Many small businesses still use paper forms for daily time sheets and other functions. It’s inefficient because someone must transfer that information from paper copy to electronic format, and it costs money to print all those forms, which are only used once.
Why spend all this time with paper when you can automate the entire procedure with an electronic form that users can fill out and send via e-mail? You can use Outlook Express to design e-mail-based forms that automate business functions like daily time sheets. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll show you how to use an HTML editor such as FrontPage Express to turn the Outlook Express Stationery feature into an online business forms tool that can automate all kinds of everyday business tasks. I’ll also describe how to obtain and use FrontPage Express, a handy, feature-packed HTML editor that made a brief appearance in Windows 98.
Works in Outlook, too!
While this article focuses on using the business forms in Outlook Express’ Stationery feature, the same stationery will work in Outlook as well.
Introduction to stationery
Outlook Express’ Stationery feature is made possible by the fact that Outlook Express itself supports Rich Text, HTML-based messaging. As its name indicates, the Stationery feature allows you to imitate the look of paper stationery. In this electronic medium, the stationery format consists of a background image, a particular font, and customized margins. It can be as elaborate as you want it to be. You can even add animated graphic images and musical accompaniment to your messages.
Outlook Express comes with a dozen or so basic stationery templates and a wizard you can use to create your own templates. You can also download all kinds of stationery templates from the Microsoft Outlook Express Stationery Downloads page or any one of the hundreds of Outlook Express Stationery aficionado Web sites. Just launch your browser, point it to your favorite search engine site, and use the key phrase Outlook Express Stationery.
Using the Stationery feature
To use the Stationery feature in Outlook Express, pull down the Message menu and select the New Message submenu. The New Message Using submenu provides you with a list of eight stationery files and two commands that relate to the Stationery feature: the Select Stationery command and the No Stationery command. This list is actually a history list that will display the stationery that you’ve worked with most recently once you begin using the Stationery feature.
When you select the Select Stationery command, you’ll see the Select Stationery dialog box. This dialog box is basically an enhanced File Open dialog box that shows you all the stationery files that come with Outlook Express. It even includes a preview pane, which allows you to see what the Stationery template will look like before you select it, as shown in Figure A. Notice that each stationery template is contained in an HTML file.
|The Select Stationery dialog box lets you preview any of the existing stationery templates.|
Once you select a stationery template and click OK, a New Message window that uses the stationery background will open, and you can start typing your message as you normally would. As you do, you’ll see that the message uses the font and font properties assigned to the template, as shown in Figure B.
|Once you open the New Message window that uses the stationery, you can begin typing your message.|
Creating business form stationery
Now that you have an idea of how Outlook Express’ Stationery feature works, let’s look at how you can use this feature to create customized business forms. As I mentioned, Outlook Express’ Stationery templates are contained in HTML files. Creating customized business forms is as simple as creating an HTML file. This means that you can use any HTML editor you want. I’ll use FrontPage Express for my examples.
Tracking down FrontPage Express
If you’re using Windows 98, you have a nice little built-in WYSIWYG HTML editor called FrontPage Express. I like the simplicity and the features included in FrontPage Express, but unfortunately it only appeared in the original version of Windows 98—Microsoft decided not to include this simple HTML editor in any other version of Windows, and it wasn’t even included in Windows 98 Second Edition. This is a real shame because FrontPage Express is actually a feature-packed tool. I long ago discovered that I could easily migrate this tool to other Windows operating systems by manually copying the files off the Windows 98 CD.
If you have an original Windows 98 CD and wish to use FrontPage Express, you can easily copy the necessary files to your hard disk and run the program, no matter which version of Windows you’re running. All you need to do is locate and extract the key FrontPage Express files from a couple of CAB files in the Win98 folder on the CD. These files are listed in Table A.
Once you locate these files, create a new folder on your hard disk, copy these files to that folder, and then create a shortcut to the Fpxpress.exe file. You can then use this shortcut to launch FrontPage Express.
