Like most people, you probably fill out business forms on a regular basis, including expense reports, time cards, surveys, or insurance forms. You may even be responsible for designing, distributing, and maintaining these forms in your organization. You can use Microsoft Office InfoPath 2007, which is part of the 2007 Microsoft Office system, to both design and fill out electronic forms.
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What is InfoPath?
In InfoPath, you can do the following:
- Design form templates You can design and publish interactive, user-friendly form templates in design mode (design mode: The InfoPath design environment in which you can create or modify a form template.). In addition to inserting standard form controls, such as text boxes or list boxes, on a form template, you can insert controls that offer users the flexibility to add, remove, replace, or hide sections (section: A control on a form that contains other controls.) of a form. The form templates that you design can range from simple form templates for collecting data from your immediate team to complex form templates that are part of a much larger business process. InfoPath form templates can be used on their own, or you can design them to work with existing databases or Web services. Form templates can be published to and accessed from a common location on a company network, such as a shared folder, a Web server, or a library located on a Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services site. In addition, if you have access to a server running InfoPath Forms Services, you can design a single form template that can be filled out either in InfoPath, in a Web browser, or on a mobile device.
- Fill out forms Users can fill out forms that are based on the form templates that are created in design mode. When filling out a form in InfoPath, users can use familiar, document-like features. For example, they can check spelling in their form or insert formatted text and graphics into certain fields. Depending on the design of the form template, users may also be able to merge the data from multiple forms into a single form or export the data to other programs. If a form template is browser-enabled (browser-enabled form template: A browser-compatible form template that has been published to a server running InfoPath Forms Services, and that has been browser-enabled so that users can both display and fill out the form in a Web browser.), users who don't have InfoPath installed on their computer can fill out the form in a Web browser or on a mobile device instead.
InfoPath is based on 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.). When you design a form template, InfoPath creates an .xsn file, which is a cabinet (.cab) file that contains the files necessary for the form to function, such as XML Schema (XSD) (XML Schema: A formal specification, written in XML, that defines the structure of an XML document, including element names and rich data types, which elements can appear in combination, and which attributes are available for each element.) and XSL Transformation (XSLT) (XSL Transformation (XSLT): A language that is used to transform XML documents into other types of documents, such as HTML or XML. It is designed for use as part of XSL.) files. When a user fills out a form in InfoPath, the data in that form is saved or submitted as industry-standard XML. However, you don't have to know anything about XML to design a form template or fill out a form. The point is that XML can make it easier for your organization to repurpose the data that it collects by using forms. For example, a single InfoPath form template for trip reports can be used to provide XML data to a customer relationship management system, a petty cash system, and a travel planning system.
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Why use InfoPath?
You can use InfoPath to collect business data from the people whom you work with, including your colleagues, partners, suppliers, and customers. For example, you can use InfoPath to create a form template for expense reports for the people in your organization.
InfoPath form templates can be straightforward, simple form templates that are used by several people in a small workgroup. For example, a 10-person sales team can use an InfoPath form to informally collect and share information about sales calls. The data in those forms can be merged into a single summary report that is sent to management each month.
Alternatively, organizations can design highly sophisticated form templates that are connected to existing corporate databases or integrated into existing business systems. For example, the developers in your information technology (IT) department can design an InfoPath form template to manage the expense reporting process for your organization. The form template can include views (view: A form-specific display setting that can be saved with a form template and applied to form data when the form is being filled out. Users can switch between views to choose the amount of data shown in the form.) and business logic features that enable different categories of users to submit the expense report, review it, approve it, and reimburse the submitter.
The following list outlines some of the benefits of using InfoPath:
Wider access to forms If you use InfoPath and a server running InfoPath Forms Services, you can design browser-compatible form templates in InfoPath and enable them for use on internal and external Web sites. This lets you share business forms with a variety of users, including employees, customers, suppliers, and partners. Users aren't required to have InfoPath installed on their computers to fill out a form, nor are they required to download anything extra from the Web. All users need is access to a browser, such as Windows Internet Explorer, Apple Safari, or Mozilla Firefox. If users do have InfoPath installed on their computers, they can display and fill out the form in InfoPath rather than a browser. You can even design your form template so that users can open it and fill it out by using a mobile device.
