How to create interactive PDF forms

Adobe LiveCycle

It’s important to gather as much information as possible before starting a project, and a straightforward way to gather this info is through web-based forms. But we’re going to look at another option — to offer a downloadable form as a PDF file, so clients have the ability to answer questions in their own time, before emailing the details back to you. Completed PDF forms can also be printed so the client has a hard copy — useful for referring to throughout the project.

A few people have asked how to create interactive PDFs, so here’s a quick insight.


Adobe LiveCycle Designer, and Adobe Acrobat Professional.

LiveCycle Designer is used for creating interactive forms, and Acrobat Professional for viewing the completed forms.

Here’s a description of LiveCycle Designer, excerpted from Adobe’s website:

“Adobe® LiveCycle Designer software enables the creation of forms that combine high-fidelity presentation with XML data handling. The easy-to-use graphical interface of Adobe LiveCycle Designer enables users to quickly design forms, maintain form templates, define a form’s business logic, make changes, and preview forms before they are deployed as Adobe PDF or HTML documents.”

If you’ve used page layout programs such as Adobe InDesign, QuarkXPress, or even Microsoft Word, you’ll find LiveCycle straightforward to use.

Adobe LiveCycle Designer form

After opening the software, simply choose ‘new form’ from the welcome screen options, and you’re ready to type your questions and insert any logos or imagery.

Adobe LiveCycle Designer

There are many different options for setting the style of your questions, such as drop-down lists, check boxes, or text fields where a client can type their own words. It’s quite intuitive, the ‘help’ options are great, and you won’t need me to explain much more.

At the bottom of your form, insert a ‘submit’ button, and assign your email address to its properties. I’ve saved my finished templates as PDF files, but as mentioned on Adobe’s website, you can also create HTML forms. This is something I want to learn more about to give clients variety when answering questions. It’d be useful to have a couple of extra pages on my site, showing online questionnaires without the need for downloading a PDF.

When clients have completed the questionnaire and press the ‘submit’ button, their answers will be sent (in XML format) directly to your inbox. Upon receiving the XML attachment by email, you then need to save the file to your hard drive.

Once on your hard drive, open the original questionnaire template (the blank PDF that you offer for download) in Adobe Acrobat Professional. In the ‘file’ menu choose ‘form data’ / ‘import data to form’ and there’s a prompt to locate the client file (the one saved from the email).

Using these forms can speed-up the design process, saving time for everyone involved.

All your clients need is a copy of Acrobat Reader so they can view and complete the forms. Reader is free to download.

Update: 15th October 2007
Adobe’s LiveCycle Designer is for PC-use only. If you have a Mac you’ll need to install a product like Parallels to run Windows.

How do you gather information from your clients?

These forms act as a great starting point, and help focus ideas around exactly what the client wants to achieve, but there’ll always be follow-up questions.

What methods of information gathering do you use?

Further resources via Lee Newham of GoodPeople:
How to creative interactive PDF forms, on The Design Cubicle
Interactive Forms in Acrobat, on Layers Magazine

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  1. I did notice that you had a totally awesome questionare. Good to know how to do it!

  2. I did look through the questionnaire a week or so ago to get an idea of what type of info you ask for in regards to web design. The process seemed to me like an extension of your online “presence” – helpful and thorough. Thanks for the info on creating this type of questionnaire.

  3. oliver ward

    I had a look at Adobe LiveCycle Designer and there doesn’t seem to be a version for mac. Is there one available or a similar program available?

  4. Funny, I was just looking into this recently – I’ve been tinkering around with LiveCycle over the past couple of weeks. Seems like a really easy way of doing things; typically I send a client off to an online form to fill in. Perhaps having a PDF alternative could be useful, too :)

  5. I was wondering how you had created your forms too. Like Oliver I have just been to take a look and it seems to be PC only – shame it looks nice and easy to use.

  6. No problem, Kris, Jess.

    Oliver, Tara, sorry for not mentioning that. I wasn’t aware the software was PC-only. I searched through similar Adobe products, looking for a Mac alternative, but no joy.

    Damien, I think both alternatives would be best, giving the client a choice. The html forms are definitely on my ‘to-do’ list.

  7. Thanks for this post, David. I was wondering how you did that with your PDF forms!

    Here are a couple of suggestions for your web site development form:

    For redesign clients: What do you like/dislike about your current site?

    For all:
    1) Are you going to be providing content for this site (text, images, etc.) Do you already have the content finished? Do you need help with it? If it’s not ready, when do you anticipate that you’ll have your content in hand?

    2) Will you be editing your own website once it is up and running?

  8. duravidaes

    I was reading your entry, and took a look at the examples you gave (from your hire page)

    I was wondering, why not using a web form for such as small task?
    – Less dependency on your potential customer software (don’t need tp install anything)
    – Control over the email generated (throough the submit in a page, you choose how to generate the email)
    – More accessible (if they have accessed the page, they are able to access the form)

  9. Leslie, great suggestions. I need to re-write my content, as I’ve learnt more and more questions to ask at the beginning.

    Duravidaes, yes, need to do that, too.

