What features to look for with mobile and web-based forms?

Have you considered using web and mobile based forms to collect data for your development programme?  There are numerous benefits to switching, including significant time savings, higher quality data and of course faster access to your data.  Not to mention of course savings on printing, transporting and storing lots of paper.

If you're thinking of making the switch then read on for some tips on key features to look out for when selecting technology to help you create and collect data via mobile and web based forms.

This list is intended to help you define which features are important for your project or programme.  Depending on your context some features may be essential, others only nice to have and others completely un-necessary. 

1. Help text

Providing clear guidance for each question on the form is really important.  If your field staff don't understand the question (or have different understandings of the same question) then the quality of your data will suffer.  Don't leave that to chance.  Almost all form tools allow you to define help text that provides a detailed explanation of what you are looking for.

If it won't bias your data, consider providing an example to show people the type of response you are looking for.  This helps people understand what response you are expecting.

2. Validations

Validations are an easy way to improve data quality.  On a simple level most tools will allow you to specify if a field is required or optional.  The form will not save unless all required fields are completed.  If a field is required then you should also be able to add validation help text.  Separate from normal help text, this explains to your users what response is expected for each required field.

Some tools also include advanced validations.  This go beyond simple required or optional, letting you specify what type of response is allowed.  For example:

  • Must be an email address
  • Must be a number
  • Must be a word with at least two characters
  • Must be a date
  • Must be a number that is greater or lower than that given in a previous response
  • Must be a date before or after that entered in a previous response

These type of validations enable you to include logic in your form that checks for consistent responses or meaningful responses.  Take the following example:

You are collecting data on deadlines for specific project milestones.  It wouldn't make sense that the target completion date is earlier than the inception stage.  You can set date validations to ensure that one date is later than the other.

Considered use of validations can greatly improve your data quality.  They prevent users entering in-consistent responses or responses that don't make sense in relation to the question.  However, they should also be used carefully, once you understand the kind of responses each form gets.  Otherwise you can put in place validations that you think make sense, but actually block people from giving a meaningful response that you did not consider.

3. Field types

Field types are the type of responses that you can give to a question.  Here are some common options:

  • Text box (shows a simple box to enter one or more words)
  • Number box (show a simple box to enter a number)
  • Date chooser (brings up a calendar from which you can select a date)
  • Menu (brings up a drop down menu to select a pre-defined response)
  • File upload (for web based forms, select a file to upload)
  • Photo or video (for mobile based forms, take a photo or video to attach to the form)
  • Radio buttons (click a button to select a pre-determined response)

Other types of fields that you may need for more advanced forms include:

  • Repeat fields (where one or more fields can be repeated to create a table. This is useful if you need the option to collect the names, genders and ages of all the people in a household for example, but don't know how many there will be in each household)
  • Signature (some mobile forms allow users to sign their name using their finger on the screen when completing a form)

4. Default responses

Default responses are a great way to improve the usability of your forms.  Imagine that you have a question where you know that 90% of people completing it will respond in the same way.  This is when it helps to add a default to save people time.  This could mean:

  • Pre-setting a yes or no response
  • Automatically entering some pre-defined text
  • Selecting a response from a drop down menu

In each case the user can change the default if they need to.  However, for those that were going to give that response it's a big time saver.

5. Languages

Are you working in languages other than English?  If so check which languages you need and if the tool you are considering supports these languages.  While some tools will enable you to create forms in different languages, they may require you to create (and maintain) a separate version of the same form for each language.  More advanced tools enable you to define the form field names, help texts and validation text in multiple languages.  This way the same form will appear in different languages to different users, depending on their browser or device settings.

6. Duplicate checking

Checking for and removing duplicates can become a never-ending task for some M&E teams.  This is particularly problematic when working on larger programmes that are working with large groups of programme participants or partners.

While duplicate checking is a big topic in itself, there are simple things that forms technology can do to help minimise this problem.  There are typically three common approaches to this problem:

  1. Allow users to save the form, but label it as a 'draft' version and initiate a workflow that prompts someone else to check if it is a duplicate and either merge or approve the data saved
  2. Specify which fields in your form are used to check for potentially duplicate versions.  This could be the partner or participant's name, ID number or email address.  Duplicate checkers will typically present a list of data matching these criteria to help people assess if the data already exists.  This approach leaves the final decision with the user.
  3. Same as the previous option, except the user is blocked from creating a new form if a version with the same information already exists.  This works well when you are confident that the field(s) used to check for duplicates (like IDs) work well and are reliable.

