Google today introduced a new feature as part of Google Docs that will make collecting data for your spreadsheets very easy. Now, every time you want other users/team members/collaborators to contribute data to your spreadsheet, you can do so in a very simple way.
Here’s how it works: you design a form with individual fields or information that you’d like people to fill — corresponding to your spreadsheet — and send as many invitation emails (with a link to your form) as you like. Their results, or whatever they input into the form, is then directly inserted into your spreadsheet. The best part is that recipients don’t need to be Gmail users, so anyone with an email address can input data once they’ve been sent an invitation.
Form fields can be of any of the five types available — single-line text, multi-line paragraph text, multiple choice (radio buttons), checkboxes or a choice-list — and you can have as many or as little of them as you like in your form. The interface also allows you to enter, besides the usual title and description of your form, “help text” for each field so you can further the cut down on redundancy in having to individually explain the more tougher questions to every participant. You can even edit your form after you’ve designed it and sent invitations if you feel something needs to be clarified, which is handy when you’re doing a survey and start getting asked the same questions again and again.
User data is automatically timestamped and collected either in a new spreadsheet with columns corresponding to the data fields you created if you designed your form first or on your working spreadsheet if you designed the form around it. A Google Docs form gadget for iGoogle that lists the ten latest replies is also available if you would like to track responses there.
Something I found missing was a numerical field option and a way to validate answers. Although users may indeed enter numbers in the text fields, and sorting them in ascending or descending order is possible, this approach isn’t very elegant when it comes to handling massive amounts of numerical information, especially if some data meant to be numerical have other characters in them (currency symbols, delimiters, symbols are common with numbers). Validation is also important, for example, to ensure information that is absolutely required are present or to ensure values are within a certain acceptable range.
This simple feature would’ve helped a lot when I was doing a market survey for a mobile phone company a year ago. Considering that most people I talked to and gathered information from were capable of following a link from an email and filling in a form, these forms would greatly help save time and effort: I wouldn’t need to manually copy data from Excel spreadsheets attached to emails, wouldn’t need to hand-input data from respondents who just simply typed answers the body of the email and wouldn’t need to spend all that time answering the same questions over the phone.
The form feature might be a simple upgrade — simply one more way to share and collaborate on your spreadsheets — but as anyone who has ever had to collect data from a lot of people over the web will tell you, it can be immensely useful.