Thursday, April 12, 2007

Reviewing my favorite office 2.0 form designer applications

The greatest shortcoming of the Blog Carnival site and infrastructure is that it doesn't make it easy for people who don't have blogs to participate in the carnivals. Now I know its a Blog Carnival and not a magazine, but we're out to lower barriers to participation, yes?

So for the Carnival of Conflict I decided I'd make a simple form for people to submit their own text. Then I'll post it to a new blog that exists just for holding these posts and link to them in the Carnival. Thus if you don't have a blog, or if you just don't want to have your work be posted on your blog (if its a blog for work or something) then you could still make your voice heard.

Of course I quickly found that its harder than I thought to make a web form. Its easy to do the basic code that would make it functional. Just a dash of html and a sprig of php make it taste just right. But those spammers out there - a form has to have all sorts of security built into it to keep people from using it for their own dark purposes.

So I turned once again to the Office 2.0 database , and specifically to the form designer tag. Here is a list of a number of online applications that will let you design a form online, manage the submissions you get to it, and will host your forms and responses for you. And most will do it all for free (as per my MO, the ones that charged for any service, I basically ignored).

So you don't have to, here are summaries of what they offer, and my recommendations.

FormLogix is very powerful but not as friendly to use as it might be. Its form designer looks and feels a lot like a MS application. That makes it look familiar, but it also makes it look cluttered, boxy, and complicated. FormLogix offers great free service as well as a lot of free templates. Plus you can control all the pieces of the form you write. And their publishing options are as good as anybody else's. All in all its very functional, but not a lot of fun to use.

FormSpring has a fairly limited but easy-to-use free service. Its form design tool is less complicated than FormLogix's, but it is still plenty powerful. It makes it easy too add skip/branching logic to your forms - i.e. "only show this field if user says yes to this question". You can edit the appearance of your forms, and you can post them as links, as iframes, and as the full html of the frame. However the free account only lets you do one form, one template and 50 entries. While its good, I can do better --

The form designer I ended up using is: WuFoo . Like the others, it offered a form designer that was of the same style as Formsprings, and it also offers tiered service. But its free service is better than that of other apps. It is easy to write the functional part of the form, and I could (fairly) easily edit the appearance, too, by creating an appearance template and applying that to the form. The publishing options were also varied: I published it online and linked to it as well as posting the code here. On many free services, when people submit, they see a thank you page that also features advertisements. WuFoo's thank you page is pretty nice, and any advertisements are unobtrusive. Managing submissions is easy too, with a tool for reading and editing submissions. (My one complaint is that you can edit what people submit. Why did they do that?) I think what draws me to it the most (besides that its services are mostly better than those of its competitors) is the fun and lighthearted atmosphere of the user experience. Bright colors, curved borders, cartoon logos and informal language make WuFoo an entertaining place to work online.

Nothing is perfect, and all of these services leave something to be desired here and there. But they are almost all good enough (and free enough) that it is easy to be glad they are available. And they show that what is true of restaurants is true of internet sites: the atmosphere is everything.

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