Mobile Forms: What are They and How to get Started?
In this guide we share with you all we have learned the past 8 years about using mobile forms to collect field data. From the common limitations to our battle-tested best-practices.
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Mobile Forms: What are They and How to get Started?
From the feel of pen on paper to the taping of virtual keys on a smartphone, technology is influencing how we do almost everything in our day to day activities. It is changing how we communicate, how we learn and share information, but also how we conduct research.
More and more healthcare institutions, research groups, and NGOs are making the gradual (and necessary) evolution from collecting data on paper-based forms to a mobile survey app. But what are mobile forms? What are their benefits and what considerations should you keep in mind when going from paper to mobile entry forms?
What are mobile forms?
Mobile forms (also known as mobile surveys or mobile questionnaires) are easily customisable digital questionnaires that allow data collection on any smartphone, tablet or iPad.
Mobile surveys enable high quality and user-friendly data collection by combining the mobility with data validation, conditional logic, image and video fields and GIS data collection. In this article, we will unbox and explore the term “mobile forms”, their advantages and disadvantages over paper forms, and how to best apply this electronic data capture system for your purposes.
How mobile forms are making an impact
Ever since PDAs (personal digital assistant) and Blackberries became popular, the functionality and computing power of mobile devices has progressed exponentially. With this progression, these devices have secured their place as an essential component for communication, socialising, navigation, entertainment, and with the current COVID-19 crisis; learning.
Expanding this list to include research, and specifically, mobile data collection is an indispensable development towards better, safer, and more sustainable research. The true beauty of mobile surveys is its adaptability for any number of research purposes including medical forms and clinical research, humanitarian aid, environmental research, among other use cases.
Healthcare and clinical research
With user-friendly form builders, such as Teamscope, previously paper-based forms, like patients’ demographics and medical history, progress notes, medications, vital signs,, immunisations, laboratory data and radiology reports, can now be completed without the need for a desktop computer and hence right by the patient — at bedside .
This electronic data, extensive and immediately accessible, enables providers to make better decisions and provide better care. Fully mobile and offline-first Electronic health records (EHR) are the next step in the continued progress of healthcare that can strengthen the relationship between clinicians and their patients. More on implementing mobile-based medical forms.
In low-resource settings, field data can be used to inform action and improve the quality, efficiency or impact of a response. The assessment of the effectiveness and performance of humanitarian organizations is also evolving. There is pressure to enhance the effectiveness and authenticity of humanitarian projects. With mobile surveys, collecting and compiling data from a number of sources and locations, and being able to visualise this (also offline) assists in making quick and informed decisions on resource allocation and to track the progress of community development projects. More on improving data collection in humanitarian aid with mobile forms.
By 2030, the catastrophic impact of the climate crisis would be irreversible if we keep up business-as-usual. With an increase of 1.5℃, 80-90% of the coral reef would disappear and virtually all (>99%) would be lost when the global temperature reaches 2℃ increase. Urgent action is needed. Much of this research and tracking is, however, done in remote locations with either unstable or none existent connectivity. Being able to collect data offline is a functionality of mobile data forms pertinent to understanding even subtle changes in the environment and making informed decisions about effective and impactful changes. More on fighting climate change and accurate mobile-based data.
The benefits of using mobile surveys
Mobile questionnaires, comparatively, thrive under their versatile and electronic nature. The advantages of mobile data entry expand to all aspects of reliability, efficiency, storage, security and sustainability.
1. Data Reliability
“To err is human” is unfortunately an aspect of paper-based data collection; lapses in attention can happen when filling in or transferring information, issues arise when deciphering (or interpreting) hand-writing, and misplacing forms can be catastrophic for any quality research project.
Mobile surveys have the ability to transform the tapping on a screen to a universal legible handwriting, which can be checked and validated using query management systems and conditional logic and automated formulas to ensure the forms are filled in correctly and entirely, reducing the need for checking errors and manual data cleaning. Ultimately, switching from paper forms to digital forms is proven to improve data accuracy by 47.5% and reduce the cost of research by 75%!
2. Time Efficiency
The process for paper-based forms is always the same: designing forms on Word, printing them, having participants or enumerators fill them in and sign them, transcribe the data to Excel, check for errors, go back to fix erroneous data — the list goes on and on, and so does the time taken to do it. When considering the use of mobile data collection apps, we must appreciate the efficiency of mobile surveys.
At the tap of a button, almost immediately, forms can be shared to participants, who can access them directly from any smartphone, tablet or iPad, they can also be reminded via push notifications if something is missing or needs to be checked and best of all they can fill the forms while offline (no internet) and afterwards sync with the cloud.. Once data is saved and synced, all entries are automatically tabulated and ready for data analysis and visualization — without any further effort.
3. Storage and Security
For decades, institutions have struggled with safely storing all their data. They quickly realised that paper storage is not scalable; and all these physical records require space with often limited security; space that many organisations cannot spare. Backups would further require scanning and copying, and storage at a different location; time and capacity that for many is just not realistic. Moreover, inconsistent layouts, no clear audit trails and version history, can lead to much frustration when ensuring compliance and data integrity.
With the development of mobile forms software, the storage of this collected data is further not longer limited by physical space; with cloud storage costing less than a 10th of a cent per GB, archiving and tracing a participant or patient history is boundless. These storage sites are also no longer susceptible to break-ins, fires, or other damage, instead, complex data encryption (both in transit and at rest), audit trails, access management, and backups safeguard valuable, and likely sensitive, data
From a sustainability standpoint, distancing research from a paper-based system removes a significant toll on the environment, otherwise incurred by the billions of papers, forms, and folders still ordered yearly. Digital technologies, however, also incur costs as they require devices and infrastructure (such as data centres), which consume energy and create waste. The emission from these, however, are far lower than those involved with the carbon footprint from paper waste and moving paper documents across facilities.
