Forms, some of us love building them and some of us, well, not so much. However, we can’t deny they are one of the most effective ways for an organisation to capture information from a person in a concise and structured way. For any company the benefit of a form is it allows for specific information to be collated and administered as part of a much larger and more complex process, and when done right is truly valuable.
InfoPath is – as the name suggests – is Microsoft’s product for capturing information on a process path. Under the hood, the information the person fills in via the web browser or the InfoPath client, is tagged with XML. The simplest examples look like:
This of course, is not actually what the person sees; a stylesheet composed of XSL renders the XML to look like a more attractive form on the screen.
As well as font and layout information, this stylesheet can include clever rules such as “if the person answers yes to question 4, then show the following new questions 5, 6 and 7, otherwise, hide them”. Forms could be integrated into workflows for more complex processes. These workflows could be designed in SharePoint Designer or Visual Studio. The InfoPath client was used to create the form templates which were then published and stored in SharePoint.
A new direction for Microsoft
We said “was” because at the end of January news sources, such as Mary Jo Foley, were announcing the end of the road for InfoPath. Company officials then confirmed these reports saying:
“In an effort to streamline our investments and deliver a more integrated Office forms user experience, we’re retiring InfoPath and investing in new forms technology across SharePoint, Access, and Word”.
So the 2013 version will indeed be the last, however Microsoft have more recently confirmed that the new SharePoint 2016 and Office 365 will continue to support InfoPath 2013. So where does this leave us?
A different option
InfoPath for many, was too difficult to master and too restrictive for real experts to adopt. It did have its good points, and in the right context it allowed for powerful business processes to be built. Now however, for those wanting a different experience, what is the alternative for a company looking to build form-based business processes on the SharePoint platform?
Nintex Workflows and Forms offer powerful alternatives. They are easier to master for non-technical users as well as being more powerful for real experts. In our experience, their power comes from how easy they are to get to grips with and adopt, training certainly isn’t an immediate requirement.
The key to any successful form or workflow of course is having a clear understanding of what the process is. This includes knowing what it has to capture, at what stage of the process and how it should react to different rules depending on what the user inputs. You then have to know how to creatively adapt these business needs into the structure the technology gives you. A technology which can almost anticipate what you need and show you how to do it easily is a real asset. Nintex have done an excellent job of designing these kinds of tools.
A use case in action
Take the example of a mobile phone requisition process. In this scenario, if staff require a new work mobile phone, they can fill in the Nintex form via SharePoint to say who needs it and what model they require. The request is then sent to their manager for approval. The Nintex form can look up the name of the person on the form to find their manager and their email address. The workflow will then ask the manager to approve the request directly in the email. Once this is received the form is then sent on to a SharePoint library where it is stored and eventually archived off to a file share. The forms can be filled out and seen via mobile devices too.
This was a big issue with InfoPath and didn’t translate well onto mobile devices. Nintex however doesn’t have that issue as they react to the device they are being viewed on. The potential was there for InfoPath but they evolved too slowly.
A more intelligent approach
Nintex Workflows and Forms integrate directly into SharePoint. They are accessed via the ribbon like any other Office function. The Workflows are also very simple to deploy. Simply edit the workflow through the flow diagram interface and publish it in one click. Since workflows and forms must always evolve with business needs, the ability to change them at any time without a specialist makes their cost of ownership much lower.
No matter where the future of work takes us, we will always need forms in some way or another. We will also always need workflows that both work and flow. While there is no clear path away from InfoPath right now Nintex is an excellent option, which provides an integrated forms experience and powerful approach that spans different devices. We’re excited about what we can achieve with Nintex and look forward to seeing this tool become the go-to enterprise solution for forms building.