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Designing a digital suggestion box using Office 365’s new apps

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A client wanted an anonymous digital suggestion box and was vetting various software packages when I heard through the office grapevine that this was occurring. My mind went immediately to Microsoft Forms, and I informed them to hold off because they already owned something that was going to work for this. Shadow IT is a real thing in businesses today where savvy employees are apt to solve their own problems through an Internet search rather than asking IT for their suggestions, so keeping an ear out for needs has become an essential part of a successful IT department.

The requirements were that the submissions had to be anonymous, that they be able to specify the fields and provide a little instruction to the submitter, and that a notification go to the manager of this project. They would like to call it a solutions box rather than a suggestion box because they would like to have the person submitting the suggestion also offer a solution.

Let’s use Forms, SharePoint and Flow to create an anonymous digital suggestion box that meets these criteria. Below you see the end result of the effort to meet their need.

Talk to the client

The first step is to talk to the client and gather the words and content they want for the form. In this case the person sent over the text exactly how she wanted it. All I had do then was paste it in. It still of course takes some interpretation. You can compare the difference between what she sent to me and what ended up on the form.

Prepare to create the form

There are two things that you might need to do before you can start working on your Forms project. Microsoft is just completing the process of rolling out the Forms app to all tenants. If your tenant isn’t showing the Forms app yet, you can change your rollout preferences in your Organization profile.

To change your preferences, in the Admin Center go to Organization profile and then select the First release for everyone radio button. After about 24 hours you will have the Forms application available in your tenant.

The second thing is that configuring a form is a user function, not an admin function, which means that you’ll need to use a licensed user to create the form. This is really unfortunate because normally I would expect that the Office 365 administrator would create these forms, especially for the first few rollouts, and the admin account is unlicensed. This means that your next step is going to be to log in to the Office 365 portal as a licensed account.

Creating the form

Launch the Forms application by clicking on its icon in the list of applications.

Here you have two choices of which type of form you want to create. A Quiz is something that will be graded. All other forms use the New Form option.

At the top of your new form click to enter the name and description for your form. The description area is also great place to put some directions on how to use the form or a greeting.

Clicking the picture icon allows you to add a picture in the title area of your form to the left of the title. This picture must be a square and pretty small. It will take some experimentation to get it correctly sized. The Forms app makes no attempt at cropping or resizing it for you.

Now you’re ready to begin adding questions. Click the Add question button.

Adding questions

There are four types of questions you can create. Under each type are some options.

To create our questions, we want to choose Text. By default the text question is a single line of text. Selecting Long answer makes this a multiline response box.

You also have some additional options. You can force respondents to answer this question by selection the Required option. Under the ellipse there are two additional options.

You can choose to restrict the type of response you will accept by selecting one of the options in the list below. This really only works when you are expecting a numerical response.

The second option under the ellipse is to add a subtitle. A subtitle is a nice place to put question-specific directions or context.

In the top right corner of the question, you will also see some formatting and ordering options. You can copy the question into a new question, delete this question, move it up or down in the question order, or add a picture. Unlike adding a picture to the title section where you’re very constrained in size, here the photo is meant to be part of the question, so you have much more latitude.

Continue adding and configuring the questions until you have them just as you like.

Decorating and sharing your form

Now that your questions are done it’s time to make the form pretty, preview it, and then Share it.

In the upper right corner of the Forms application, you have several options. First I want to point out that like all of the Microsoft web apps, you don’t need to remember to save it. This will be done for you and you can see the status where I’ve circled it in the figure above.

Click on Theme. You’ve got a few choices for the color or photo that will make up the background of your form. You also have the option of uploading your own photo to use as the background. The form itself always stays white so you don’t have to worry about it interfering with the questions. In my example, I choose the park setting. You can see what this looks like back at the top of this article.

Under the ellipse are two additional options. One, called Branching, you’re not likely to use for a suggestion box form but might for a more complex project. Branching lets you send the participant to an out-of-order question if they answer this one.

The second option under the ellipse is more important for our example. This will be where you specify who is able to fill out your form. Choose Settings and you’ll see the options below.

You’ll see you have several options. For our purpose we want this form to be used internally and anonymously, so we will not record the name of the person submitting the suggestion. Under options for responses we will not set an end date as the collection of suggestions will be ongoing. However, it should be noted that when you want to close a form to new entries, you’ll come to these settings and uncheck the Accept responses box.

Now, press Preview to see what your form looks like and make any final adjustments. When finished with that, press Share to get a link, send an email, or otherwise post your form to the people that you want to fill and submit it.

Testing your form

You will want to not only preview your form but also test it by clicking on the link that you’ll be sending out to others. I recommend this because the preview is still slightly different than the final product. For example, if you choose to record the name of the person filling the form, Forms adds a disclaimer letting them know that their entry is not anonymous. This disclaimer is not part of the form preview.

Gathering responses

As you can see in the figure above, Forms presents you with a report showing some recent responses. You can drill down into them by clicking on the More Details link on each question or you can download the results into Excel.

Setting up notifications

The example that we’re working with is a suggestion box that is going to be available on their SharePoint site. When released, it might get a flurry of form completions, but as time goes on we’re expecting only a few entries now and then. Rather than have to remember to check for new entries, we’re going to set up an email notification system using another Office 365 app called Flow.

Flow lets you configure if-this-do-that type systems. In our case, we need a Flow that kicks off when there’s a newly submitted suggestion box entry. Microsoft has populated Flow with some templates we can use, and there’s one that does exactly what we want. If there wasn’t, we could create new blank flow.

In our case, we’ll click on the first Flow template: Email notification for survey responses. The first step is to connect the Flow to the accounts that it will use. It needs an email account and a forms account. They can be the same account. They only requirement is that they are a user in Office 365 who has access to Flow and email as part of their licensing.

Click Continue once you have your accounts configured. You are now ready to set up your Flow. The first step is to pick the form from the drop-down box.

Next, we need to configure the email. You’ll do this just like you are composing an email. In the To box enter the email address it should be delivered to. In the subject line, enter a topic for this email.

In the body you will create an email that consists of text and fields from the form. Forms calls those fields Dynamic content. Begin typing your email as you would any email and select your Dynamic content fields to add the submitted information to the email. See my example below.

Finally, enter a salutation and you’ve got a well-composed email.

Save your Flow!

Contrary to almost everything else in Microsoft’s web apps, in Flow you need to press the words Update Flow at the top of the page in order to save it. That and the Close are actually buttons, though the white background makes them look more informational than functional. Below we see the finished Flow.

And here we see what the email looks like to the recipient. There’s no preview run in Flow so you’ll need to complete your form and check the recipients email to proof your composition.

That’s it! We’ve implemented a digital suggestion box and configured it to send an email to the person who will review it once submitted. There’s not a lot of learning curve here, so I encourage everyone to take advantage of these great little apps. You’re going to find that once you do one, people in the office will have ideas for more. There are a lot of little annoyances out there for IT to solve with simple app solutions like this one that can make a big difference in job satisfaction and productivity.

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