November 12th, 2013

Written Signatures for your Forms. Delivered via PDF

You have a form that customers, vendors, or staff must fill out and return and that form needs to have their written physical signature on it.  Ideally, you would like to get that form, together with their written signature, returned to you as a PDF.

In these days of a paperless workplace and instant digital communications from anywhere, being able to replace the signed and completed form with a simple digital alternative is critically important.  Fortunately, there are several ways to accomplish this.

Solution 1: HTML-based web forms

If you can create your form in HTML (e.g. using some authoring tool like WordPress Gravityforms, or regular web site design software), then you can:

  1. Add a written “Ink Signature” to that form using LuxSci’s SecureForm solution
  2. Update your form to post its data (and the signature too) to LuxSci SecureForm 
  3. Create a PDF file that mirrors your web site form in field names and content
  4. Upload that PDF file to your LuxSci SecureForm account
  5. Configure LuxSci SecureForm to re-fill that PDF template with the data posted from your web form and to append the written signature to the end of the form.
  6. Then, that signed and filled in PDF can be delivered to you via secure email, FTP, or other means

Your users can fill out and sign your form by visiting your web site from any computer, tablet, or mobile device.  When they hit submit, your staff can receive that information instantly as a signed and completed PDF.

Solution 2: Your Forms are PDFs already: Add a Signature

If you already have PDF forms, the natural questions is how to add a written signature field directly in to that PDF.  Unfortunately, PDFs and most PDF readers were not designed for that.  PDFs can be modified and arbitrary images and annotations can be added to them, however.  As a result, some PDF readers allow you to “draw” on a PDF … effectively making a signature.

For iPad and iPhone users, PDFExpert allows you to very easily add a written signature to any PDF.  That can then be submitted to you.  This works well as long as your users are willing to use iPad or iPhone and pay for this App.  It also requires that the PDF be submitted “as a whole” and not “as the field and data” … making it hard to do anything except just get the resulting PDF back.

For regular computer users, it is also possible to use some of the Adobe PDF readers to draw a signature.  However, this process is non-intuitive and will require any user to follow instructions on how to do it.  It then suffers from the end user needing to use a specific PDF reader program and for that PDF to also be “submitted as a whole”.

There are several downsides to this solution:

  • You cannot receive the raw fieldnames & values from the form, hence you cannot get data in plain-text, tabular HTML or CSV formats, and are unable to save data to a MySQL database. If you need to be able to analyze or manipulate the raw data submitted, or import it into another system, this solution is not for you.
  • The resultant PDF file you receive is unflattened. This means it can be edited after the fact–field values can be changed or deleted, and even the handwritten signature can be deleted as it is treated simply as a graphical object layer sitting ‘on top’ of the form. For HIPAA compliant collection of ePHI, this option is not recommended as it exposes the risk of unauthorized/accidental changes (or possibly deletions) to the submitted data. With HIPAA, assuring the integrity of electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI) is of utmost importance, and as such this solution is risky to use unless you have proper controls on the submitted files in place.
  • Technically since the user is “drawing” their signature on the PDF, they can draw anywhere on the document. The PDFExpert app provides a slick little signature ‘box’ for you to sign in and then allows you to place the signature anywhere on the PDF prior to submission; but desktop based programs like Adobe Reader have no restrictions on the drawing area meaning a user could scribble on the form anywhere they like.

Trying to get a written signature into a PDF form for general use is thus not really feasible.

Solution 3: Convert your PDF Form to HTML

If you have a PDF form, you could use the latest version of Adobe LiveCycle Designer (ES4 as of this writing) to convert that PDF file to an equivalent HTML5 form.  You can add the SecureForm Ink Signature area to that form and post in on your web site.  This then becomes like Solution #1 … except that your PDF reference template is the form you started with.  It would take a web site designer very little work to convert your PDF forms to web forms in this way, get signatures added, and have them posting through LuxSci SecureForm to send you signed, and filled PDFs back.

Solution 4: Use a Two Step Process

Perhaps the simplest solution for your PDF forms is to use a two step process for form submission and written signature acquisition.

Step 1: Regular PDF form

  1. Connect your regular PDF forms to LuxSci SecureForm
  2. The data can be re-filled back into your PDF Form and emailed to you
  3. No signature is added in this first phase.

Step 2: Signature

  1. When the first step’s PDF form is submitted, a “Success PDF” is sent back to the user with instructions on how to “complete the process”.  This would including clicking on a link in that PDF to go to your web site.
  2. On your web site would be a very simple web form that requests some minimal information and includes an Ink Signature field.
  3. This web form then also posts to LuxSci SecureForm and can then generate a 2nd PDF (this one signed) that is delivered to you to complete your process.

This two step process has the advantages that

  1. You do not have to add things to your existing PDF forms or convert them to HTML
  2. You could use a similar signature collection web form for multiple different PDFs

Since there are two distinct submissions for this process, there must be two corresponding distinct SecureForm configurations. This means there are a minimum of 2 different files posted in this process (more if you also opt to get submitted data in other formats like CSV files), so how can you identify which form correlates to which part of the submission? The answer is easy, in that you can customize the filenames of the resultant filled-in PDF templates using SecureForm’s dynamic form data file template file name feature.

For instance, say in both the first step PDF form and the second step form you have field for the submitter’s name, and the fields are named “FirstName” and “LastName”. Therefore you could name the resultant file from the 1st step submission “{{Form_Step1_for_{{FirstName}}_{{LastName}}.pdf”, and the resultant file from the 2nd step submission “Form_Step2_Signature_for_{{FirstName}}_{{LastName}}.pdf”. If the person filling out the form is named John Smith, then you will receive two forms upon his completion of the process called “Form_Step1_for_John_Smith.pdf” and “Form_Step2_Signature_for_John_Smith.pdf” with the respective submitted data. You can use any fieldnames from your forms in the filenames as well as timestamps so that your files can be named as specifically as possible.

What if you want the signature embedded in a particular place in the resultant re-filled PDF file, and not appended to the end?

Many PDF forms require a signature in a specific place on a page (or sometimes in multiple places), and those cases it would be great to have the Ink Signature placed at the specific location(s) in the resulting refilled-in PDF files, as opposed to it being placed as the final page in the PDF document. Unfortunately it  is not possible to customize the placement of the signature in the final PDF file–submitted Ink Signature data is converted into an image (.GIF file) which is then converted into a single page PDF file, which then is concatenated to the end of the filled in PDF template file.

With a refilled-in HTML template file, however, you can have the Ink Signature file appear in a specific place.  To do this, you would use a place holder of the form “{{signature_id}}” where you want the image to be placed. And if you have a PDF converter program (there are many free ones available) on the computer you’re accessing your email on to view this message, then you can actually save the refilled-in HTML template file with the signature in custom location(s) as a PDF file!

What method is right for you?

If you have not yet created your forms, making HTML web forms may be the best way to go.

If you are very familiar with PDF authoring or have a lot of existing PDF forms, then one of the latter solutions would be appropriate.

If the signees are all using mobile devices under your control or are willing to purchase an App, perhaps using the PDFExpert solution is the simplest and most usable way to get signed and filled PDFs.

If you are less technically savvy or have a large number of forms, then solution #4, the two step process, may be simplest and quickest way to get started.  You could move frequently used forms to other solutions as time goes on.

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