5 ways to implement offline forms in SharePoint
Most of us use online SharePoint forms to power our daily business processes from simple holiday requests to multipage monsters that look more like applications rather than regular forms. There are plenty of solutions to choose from if you are looking for online forms.
However, some of us need to take these forms and processes offline and suddenly the choice of products gets very narrow. Here is a few common offline forms to give you a context of what is frequently requested by our customers:
- Warehouse inspection forms
- Health and safety forms for construction and manufacturing companies
- Offsite training forms
- Product delivery forms
- Service forms
I am going to explorer 5 solutions in this blog post: InfoPath, PowerApps, Nintex, PDF Share Forms and custom Visual Studio apps.
All these options are valid depending on where your priorities sit in terms of cost/time/flexibility
InfoPath forms in offline scenarios
I chose InfoPath as a first solution deliberately. If you are a SharePoint user, you are probably familiar with InfoPath. In 2014, Microsoft had announced the future, or rather the end of InfoPath. As it stands now – it will not be receiving any updates, but it will be supported by 2026. Despite all of the hate it is getting, InfoPath is still a viable option, especially if you do not mind sticking to legacy products and adopt “don’t fix what is not broken” mentality.
Microsoft MVP Asif Rehmani in an Interview to Redmond magazine explains why InfoPath can’t continue with SharePoint:
“InfoPath was never built for SharePoint to begin with. It was retrofitted to support SharePoint so that forms solutions could be used on SharePoint. There are limitations inside InfoPath that cannot grow with the SharePoint directory.”
Back to working with InfoPath forms offline. By default, an InfoPath form downloaded locally on the computer can work without network connection. Whenever a user creates a form based on a form template, InfoPath downloads and keeps a copy of that form template on the user’s computer. When the user opens a form based on that form template, InfoPath initially checks if the computer is connected to the Internet. If a network connection exists, InfoPath checks the location where the form template was downloaded from, to check if there is an updated version of the form template. If a newer version exists, InfoPath updates the form template on the user's computer. If a network connection is not available, InfoPath takes the version of the form template that is downloaded on the user's computer.
InfoPath allows storing data from external data sources right in the template to make available for offline scenarios.
When I think about offline forms, the first thing that comes to mind is forms for mobile devices. InfoPath, as I mentioned above, can be used offline. It can also be used on mobile devices. But can it do both at once? The answer is - unfortunately not.
To sum up this part of the blog about InfoPath – If you are an InfoPath user and need offline forms on desktop-like devices, for example laptops or hybrid tablets, you can stick to InfoPath until your business needs change.
It seems logical to me to transition from InfoPath discussion to PowerApps, as it is claimed to be its successor by many industry leaders. PowerApps is an Azure first product, not SharePoint. Its primary objective is creating business apps with heavy emphasis on mobile devices and using a whole variety of data sources. Forms for SharePoint is just one of the scenarios for PowerApps. During one of the session from Ignite 2016 Chris McNulty said - “PowerApps is the successor for forms scenarios, but doesn’t seek feature parity with InfoPath.”
At this stage, PowerApps provides a limited and complex way of creating offline-capable apps. It requires some coding, despite PowerApps being advertised as no-node solution.
What is also important to consider about PowerApps in terms of forms – there is no support for external users. It is a very important requirement for many businesses that need to share form with their partner, vendors, customer and any other people outside of their network.
Another feature that PowerApps lacks now is the ability of printing. It may not be the highest of priorities for the solution itself, as its scope goes far beyond creating forms, but for people considering PowerApps as a potential forms tool is almost a necessity.
Another popular solution on the market is Nintex. It is primarily a workflow platform but it also has Nintex Forms product for SharePoint onpremises and O365. Nintex features an intuitive visual designer. The user can design forms right in the browser and integrate them with Nintex Workflow. Both products complement each other and make a strong case to purchase Nintex Forms if you already own Nintex Workflows and vice versa.
In terms of functionality, Nintex forms are primarily web list based forms. For offline forms, Nintex has Nintex Mobile application that supports desktops devices, android, iOS and windows phone devices. It allows filling forms offline and saving them locally for subsequent submission to the server when network connection becomes available.
PDF Share Forms
Next item on the list is our own product – PDF Share Forms. PDF forms by design are like real documents, electronic hard copies if you will. Therefore, offline mode comes naturally. PDF Share Forms allows completing and submitting offline forms using free Adobe reader or products like PDF Expert for iOS devices. Working with a mature industry standard, such as PDF, has many advantages. There will always be products that support viewing and filling of PDF forms.
In the offline scenario, the form is submitted automatically via email. It stays in user’s e-mail outbox of the email application until the Internet connection is available. Everything is automated. Once Internet connectivity is restored, the form is automatically sent to SharePoint and data is synchronized.
In Submission Options in PDF Share Forms designer, you can define how you want to handle incoming emails and attachments.
Custom apps for forms
Custom development is always an option. In context of SharePoint it will most likely be some custom Visual Studio apps. Developing your own product can be a serious undertaking with a hope of making a product that suits your needs 100%. Endless possibilities with endless development cycle. The main advantage of this approach, other than building it around your own needs 100%, is that you are in charge of the whole process. You will not become a “hostage” of a particular product or vendor, however, the other side of the coin is that you can become a “hostage” of people who built the product. Staff rotation, poor knowledge sharing and training can leave you in a situation that there are no more people in the company that clearly understand how the custom solution works and it may cost you more to fix it rather than purchase a 3rd party solution in the first place.
We have explored five different options for offline forms in SharePoint. All of them are viable options depending on your requirements.
Stick to InfoPath if you believe that your business requirements will not change and go beyond what InfoPath can offer right now. As we learned- there will be no new version of InfoPath that can address growing demands of business users. It is also important to keep in mind that InfoPath does not support mobile forms in offline mode.
PowerApps can be your product of choice for offline forms. Despite it being referred to as a replacement to InfoPath, when combined with Microsoft Flow, it is not primarily a SharePoint forms solution and it not intended to reach feature-parity. Form building is only one of the possible implementations of this app building product. It offers a variety of data source connections to work with and is designed with focus on mobile devices. There will certainly be new versions of this product that expand existing toolset.
Nintex Mobile product is the answer to offline forms questions from Nintex. Forms can be stored on device until the user is back online to submit the data. If you are mainly looking for list forms solution with rich workflow integration option, then the combination on Nintex Mobile forms and Nintex Workflow can be a very effective.
PDF Share Forms is a strong contender to be the best offline forms solution for SharePoint. The product’s core is based on PDF technology that was designed to produce digital hardcopies of real documents. As a result, there is no need to specifically design forms to fit certain screen size or make forms online or offline only. The same PDF form provides consistent experience offline or online, on 5” smartphone or full-size monitor of a desktop. Another benefit of having PDF as a basis is reusability. Users can take their existing PDF forms or forms in other formats that can be saved as PDF, including paper forms, and use them as form templates. This approach can immensely benefit organizations that already have PDF forms in their business processes.
Custom forms solutions are also an option. Developing you own products is certainly a possibility if you can justify time and effort needed to build and maintain custom form apps. You get full control of the process at the cost of perpetual complication of development as the solution starts to include more features. Perhaps, this is the way to go for moderately complex forms, assuming there are resources you can invest in custom development.