Tutorial article on designing interactive PDF forms

In 2010, I contributed a tutorial article on designing interactive PDF forms using Adobe Acrobat/LiveCycle Designer to the IEEE Professional Communication Society Newsletter. Later, STC’s Intercom published a version of this article revised for Acrobat X.

Read the Intercom version of the article at this link.

As always, your feedback is welcome.

28 Responses

  • Hi Samartha,

    Thanks for posting the detailed instructions on designing the interactive PDF form. Excellent resource! One question, if you don’t mind: what were your reasons for developing the form with Live Cycle Designer rather than Acrobat Professional?

    • Many thanks for your encouragement, Deborah.

      The LiveCycle Designer I use in this article is, in fact, bundled with Acrobat Professional. So if you have Acrobat Professional 9, that should be enough to create the form using the approach I suggested. Acrobat offers three ways of creating PDF forms: see this article from Acrobat Help.

      However, I like the flexibility that LiveCycle Designer provides when I’m designing forms. I used basic JavaScripting to build interactivity into the form, and Designer makes it a breeze to do so.

  • Hi Samartha,

    Thanks for the quick response. I’ve created forms in Word, Acrobat and LiveCycle Designer, but haven’t done much with JavaScripting. Is JavaScript difficult to add in Acrobat, as opposed to LiveCycle Designer?

    • I would think so, Deborah. I have not designed many forms natively in Acrobat (as against using LiveCycle Designer), so I’d need to get back to you on this one. 🙂

      Meanwhile, I found the following useful bit of info on Acrobat forms vs Designer in Acrobat 9 Help:

      Use Designer ES when you want to extend basic form capabilities in Acrobat. For example, a Designer ES form can include Image Object fields so that you can easily add graphics to a form. Consider using Designer ES for these tasks:

      * Create forms from scratch or from the predesigned layouts in the build-in templates that you edit and customize.
      * Create dynamic forms.
      * Add graphics, such as photographs.
      * Add barcode collections.
      * Create forms in formats that Designer ES can convert to HTML, especially if you intend to post the interactive form on a website for people to fill in and submit from within a browser.
      * Integrate PDF forms into existing workflows by binding forms to XML schemas, XML sample data files, databases, and web services.
      * Use scripting objects.


      I hope it helps.

  • Oops! Should have said: haven’t done much with JavaScript in PDF forms.

  • Hi Samartha
    I like your article but there a are couple of problems that I think should be pointed out. Firstly, you don’t mention the Acrobat End User License Agreement restriction that no more than 500 people can use a PDF form if Adobe Reader Extensions are enabled (pretty much a “must” unless you are targeting an audience that you know has Acrobat Pro). As someone who teaches PDF accessibility I know that this is hugely unpopular and a MAJOR break on the widespread adoption of PDF forms.

    And the second point I would like to make is that, despite the presence of tooltips, there are still several major accessibility problems with the design. These include reading order problems, essential content not being available in screen reader “forms mode” and the lack of validation for mandatory fields. There are also a few more minor accessibility problems such as label positioning. None of these are difficult to address, but they are essential for compliance with equality legislation in many countries.

    • Thanks for your insightful inputs, Ted. Yes, you are right about the 500-form EULA restriction. However, I believe 500 forms should be enough for many professional communication purposes. Beyond that, Designer is part of the vibrant LiveCycle ES ecosystem that enables much, much more.

      The major purpose of writing this article was to introduce readers to PDF forms and then let them explore the many available functionalities at their own pace. I also had the constraints of writing for a Web audience, who sometimes have short attention spans. So, I limited the scope of the article.

      And yes, in the end, I am a technical communicator who designs forms as a hobby. I wanted to share some form design ideas from my perspective with a like-minded audience (professional communicators) and thought they’d benefit from them. The sample form is not perfect and I’m glad I know some areas of improvements in it now.

      Once again, many thanks for your useful feedback.

  • Hi

    Ive done some work with LiveCycle. But want to know if you can perhaps help me. I want to know how to hide and shift groups of controls based on a selection in a list box.

    Basically, if the user select “Visitor” in the listbox, then five textboxes should hide (lets say section 6) and the rest of the controls should shift in the place of the five textboxes.

    any ideas?

    • Thanks for your query, Hadray.

      Yes, you can achieve the effect you want using subforms and Action Builder. My colleague, Drew Brazil, has created a simple sample form reflecting the scenario you mentioned. You can access the form at this URL.