In addition to the Windows 98 CD, you can also find all the FrontPage Express files on both the Internet Explorer 4 and 5 CDs. If you happen to have one of these CDs, just search for the file Fpesetup.cab. Once you find it, open it, create a new folder on your hard disk, and copy all the files to that folder. You can then create a shortcut to the Fpxpress.exe file and use it to launch FrontPage Express.
Don’t use the Fpxpress.inf installation file from IE 4 or 5 CD
Keep in mind that when you get the FrontPage Express files from either the Internet Explorer 4 or 5 CD, you’ll discover an installation file called Fpxpress.inf. This file won’t properly install FrontPage Express, so don’t use it.
If you want to learn more about how to use FrontPage Express, check out a few sites that offer tutorials on this great little package:
Form creation limitations
While the Stationery feature is designed to work with standard HTML files, Outlook Express’ ability to interpret certain HTML elements is limited. In particular, it doesn’t handle HTML Forms content very well. This means that you can’t use objects like option buttons, check boxes, or text boxes for your business form stationery. Instead, you’ll use HTML tables, which will allow you to emulate traditional paper forms accurately. As you’ll see, with a little bit of creativity, tables will let you organize and display the necessary content very nicely.
Time sheet example
Let’s return to my example of a daily time sheet. In this case, the data to be collected is very straightforward and includes information about the person filling in the form, the start time, a description of the project, and the total amount of time the project took to complete.
Using a standard daily time sheet as a template, I used tables in FrontPage Express to create the HTML file shown in Figure C. Let’s take a closer look at the techniques that I used to create this form. I’ll also explain the advantages each technique brings to the online form.
As you can see in Figure C, the form I’ve created uses two tables, one for employee information and another for the time sheet information. Using separate tables for different types of information makes it easy to keep track of the main data.
As I created the tables, I specified each table to be centered on the page. I then specified each table’s width with an exact number of pixels. Next, I specified each column’s width as a portion of the total table width. I chose column width values that were appropriately sized for the amount of data the cell would hold. By centering the tables and specifying exact sizes, I made the form easy to read and easy to fill out.
I then formatted the header text in bold and used a gray background. I formatted areas that the user fills in with a white background. This makes it very easy for the user to discern which areas of the form are to be filled in. Users can overwrite or delete text when filling in the form in Outlook Express, and using different colors helps keep the focus on those areas that need to be filled in.
Once you’ve created your form, save it as an HTM file in the C:\Program Files\Common Files\Microsoft Shared\Stationery folder.
Using the form
It’s easy to use your new Outlook Express Stationery business forms. Just pull down the Message menu, select the New Message Using option, choose the Select Stationery command, and select the stationery file. After you use it once, the stationery will appear in the stationery history list right on the submenu, so you can bypass the Select Stationery dialog box in the future.
Once you select the file, you’ll see the business form in the New Message window, as shown in Figure D. Filling in the Stationery business form is easy, as long as you pay attention to where you’re entering information.
When the recipient opens a message containing the Stationery business form, he or she will find a nicely formatted message that’s easy to read, as shown in Figure E.
|Once the recipient opens a message containing the Stationery business form, he or she will be able to easily read the information.|
Some things to watch out for
I mentioned that the user can overwrite and delete text while filling in the form and that I used gray and white backgrounds in the form to differentiate between areas that the user is to fill in. You’ll need to warn users to pay close attention as they’re filling in the form. Also, keep in mind that when filling in the Stationery form, you’ll need to move from section to section by clicking on each section with the mouse—using the [Tab] key won’t advance the cursor from section to section. Once you’ve completed the form, you can send it as you would any other e-mail message.
Plenty of other uses
As you can imagine, the Outlook Express Stationery feature’s ability to emulate business forms makes it extremely versatile. You can use this technique to create stationery to streamline all sorts of messaging operations. For example, you could create stationery forms for time-off requests, technical support requests, conference room reservations, and much more.
Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.