Office system integration InfoPath works with a number of other programs and servers in the Microsoft Office system, including Microsoft Office Outlook, Microsoft Office Excel, and Microsoft Office Access. For example, you can design and fill out InfoPath forms in e-mail messages, export form data to worksheets, submit form data to a database, or query data from a SharePoint list. In addition, developers can embed InfoPath forms — without menus, toolbars, or other aspects of the user interface — into custom applications. For more information, see the How InfoPath works with other programs and technologies section later in this article.
Reusable data The data that users enter in an InfoPath form doesn't have to remain locked inside that form forever; it can be reformatted or reused in a variety of ways. This flexibility enables the developers in your organization to integrate the form data into existing business processes. For example, the data collected in sales reports forms can be used to update your company's Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems. This allows people throughout the company to access the data when and where they need it, so that they can make better-informed decisions. With more timely updates on sales numbers, it is easier for other groups, such as operations and finance, to make accurate forecasts of production and costs.
Consistent, accurate data InfoPath includes a number of features that help users avoid data-entry errors and fill out forms more quickly. For example, you can use formulas to automatically calculate mathematical values for users, use conditional formatting (conditional formatting: The process of changing the appearance of a control, including its visibility and read-write state, based on values entered into the form.) to draw the user's attention to data, or enable the spelling checker so that users can check for spelling errors before submitting their forms. In addition, when users fill out a form, the data that they enter can be checked for data validation (data validation: The process of testing the accuracy of data; a set of rules you can apply to a control to specify the type and range of data that users can enter.) errors. If your form template is connected to a database or Web service, users won't be able to submit data until they correct these errors. This helps you ensure that the data that you collect is accurate and error-free, and that it conforms to whatever standards you specify. The following illustration shows how a data validation error appears to the person who is filling out the form.
Low overhead Unlike paper forms, which have to be reprinted when a change occurs, InfoPath form templates can easily be modified and republished. In addition, InfoPath automatically detects when a form template has been updated so that users always have the latest version.
Offline support InfoPath forms don't have to be filled out while a user is connected to a network. Users can save forms to their computer, work on them offline, and then submit them to the corporate network when they are reconnected. This is especially useful for people who have intermittent or limited access to network resources, such as employees who travel frequently.
Fewer forms Instead of distributing and maintaining multiple paper forms for the same business process, you can create a single form template in InfoPath that includes multiple views. For example, in a form template for expense reports, you can create one view for employees who enter expenses, a second view for managers who approve expenses, and a third view for employees who process reimbursements. By default, users can switch views by clicking commands on the View menu. You can also create rules that automatically switch views when users open the form, submit the form, or click a button on the form.
Flexible controls In addition to standard controls, such as text boxes and list boxes, InfoPath includes a number of controls such as repeating tables (repeating table: A control on a form that contains other controls in a table format and that repeats as needed. Users can insert multiple rows when filling out the form.), choice groups (choice group: A control that is used to present a set of mutually exclusive choices. By default, a choice group contains two choice sections, one of which appears to the user as the default choice in the form.), and optional sections (optional section: A control on a form that contains other controls and that usually does not appear by default. Users can insert and remove optional sections when filling out the form.). These types of controls let you design a flexible form template that accommodates your users. For example, in a form template for expense reports, you can use a repeating table to allow users to enter only as many expense items as they need.
You can also create template parts, which are portions of a form template that can be saved and reused in multiple form templates. A typical template part consists of controls and a data source (data source: The collection of fields and groups that define and store the data for an InfoPath form. Controls in the form are bound to the fields and groups in the data source.) and may also include features such as data connections (data connection: The connection between an InfoPath form and an external data source, such as a database, Web service, SharePoint library, or XML file. Data connections are used to query and submit data.), data validation, and rules (rule: A condition or action, or a set of conditions or actions, that automatically performs tasks based on events and values in the form.). Using template parts can save you time and help ensure that the form templates in your organization are consistent in tone, structure, and behavior.
