A college professor of mine had a favorite mantra: “Humans are category creating critters.” As one of those critters wading into the world of PDFs, you figure out pretty quickly that PDFs (even the fillable ones) are agents of chaos. As far as structure goes, the best you can hope for are some coordinates that narrow down where on the PDF you can type in an unvalidated string of characters.
The PDF, however, need not remain a digitally-rendered piece of printer paper with editable rectangles; it can be transformed into a modern piece of technology. Here are the features of Anvil that make it the most simple yet powerful way of completing paperwork online:
We at Anvil think about paperwork as a structured process for capturing and sharing data where the PDF is just one necessary output, not the rails. With that framework in mind, we set out to simplify paperwork by standardizing its components so they could be reused wherever possible, thereby stripping away the redundancy that causes paperwork inefficiency.
PDFs are inherently messy and unstructured. Even fillable PDFs don’t do very much to make a document digitally consumable. Fillable boxes can appear in random places where you don’t actually need data, the data being entered into them isn’t validated, and the fillable fields often have confusing names like “checkbox_1”.
Anvil makes it easy to turn any PDF, fillable or not, into a clean document template with standardized names and data types. Our document templates are created in a no-code builder, meaning the people most familiar with the documents are able to create their templates. Document templates are the foundation for almost any other PDF action in the Anvil ecosystem, from filling over API to creating multi-document Workflows and Etch e-signature packets.
A well-organized document template with intelligible field names and defined data types is a great start, but the real devil is in collecting the data and getting it onto the PDF. Enter field aliases, one of my category-creating mind’s favorite things about Anvil!
In short, field aliases allow you to assign a label to a piece of information you have or want to collect (e.g. employeeHomeAddress) and easily map the output to any template PDF field with the same field alias. As for the inputs, Anvil leaves it up to you - it could be your CRM or a webform you host on your website. So long as you send your data to Anvil labeled with a field alias, Anvil will know exactly where to send it.
The upshot here is that your customers never need to ask, “Didn’t I already provide this information?” again. By maintaining a consistent set of field aliases, anyone configuring your document templates can set them up so that all your PDFs, e-signature packets, and Workflows are automatically ready to receive data.
We’ve all been there - you are at the doctor’s office, filling out 15 forms with information your doctor already knows about you (see field aliases above). As irritating as it is to provide your date of birth that certainly hasn’t changed since the last time you saw your doctor, what sends it over the edge is entering that information 15 times.
Anvil allows you to send a single piece of data to multiple destinations within the same PDF and across PDFs. Field aliases are one obvious solution for this. Anvil Workflows also gives you the ability to map multiple PDF fields to a single webform field without using field aliases or writing any code.
Anyone, regardless of their technical expertise, is able to pull together a collection of PDF documents that may ask for “birth date” 15 times, automatically create a webform with a single validated “birth date” field, and use that single webform field to fill out all 15 “birth date” PDF fields at the same time.
Having lived and breathed PDFs for years, we are also humble enough to know much of the compliance and regulatory paperwork that exists today has not yet evolved to be internet-friendly. From working with customers in industries like insurance, we have identified the process variations that are liable to “break” an automated, online PDF workflow and require manual human intervention. We view our software’s ability to handle those paperwork-specific rules and exceptions in a programmatic way as the key to truly bringing it online.
Forms will commonly ask for information and then not allow enough space for the answer. For example, a commercial insurance application might provide a table for a company to list “all locations”, but that table only has 3 rows. What happens if the company has more than 3 locations? A human familiar with the explicit form instructions or implicit industry standards can probably answer this question. However, as with any rule-based logic, it would be more efficient to offload that decision making to an application to remove the human bottleneck.
Anvil has a ton of features out of the box to handle these common “decisions” that people make every day with paperwork. For example, any webform lists mapped to a PDF table within an Anvil Workflow will automatically repeat the PDF page with the table to capture any items that don’t fit on the first page.
“Paperwork” can, and often does, mean a lot more than just getting a single document completed. Paperwork is all the information gathering, decision making, and execution that goes into completing the full set of documents needed to accomplish really complex tasks, like applying for a loan or doing your taxes. Much of the “decision making” is deciding which documents need to be completed and what information to ask for to complete those documents.
Conditional logic is table stakes for any webform worth its salt today. Anvil takes that concept one step further with document visibility logic in our Workflows. Using a no-code logic builder, a user is able to set conditional rules based on webform questions to include or exclude entire PDFs in the final Workflow output. Some Anvil customers find this single feature so useful that they leverage Workflows internally for their document selection capabilities - they send data directly from their database to an Anvil Workflow to select and prepare the correct PDFs.
As I noted above, “paperwork” often refers to a set of multiple documents. Sometimes, though, you just want the final output to be a single, merged PDF. For most, this process looks something like:
- download docs
- open preview
- copy/paste all the thumbnails into one PDF
- spend 15 minutes rearranging them back into the correct order
- and finally, save.
Within Anvil, “merge PDF output” is a simple checkbox that will configure any Workflow or Etch e-signature packet to create a merged PDF from the finalized documents.
Paperwork in the modern sense is not just about creating and filling PDFs. It’s one of the most important ways that we capture and share data today. By reconceptualizing paperwork as a structured, data-centric process we can move beyond the traditional confines of the PDF. Interested in bringing your paperwork online from start to finish or just want to see our powerful features in action? Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.