Why You Shouldn’t be Filling a PDF Form with Anything Other Than Adobe Reader

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Scenario:I’ve spent a couple of hours creating a form that perfectly navigates the user through the fields, automatically skipping and hiding fields based on their responses to others, does validity checking on a field by field basis to ensure data integrity, formats the data exactly the way my database requires it, distributed it using the wizard so I can collect the data, even from people with the free Adobe Reader, tested the final version in versions 6 through 10 and posted it to my web site. Now all I have to do is… reply to all the people who are having trouble with my form because they are using a non-Adobe tool to fill it out. Ack!

I’m not making this up. I get questions on a weekly basis from customers that are baffled by the failure of their well crafted forms to collect their data correctly only to find out that a particular recipient was using a non-Adobe tool to fill it out. To make matters worse, the recipient didn’t even know they were doing anything wrong.

Here’s the issue that IT departments need to be concerned with when deciding to deploy 3rd party tools rather than the free Adobe Reader… as the recipient of a form, you have no idea what that form should look like and no idea how it should behave.

With “lightweight alternative” PDF viewers or ones that are actually built into the operating system, unless you are exclusively using in-house forms that you design around the restrictions of the various PDF viewers, you run the risk of sending inaccurate information back to the form author. Inaccurate information leads to a loss of data, productivity, and money.

So – let’s say your forms are not as complex as the scenario I painted above. Just for argument’s sake, let’s say the form contains no scripting at all; just basic form fields. If you use a common, OS level PDF viewer, let’s call it ViewerA, to fill and save even this simple form, users of Acrobat and Reader (and at least one other 3rd party viewer that I tested) won’t be able to see the data. If you then click into the fields one by one, you can see the information entered into the field; click out of the field, it goes blank again. The form is broken… and as the recipient, you have no idea that the form you sent back to the person who requested the information can’t see your data.

Is using an Adobe Reader alternative worth the risk?

If you want an objective review of the leading PDF viewers out there, take a look at 5 Free PDF Readers Compared. You can read the whole article or just jump to the section on forms in the Review Notes where the best the author can say about the 3rd party tools is that they’re improving.