Tablet PC support If users have a Tablet PC, they can use a tablet pen (tablet pen: The pen that comes with a Tablet PC and is used to interact with the tablet screen.) to write directly in fields on a form. InfoPath then converts that ink into text. You can also provide Tablet PC users with a dedicated field on the form where they can write or draw. This can be useful when you want users to be able to sketch something that is fairly complicated or technical, such as a mathematical formula or a diagram of a particular business process. In this case, InfoPath saves the ink along with the form rather than converting it to text.
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How InfoPath works with other programs and technologies
To get the most out of InfoPath, you will likely want to use it with other programs, servers, and technologies, including the ones listed in the following table.
|Program or technology
||How it works with InfoPath
|InfoPath Forms Services
||You can design a browser-compatible form template and publish it to a server that is running InfoPath Forms Services. Users can then fill out forms that are based on your form template in a Web browser or on a mobile device. In addition, InfoPath Forms Services provides a central location to store and manage form templates for your organization. Find links to more information about InfoPath Forms Services in the See Also section.
|Microsoft Office Excel
Users can choose to export data from one or more InfoPath forms into a new Excel worksheet.
In addition, some organizations use Excel workbooks as forms to collect data. These workbooks usually include blank cells for users to enter data. You can convert an Excel workbook to an InfoPath form template by using the Import Wizard in InfoPath.
|Microsoft Office Outlook
You can distribute form templates to users by publishing the form template to a list of e-mail message recipients. Similarly, you can design a form template so that users can submit completed forms as an attachment in an e-mail message.
In Office Outlook 2007, users can additionally open, fill out, and submit InfoPath forms as e-mail messages. They can also reply to or forward the form in an e-mail message, just as they can with any other e-mail message. In their Inbox, users can store collections of related forms in a dedicated InfoPath Forms folder (InfoPath Forms folder: A folder in Outlook 2007 that stores a collection of related InfoPath 2007 forms. In the InfoPath Forms folder, you can use columns to group, filter, and sort data from multiple forms.). By displaying data from each form in columns in the folder, users can quickly group, filter, and sort the data from multiple forms.
|Microsoft Office Access
You can connect your form template to an existing Access database. Users can then query or submit data to that database. Similarly, you can populate list boxes with values from the database or bind (bind: To connect a control to a field or group in the data source so that data entered into the control is saved. When a control is unbound, it is not connected to a field or group, and so data entered into the control will not be saved.) controls to the fields and groups associated with the database.
In Office Access 2007, you can additionally create an InfoPath form template based on an Access database and then publish the form template to a list of recipients as an e-mail message.
|Microsoft Office Word
||Although 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. If you want to convert existing Word documents into InfoPath form templates, you can use the Import Wizard in InfoPath to do so.
|Microsoft SQL Server
InfoPath works with SQL Server databases in any of the following formats: Microsoft SQL Server 2000 through Microsoft SQL Server 2005.
You can design a form template that is connected to a SQL Server database. Users can then use the form to query or submit data to the database. Similarly, you can populate list boxes with values from the database or bind controls to the fields and groups associated with the database.
|Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services
You can publish form templates directly to a library on a server that is running Windows SharePoint Services. This enables related forms to be stored in a single, convenient location. For example, a sales team can use a SharePoint site as a place to fill out, save, and view data from sales report forms. In the library, users can fill out forms that are based on your form template, export the data from completed forms to Excel, or merge the data from several forms into one form. You can also set up a data connection in your form template that receives data from a SharePoint list or library or submits data to a library.
You can additionally publish a form template as a site content type (content type: A reusable group of settings for a category of content. Use content types to manage the metadata, templates, and behaviors of items and documents consistently. Content types are defined at the site level and used on lists and libraries.) on a server running Windows SharePoint Services 3.0. This enables you to assign multiple form templates to a single library or assign a single form template to multiple libraries across a site collection (site collection: A set of Web sites on a virtual server that have the same owner and share administration settings. Each site collection contains a top-level Web site and can contain one or more subsites.).
|Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007
Office SharePoint Server 2007 is an integrated suite of server applications that extends the core functionality of Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services.
