world.” And I had been looking forward to this chapter on iteration.

What I like about the book

I haven’t said much yet in favor of 140 Characters, but there are many small gems to be found in the text. They won’t always help you with Twitter (“Don’t lie”? “Exercise”?!) but some will make you think about what you use Twitter for, and may spark some personal insights. I am also glad to see a book in the field that attempts to look at Twitter from the writer’s perspective, because I do think there is something about the 140-character medium that has sparked some stellar online writing. I think Dom could have found far better examples to use throughout the book: several are tech bloggers or Dom’s friends from Twitter, and almost none of them approached poetry.

The fact that Dom has connections within Twitter also makes 140 Characters an interesting read, at least in the beginning where he devotes the introduction to a retelling of the creation of Twitter. This was a highlight of the book and describes in vivid detail how the social media phenomenon was created and engineered. Stories like these are always enjoyable for those who use the technology or make their living off of it. I’m reviewing another book right now, BlackBerry Planet, and the fact that I use a BlackBerry makes it very interesting for me. Twitter fanatics will want to pick up a copy of 140 Characters just for the Twitter connection.

Conclusion

140 Characters is a unique book: the subject material and the ambition is well-placed but the unorthodox execution weakened the book, making it an interesting collection of thoughts and meanderings on Twitter but not the well-organized style guide I was hoping for. If you take it for what it is, 140 Characters can be an interesting read, but I wouldn’t expect it to become the “Strunk and White” of social media writers. I would recommend it for Twitter aficionados who love the medium. For those who want to get more out of their Twitter account, 140 Characters may or may not spur some insights.

140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form
Dom Sagolla
Published by Wiley
Rating: 6/10

Get 15% Off of All Rosenfeld Books

Rosenfeld Media logo

I just finished reading a great book called Web Form Design by Luke Wroblewski—the review will be publishing here soon. But Louis Rosenfeld and his company Rosenfeld Media were also kind enough to grant all Designorati readers a 15% discount to all products sold at their website, RosenfeldMedia.com.

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Rosenfeld Media is a relatively new publishing house, and according to their website their first books published just last year—but they have a good stable of authors and highly regarded advisors. Web Form Design is the first Rosenfeld Media book I’ve read, and I was very pleasantly surprised (more on this in the review). I’m looking forward to reviewing more of their offerings, and in the meantime I encourage you to visit them if you work in the fields of user experience design, information architecture or related disciplines!