How to use Google Forms to track anything


Ever had a need to track something? Ever had to ask you spouse to help you track something? Google Forms can be very helpful.

Summary

In this post I go over some quick steps to create a google form to track cat vomit (yes – I’m serious). I discuss the steps of form creation, and how to easily access this form from your smart phone (I use the iPhone as the example) so that both you and your spouse can track a common issue or thing.

Detail

I know…you’re thinking ‘cat vomit – couldn’t you pick something better?’ My answer is that I try to pick real life examples, and this is as realistic as it is going to get. My cat, Max, has started vomiting recently…at least I think it was recent. I can’t tell if it’s a pattern or if it’s been happening for a long time and I’m over-worrying about him. I don’t quite know the line of cat weirdness and health problem…so it’s time to get some data.

Putting my engineering hat on – I know that the first thing I need to do in characterizing any system is to collect data. Lots and lots of data. Granted I wont have a Hadoop cluster crunching this data, but I at least want a spreadsheet that I can show to my vet. It’s better than going in with the “I don’t know” response to everything that s/he will ask (like ‘when did it start’, ‘how long’, how often’, etc…).

Challenges:

  • Speed of entry: I need to enter this data quickly. The quicker, the better.
  • Ease of entry: While I can deal with most user interfaces, my wife is not so forgiving. She’s a pragmmatic ‘show me how to bring up the app/form and get out of my way’. She also doesn’t tolerate lots of extraneous UI crap because she has better things to do (and she really does have better things to do).

In considering my budget (i.e. $0) and the problem at hand, I chose to use Google Forms to enter Max’s data.

A word and warning about Google Forms

I have used Google’s services for years. I’m sure that they have a large data dossier about me due to my Gmail and Google docs usage (which includes forms). Putting aside the question of whether Google is evil, the key fact is that Google is a business and all of us users who use its ‘free’ services are its product. So if your data is sensitive, then you should NOT use Google Forms. Just think of yourself as a contestant in the TV show Big Brother, and Google is monitoring everything from the moment you use sites that utilize Google ads or enter their properties (Gmail, docs, Google search, etc…). If you’re in any way uncomfortable with this, then you should find a different way of recording your data.

In this case, I’ve made the soul-searching decision that Max is ok with being tracked. Granted, Google might attempt to monetize on his vomiting when he surfs the web. But it’s a compromise that I’m willing to make, and he’s fine with it though he negotiated some additional treats for this concession.

Lets go to the Google Form site

OMG – a picture of smores! Google Forms are like smores? Maybe the graham crackers are the forms and the marshmallow is the data. So in this case the chewy center is vomit related data…fantastic.

Click the “Go to Google Forms”.

Lets go to the Google Form site

Now you’re in a blank form

Most of the entry form is self explanatory. The key tools to use are:

  • Question editing tools (1)
  • Choosing the question type (2)
  • Add an additional question to your form (3)

Now you're in a blank form

Renaming my form

Renaming my form

Creating a question with a date/time

I put this as the first question because the date/time when I (or my wife) remember something about Max’s behavior may be different than the current time/date of this data’s entry. Notice that I made this an optional question (as most are on this form) because I don’t want my wife to not to use the form.

Creating a question with a date/time

Creating a question about the event

This is a dropdown for the type of event that happened. This ends up being somewhat of an extraneous question (see further down this article in the ‘fine tuning’ section).

Creating a question about the event

The meat of the form

This is the fundamental and most important question of the form. There should be at least one required question. In this case, the event detail should be the only required question. I didn’t check the ‘Required question’ box here but I will later (see ‘Fine Tuning’ section).

The meat of the form

My catchall question

I obviously wont remember all the possible Max issues and behaviors, so I have a catchall (the is the ‘else’ part of my if-elseif structure for my dev friends).

My catchall question

Now it’s time to view the life form

Steel yourself – this will be an exciting form.

Now it's time to view the life form

The form is beautiful

This is the screenshot from a browser. However, the mobile version should be pretty usable since there are few fields. So it should be ok in terms of my ‘speed of entry’ and ‘easy of use’ criteria.

The form is beautiful

Track Max the Cat – Google Forms

Track Max the Cat - Google Forms

The Google Form response spreadsheet

Google automatically creates a Google Sheet (i.e. spreadsheet) for the data that gets entered into the form. This is one of the key benefits. I can also print it and download it as an Excel file (so I can email it to my vet…s/he LOVES email attachments >:-) ).

The Google Form response spreadsheet

Time to test my form

I want to test my form as a non-logged in user. In this case, I use Chrome’s incognito mode. In this way I’m guaranteed to view the form as a non-logged-in user. If I wanted more privacy, I would use Firefox rather than Chrome since it guards privacy better, but since I’m using Google’s services – it doesn’t really matter since my data kimono is already open.