      Here are the broad steps that Drew followed to create the form:

      1. Wrapped five text field objects in a subform.
      2. Created a radio button group and placed it on top of the subform containing the text field objects. He then set the Presence option for the radio button group to Invisible on the Field tab. Note that he set the Presence setting for the individual radio buttons to Visible.
      3. Created an action in Action Builder that makes the subform invisible and the radio buttons visible when Visitor is selected in the drop-down list.
      4. Created an action for each of the other options on the drop-down list, which makes the subform visible and the radio button group invisible when one of the options is selected.

      However, we are not sure if we got the meaning of “the rest of the controls should shift in the place of the five textboxes” right. What library objects should be used for the rest of the controls? We’re assuming that the objects would be radio button objects.

  • Hi Samartha
    Thanks for the article.
    I have a workbook I have done in inDesign that has spaces for students to write answers and responses.
    This is fine in hardcopy, but how can it be done as an electronic publication, maintaining the layout so that students can type in the bubbles, tables, etc. and save their work?
    I don’t need to collect any information from the forms.
    Some students will be using ipads, while others will be on PC’s.
    many thanks

    • Hi John,

      I do not have specific info in this regard yet, but will try to get you answer. Thanks for your patience.


  • Hi Samartha,
    I’m new to this company and I’m setting up a number of forms to improve efficiency and productivity. I have been trying to build a button that when depressed will make a set of optional objects appear on the screen. I am running Adobe Acrobat 9 pro and I cannot find the term ‘build action’ or ‘action builder’ anywhere in the LiveCycle programme. Can you help me please? I’m at my witt’s end!
    Kind Regards,
    Liam Norman

    • Hi Liam,

      Sorry for the delayed response. I understand your frustration, Action Buidler is a great feature.

      Acrobat 9 Professional includes Designer ES, which does not have Action Builder. The Action Builder feature appears in Designer ES2 or later. Designer ES2 SP2 ships with Acrobat X.

      Thanks for your comment and interest.


  • Hi Samantha,

    I see you have helped Hadray about 4 months ago to a similar issue I am having. I was wondering if you could help me out. At the top of my form (using Designer ES) I have a dropdown list with all 18 of my employees names able to be selected individually. I need an action like you did for Hadray that by selecting a name from the dropdown it could populate a text field (or whatever it needed to be) on the bottom of my form with that particular person’s email address. Example if employee#1 was selected from drop down, then at the bottom of my form employee#1@email.com would populate in the text field. Is this possible.

    Kind Regards,


  • do you know how I can create a form that would overlay a pdf document that would accept user inputs (say to a survey of questions) and submit the response to a web-service before displaying the pdf form?

  • Let me start out saying that I am VERY new to creating my own forms – using LiveCycle.

    So far I haven’t been able to locate information or anyone who knows how to help me out. I am trying to create Self-Assessments and Performance Appraisals.

    However, I do not simply want the appraisers to check boxes etc. I want them to fill in the forms with narratives for certain questions. Is there a way to have a text field or something that would expand as the person types – so that it can also be viewed in print form?

    In other words, if the person types 3 lines – that’s the size of the box. If they type 10 lines – it expands to allow all of the lines to be viewed and printed.

    Thank you!

  • Why can you not save an interactive pdf after someone has filled it out? or is there a way?

    I have a client who needs this feature.


  • Good post. I saw this from the 12th STC India presentation. I guess it can be used by CA’s to file IT returns of their clients or by schools using a lot of paperwork during admissions too 🙂

  • Hi
    I have a button on my pdf form on click of which i want to add rows to a table.
    I have used the foo javascript:
    But does not work. Is there sum other property which i have to change???
    Plz help…very urgent…

  • Hello Sam,

    How can I grow or push table by just clicking the rows using LiveCycle Designer…I wanted to make a table, but i will show only 2 rows and as the user wants additional rows, by clicking the rows it will just add another rows, and so on. please need your help.
    thank you

  • The link is no longer working, is there a new link for the tutorial?

    • Thanks for letting me know, David. Yes, the IEEE link seems to have moved/gone down.

      I’ve updated the article with the link for the Acrobat X version of the article that appeared later in STC’s Intercom.

  • I started with Acrobat Pro 11 to develop my form and morphed to LiveCyce Designer ES4 because I want a dynamic form that adds subforms and subforms within subforms. Adobe has done an extremely poor job of supporting a new product for which they now charge $300. They don’t even have a Users’ Guide in PDF format to download. You have to be on-line to access help.

    Do you have any experience with subforms and binding data into an XSD?

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