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How To Find The Best Field Data Collection Tool

Accurate and efficient field data collection can be a challenging task – especially on paper. This old-school method of data collection is unreliable. Papers get lost, dirtied, destroyed, set on fire (no judgement) – any manner of things can affect your data collection process and cause a major delay when relying on an outdated system.

That’s why it’s a good idea to switch to digital mobile forms.

This article will help you find the perfect field data collection tool that’ll help you move away from outdated paper processes.

Follow our five-step guide to meet your most reliable, secure and efficient way of collecting field and process data.

What Is Field Data Collection?

Field data collection refers to the capture of vital data by your field teams. For example, data surrounding sales orders, inspection sheets, job checklists, quote information, etc.

This data is then used to process invoices, check safety compliance, ensure standards are met – or for activity reporting in the field.

“Field Data Collection” Isn’t Limited To Field Teams

“Field teams” is an ambiguous term. It could refer to agricultural teams, rescue squads, or forestry teams, to name a few. It can also refer to teams on the factory floor, safety teams, maintenance personnel, assembly line staff, and more.

Thus the information in this article applies to anyone relying on a paper-based process to capture vital data, whether your teams are out in the field or right in your backyard.

The Benefits Of Digital Field Data Collection

Guy working on a tablet with a stylus busy with digital field data collection to end off his day
We’ve seen Appenate customers achieve countless benefits by switching to digital. For this post, we’ve decided to highlight three common wins our customers see.

It’s Way Faster

One of our customers follows a complicated process in order to complete jobs for their clients. Due to their highly specialised nature, they have quite the stack of compliance documents to maintain with each task.

The main problem they faced was the unreliability of paper. Firstly, who has time to decipher a busy field technician’s scrawl?

Papers also often get lost, and this was a particularly nasty pain-point for this customer. Every time a stack got lost, they had to start from scratch. This caused a major delay in the job and, of course, payment. 

Finally, their workflow to get the paper stack through the process was painful. It would have to go to the field, come back to the office, be shipped off to safety, go back to the field, to the office again… 

At each step, the paper stack had every chance of being ruined or misplaced – and labour hours and fuel costs kept going up.

With a good digital system, none of the travel or logistics surrounding paper is a problem. Once a section of the job is complete, the simple push of a button sends it off to the next step in the process.

A great way to speed things up when collecting data in the field.

Data Accuracy

Mistakes on paper can affect you in two ways. Either you’ll have to place yourself in an embarrassing situation by explaining to your clients or stakeholders as to why they got inaccurate data. Or you’ll have to send a stack one step back for a fix – an utter waste of time. With a digital process in place, this step back is a simple click of the mouse.

Many digital platforms can also have data validation in place, creating a safeguard against some errors.

One more thing – digital data is a lot harder to misplace than paper forms. Especially when it’s kept in a secure database – as most platforms should offer.

Offline Capture

One advantage paper does have is that it doesn’t require an internet connection (not yet, at least  😂).

We suspect this is one reason many might stick with paper. Thankfully, a few field data software solutions are offline-capable.

One final thing you may want to consider is pure Return On Investment (ROI) when switching to a paperless system. Read our article on the subject for more info. 

What Can A Digital Platform Do For You?

An image of field work apps in action
Depending on your platform, you’ll be able to build your own custom mobile forms or apps on your computer and send them to the installed app on your team’s devices. They fill out the required data and hit the upload button.

The form comes right back to the platform where you can view the data captured, and even review the submission to either accept or reject it. This data can then be exported via spreadsheet, word document or pdf. In some cases, this data can even be sent off to other platforms to be processed for invoicing, compliance, or any number of actions via our API’s.

For more info on how our integrations work, check out our Connectors page here. Other platforms will have a similar page on their website.

Now let’s move on to the actual guide, so you can find the platform that “does it all” on your journey to going paperless.

How To Get Started With Paperless Forms

Once you’re ready to look for a paperless field data collection system, there are a few important steps one should follow to ensure a positive experience. Do your diligence, and you won’t risk a “bad egg” solution corrupting your perception of digital data collection.

1. Establish Your Requirements

Before even looking at a solution, it’s important to map out your needs. Try to be as in-depth as possible. 

For example, if your teams do a lot of work within mountains, forests, underground, or anywhere that internet connectivity may become a problem, offline functionality will be critical.

Perhaps you have a complicated quote system (as one of our customers had). In this case, you may want to limit your search to platforms that can handle complicated calculations – as we do with formulas. 