You can publish form templates directly to a library on Office SharePoint Server 2007 and then enable them for use on the Web. In addition, you can take advantage of the following features:
- Data connection libraries If multiple form templates will use the same or similar data connections, you can store the settings for the data connection in a data connection file (data connection file: A file that stores information about a connection to a data source, such as an Access database, a spreadsheet, or a text file, and that facilitates data source administration.) in a data connection library (data connection library: A document library, located on a site running Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, that contains a collection of universal data connection (.udcx) and Office data connection (.odc) files.) on an Office SharePoint Server 2007 site. When a user opens a form that connects to a data connection file, InfoPath uses the settings in that file to connect to the external data source. In this way, multiple form templates can use the same data connection file, so there is no need to create the same data connection from scratch for each form template. Moreover, if the location or connection settings for an external data source change, you need to update only the data connection file, not each form template.
- Workflows If you use InfoPath in conjunction with Office SharePoint Server 2007, you can participate in server-based document workflows directly within InfoPath. You can start a workflow on a form template, track the status of a workflow in progress, or complete a workflow task. Office SharePoint Server 2007 includes several predefined workflows that are designed to manage common business processes, such as document approval, document review, or signature collection.
- Document Information Panels In many Microsoft Office system programs, you can update properties for a server document in a Document Information Panel, which appears as a set of editable fields at the top of a document. For example, in a Microsoft Office Word 2007 document, you might be required to edit properties for author name, date of creation, and document type. This ultimately makes it easier for you to find what you're looking for on the server. For example, you can quickly find all press releases where the customer property matches the name of a particular customer. You can use InfoPath to create or edit a custom Document Information Panel for use with a site or list content type. This enables you to control the look and feel of the Document Information Panel or use InfoPath features, such as data validation and conditional formatting, to customize the behavior of the form fields in the panel.
|Microsoft Script Editor
||You don't need programming expertise to design an effective form template. However, it is possible to use Microsoft JScript (JScript: An interpreted, object-based scripting language that borrows from C, C++, and Java. It is the Microsoft implementation of the ECMA 262 language specification.) or Microsoft Visual Basic Scripting Edition (VBScript) (Visual Basic Scripting Edition (VBScript): A subset of the Microsoft Visual Basic programming system. At least Microsoft Internet Explorer 3, along with the other Web browsers, can read VBScript programs that are embedded in HTML pages.) in your form template by accessing the Microsoft Script Editor (MSE) (Microsoft Script Editor (MSE): A programming environment used to create, edit, and debug Microsoft JScript or Microsoft VBScript code in an InfoPath form.) from design mode.
|Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 Tools for Applications (VSTA)
||If you know how to write managed code, you can access VSTA (Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 Tools for Applications (VSTA): A managed-code programming environment that is used to create, edit, and debug Visual Basic or Visual C# code included in an InfoPath form template.) from design mode in order to create, edit, and debug Microsoft Visual Basic or Microsoft Visual C# code.
|Microsoft Visual Studio 2005
You can integrate InfoPath design-mode features into the Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 development environment by downloading and installing Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 Tools for the 2007 Microsoft Office System on your computer. You can then open Visual Studio 2005, create an InfoPath form template project, and use design-mode features to design your form template. For information on downloading Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 Tools for the 2007 Microsoft Office System, see the InfoPath Developer Portal on the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) Web site.
||You can connect your form template to a Web service in order to exchange XML data with other programs or systems. For example, you can use a Web service to receive data from or submit data to an Oracle database, which is not directly supported by InfoPath. You can also populate list boxes with values that come from the Web service or bind controls to the fields and groups associated with the Web service.
||To help ensure that the data collected in forms is accurate and consistent, you can base your form template's design on an XML Schema (.xsd) that is already being used by your organization. For example, if your organization uses a specific .xsd file for expense reports, you can base the design of a form template for expense reports on that .xsd file. If you don't have an existing schema, InfoPath builds one for you when you add controls to your form template.
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