Formatting Your Church’s Paper Forms for the Web

One of the finest perks I enjoy as a church webmaster is getting first dibs on new church forms. You may have guessed that it’s a volunteer position. But, when the religious education classes for children fill up as fast as they do at my church, having the responsibility to announce their availability online also gets you to the front of the line.

If you’re stuck with links to paper forms rather than an elegant online registration system then here are a few formatting tips I’ve picked up–along with some paper cuts–over the years.

  • Headers – Include a header with the name of form if it runs more than a single page.
  • Footers – Add a footer that displays the URL, page number and total number of pages just in case the paperwork gets separated. Include a version number or date since these documents tend to evolve over time. This makes it easy for you as a webmaster and for your users to confirm whether the latest version is at hand.sx
  • URLs – Use a short one if available or go for a shortcut alias, such as example.com/forms. Showing the exact URL is better for the user, but can be confusing for the creator if the PDF version starts as a Word document.
  • Formats – Don’t save your form in the latest version of Word. Go back a bit for those with older copies of the software. PDF or MS Word? If you have a number of fields to fill out, offer both. You’ll make it easier for users who want to type within Word (or PDF form fields) as well as for those who otherwise have to decipher the handwriting on incoming forms. And if you don’t need a wet signature then this approach makes email an option for sending in the form.
  • Structure – Search engine will often use the headlines of the document rather than the document meta tags. Structure your document properly so the titles and snippets show up clearly to search engine users and *then* add the meta tags to the document’s properties just in case.
  • Recurring forms – Pick a timeless name and location. Example: registration for adult education classes in the spring 2008 semester doesn’t need to go in classes/2008/somethingorother.doc. Go with /classes/registration.doc or .htm and upload the files there. Users can bookmark the page knowing that the latest version is always there. This approach also prevents your site from getting littered with archived versions in various locations. Normally I’m an archive advocate, but not at the risk of confusing users (and frustrating the form processors).

Bonus: Need to announce a price change, such as for class registration? Offer last year’s rate to early birds as an incentive to sign up early. Your higher price takes effect later.

What lessons do you have? Just fill out this PDF and…oh wait, you can leave a comment below.

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