InfoPath or Word: Choose the best tool for the job

Applies to
Microsoft Office InfoPath® 2003 Service Pack 1 or later
Microsoft Office Word 2003

Arrows pointing in opposite directions

You know that you can create documents in Word, including simple forms that others can fill out. Now you can also create electronic forms in InfoPath. How do you decide which program to use?

The answer depends on what you're trying to do. Although it's true that you can use Word to create a document that looks and feels like a form, Word works best as a word-processing program, not a form-designing program.

Conversely, InfoPath was created specifically for designing and filling out electronic forms. Moreover, with InfoPath, you can easily reuse the data collected in a form elsewhere within your team, company, or organization.

Collecting data: Word or InfoPath?

Collecting data is a common business goal. For example, a hospital may collect insurance information from patients, or an IT department may collect help desk requests from employees. Maybe your manager collects weekly progress reports from you about the projects you're working on.

When to use Word

If you just want to collect data that will remain in your document, and you don't need to reuse it in another software program, system, or business process, you can use a form — that is, a document that contains protected areas and form fields for entering information. Other people can then fill out this form in Word. You can also use Word to design simple forms that can be printed and filled out on paper. For example, in a small business environment, you might use a printed form to collect information from job applicants.

When to use InfoPath

If you want to collect data and reuse it in other ways, either now or in the future, you should use an InfoPath form. That's because InfoPath includes dedicated features for designing, publishing, and filling out forms, including:

Reusing data in InfoPath

After you design a form in InfoPath, you can publish it to a form library on a Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services site, where others can access it and fill it out. This is an easy, effective way to share, store, and reuse data. A marketing team, for instance, can use a form library to fill out, save, and view data in a collection of competitive review forms.

As a form designer, you can specify that the information that is collected in certain fields on a form should appear outside the form in form library columns (form library columns: Information from forms displayed in columns in a Windows SharePoint Services form library. For every form in the library, columns display information entered into controls that the form designer designated as form library columns.). This is useful when you want to look at important information in the form without having to open each form individually. In the competitive review form example, you can automatically create form library columns that show specific data from each form, such as the names of your largest competitors, their product offerings, and their prices. The following illustration shows how this might look.

Form library columns in SharePoint Services form library

To learn more about working with SharePoint Services form libraries, click a link under See Also.

XML-based solutions: InfoPath or Word?

You may have heard about Extensible Markup Language (XML) (Extensible Markup Language (XML): A condensed form of Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) that enables developers to create customized tags that offer flexibility in organizing and presenting information.), which is fast becoming the standard language for describing and delivering data. If your company is already using XML, you can use InfoPath or Word — or a combination of the two — to create XML-based solutions. Depending on your level of expertise, you can design simple solutions yourself. Or you can work with the appropriate technical people in your company to design and deploy more elaborate solutions.

When to use InfoPath

Use InfoPath when you want to collect XML data from people by using a form and when you want to reuse that data in other software programs, systems, or business processes.

Suppose your company already uses an XML Schema to exchange expense report data among different departments in a systematic, standardized way. If you design an InfoPath expense report form that is based on that schema, you can route the XML data from the forms to other places in the company — by using form submission features, by integrating with existing workflow programs, or by writing custom code. Other people in the company can then access and work with the latest expense information.

InfoPath form with repeating table and Submit button

When to use Word

Use Word when you want to present XML data to people in a more traditional document and when the formatting and presentation of your document are as important to you as data reuse.

For example, imagine that you use a Word template to compose articles for the company newsletter. If the article template is designed as an XML document, as shown in the following illustration, the information within the XML tags can be reused elsewhere, outside of the document. Similarly, the information displayed within the tags can come from external sources of XML data, such as InfoPath forms or Microsoft Access databases.

Word document with XML tags showing

Because newsletter articles generally involve collaboration between the writer, the editor, and other interested parties, you can use change tracking, inline comments, and other Word features for revising and editing the articles. In addition, you can use paragraph and character styles and all the other features that contribute to a polished, nicely formatted document.

 Note   XML features, except for saving documents as XML with the Word XML schema, are available only in Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003 and stand-alone Microsoft Office Word 2003.

When to use a combination of InfoPath and Word

Through the use of XML, you can design solutions that combine InfoPath forms and Word documents. For example, you can design a purchase order form in InfoPath. After this form is filled out, you can automatically generate a receipt for the purchase in Word by using data that comes from the form. Or you can use an InfoPath form to collect information about key projects and then use this same information to populate request for proposal (RFP) documents in Word.

Developer support

In InfoPath, you can design useful forms without having to understand the particulars of XML or resort to writing programming code. However, you can also extend the functionality of a form through script or by using programming tools such as Microsoft Visual Studio .NET. In addition, you can integrate InfoPath forms with Microsoft BizTalk Server 2004 or other workflow automation tools. For more information about any of these subjects, visit the InfoPath Developer Center.

Similarly, Word provides support for XML-based smart documents, which allow developers to enhance Word documents with programmable content and behavior. Smart documents are particularly useful for creating text-intensive documents that follow the same basic format, such as product specifications or contracts. For example, as a developer in the IT department for a large law firm, you might design a smart document solution that enables attorneys to generate legal briefs by searching for and inserting boilerplate XML content from external data sources.

You can also deliver relevant information and instructions in a task pane that appears in the smart document, or you can integrate smart documents with existing workflow tools. To create smart documents, you can use a combination of Word XML features and programming tools such as Microsoft Visual Basic .NET or Microsoft Visual C# .NET.

To learn more about how smart documents compare to InfoPath forms, see the InfoPath 2003 Decision Tree. To read more generally about XML and how it is used in the Microsoft Office System, see Microsoft Office System and XML: XML in Action.

Applies to:
InfoPath 2003, Word 2003