Forms are the cornerstone of business applications, and plenty of options exist to create a form in SharePoint. Which one you use will depend on your needs, technical skill and the version of SharePoint you are using. In this article we’ll explore seven ways to build forms in SharePoint along with some of the pros and cons of each. All these options will be storing the data in an existing SharePoint list.
Default forms are available for any SharePoint list. Create a list and you have a corresponding form to add and modify items. Options are available to organize the order of fields, format them, validate input, add basic calculations and attach files. There are also more advanced options such as limiting permissions to item owners and enabling workflows. You can modify all of these under List Settings for the list.
These generic SharePoint forms are a good choice for simple applications that don’t have too many columns or records and that only require basic functionality. Lists also offer a data sheet view to edit a limited set of columns, much like a spreadsheet.
What you see is what you get with these basic forms. If you need to break fields up into multiple tabs, or perhaps have business logic run on them in real time, you’ll need to keep on reading. And although theoretically a list can store millions of items, you can only access up to 5,000 items in any view (in reality the numbers are far lower before performance degrades considerably).
Creating a custom form in SharePoint Designer is relatively easy. You take an existing SharePoint list and use Designer to create a new .aspx page which renders and controls the form. There are files used by a list to create forms, one each to add, edit and view. These are located in the same folder as their associated SharePoint list. With Designer you can show or hide fields based on certain criteria, change the layout, use various types of data controls, add rich text and graphics, and if needed work with the code used by the form.
SharePoint Designer is a full website-editing tool that lets you work directly with SharePoint files and properties. You can download it for free from Microsoft. Besides forms, you can create workflows using a simple wizard, modify the master design pages, and work with code directly. You don’t have to be a programmer to use the tool, but you do need to understand the basics of how SharePoint is structured and stores files. You’ll be able to customize your forms more than you can with lists alone, but probably not everything you want – unless you can write custom code. You then have full control of the ASPX page that manages the form and all the HTML around it, allowing you to create a much better UX.
Lean more on creating a form in SharePoint Designer in this other article.
InfoPath is Microsoft’s dedicated form creation and editing tool. With little or no coding, you can use it to build complex forms that can access many data sources to add, edit and delete. You can create multiple views within a form and choose which one is displayed when the form is opened. InfoPath requires Forms Services though, which only comes with SharePoint Enterprise. If you are using the Standard edition or WSS you need to upgrade or purchase the separate Forms Server product.
Unlike SharePoint Designer, InfoPath is only a forms editing tool and does not provide additional web page editing features. It’s not very intuitive to use and you are limited to the functionality it offers, which covers most business needs though.
InfoPath works well with structured data, and can handle large text fields, calculations, business logic, and integrated workflows. You can only edit one item at a time though.
Visual Studio is Microsoft’s integrated development environment and can be used to develop anything, from Windows Mobile apps to websites. It is a software developers tool and is well beyond the reach of a non-programmer. Like SharePoint Designer, it can be used to extend the functionality and layout of SharePoint’s default list forms, plus it can be used to extend InfoPath solutions.
The sky is the limit though when it comes to possibilities. Any limitations you’ve encountered with other form tools can be addressed with Visual Studio. A skilled software developer will be able to create any functionality you have seen on any website or application.
The sky is also the limit when it comes to cost. Visual Studio is the door to full-scale software development which is costly. Without project management, relatively simple projects can get expensive through misunderstood requirements and scope-creep. Custom software can also be difficult to maintain down the line if not well documented.
Microsoft Access, the database tool that comes bundled with Office Professional 2010, can now be used with SharePoint. Besides being able to publish an Access database to SharePoint, you can actually create a web-accessible custom forms in Access that use SharePoint lists. Access became one of the most popular desktop database by giving non-programmers the ability build complete solutions, including rich forms full of customizable features. This functionality can now be published to SharePoint.
With Access you can configure various types of forms, including single item view, multiple items and data sheet views. Plus its query capabilities offer more than available in lists alone. You can also use Access to get around the capacity limitations of lists by storing the data in and Access database. Doing so though, gives you less flexible permissions compared to lists where you can set permissions per site, list and item. You also can’t integrate workflow to your items. Every user that will be using Access forms will also need a Microsoft Office Professional license.
Find out more about using Access in SharePoint here.
Now that SharePoint can integrate Office Web Applications you store the spreadsheet in a SharePoint library and open it in the browser instead of the full Excel desktop client. This opens up a great option for editing content in a spreadsheet like interface. Several Excel features are available such as freeze panes, functions for calculations and data visualizations.
On the downside, only one person can edit the entire spreadsheet at a time, and creating views is still a manual effort since, after all, it is still a spreadsheet.
Third Party Vendors
Several third party tools exist that fill the functionality gaps in SharePoint’s native form creating tools or that make it easier to do so. For example, our product Pistachio, is designed to help non-programmers create feature-rich forms in SharePoint. Instead of using a static publishing approach though, the Pistachio web part builds the form on the fly every time it is used – it gets its configuration from a central location which allows changes to the form to be made instantly. Here are a few more features: Pistachio Tour.