Maybe you’d like your own branding on your app and all your forms. In this case, a strong white-label offering would be crucial. Maybe you require geo-location on your field reports? Do you need barcode scanning abilities? Do you want to use NFC tags? 

Continue asking questions until you’ve listed all your requirements. Remember to consider your budget as well.

Once you’ve listed as much as possible, try to select an example form you currently use that covers everything. This form, sheet or checklist will be used for testing the platforms of your choice.

You may also want to add possible future requirements to your list. This way, you can avoid an untimely migration by choosing the right platform from the start.

2. Search The Web

Once you know your requirements, it’s time to search. Sites like Capterra or G2Crowd could also be useful in your quest.

Keep your list of requirements handy and note down which boxes they tick, which they don’t tick and which aren’t specified.

Most platforms will offer a complimentary call to get you started. Use this to get clarity on anything you’re unsure of. Once your questions have been answered, it’s time to choose around 3 solutions that look best at the surface level.

3. Test Thoroughly

Time to start those trials. Most platforms will have an obligation-free trial available to you. Some will even offer free support and training (as we do). So be sure to make use of these perks.

Make notes of how easy each platform is to use – on both the front and back end. Note how they match up to your requirements. 

As you test, be sure to push these platforms to their limits. Add more rows than you need, tick and untick checkboxes multiple times, delete and add fields, etc.

If you do end up finding a bug in the system, most platforms’ customer support teams will gladly help you out and may even thank you for finding the bug. If they don’t respond promptly though, that could be a red flag on their level of support. 

Once you’ve tested the system as thoroughly as you can, it’s time to take it one step further. 

4. Think Long-Term

If possible, try to avoid a situation where you’ll have to do another migration in 6 months – for whatever reason. Check your chosen platforms for long-term sustainability within your business structure. Try to ensure that you won’t hit a technical ceiling with your chosen platform (the reason many switch to Appenate). 

One thing to look out for are development cycles. Does the platform you want to go with have a healthy dev cycle? If they’re still battling with an update they started 5 years ago; they may not be the best option.

If the platform isn’t being updated at all anymore, it’s not worth making the shift. They’ll fall behind fast and you’ll be left with no choice but to migrate to keep up with your competition.

Once you’re happy, it’s time to weigh everything up and sign on that dotted line.

5. Try To Avoid Migrations, But Don’t Be Afraid Of Them

Migrations can be painful. Many platforms, however, offer migration assistance. So be sure to take advantage of that whenever you can.

Your initial migration to your new platform should be a moment of joy though. You’ll be saving time and may even create the opportunity to take on more business without raising your overheads (we’ve seen this happen).

Don’t be afraid of migrating down the line either. If at any point, you realize your platform no longer lives up to your expectations, a change may be necessary. Simply weigh up the pros and cons and take it from there. Re-use this guide if you have to.

There’s no reason to stay in an “unhappy relationship” if there’s a better option out there. Especially if, in the long run, the relationship will hurt more than a swift migration – which is often the case.

The Sad Reality Of Poor Customer Service

Desperate woman holding up a 'help' sign. This signifies the challenges poor customer service cause.
One final thing to keep in mind – and one of the most important aspects to look at – is customer service. When something goes wrong, the last thing you want is to wait for weeks to get a response.

So make sure to test this department well too, so you’re not disappointed down the line.

One thing to keep in mind is that it’s easy to offer great customer service just to get you on board, and then abandon you. We’ve actually heard of this happening – not naming names, but be on your guard.

Always remember, necessary and beneficial migrations are nothing to fear.

Ready To Test? 

We speak plainly here at Appenate. So we’ll just come right out and say this – we might be a great fit for you. We offer heaps of functionality that some of our competitors don’t. In that vein, we do have a slight learning curve.

Although the technically astute will figure ours out quickly.

On the other hand, you may be looking for a lighter solution. Or for a specific feature that we don’t offer (yet). Appenate is in constant development, however, so be sure to check back every now and then if we don’t fit your needs today.

The point is we fully expect you to try us alongside some of our competitors. If we turn out to be the best fit for you, we’ll be more than happy to welcome you aboard and show you what our platform and customer success teams can do for you.

If we aren’t, that’s alright too. Because we can say, quite honestly, that your success comes first to us. We’re here to help, not chase profits for the sake of it.

So if you’re ready to give our platform a rigorous test, sign up for your free trial here.