  10. Yup, I used Designer at my old job. It was really great! I know a lot of the people that used the interactive forms I made really appreciated them. The end user can also save them after they’ve been filled out if they have Acrobat (Standard or Pro, not Reader). I didn’t know that it was PC only either (that must mean you’re on a PC, David?)! That’s kinda weird.

    You can also use the very simple FormCalc “language” in Designer to do some pretty complex math. I had a few order forms and this feature was helpful because I could have the form calculate the totals for people after they plugged in the quantity and price. It has a library of functions, too, for rounding, figuring averages, etc.

  11. Seems more complex than I thought, with the FormCalc function. I’m sure that helped you and for clients when totals were calculated. I use Mac and PC, but more PC — it’s what I used before becoming self-employed, and I got used to it. I also enjoy playing poker online, and Macs can’t yet run the programs I use.

  12. You’ll have to get a new MAC they can run both apparently (not that I’ve tried). Looking into buying one of those silver Imacs – saw one the other day and they look pretty nice.

  13. They do, with a nice 24″ display. Swanky.

  14. David,

    Good post, I have used Live Cycle for a few things that my clients have requested in the past, and for the most part it works great. I don’t want to turn this in to a complaint section, but the thing that I don’t like is; from what I have seen your potential clients have to run Adobe Live cycle through some form of desktop email system. (i.e. Outlook, Thunderbird etc) In my opinion I find it MUCH nicer for the potential client to be able to send email seamlessly or just straight through the form.

    Yes I will be the first to admit that this might just be my own ignorance, Live Cycle might have something like this built in, but I have not seen it?

    Great idea on the questionnaire though!

  15. Yay! Another person in the PC camp! I use a PC, too, and I gave the same arguments to my professors and classmates (and now my fellow designer at work). At the beginning of my studies I had a new PC laptop I had bought before I knew I’d be in graphic design and I wasn’t about to go out and spend another $3,000 on a new Mac. One professor actually asked me how I expected to survive the courses without a Mac. I’d say I’m doing pretty well on my PC and it’s the only platform I’ve used at work, both at my previous job and now at my new one. It all comes down to what you’re more comfortable with, and for me, it’s a PC.

    FormCalc is very easy to use (it’s not really a language) and I actually had fun figuring out some of those old algebra formulas again :D

  16. Veronika


    I was also impressed by David’s pdf questionnaire, so I started tinkering with Acrobat 8 Professional to see what it would let me do. I think LiveCycle is partially integrated into it, since I was able to create a form even though I use a MAC. The form is fillable and can be submitted, emailed etc.

    But I cannot, for example, access the template forms, which I guess have something to do with the fact that LiveCycle works with PCs only.

  17. Matt, you’re right. The fact that a client has to go through an email service is a drawback, and one of the main reasons why I want some online forms in place.

    Lauren, sounds like one of your professors works for Apple? ;)

    Hi Veronika, that’s interesting. I think I came across it having searched Acrobat for ‘interactive form’ or similar, so maybe it’s integrated on my side, too. As for template forms, I haven’t yet given them a shot.

  18. Anyone running into problems with Preview (Mac) not being able to save PDF interactive form data? When you save the completed form, Preview doesn’t seem to retain the data.

  19. Jay Lee, sorry I can’t help out. Hopefully someone else can.

  20. Well its true form users are mainly on the PCS, why because their more prevalent so I understand why the software works for PCS, but like the other guy said all you need is acrobat professional 8.

    David, Props for the form I think its ingenious, I just gotta figure out how to set up my own now :)

  21. Hi Joseph. sorry for the late reply. Thanks for the kind words and good luck setting up.

  22. Hi david i want to thank you for providing all the information I needed, but i am barely begining to design my portfolio. I am not sure of what software and materials i need to get started. Its been about 7 yrs since i studied mutimedia graphic design and i feel so far behind . what do you recommend to a beginner like me and what do you consider the most important thing in creating a design?

  23. Hi there,
    Could someone help me with one function in Adobe Designer? I am trying to create the interactive form where; there are two options, if the user select one of the two option a table for that particular option will come up for them to fill out. !!!

  24. Mireya,

    You’re very welcome. For software, I recommend Adobe’s Creative Suite, and the most important thing in creating a design? Good question, as there are so many aspects that are important. Lateral thinking is up there.


    I’m not familiar with that function, so can’t help unfortunately. Good luck with it.

  25. sheryl faintich

    I am trying to create an interactive pdf but I have a problem. I created the form and sent it out, they filled them out and returned them as XML files. However I am unable to convert them back to PDF files to view. You say to transfere the PDF to your hard drive and open the blank PDF and in the “file” menu choose form data or import data to form- I don’t have that button.

  26. Hi Sheryl, that’s odd how you don’t have the import option. My only guess is that you’re opening your blank form in Acrobat Reader, as opposed to Acrobat Professional. Best of luck with it.

  27. Could you please explain how to create a form for more than one view?
    For example, there are two different users going to use the same form. (1. Internal user and 2. external user)
    The internal user wants all the attributes/elements on the form (some buttons, text fields, etc). But the external user wants some of the attributes/elements on the same form (not all). How do I handle this? By introducing any flag and handling that in JavaScript? Or is there any other technique for this?

