Moving From Paper Forms to Online Forms
One of the first lessons learned from my first event as a professional sports photographer is that paper forms are awful. I thought that I was well prepared when I created paper forms in advance of my first event, the Canada National Adult Figure Skating Championships. I was wrong.
Why paper forms are awful
I knew exactly what information I needed from skaters or their parents when they were ordering their photographs from me. I needed:
- Skater’s name
- Contact email
- What club they represented
- What event they were scheduled to skate
- What they were ordering
I thought that this request for information was pretty self-explanatory. Wrong. Instead of skater’s name, I often got the name of the parent. Not too bad, but then I realized that many parents had a different surname than their child. This meant that had no way of connecting the name of the skater with the order.
The name field was not always helpful. But at least I had the email address so I could email the person and clarify who their skater was. Problem was it in this digital age, the handwriting was so bad that I could read about half of what was written. Not only did I not know which skater the order was for, I could not email the customer because I could not read their handwritten email address.
Where I asked for the event they were competing in, such as “Elite Men’s Gold”, I was often given a time like 10:35. What that 10:35am or pm? No idea. And giving me the time that they were supposed to skate meant that if the program was ahead or behind by more than 2 minutes, the time provided on the form was not the time that the skater performed. Given the competition lasted over 16 hours per day, the chances of staying within 2 minutes of the posted schedule were slight.
A significant number of the skaters were from Quebec, whose official language is French. I unfortunately only took French classes until grade 8, a decision I regret. Many of the skaters or the parents that were completing my forms were doing so in their second language, which explained why I had a lot of incorrect information written on the forms.
What problems did paper forms cause
I had a number of people that had signed up and then paid me to photograph themselves or their child. The paper forms either had the incorrect or missing information or illegible handwriting. Sometimes incorrect, missing and illegible information meant that I had no idea who had placed the order and for whom.
The end result was that for many of the skaters I had to post their images on the website with the images locked so that they could not be downloaded. I waited until the purchaser contacted me to then figure out (no pun intended) which photos were of their skater. Since I was waiting for them to contact me, this meant that I was already late in delivering the images and they were starting to get frustrated by my delay.
When people reached out inquiring where their photos were, there was no way I could say that the delay was due to the wrong or illegible information they wrote on the forms. That would have been terrible customer service. I apologized and worked to connect their form entry with the photos and get them delivered before they became further frustrated by the delay.
If I was going to take on large events and not spend the next 3 weeks after each event playing detective, I needed to find a better solution for the forms.
Finding a on-line forms solution
There were plenty of options for on-line forms. My requirements were as follows:
- Was cloud-based
- Offline capabilities
- Did not charge a hefty license fee
- Was easily customizable
- Integrated with my existing SmugMug website
After evaluating the available options, I selected Wufoo, an on-line form builder with a cloud storage database. A cloud-based storage database means that the data people enter into the forms resides in the cloud, not on a specific device. This means that I can access the data from any device.
With Wufoo I am able to very easily design my own forms, asking for exactly the information I needed. I could specify which fields were mandatory.
Wufoo forms allow me to place suggested information in the fields. For example, if I was asking for the event they were skating in, the suggested info in the field would be “Men’s Elite Gold,” which hopefully clued in the person completing the forms.
The biggest advantage with using Wufoo is that it is an integration partner with SmugMug, the website host I use for www.sportdad.ca. All I need to do to add a Wufoo form to my SmugMug website is add a content block to my SmugMug page and then paste in the link to the Wufoo form. Given that SmugMug and Wufoo are integrated, the Wufoo form takes on the style of my website without me having to design it.
Getting the right information in the forms
There are plenty of reasons why electronic forms are better than paper forms. In addition to being able to read the information that people type on a computer or mobile device, Wufoo allows me to specify the constraints of each field. I can also specify required fields. So that I do not have to answer the same questions over and over again, I can add suggested contact as well as help bubbles.
The information from the forms gets delivered to me automatically on my iPhone and my Apple Watch. I have defined reports that create the Code Replacement or Hot Codes files that I use to ingest and manage my images with Photo Mechanic. At the end of the day, I don’t ever have to type a client’s name so my error rate for naming folders and files is zero.
