An electrical contractor in need of a comprehensive field safety forms system (because they were unhappy with Latista)

This is a true story.

When the idea of developing a new generic forms software platform came up, my first thought was to design it to handle both commissioning and safety program use cases and workflows: both of which were areas I have had plenty of experience with during my time at Terraine.

Coinciding with these discussions, a medium-sized electric contractor based in Greensboro NC contacted me with the intent of developing a custom safety solution for them.  They were unhappy with the product they were using at the time—Latista—and were in the hunt for an alternative once they were out of their multi-year contractual obligations with Latista (now an Oracle product).   So here was a local company, in need of a comprehensive and well-thought out safety solution that could run on most modern hardware, handle some workflows unique to the way they operate, and that was also easy enough for “all-thumbs” field guys to adopt/accept. At the time of this discussion, there were plenty of off-the-shelf safety software solutions (eg. Intelex, Latista, Safety Reports, etc), but this particular electric contractor instead wanted to use a system that worked the way they worked, and not the other way around…they had already tried an off-the-shelf system, had trouble getting their folks to adopt it, lost some data several times, didn’t like the way it handled offline sync or searching for records, and basically hated it.

And thus, the seed was planted which would eventually become XForms, wherein the software would be built to handle workflows involving subforms, form routing for approvals, metadata capture, and other features that other existing products didn’t handle vey well.

Alas, not all that starts well ends well.  That electrical contractor looking for a solution?  They went another way, and ultimately did not select us to build them their safety form app system.  But…the experience seeded our idea enough to launch the development of XForms, and here we are, 2 years later, with a very nice generic tool capable of handling a wide variety of workflows, including safety.  So a big thank you goes out to the folks at Starr Electric for making XForms a reality.

NOTE: At the time of the writing of this article (Dec 5, 2018), the safety app concept described in this article is not fully developed: some elements have been built out and some have not yet been built out.  But virtually all of the elements described herein are there now within the XForms platform, enabling us to build a safety application similar to the one described below with relative ease. All we need is a taker…an entity unhappy with their existing solution, or an entity that is still using a paper process looking to switch to a digital solution.

It starts out with a Pre-Task form to document the tasks to be conducted that day

Call this parent form a “Pre-Task” form.  This is the start of a form that would be filled out to document the project’s tasks with safety concerns.  For example,

  • Will you be working around energized systems?
  • Will you be excavating or trenching?
  • Will you be requiring lockout-tagout?
  • Will you be entering any confined spaces?
  • Will work involve exposure to falls in excess of 6 feet?

As the Pre-Task form is filled out, depending on what is filled out, other forms are automatically created and pre-populated with header information taken from this Pre-Task Form.   For example, let’s say that the work will involve lockout-tagout (LOTO).  So on the Pre-Task form, you tap on the LOTO checkbox to mark it as TRUE.  This will trigger the LOTO form to load and pre-populate with all the same header information as the Pre-Task form…things like job #, location, date/time, user who initiated the form, etc.

Here’s a screenshot of a LOTO checkbox being checked which then loads the subform.

 And here’s the same thing in action.

Notice that when you submit the Pre-Task form, because you checked the Simple LOTO checkbox, it loads the Simple LOTO form for you to fill out.  Once you tap on the LOTO form, it will automatically load all of the basic header information contained in the Pre-Task form, saving you from having to enter that information manually again.

Route certain forms to specific people within your organization

When a form is submitted, you can set it up to be routed to a particular person or group for review and approval.  This workflow can handle uses cases where approval is required before the field technician can proceed with the work at hand.  It’s an optional control, allowing you to create different workflows for different types of forms.

