Forms and SharePoint: InfoPath is here to stay

Forms? Why should I care?

For most people the word “forms” brings to mind bad memories about bureaucratic procedures with lengthy enrollment sheets that require you to enter data that you know for certain you have entered before. I know of these procedures, been forced to go through a whole bunch of them and I too can think of at least one form that made me give up to even start the process it was for. But instead of yelling out “destroy, destroy!” whenever I come across a form I am still a huge fan.

The reason for my everlasting love is simple: garbage in is garbage out to any process and forms provide me with the weapon to ensure data quality on the point of entrance. This focus on data quality was taught to me at a very early stage in my career in light of the single source of truth principle along with the master data management mantra: “Create once, validate once, use many”. A line that is among my favorite quotes from the day that I first heard it.

But hasn’t InfoPath left the building already?

Well actually, no. There has been a lot of talk all over the place, including official statements from Microsoft itself, that InfoPath is on the way out. And while these statements where very strong and decisive in 2014 when Microsoft first came forward with the topic, “…there will not be a new version of InfoPath and support will continue through April 2013…[1], the 2016 release officially included InfoPath which means that by the rules of the Lifecycle Support Model support is continued until 2021 (2026 with extended support)[2]. And Microsoft themselves have updated their earlier strongly formulated statement about InfoPath with a friendlier “…InfoPath Forms Services will be included in the next on-premises release of SharePoint Server 2016, as well as being fully supported in Office 365 until further notice. Customers will be able to confidently migrate to SharePoint Server 2016 knowing that their InfoPath forms will continue to work in their on-premises environments, as well as in Office 365.[3]

And while Microsoft keeps saying that InfoPath 2013 will be the last version of InfoPath that will be released, I see no immediate reason to move away from a tool that works and will remain to work in your latest on-premises and online environments.

So what is it good for?

To possibly better understand my enthusiasm when it comes to forms, it is probably valuable to share that I am a process minded guy with a strong background in Operational Excellence. And thus I know all too well that a good process does not allow for defects to be created along the way. Because a defect either results in rework or scrap and both are a waste of time.

I am such a big fan of forms, because they allow me to eliminate defects at the very beginning. And InfoPath gives me a big box of tricks to enforce data quality at the entry point. To list my favorite ones:

Data validation

We have all seen form entries which contradict themselves. Sometimes it is an honest mistake and sometimes it is unthinkable stupidity, but it is always annoying. With data validation you can add rules that check if people are making mistakes while entering the form, for example by forcing that the return date of a reservation is later in time than the indicated starting date. And with the ability to include multiple fields in one rule, even the most completed scenarios (if A is higher than B and C is less than D than E cannot be higher that B plus C and not lower than D minus A) can be validated. And let’s face it, we can all name a process that has these kinds of if’s, then’s and but’s.

Formatting

Who hasn’t come across the quote “If you have answered “No” to this question, please continue to question number...”? And off course, it is always nice to be able to skip a question, but wouldn’t it be even better if the questions you do not need to answer are not even asked in the first place? With formatting this is possible, because based on given values you can determine to show a field or even a whole section of fields. So only those questions that need to be asked based on the previous answers will be shown. This also gives the user the feeling that the form is designed especially for him or her, which always wins you sympathy points.

Querying for data

One other great way to enhance data quality and reduce effort for your users is being able to query for data. The scenario comes to mind of an ordering form, which always need to contain information about a product and a customer. You know this information is available somewhere in the organization already and probably stored in a very structured manner. So why not tap into this source. By providing the product code in the form you can fire of a query that gets all the additional information about that product that you need. This has two big advantages: 1) as a user, I only need to type in the product code and 2) as an administrator I only have to keep the source list up to date to ensure data quality for every entered product code.

Cascaded dropdowns

As a user, I always like when a form thinks along with me. Take for example the scenario where I have to provide a shipping location by filling out country, city and building. As soon as I have provided the country I would appreciate it when I can then only pick cities that are within that country. And that as soon as I have picked the city, I only get buildings within that city. With cascading dropdowns this is possible and again it is a way to at the same time enhance data quality and provide user comfort.

Calculated fields

Calculated fields can be of use in two different ways. The first one is obvious because it is right there in the name: to perform a calculation. This can be anything from a simple total order amount calculating based on the quantity and the price to a complex calculation of break-even revenue based on the price, sales per hour, salary per hour, rent per day and overhead cost percentage. Incorporating any formula into your form again enhances data quality and provides user comfort.

The second way that calculated fields can help you in InfoPath is to provide feedback to your user. Take the previous scenario of retrieving data about a product based on the product code. It is not a bad idea to show the user all the information that was gathered based on the entered product code so he or she can check if that is indeed the product information that is needed. However, you also do not want to allow the user to change this info. If there is indeed a fault in the data, then the source needs to be adjusted to solve it for everyone. The nice thing about a calculated field, as you also know from SharePoint lists, is that they cannot be edited. So if we provide the retrieved info in calculated fields, the user gets their feedback and the admin maintain control over the data quality. Again a win-win scenario.

Infopath
Infopath

So what’s the downside?

Off course InfoPath is not perfect and there will be limits to what you can do with it, but from my experience the vast majority of business processes can the greatly streamlined by pouring the data entry into smart forms build in InfoPath. And if you come across that process or trick that just isn’t doable to dummy proof it with a good form, then please ask yourself this question before going out and buying something else: “does my process really need to be this complex?”. But that’s the Operational Excellence guy in me talking.

One true disadvantage of InfoPath is that it is not included in the standard SharePoint Server offering. You have to go Enterprise[4] to get it and that is a pretty big difference in cost. And while everything has its price tag, you will to sit down and do your homework before acquiring InfoPath from an investment point of view. It will take a cost benefit analysis over multiple areas to weigh of efficiency gains to license costs before you know is the investment of upgrading from a Standard Server license to an Enterprise Server license will pay off.

However, the Office 365 environment offers multiple possibilities to go about your licensing in a whole different way that could significantly reduce the total investment needed. Plus, you get the flexibility of scaling up and down in the cloud. Our licensing experts can certainly help you figure out what would be the best plan for your organization with respect to InfoPath licensing.

Another often heard critique about forms is that they are ugly and you cannot do a lot in terms of design improvement. While InfoPath certainly is built with function over beauty in mind, there are still many possibilities to enhance the look of your forms. I would put it more like this: if you can manage to create nice excel sheets and word document, you will have the tools to present a good looking form.

To make a long story short

InfoPath is definitely not out the door yet. As Microsoft promises its users, it will be included in the latest online and on premise offerings for SharePoint and supported throughout 2026. So if you have InfoPath at your fingertips right now, use it! Build those forms and make your processes more robust and fool proof. The investment will pay itself back in the coming decade and the experience you gain from digging into the details of your processes and determining what piece of information is needed when and what is the best source to retrieve it from will be valuable forever. Because you will need to go through the same steps when building your forms in any other tool.

This blog post is part of the series Forms and SharePoint. More on this Topic can be found at http://rapidcircle.com.au/tag/FormsAndSharePoint/