I hate filling out forms

Wednesday 29 March 2006This is 17 years old. Be careful.

I’ve been asked to fill out a Statement of Health form for a life insurance benefit. I hate filling out forms. On the semi-cool side, it’s a PDF form, so Acrobat lets me fill in the fields, and then can print the result. On the extra-annoying side, Acrobat is so proud of this feature, it puts up an alert explaining it to me about once a minute, even after I’ve already filled out part of the form. Also, there’s no way to save the work I’ve put into the form other than to print it.

The worst part about forms, though, is that they are the quintissential boiling down of a person to a series of pre-categorized factoids. Some, like the one I’m filling out, seem to imply a judgement as well:

To prevent delays answer each question and give full details to “yes” answers.

[ ] yes [ ] no: In the past 5 years, has any person on whom coverage is requested had surgery, been hospitalized or consulted with a doctor, had blood or other diagnostic tests (other than for HIV antibody), or been advised to receive medical treatment?

Excuse me? Have I consulted with a doctor in the past 5 years, and if so, please give full details? I would think they’d want full details if I hadn’t consulted with a doctor at any time in the past 5 years.

No sane person would ask this question this way, but the efficiencies demanded by modern bureaucracies seem to require scrambling human interactions and turning them into these sorts of robotic inquisitions.

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Real proper Acrobat should allow you to save the form contents as an FDF file. I believe that some of the Free PDF viewers may also allow this. I was under the impression that Acrobat Reader allowed you to save the contents too. You can't save the PDF with your answers in, but if you can get the PDF and an FDF of answers then pdftk can "flatten" the answers into the PDF.
Acrobat Reader gives PDF creators all these suspect "powers", preventing you from saving the form contents, and disabling cut-and-paste (!!). My favorite is that on OS X they have also found a way to disable the "Print to PDF" feature built into the OS-level print dialog, so you can't even just save an uneditable, but printable, copy of your work.

People who make PDF forms seem to turn all this garbage on without thinking about the consequences for the user.
Exactly! I tried to copy that stupid question out of the PDF to paste into the entry, and it was disabled. Why? To protect their intellectual property, probably. How stupid.
You could 'print' the form using a program called Paperless Printer - and just print it to PDF format.. :D
One more gripe: after I filled out the form and printed it, all the data was erased, so I couldn't even print another copy! Argghg....
BTW, another more sinister instance of the dreaded cut-n-paste DRM was mentioned over at Freedom to Tinker a little more than a year ago.
I came up against such forms from the Norwegian tax authorities a while back; it was either those or Microsoft Word documents. The stupidities of such forms are almost unenumerable, but the inability to save is particularly stupid in light of complicated tax returns where you can get half way through only to discover that you don't have all the figures ready. What are you supposed to do then? Leave your computer on for a few days with the form open until you've got all the information? I suppose that Adobe don't believe that technology is supposed to make people's lives easier, especially when the form eventually has to be printed anyway and its details presumably reentered manually by some other pour soul in some other system later on.

In the end, I just printed the form and filled it out by hand. That way you also don't get pestered by stupid validation rules that don't really apply or have your data truncated to ridiculously narrow field lengths.
btw: That's a standard question. It's stupid, no question about it, but I've seen it on several insurance forms from different companies. Everyone would be much better off if they used the type of form that the Red Cross uses for blood donors.
Adobe Reader has the built-in ability to save the data, but in order to enable it, the form creator has to buy an expensive product from Adobe. So far I've only seen it used for Internal Revenue Service forms. See http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2003/09/04.html and http://seclists.org/lists/vulnwatch/2003/Jan-Mar/0103.html.

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