One of the nicer new features in Access is in the External Data tab of its new Ribbon—with the capability to collect data using email.
Although you can obviously create a form to collect data in an Access table, as you did with earlier versions, going out to the Web and having people reply to an email can make things a lot easier in terms of widening the amount of people in a contact database, for example.
Obviously there are other data-collection scenarios available: InfoPath is a form creation and distribution tool and ancillary program to the Office suite for this purpose, and there are plenty of tools for creating online forms using server technology. In fact, most of the External Data tab is devoted to different ways of getting data from innumerable sources into an Access table.
But what I particularly love about the email scenario is its simplicity and personal nature. I have had some problems figuring out InfoPath (and I doubt I'm alone) and similarly the idea of using another program to create a server script and form application, while not rocket science, is an effort I would love to avoid.
Then there are various XML and SharePoint list scenarios that again require a bit of a learning curve and/or Microsoft Exchange or another server setup.
In an email I can speak directly to the person whose information I want, in a personal and/or professional manner and then follow up as part of a normal email thread or conversation.
How It Works
In this small sample contact database, I want to send out an email to have people add their info to my table. I click to access the External Data tab and then click Create Email.
Clicking Create Email opens a six-step wizard that will take me through the process, and it outlines what the steps will be, which I certainly appreciate; it lets me know what I am getting into.
I'm going to select the HTML form to keep things easy and fairly generic.
Because I am doing exactly what this step suggests—adding contacts to an existing database—and I don't want to use InfoPath, I again choose the first option.
While I can add all the fields instantly in the data selection step, I decide to just include the most important fields to keep the annoyance level for the recipient as low as possible.
While I could use the Manage Replies button in the same tab of the Ribbon, I choose the Automatically process option to try to keep things as streamlined as possible.
I take a look at the options and decide that the defaults will work fine; I could have changed the number of replies for a large email blast.
This is kind of a tricky choice because I may also want the email addresses in Outlook, but I really want them in the Contacts database. Obviously I can always send the Contacts to Outlook later on, or perhaps even capture the information when the emails come back in. So again I choose the first option.
To give you an idea of the versatility of this version in particular, take a look at the main screen of the capture module. All the little icons in the main panel are different profiles that can be modified to set capture options according to the drop-down menu.
I'm almost there—now it's just a matter of composing an email message or using the generic one that the Access wizard generates.
The last step just lets me know that I can keep tabs on the results of my email blast by clicking Manage Replies. I'll do it now.
The email form is created. I can send it to a number of individuals or a distribution list; I just enter the email address(es) and click Send.
Recipients get a form to fill out in their email; they will complete the form (hopefully) and click Send in their email program (which obviously must support HTML formatted email) and send it back.
After the email has returned, the new contact is appended to the table automatically—a really nice way to build your contact list using email.
Obviously this technique goes beyond contact databases. In a full-blown Access application you can use it to populate any table in the database, including information such as product specs, comments, vendor info, and any of a myriad of other categories that can be integrated in Access using its Relationships Feature between tables.
If you've followed me in the Office Reference Guide, you know that I do have a thing about contacts (I wrote an update on Managing Contacts Across the Office Suite). There are pros and cons to keeping contact info in Outlook, Access, Excel or even Word (if you're a mail-merge maniac).
With Access you get a lot more functionality in terms of sorting and filtering information, and a contacts table can be integrated with other elements of your application. For example, you can combine the data in contacts (filtered by vendor) with specs on manufacturing needs to solicit bids using a simple or complex query.
As an alternative, however, if you do keep your contacts in Outlook, check out the features of a very neat program called Anagram (which I covered previously). It allows you to add multiple fields to your clipboard and move them into Outlook Contacts quickly and easily.
Bearing in mind that your email is likely to go out and back into Outlook for the scenario described above, it's relatively easy to keep in touch with the folks added to a contact table without importing their information into your Contacts in Outlook. Obviously after you email them their addresses are available using the AutoComplete feature in the address To: field, or more likely you will keep a version of contact information for prospects or colleagues that you've appended to the Contacts table in Access in your Contacts folder in Outlook as well.
The problem with these other scenarios is that you don't have the functionality of Access in terms of connecting your information with other tables using Relationships. In addition, you can end up with duplicate data sources (in Outlook, on your mobile device, and in Access).
This can be problematic because while you may be able synchronize between Outlook and a mobile device, doing so with Access will not be easy. (What you'll probably end up doing is some kind of import/export function using a CSV text-delimited file.)
In any case, however, the 800 lb. gorilla of databases is Access, and populating its tables is a key component of productivity with its applications.
While there are certainly different ways to get your data into an Access table, including the forms in the program itself and other programs such as InfoPath, to take advantage of the Internet and get the information directly from other individuals, using the email scenario is probably one to consider for its ease of use and versatility.