The limitation of Wufoo forms
When I add a Wufoo Form content block into SmugMug, the integration is very good but not perfect. My pet peeve is that I cannot easily change the style of the Submit button. The button is smaller and a different color than the other buttons on my website. I can customize the Wufoo Form content block using CSS, but honestly it is not that much of a problem that I would spend time trying to customize the Submit button.
The second issue and biggest issue I have with Wufoo is that the forms are all on-line. Accessing and completing the forms requires either a cellular or Wi-Fi connection. I have been to many venues where there is no Wi-Fi, or the Wi-Fi is painfully slow. I was in some cases able to use my iPhone as a hotspot, but that required me leaving my phone with at the sales desk and would not have it with me while I was shooting. In some venues, not only is there no Wi-Fi, but there is no cellular service where the sales desk gets set up.
There are off-line forms solutions that I could use. Wufoo recommends using an offering from Device Magic to bring Wufoo forms off-line. While Device Magic has a free plan, the free plan is limited to only 1 device. Moving to Device Magic’s Professional Plan is, at the time of this writing, $25 USD per month. That fee is a bit too expensive for me. Given the few occasions that I face lousy connectivity, I can simply have people type their info on my laptop into an Microsoft Excel spreadsheet
How I use the on-line form submission
When a person hits the Submit button (assuming that there is connectivity), I automatically receive an email that contains the information submitted in the form. The email comes to my phone as well as my Apple Watch. I can very quickly see who I need to add to my shot list to photograph.
Wufoo allows me to create custom reports. When I build a new form, I immediately build out the two reports I need related to that form.
The first report becomes the basis of my Code Replacement or Hot Codes file I use with Photo Mechanic, the software from Camera Bits I use to ingest my images and add metadata. When somebody submits a form, the email I receive includes a unique number. I use that number to define a variable in my camera when shooting so that when I ingest the images, Photo Mechanic looks up the number and then associates the name of the person I am shooting with their photos. More on this in a subsequent blog post.
The second report shows me all of the records and all of the fields for all of the entries. I use that report when I am delivering the images so I know what products they purchased. Once I deliver the products to the client, I change the status on the Wufoo form to Completed. Done!
Accepting on-line payments
When I first started using Wufoo, I used the Starter plan, which at the time of this writing is USD $169/year. Completing the Wufoo form on my website was the first step in the process of ordering from me. The second step involved accepting payment. For payment processing I use Square. When a person completed the Wufoo form, either my assistant or I would quickly add the buyer as a customer in Square and then click on the products that they were ordering to tally their order. The customer would then swipe or tap their credit card. This two-step process was inefficient, slow and limited how many people could be completing the ordering process at a time.
I upgraded my Wufoo plan to Professional, which at the time of this writing is USD $349/year. The wonderful capability that the Wufoo Professional plan adds is the integration with payment platforms, including Square. Now when a person enters their contact information and the products that they are ordering, they submit their order form and are immediately presented with the payment screen that is integrated with Square.
The SmugMug/Wufoo/Square integration is not perfect. The one feature that I have requested from Wufoo and Square is that when a person completes the Wufoo form, the information gets passed to Square to create a customer record. At the time of writing, Square does not create the new customer contact. Not perfect, but the ability to allow a person to order and pay in one step is a big step towards making the process as efficient as possible.
For my first event as a professional sports photographer, I used paper forms to record orders from clients. I only needed to do one event to learn that paper forms are inefficient, handwriting is a lost art and people don’t always give me the information I need. I quickly learned that I needed to integrate electronic forms into my ordering process.
Now I use electronic forms that are integrated with my website and a payment processing system that is integrated with the electronic forms. Yes, that is a few more pieces to coble together, but SmugMug, Wufoo and Square are integration partners that have done a terrific job at making their products work together seamlessly.
The products that I use together for the complete ordering process are:
Work smarter. Not harder. Using electronic forms rather than paper is a great start.
Future Blog Posts
I will expand on how I addressed the lesson learned in future blog posts. If you have suggestions for topics you’d like me to write about, send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org