We are wondering which of the two are faster to fill out for walk-in customers who wants to sign-up for a class.


Pros: Forms can be distributed to many customers and they can fill this out simultaneously.

Cons: What's written on paper needs to be re-entered by the staff into the system. May be less legible.


Pros: Whatever the user inputs is already entered into the system. Highly legible.

Cons: There can only be 1-2 terminals / iPads so customers cannot sign-up simultaneously. Unlike in paper format.

I'm not sure which is more efficient. I'm asking this because we'd like the signing-up process for walk-in classes to have a shorter waiting time / shorter queues and to make it less taxing for the administrator too.

  • 9
    How many customers generally need to fill out the forms. Are there big ques forming. Please give some context. Jan 20, 2017 at 10:12
  • 12
    Could you not allow customers to fill in the digital forms using their own devices? This way you aren't limited to the number of available devices? Jan 20, 2017 at 11:25
  • 4
    You're also missing the big benefit of validation in digital systems. If you require a telephone number and someone chooses not to input it on paper, you may have to contact them for more information while inputting. What if they put in a date in the future for their date of birth? A digital system can enforce these rules and save time to validate/verify the data as well as the pen vs keyboard debate.
    – StuperUser
    Jan 20, 2017 at 12:37
  • 8
    As it stands I believe this is a poor question in need of editing in more information because the only possible answer in its current form is "it depends" - at minimum more context is needed about a) the task (size, complexity, and types of data) and b) the users filling it out (level of tech savvy, primary language/ability to communicate in presumably English, and whether they are with you in person vs doing it remotely).
    – kwah
    Jan 20, 2017 at 13:59
  • 3
    Faster for the customer, or faster overall?
    – Mark
    Jan 20, 2017 at 21:21

13 Answers 13


Why not have both and cater for those less comfortable with electronic devices, whilst catering for those that do?

Increases the number of sign-ups you can accept at any one time.

My advice if you decide to go down that route is to ensure the experience is the same.

  • 1
    But this way organization problems will arise. Which paper forms were entered in the database and which not. Jan 20, 2017 at 12:45
  • 5
    Not if you marked them as entered... or do you mean someone completing an electronic and a paper form? Jan 20, 2017 at 13:04
  • 5
    Having a stack of paper forms is a good secondary solution for even more reasons: people that don't want to wait, people that need to look up some information at home, fallback for power outages, and so on. Jan 20, 2017 at 18:37
  • Once digitalised you can mark the paper. This could be done using a pen ot alternatively by destroying the paper form. You no longer need it because you entered it into your system
    – BlueWizard
    Jan 21, 2017 at 13:13
  • I'm confused...how would you have the 'same' experience when they are done via two entirely different mediums?
    – DA01
    Jan 23, 2017 at 1:21

You're asking which is faster, it depends on the type of content and your target audience.

Depending on your audience: Oldies, go paper; Youngsters, go digital (put up an url on the wall and let them do it on their own device)

Generally textfields will be slower on touch devices than on paper, especially if the user is not accustomed to the device (iPad terminals). The difference in speed with a normal keyboard will be much less. So if you go terminals, make it actual keyboards (and clean them once in a while..).

For tick-off questions (checkboxes and radio buttons) I recon there is no significant difference between paper, touch or mouse interaction (with a tech savy audience that is).

My suggestion would be to make a digital form that is publicly accessible so that users can sign up from home or do it at your place on their own device. Add 2 terminals for those who didn't do it at home or don't have their own device. And put down some paper for people who don't feel confident using a terminal.

  • Exactly! Using their own devices will combine the merits of digital submissions and many simultaneous users!
    – Falco
    Jan 20, 2017 at 14:43
  • 1
    A little less of the age-based insults, please!
    – jamesqf
    Jan 20, 2017 at 18:41
  • 4
    Wasn't meant as an insult, sorry if I offended anyone.
    – Martyn
    Jan 20, 2017 at 19:32

Using a short URL and/or QR code to link to the sign up form online would let customers sign up on their own devices simultaneously. You could still provide the terminals for people who don't have a smartphone/tablet or don't want to use it.

  • 9
    scanlife.com/blog/2013/02/… only 19% of smartphone users have QR applications, QR codes arguably provide very little in value Jan 20, 2017 at 14:12
  • 4
    @USER_8675309 For those who use them, it's arguably a time saver, so why not use them? Even a short URL is tedious to type on a smartphone. Jan 20, 2017 at 15:17
  • 2
    FWIW, that number is likely a little bit higher now, since Motorola was the first to add QR scanning to their default phone camera app some time after that report was published. (Though of course, not all Android phone owners have access to that, or will know about it even if they do.)
    – calum_b
    Jan 20, 2017 at 16:39
  • 2
    I agree that QR codes are not widely used which s why I also included the short URL. Using NFC would also be effective if it was more widely supported, but you run into the same problems—iPhone users can't scan NFC tags. Jan 20, 2017 at 17:03
  • 1
    Sounds like a poor UX honestly. It certainly reduces costs, which is I assume why it's so common.
    – Casey
    Jan 20, 2017 at 17:27

It depends on your customers. I personally definitely prefer paper, but I see why others wouldn't.