Mobile data collection, made unbelievably easy.
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5 common limitations of mobile forms
1. Devices screen size
When designing a form to be used on any smartphone, the narrow screen size has to be taken into consideration. For example, while a typical data table with many columns can work fine on paper or a desktop software, on a phone those columns will be cut-off and force the user to scroll horizontally to enter data, making data collection less user friendly. Fortunately there are workaround for this, which are covered on How to go from paper to make a mobile-friendly forms?
2. Smaller keyboard
When having to type or enter long text, the mobile keyboard on a smartphone or tablet is slower than an actual desktop computer. This must be taken into consideration, and ideally limit as much as possible typing on forms. The longer it takes for participants to fill a mobile form the higher chance that they will get distracted, make mistakes or leave data incomplete.
3. Battery life of mobile devices
The crux of mobile device utility is its battery. While batteries have become larger, the complexity and functionality of phones have likewise increased, requiring more power. A steady and sufficient power supply to recharge phones daily is a luxury that may not be available in remote areas. With innovative external battery options, including solar powered chargers, this issue, at least partly, can be mitigated.
4. Cost of mobile devices
The initial investment and effort associated with buying phones or tablets for data collection and implementing mobile forms may convince some institutions to remain loyal to paper forms, at least for the time being. This devotion is strengthened by the fact that paper forms require little or no training, in comparison to some mobile forms that appeal more to tech savvy demographics.
5. Synchronization of offline data
One of the biggest strengths of mobile forms is offline data collection, but that is at the same time an important risk. Consider offline data always at risk of being lost. Just like a suitcase with hundreds of paper records, a smartphone with valuable research data that is not yet uploaded to the cloud is a liability to a research team. All it takes is for that mobile device to be lost or damaged for valuable information to be lost. To mitigate the risk of data loss, synchronize your data as soon as possible.
7 Best practices to know before getting started
After choosing a mobile forms software comes the challenge of converting your paper form or building it on a data collection platform. The following best practices have Teamscope in mind and although different data collection mobile apps may have different features, this advice applies for many other mobile data collection tools.
1. Less is more.
Specific changes and challenges are inherent to the conversion of a paper data collection form into a mobile one. Especially for smartphones, smaller screen size and slower typing speed on mobile keyboards may hinder the clarity of the form and the rate of data entry, respectively.
Furthermore, scrolling endlessly or having to type long answers with a mobile keyboard can be tedious and demotivate your team. By minimizing the number of fields and data that need to be collected, you can improve the user experience and avoid long unnecessary responses.
In other words, keep your form as short as possible and consider dividing a single questionnaire into multiple ones.
In terms of scale for your research; the minimal file size of data entries means you can store hundreds or even thousands of entries on a single device while working offline.
2. When in doubt, use branching logic
Branch logic is a feature that changes what question or page a respondent sees next based on how they answer the current question. When using a mobile app, this freedom allows you to show/hide specific fields based on previous data inputs. We utilize branch logic to improve the readability of your form as well as make it as visually lean as possible. After all, less is more.
3. Split tables or grids into individual fields
Certain data requires tables or grids. On mobile apps, however, these tables may bring about a series of challenges. If the table has too many columns or a device's horizontal space is too narrow, it may be tedious to scroll horizontally to enter data.
The best solution to this is to think of each cell on a table as an individual form field. For example, if you have the following 2x3 grid, when you build that table for mobile data collection, you will end up with 6 form fields, instead one a single table:
4. Create sections with titles
When completing a mobile form, especially long ones, users may lose track of where they are within the questionnaire. Helping them know where they will help them reduce mistakes and have an easier time entering data. To support further understanding and clarity within your form, we suggest you use as many titles as possible, and these will automatically create sections for you on Teamscope.
5. Use an additional text field when requiring "please specify".
Asking to "please specify" when the answer is other is a standard method to expand the universe of answers in single and multiple-choice questions. On paper forms, the space to define will be a dotted line alongside the choice "other".
On mobile forms, however, the dotted line to specify must be a field in itself. To achieve this, we suggest you make use of an additional text field that is only displayed when a user selects "other".
6. Consider implementing checklists as a multiple-choice field
Checklists are a great way to go through procedures and serve as great reminders. One of the essential building blocks of mobile forms is multiple-choice questions, so if you need a checklist within your form, you can use a multiple-choice field. Teamscope further supports calculated fields; which means you can have an additional field right below the list that displays the percentage of completion.
7. Try out emojis within your forms
Mobile forms can quickly become monotonous, and with that, it increases the possibility for mistakes in data collection. A great way to make a form more visual and user-friendly is to use emojis. Emojis can be used within titles as a visual aid to know what section you are in and on scales (e.g. pain) to support the interviewee.
Data collection forms are the fundamental building blocks of clinical and field research. Switching from paper-based data collection to Electronic Data Capture (EDC) is a direct way to reduce project costs, collect data faster and with fewer mistakes. When researching challenging settings, researchers may find that traditional web-based data capture solutions are less handy and thus resort back to paper forms.
With the help of data capture mobile applications, like Teamscope, researchers can effectively collect data while on-the-go and even in offline settings. Although smartphones and tablets are becoming a more powerful tool from year to year, researchers must also recognize their limitations. These deficiencies are in regards to screen size, data entry speed, and mitigating the risk of data loss in offline locations.