Speedier form completion in the field

No one wants to live inside forms software.  The only people that do are software developers that have never filled out forms while outside in the cold, wet, windy morning trying to pinch and zoom into a tiny screen just to fill out some forms required by upper management.  Yea, it’s easy to use in the comfort of a cushy office, but try that outside for once, when you are busier than a one-armed wallpaper hanger battling the elements, noise, dust, and bright sunlight while carrying a lot of heavy gear around.  I know this stuff is real because I was one of those guys in the field…doing environmental field work in all sorts of horrible weather.  

Some features that help speed up form completion include:

Collapsible section headers. In XForms, we use these things called section headers.  They are basically big yellow/orange horizontal bars that go across the entire screen and are intended to basically break up a form into sections.   Here’s a screenshot illustrating this.

And here are collapsible headers.  Note the N/A checkbox on the far left of the section header.  If you tap on the “N/A” in the header, it collapses the ENTIRE section.  It even removes any validations such as required fields that are within the collapsed section.

The idea behind collapsible headers is pretty obvious and intended for forms that are meant to handle a wide range of project scenarios within your organization.  But rather than requiring a field tech to scroll through all of those fields which might not apply on a small project, he/she can just collapse the entire section away.   Note that you can also set up a section to default as collapsed or not collapsed.  More info about this feature can be found here.

Linked Fields.  A lot of safety forms I’ve seen contain similar questions sprinkled around the same form.  For example, you might encounter related questions like:

  • Will work involve exposure to falls of 6 feet or greater?
  • Will work involve climbing or standing on equipment?
  • Are ladders or scaffolds needed to perform the task?

Notice that all 3 questions above involve heights.  If you answer one of them as “Yes”, chances are good that the other 2 will also be answered as “Yes”.  Similarly, if the answer to one of them is “No”, then the others are likely to also be “No”.  So why force the field tech to go through every single related field and spend time on each question?  Why not link related fields, and initially mark them all the same once the top-most question is answered?  Then the field tech can zip through the form…for example he/she can mark a value as one thing, and all linked fields will take that same value initially, and edit the linked fields a needed.

Table Grids. Most software today is set up in a way that displays one field per row.  Or at most 2 fields per row.  One of XForms big features is that it has a table grid control, which can pack a ton of things into a small Excel-like table.  Everything in the table is controllable.  For example, you can default an entire column or specific fields to a particular value.  you can also allow a field tech the ability to add new rows or not.  And you can add other control types like checkboxes, list boxes, and even signatures in the columns.  This blog article explains XForms table grids in more detail.

Here’s a diagram illustrating what is described above…how most software handles a lot of fields, and how that compares to how XForms handles them within a table grid.

And here’s a quick animated gif illustrating XForms table grids in action, depicting someone who is checking a checkbox value and signing the form.  Notice that even signatures can populate a table cell.  Try that in Excel 🙂

View your safety forms in a simple-to-understand dashboard

While most software systems have some sort of reporting and admin dashboard, most of them require some training and have learning curves to deal with.  XForms is meant to be simple enough that you don’t need any training.  This is as it should be.  When something is simple, it is easier to use.  When it is easier to use, it will be used more often.  Think of Uber, and how simple that app is to use.  You enter your destination address, and tap a button to hail a ride.  You don’t see all the algorithms or calculations that are happening behind the scenes. 

The XForms dashboard includes charting: charts could be doughnut charts, stacked bar charts, or whatever makes sense for your own particular use case and key performance indicators you wish to focus on.  Values on the charts are hooked directly to the completed forms, so a user could simply click on part of the chart and be taken to a filtered listing table displaying only those records matching the doughnut chart section they clicked on.  On the left pane, the user would be able to access other areas of the reporting dashboard, including administrative functions (if that user was given those permissions).

Here’s an example dashboard, designed for a different use case.  While not a dashboard illustrating safety forms (one hasn’t been built yet for safety), this example contains similar reporting elements and user experience.

So there it is…a safety forms app concept and how it would function within the XForms platform.  This concept gave XForms its start, and while we have not fully developed this safety app concept yet, someone will inevitably approach us about doing such.  

Will that be you? 

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