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7 Alternative Options to Using Microsoft Word and PDF-Based Forms

September 22, 2021

When creating new forms, 80% of higher education form creators turn to Microsoft Word, according to the State of Forms report. 66% also rely on PDF-based solutions. 

Although Microsoft Word and PDF-based solutions are accessible and easy to use, they don’t have the necessary capability to handle even somewhat complex forms. They also provide a poor user experience and perpetuate manual data entry. We could go on about the ways you might be wasting your time with word-based forms... 

It’s time to consider switching to a different forms solution. In this post, we’ll explore seven alternatives to Microsoft Word and PDF-based forms and how to select which tool to try next. 

Why are there so many forms solutions?

Hang on. There are seven different alternatives to Microsoft Word? 


The U.S. workflow management software industry is a multi-billion dollar market. While some solutions likely don’t transfer well to the unique needs of higher education, it’s safe to say there are plenty of forms solutions available to choose from. 

What is the objective of your form?

To identify the right solution to use, you should first understand the need you are trying to fill for a given process. For example, think of one of your forms. What objective does the form serve? Is it used to gather information? To document a process? To obtain approvals?

Once you’ve identified the primary objective, then you can move on to selecting the proper solution. 

Now, as we walk through each alternative to word-based forms, look out for what types of processes work well with each solution and how it might fit within the framework of your institution’s needs. 

Alternative Options for Word and PDF Forms

1. Low-cost electronic forms tools

Low-cost electronic forms solutions, such as Google Forms, are readily accessible and have many more capabilities than traditional word-based forms. This tool is intuitive and easy to use for both the form designer and those completing the form. Forms are easy to share and distribute. It provides basic reporting and graphs. 

On the other hand, low-cost electronic forms solutions don’t have a workflow engine. Once a form is submitted, you can’t send the data to another individual for approval. For advanced reporting, you would need to import the data into your preferred data management system. 

Best use case

Use a low-cost electronic forms tool such as Google Forms when your objective is to collect information that won’t need to be approved or regularly reported upon.

Digital forms. Use Case: simple data collection needs. Advantage: these tools are easy to configure and inexpensive. Challenge: limited integration capabilities.

2. Data survey tools

Data survey tools, such as SurveyMonkey or Qualtrics, can be low-cost and easy to use. These solutions have advanced form capabilities such as conditional logic, pagination, and some branding functionality. They can also provide out-of-the-box reporting. 

Best use case

Use data survey tools for straightforward data collection that requires some reporting.

3. eSignature  tools

eSign solutions, such as DocuSign or Adobe Sign, are easy to use solutions when your objective is to collect a few approvals. With these solutions, you create a PDF form, collect legally binding signatures, and send the document through a very simple workflow. 

If you elect to use an eSign solution for your processes, be aware of the various pricing models. Forms solutions like these can be priced by the number of users or the number of transactions, which can be problematic from a budgeting perspective. 

Best use case

Use eSignature tools for templated, contract-based processes that have minimal workflow needs. 

eSign Tools use case, advantage and challenge. Use case: contracts and form templates such as Adobe Sign. Advantage: users can use an existing template. Challenge: limited logic functionality.

4. Enterprise content management tools

Enterprise content management solutions, such as OnBase by Hyland or Laserfiche, are document-based solutions with advanced functionality. These solutions are typically managed by IT and have many add-on capabilities. These solutions can be used to import images of documents, add metadata, create workflows, and more.

Best use case

Use enterprise content management solutions for document-centric processes that are complex, standardized, and can be passed off to IT to manage. 

5. Project management tools

Project management solutions, such as Asana or Trello, are best used for task management. These solutions allow for parent-child tasks, dashboards, and somewhat complex rules that enable automated steps such as moving tasks to new sections, changing the status of tasks, and notifying stakeholders.

While these types of solutions work well for managing tasks and approvals, each user typically needs their own account to add comments or approvals. 

Best use case

Use project management tools for agile processes you can manage yourself that center around gathering approvals. 

6. Carrier pigeon 

Okay, so maybe a carrier pigeon is not the most realistic option...but it would be a much more memorable way to send a message than a word-based form in an email. 

Best use case

Consider using carrier pigeons when you really need to make a statement or in the scenario of an apocalyptic flood.  

7. Forms & Workflow Automation Tool

Forms and workflow automation solutions allow any user to build somewhat advanced forms and automated workflows. These solutions enable users to build forms with conditional logic, a wide variety of form fields, and even integrations to automate portions of the form. Additionally, these solutions offer easy-to-use workflow builders to automate approval processes. 

Perhaps the biggest benefit of these solutions is the complexity they offer combined with an easy-to-use interface that nontechnical users can navigate. 

Best use case

Use forms and workflow automation solutions for internal simple to moderately advanced forms and workflows that you or other department members need to manage yourselves. 

Get Started with a Better Forms Tool

Are you ready to get started with something (anything!) other than Microsoft Word? Check out a few of the suggested solutions above and we wish you luck on your search for better forms solutions! 

Interested in learning more about the higher education forms and workflow solutions available? Check out our visual guide to forms and workflow solutions today.

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