Time to test my form

I test my form and get this as the result

I test my form and get this as the result

I re-check the form response Google Sheet

Notice that the form response Google Sheet will always have a Timestamp column (the first one), which is why additional date/time is optional and only useful if the actual event’s time/date is significantly different from the time/date when the form is used.

I re-check the form response Google Sheet

Using the time/date question

I have some retroactive vomit events that happened and I enter them

Using the time/date question

The update to response form

The update to response form

Now it’s time to put this form on my iPhone (and my wife’s iPhone)

For this form to really be used by me and my wife, I need to place it on our iPhones. What I’m actually going to do is I’m going to place it as a link via the “Add to Home Screen” feature of the iPhone. This features allows you to create a an icon on the iPhone and when you tap it – your iPhone’s browser will go straight to the specified link. In our case, I want to go straight to the form.

Now the form that I just created is a huge long url. To save it on the phone I can do 2 things:

  • Email it to myself and my wife.
  • Use a URL shortner (such as bit.ly) to create a memorable link so I can easily put it in the phone. I’m a big fan of http://bit.ly and the company behind it.

In this article, I chose to go with the second option. This way I can add it to as many devices as I want to.

So – the first thing to do is to go to bit.ly and log-in. By-the-way – remember the warning that I gave about Google Forms at the top of this article? It applies to bit.ly too (heck – it applies to any web service that you use).

Now it's time to put this form on my iPhone (and my wife's iPhone)

Paste in your form’s URL

I paste in my form’s url here. What’s that? Why am I not showing my form’s url? Because Max wants privacy when it comes to his vomity activities…sheesh.

Paste in your form's URL

Bit.ly creates a link for me

Initially, bit.ly creates an ugly link that I would never remember. So I use the ‘customize’ field to put in something memorable (like ‘superkittyvomit’).

Bit.ly creates a link for me

iPhone – place your newly created bit.ly link in the address bar

I put the memorable bit.ly link that I just created in the the iPhone’s browser (i.e. Mobile Safari).

iPhone - place your newly created bit.ly link in the address bar

iPhone – browser loads my form

Now the iPhone’s browser (i.e. Mobile Safari) loads my form. It’s time to sit back and soak in the form’s beauty 🙂 . I scroll around to make sure it works as expected.

iPhone - browser loads my form

iPhone – more testing of Google Form

iPhone - more testing of Google Form

iPhone – more testing of Google Form

iPhone - more testing of Google Form

iPhone – time to make it easy to access the form

Pressing the small upwards arrow on the bottom of the iPhone’s browser brings up a bunch of options. I choose “Add to Home Screen”. This will save a link to my form as an icon.

iPhone - time to make it easy to access the form

iPhone – Changing the icon’s name

I can change the iocn name but I leave it alone since it makes sense to me.

iPhone - Changing the icon's name

iPhone – Icon is now accessible as another ‘app’

While it isn’t an app, it is easily accessible as one. When I touch the ‘Track Max…’, the iPhone’s browser will open and go straight to my form.

iPhone - Icon is now accessible as another 'app'

iPhone – rinse and repeat with your spouse’s device

I perform the same iPhone steps on my wife’s iPhone. Because of that bit.ly link – I can do this really fast and get back to watching Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Fine Tuning

After creating the form – I re-looked at it and realized that I wasn’t capturing the most important question (i.e. ‘Event Detail’). So I went back and cleaned up the form and placed the most critical question at the top. I also placed the optional date/time question at the bottom. This irks me a bit because I feel like it must be at the top. However, in considering my wife’s usage, I realized that the pragmatic choice is to put the date/time question at the bottom. I rather that the most important question be at the top and everything else come afterwards.

Note that I did not delete any columns (i.e. like the ‘Event’ column) in my Google Sheet. My reasoning is that I can always delete that column in Google Sheets or Excel and I rather make sure that the Google Form operates properly (besides the fact I have very little time to further mess with this thing).

Tada – the final form in all its glory

Well…the final form at this point in time. You may bask in its glory and enjoy.

What’s that? Why am I repeating myself with ‘skip this question’? Well – previous forms/experiences have shown me that my user (i.e. wife) tends to hesitate on whether to answer that question or not. In other words, she’s not sure if she really needs to answer this question (remember – she has better things to do). It creates a sort of cognitive dissonance which may not be worth it. Frankly, I’m tempted to remove this question all together and let my user put the date/time in the ‘Additional Information’ question if need be.

Tada - the final form in all its glory

Conclusion

I can now track my kitty’s behaviors. My wife will hopefully use my fantastic Google Form to help with this data collection. So that’s it – Google Forms at its best (or worst depending on your point of view). You can track anything – pets, kids, car problems, co-workers, etc… . Go forth and Google Form away.

If you like these instructions – put a comment on this article or let me know via twitter.


Updates to this post

  • 2015-09-01: I’ve changed the title and the URL link from “Cat Vomit and how to use Google Forms” to “How to use Google Forms to track anything”. The title just felt wrong and it’s bugged me over the past week. I’ve also modified the summary section to complement the title.
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