  28. Kumar,

    What you’re asking isn’t something I’ve needed to do. I suggest using the ‘help’ feature in Adobe LiveCycle Designer, and hope you find what you’re looking for.

  29. I have found that the only downfall to creating these forms using this method is that the users can not fill out the form just as it is and then email it to someone. the only options on sending electornically is via data file via email. Which in turn you have to create a data base in order to sort the data. It shows up in 1, 2, 3 …… depeinding on what you fill in on the form. The only way a user can save the file and you see the data exactly the way you created it is if they have adobe professional.

  30. Mike,

    I completely agree with the downside you mention. Being unable to email the form results directly from the submit button is one of the main reasons why I set up an online form. You can see the online option on my hire page. Bye for now.

  31. Juliet

    I can’t seem to understand how to implement text fields, drop down menus, etc in Adobe InDesign. Is this possible? I am, of course, working from a Mac.

  32. Juliet,

    Adobe InDesign is a different program. I created my form in LiveCycle Designer.

  33. David,

    Hopefully this will be a quick tip for Juliet and every one else on the Mac side,

    The way that I create my forms is: First make a mock up of a form in InDesign (or what ever other program you might use) then export the form to a PDF and open with Acrobat Pro. Once in Acrobat Pro there is a selection at the menu bar titled “Forms” after selecting the “Forms” menu click on “Create New Form” and it will lead you through a few option boxes. One of the main things to watch out for is it will give you two options one “Run Auto Field Detection” and two “Place Fields by Hand”, if you have any thing that resembles a “Data field” (ex. blank lines etc) the auto field detection is handy, if not select “Place fields by hand” and then it will let you add in interactive fields (including drop down boxes and more).

    Hope this helps.

  34. That’s excellent, Matt.

    Thanks very much for your time.

  35. Hi David,

    Just a quick question: I can’t seem to find a clear reference on how to embed / publish forms on a webpage once created. Could you point me in the right direction?

    Also: Great tip, Matt

  36. Oh, and one more thing, I think it’s just occurred to me that the current form on your hire page is in fact HTML and wasn’t created using LC. Would I be right in that assumption? If so, I think I’ve slightly missed the point on LC. The fact is that the user will always have to download the interactive pdf from a link on a site, as opposed to seeing it and filling it out embedded in a webpage…

    Has my penny dropped?

  37. Hi Steve, you’re right. The form on my hire page is html — not created using LiveCycle. Sorry for the ambiguity. That’s one issue with documenting site features as I go — when I change something I need to remember those previous posts.

  38. Ah, thanks for clarifying that.

  39. Hi David,

    Great advice in the article, Thanks,

    One question – Is it possible to create an interactive form in LiveCycle where the user would be able to ‘save’ the entries they made using Adobe reader?

    So far I have only seen articles giving advice on how to either enter, then print / email forms using reader, or to save a form data using Acrobat Professional.

    Have you come across this?

  40. Hi Alex, you need to enable usage rights in Acrobat for the primary document once you’ve created it.

    Advanced>Enable Usage Rights in Acrobat Reader

    (on a side note and apologies to David for the slight hijack, but the Adobe LC manual / help files are atrociously sparse on information)

  41. Alex,

    Glad you appreciated the article, and I trust your question has been answered?


    Thanks for jumping in and offering your help. Please, no need to apologise. I’m not too familiar at all with the LiveCycle help files, but definitely take your word for it.

  42. Gerald Kornbluth

    Hope someone’s got an idea.

    I’ve put together an interactive form using LiveCycle designer 7.0and it works as designed. However, when the email with the xml data is sent, the fields are in what seem to be a haphazard order. Anyone know how to sort them out so that they match the order of the form? Is there a good forum that you’d recommend for these types of questions?


    Jerry Kornbluth

  43. Hi Gerald,

    I’m not familiar with any such forum where you question would be answered, but hope someone comes to your aid before too long.

  44. @ Gerald – You might want to look at the Hierarchy of your form fields, I think that might be the reason that your xml data is all haphazard… To get to the Hierarchy in Windows open your form and select the Window menu > Hierarchy (or Shift+F11) I’m not sure where the hierarchy is listed on a Mac…

    Hope this helps

  45. Thanks for helping out yet again, Matt. I hope you’re enjoying the weekend.

  46. Gerald Kornbluth

    Yes, Thanks Matt. It worked like a charm.

    Jerry Kornbluth

  47. I am using Adobe Professional 7. I created a fillable form BUT when my users fill it out (using adobe reader 8) and email it back to me they all all blank….Any help would be appreciated….

  48. I know I have to go to the Advance > Enable usage rights in Acrobat Reader but it’s not there…..I don’t see that in my Advance…

  49. Hi David,

    I have started to create a interactive pdf, and saved it to my desktop.

    When I open it now, it does not let me alter it, as if it is a read only. It lets me add ion text boxes but does not let me adjust the copy (text)

    How do I correct this, so I can continue creating it?

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