7. Skip logic or conditional fields

Skip logic or conditional responses is a common feature in many survey tools.  It works by showing or hiding questions based on responses made earlier in the form.  For example, you might have a question saying:

Has the project plan been approved? (Yes or No)

If the user selects yes, you could show a follow-up question asking when it was approved or asking for a copy of the plan to be uploaded

If the user selects no you could show a different follow-up question asking when it will be completed

This feature can greatly improve the usability of your forms, particularly if they are quite long.  It allows you to tailor the form experience to the different types of people completing it.  This is particularly important if you work in a context where you are reliant on people voluntarily contributing data.

8. Calculations

Calculations are another great feature that mobile and web based forms bring.  If users are entering numerical data why ask them to do the maths?  That's why we have computers.  If this is important for you then look for tools that offer the option for calculated fields.  Typically this will include calculations like:

  • Sum
  • Average
  • Count

These can be applied to fields in a row or column to automatically calculate a total.

9. Roles and permissions

In some circumstances you may need to restrict who can open a form or edit or delete data already saved.  If you need this option then look for tools that let you define user roles and set permissions.  This typically works like this:

  • Create a list of user roles (with names that explain what the role relates to)
  • Associate user accounts with the role(s) you want them to have
  • Specify on your forms which roles are able to create, edit, view or delete that form

This will then apply these roles by default to all forms of that type.  Consider also if you need the option to then over-ride these defaults on specific forms.

10. Linking forms

In our experience forms rarely exist in isolation.  You may come across situations where it's necessary to link one version of a form with another.  Take the following examples:

  • When completing a form recording an outcome, you need to link it to a pre-existing form for the partner that was involved in achieving that outcome
  • When completing a form recording a training, you need to link it to pre-existing forms for the partners or participants attending the training

In both cases it's helpful to be able to reference one or more forms (that have already been saved) in another form.  This saves entering the same data twice and makes your analysis easier by linking the forms directly.

11. Pulling in data from other forms

We can extend the previous example a little further.  Imagine your programme works across 50 project sites.  On each project site you are providing training or running workshops.  You need to track who attends the trainings or workshops, along with other workshop details and outputs.

In this scenario you might have a workflow that links several forms and guides your project staff through a process.  Early on in the process they might be asked to register a list of project participants.  Using the duplicate check features above you could verify that the same person is not participating in multiple project sites at the same time.

Later you start your training or workshops.  Now when you open the training form you need to reference the people you are attending.  Instead of manually linking to each participant, it is possible to create a table in your training or workshop form that shows the names of all participants for that project.  You now simply check who attended and who didn't.

Another example where this is useful is in tracking tasks or actions.  In our work on social accountabilty, we've created monitoring forms that pull in lists of actions previously agreed for a project.  The form allows staff to simply provide an update on each action, referencing data they entered when they created the action.

12. Creating linked forms from within a form

There are other situations when you may want to link to a form that may or may not exist yet.  We're looking at this example right now with one of our partners.  In this case they need a form where they record an outcome for a project and state if a partner was involved or not.

If a partner was involved then they either want to link to the partner or create a new one.  Linking to an existing partner is easy and doesn't break the flow of the person completing the form.  Normally, creating a new partner would mean saving one form first, going to create the partner, then coming back and linking the two.  In a busy organisation this doesn't often happen.

Instead, we have introduced the option to display the core fields needed to create a new partner directly in the outcome form.  Naturally, these are conditional fields, that only show if the user needs to associate a partner.  This means that they can enter in the name, email address and address of the partner within the outcome form.  When the outcome form is saved, the new partner form is also saved and the two forms are linked.

What is right for me?

This post is intended to provide an overview of the kind of form technologies that are available.  I'm sure there are other innovations that are not covered here, so let me know if I've missed something important.

Which of these features do you need?  That depends entirely on your context and how you are using forms to collect data.  If some of these features look important to you then take a closer look at some of the options that BetterData offers.

If you're not sure what you need then get in touch.  We offer a free review your current M&E system and are happy to look at your existing data collection forms and see how these could be improved.