The pros of paper are that it is well known and well understood, and there can not go much wrong with it. People know how to fill out forms. The culprits are also well known and well understood. You need to enter the data manually, and you can have problems reading it etc.

When using electronic devices, you need to make sure they actually work. Tech trouble happens more often then you think. You need to have tech support available when the connection to the server has trouble, or when the app crashes, or whatever. Especially when the amount of devices is small and you need every of them (if you have 50+ devices and one doesn't respond anymore, you simply take it out of circulation until it can be fixed, if you only have 5 or so then not having one will be a significant setback).

Then you will need to have people that can assist the customers with the electronic form. Especially elderly people (or in general, not tech-savvy users) might be very uncomfortable with it.

So in the end it boils down to what costs less, the overhead of having to enter the data from paper forms into your system or the overhead of having tech support available and having people available that can assists with entering the data. That is hard to see from the outside.

You can always do the hybrid approach. Have some tablets available and encourage users to use the tablets, but also keep some paper forms on hand. You can use paper forms for people who don't want the tablet (e.g. elderly people) and also have them available in case the electronic system breaks down. This also lets you get your own experiences with the system and how well it works with your customers and allows you to gradually phase-out paper if that turns out to be beneficial.

Whatever the user inputs is already entered into the system. Highly legible.

No. You should never design a system in that way. The filled out forms should be submitted into a separate system, where they can be audited (e.g. for inappropriate, offensive or otherwise malicious inputs) and then electronically be transferred into your database. This also allows for corrections or for only partial data transfers, depending on how its implemented. I would never have users fill out forms that directly change my data set (never trust user input)!

Another thing you can consider is letting users use their own devices. Prepare it as a web form. You can have a validation token in form of a QR-code. Hand the customer a small paper card with the QR code. They scan it, open the web site, fill out the form, and the token gets invalidated and can not be used again. This way, you do not have the bottleneck of bringing lots of your own devices. You should still have some devices that you can lend people who don't have a smartphone, but you can avoid the bottleneck of only having a few devices.


Academic studies on the topic:

There are studies on the paper vs. digital but they are generally old. I couldn't find anything interesting after year 2008.

  • A study by (Lal,S. et al, 2000) found that PDA forms were retrieved 23% faster and generated 58% fewer errors than data collected with paper forms.

  • Other study from (Galliher, J. et al 2008) comparing data collection on paper forms and PDA's found that paper forms have much higher omission errors: 34% vs 3% for PDAs.

    A total of 1,003 of the expected 1,140 forms were returned to the data center. The overall return rate was better for paper forms (537 of 570, 94%) than for electronic forms (466 of 570, 82%) because of technical difficulties experienced with electronic data collection and stolen or lost handheld computers. Errors of omission on the returned forms, however, were more common using paper forms. Of the returned forms, only 3% of those gathered electronically had errors of omission, compared with 35% of those gathered on paper. Similarly, only 0.04% of total survey items were missing on the electronic forms, compared with 3.5% of the survey items using paper forms.

  • Another literature review paper (Noyes, J. and Garland, K., 2008) suggest that digital forms require more mental workload to be filled in. This is mainly attributed to the interaction with the computer. However, these are old studies using very old and hard to use machines which led to higher perceived mental workload. Nowadays, computers are faster, and forms with less design errors.

Usually, paper forms will introduce the following problems:

  • more time needed to read through them because of the lower clarity of hand writing
  • time to manually input the data into the computer database
  • omissions of data
  • no validation of the entered data
  • organizational problems - which paper forms were recorded on the computer and which not?
  • ability to analyze data instantly
  • paper material wasted (thinking ecologically)

Generally, most of the studies agree that digital forms are a feasible alternative to paper forms (Paulsen, A. et al, 2012). Therefore, I would suggest using digital forms for its better readability, integrity of data, better organization, flexibility of using other devices, and less time needed to process the data.

  • 1
    "stolen or lost handheld computers"? There's a strap for that.
    – user67695
    Jan 20, 2017 at 18:07
  • If people can not omit data they will put in random values. There is usually a reason why they don't fill in some fields. If validation is too strict in the electronic form and does not allow certain omissions, users will be frustrated and will make up data. Its not good for either side. So be a bit vary about the omission part.
    – Polygnome
    Jan 20, 2017 at 18:38


  1. User enters data
  2. Someone validates
  3. Someone confirms everything is filled
  4. Someone enters data into the database


  1. User enters data
  2. Automatically validates
  3. Automatically confirms everything is filled
  4. Automatically the data is entered in the database

In either situation you will need someone to help the user in case there is some doubt, problem, etc.

