User-centric document automation

User-centric document automation – what is it?

Document automation is all about making the production of tailored content consistent and efficient. Given the number of competing platforms, it appears there is almost an infinite number of ways to reach this goal.

However, in our view all of the approaches to this problem can be broken down into two broad categories, ‘document-centric platforms’ and ‘user-centric platforms’.

Document centric platforms

Document-centric platforms are the most common – in fact almost all of the existing platforms adopt the document-centric approach. By this we mean that the ‘document’ drives the automation process. You start with a template document, and then you apply ‘markup’ to the document to automate it. This is usually done in either a proprietary document authoring tool, on by way of a add-in to Microsoft Word.

One of the key benefits of document-centric automation is that you can get automation benefits immediately in your word processor. In fact, Microsoft Word comes built in with some incredibly powerful document automation tools, not least of which is good old MailMerge.

With document-centric automation you usually don’t need to do too much more than install an add-in and apply some markup language to your template. For example, by adding the markup you can remove and insert content, make lists and perform calculations in your document. The markup in the document then drives an ‘interview process’ – which is where the user enters their unique content and responses, which drive the tailoring of the document. The data and choices of the user are usually stored in a separate ‘datafile’, which can then be used to create another document.

HotDocs, who arguably pioneered modern document automation, is a great example of a document-centric platform. The same goes for the relative newcomer in XpressDocs.

User-centric document automation

User-centric document automation takes a different approach.

With this approach your document template is separated from the data-gathering and user-choice processes. You still markup your templates in a similar way to a document-centric platform. However, the data gathering is performed separately through the design of an associated ‘form’ (or webform, in the case of an online cloud platform). You can use tools to speed up the integration of your document template and your forms, but they remain essentially separate components. The data gathering remains distinct from the document assembly.

With a user-centric platform, the user first enters their responses and content in a form, which produces a datafile, and the datafile is then applied to a document template (or more than one template) to generate the tailored content.

A central benefit of a user-centric document automation platform is that you can design your forms to gather data and choices from the user in a manner that suits the user (or business logic) – rather than in a manner that follows a particular document template. In fact, the forms can be used to choose which document templates create the tailored content.

One of the potential difficulties with a user-centric platform is that you need to design both the forms and the templates – whereas with a document-centric platform, the forms (or more limited ‘interviews’) are generally created for you automatically out of the document markup. With a user-centric platform, it can be a little tricky to ensure the data you have gathered in your forms drives the correct content in your document templates. However, this extra effort is usually worth it in terms of the more personalised interactions with the user, and the more sophisticated business logic that you can build into the automation. There are also tools that you can use to generate draft forms from templates, and to drag form fields into templates – which speeds up the process of designing both forms and templates, and ensures accuracy and consistency.

With user-centric automation your forms can be much more user-friendly and powerful. They can follow the user’s business process, rather than the more limited structure of a particular document template. You can also design your forms to be easily published online, integrate signatures, graphics, file uploads and payment gateways. Overall the document automation reinforces the business process, rather than detracts from it.

ZumeForms – the leading user-centric document automation platform

ZumeForms pioneered an integrated user-centric document automation platform back in 2008, and has since developed the platform into arguably the most sophisticated available.

You can design a template in Word (using an add-in to speed up the process), and then use the template to automatically generate a draft webform – which can then be tailored and tweaked. You can also start with a fillable PDF document and upload it into ZumeForms to automatically generate a webform. On the other hand, you can start by designing a webform around a business process, and then drag-and-drop the form fields into Word to draft one or more associated document templates.

With a user-centric platform you can also embed business logic both in the forms and the document templates. In fact, it is more common to embed the business logic in the forms – where you can use either a Rules Wizard or a fully-fledged programing language (like JavaScript and the jQuery framework), which then simplifies the amount of logic you need to draft into your document templates. You can also then use the same forms (and embedded business logic) to generate a number of documents in a number of different formats – without having to redo the document-side logic.

Overall, it is our view that a user-centric document automation platform is ultimately more flexible and powerful than the document-centric alternative. If you are getting frustrated trying to automate sophisticated content with a document-centric platform, we suggest you give ZumeForms a go.

We think you will find the user-centric approach a breath of fresh air.