From your perspective it is more convenient to let the user enter data digitally.

From the user perspective both could have the same complexity but the digital lets him know before submitting if there are any issues with the entered data.

If there are plenty of papers but limited digital devices you will have to evaluate:

  • How many people you have to assist
  • How much time it takes the user to fill the data in both cases

You don't want the user to wait one hour because it takes 10 minutes to fill the digital form and there are 12 users before him.

You don't want the user to wait one hour for someone to confirm that what he entered in the paper form is valid and legible.


In sufficiently terrible UX design, even very sophisticated users will be slower using digital data entry than paper documents.


Data validation that erases the entire form if I enter my phone number without an area code requiring me to reenter everything.

Data validation that does not tell the user what it expects.

Data validation that forgets that countries other than America exist. Not all countries have 5 digit long zip codes. Not all phone numbers are 10 digits long.

Regular expressions that attempt to evaluate email addresses are occasionally wrong. It becomes impossible to fill out these forms.

  • You think it is bad to use digital forms because the validation provides support? So, it is better the user insert the data with errors? Jan 22, 2017 at 6:36
  • No. I think digital forms are great, but that poorly designed digital forms can be worse than poorly designed paper forms. Jan 22, 2017 at 15:24

If you know your customers well it will be better to go Digital. Study your customers and implement auto completes and other similar options or include checkboxes and radio buttons to eliminate the time taken to fill the forms.

It will be cost effective (no papers used), Less time consuming (to digitise the forms) and less labour (no employees needed to digitise). All these pros help improve the performance of the website by investing more to improve the application.

  • 1
    "It will be cost effective (no papers used)" depends if you have to hire a developer to develop the signup screen, both front-end and back-end, though
    – hd.
    Jan 20, 2017 at 13:36

Is that a task (the signup process) that needs to be repeated on a very short period?

If yes, I would go for the digital solution so the staff doesn't need to invest hours processing the info. You might have the disadvantage that having people to wait for their turn to signup, they might give up but that is something you can also measure.


Since you have a serious limitation on the number of devices that people can use to fill the form, you may want to look for Enterprise Forms Automation systems, which:

  • Scan paper forms or import electronic ones
  • Validate the automatically extracted data
  • Export forms, attachments and the captured data into DMS

Taken from IRISCapture™ Forms - Form Recognition

Basically, staff just needs to have a quick glance at the papers and place them in the scanner's sheet-feed – the forms written data are immediately recorded into digital form.


Based on your specific requirements "to have a shorter waiting time," "shorter queues" and "make it less taxing for the administrator too," the optimal solution would be digital form.

  1. A digital form is more eco-friendly, easier to update and share.
  2. On a digital device, answers can be pre-filled or copy-pasted from a convenient source for the user.
  3. And at the end, processing the answers is way more convenient and reliable for the administrator.

You may try asking your users to fill in the form at their convenience by sending them a link to an online form. Giving them this freedom, instead of requesting it as they walk-in provides a good user experience for your class and business.

Here are three free and accessible tools you could try:


Here is some on the ground experience from someone that deals with paper and digital forms at work (in a bank).

Digital forms are best if you need to do:

  1. Input validation - for example, if numbers need to be accurate. It does not work well with other forms of input (such as names and addresses - especially addresses and it tends to slow down the process).

  2. When you have sections of the form that can be skipped based on previous input. This makes the entire process a lot simpler.

  3. Legibility. People have lost the art of handwriting.

In all other cases, manual forms are quicker and easier for the people filling them in.

This is an important point because you have to prioritize either the back office work or the front office queue management. In other words, either make it quicker for the form to be received and finished by the customer, or make it faster for it to be validated by the back office and entered into the system.

We actually use a hybrid approach. Our system validates some core data, and then prints a form with some fields filled in, and the user fills in the rest. It allows us easy tracking and we find it to be a good balance.

However, we always keep paper forms on hand because some people just prefer paper forms, and they are a good backup for any technology issues.


Use both, but the paper as back-up.

My suggestion for paper forms would be "Optical Mark Recognition" and although it might not be easier on the user, it's certainly easier for the organization to process them. Have a few computers for electronic forms and have the OMRs as back-up.

If someone asks for a paper form or they say they're in a hurry or there's a power outage etc., give them an OMR. At the end of the day, feed the OMRs into the reading machine and voila, you're done.

Example OMR (they can be customized pretty easily but getting someone to set them up might cost more than you're willing to pay).

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