Adobe makes an interactive statement

LOS ANGELES — At its annual Max 2010 user conference on Monday, Adobe Systems Inc. announced its latest LiveCycle Enterprise Suite (ES) offering that supports two-way interaction via PDF.

Other new LiveCycle ES 2.5 features allow companies to replace conventional error-prone correspondence management processes with a system that enhances compliance and supports creation of team-based reviews and approval processes without IT involvement.

A server-based software suite from San Jose, Calif.-based Adobe, LiveCycle ES is used build apps that automate a range of processes for enterprises and government agencies.

Interactive Statements is a new ES 2.5 feature that got a lot of buzz on the first day of Max 2010.

“The technology emerged in Canada, out of our Ottawa development site,” Sydney Sloan, group manager of product marketing at Adobe Canada in Ottawa, told IT World Canada.

Interactive statements are created in PDF format, and support two-way communications between a business and its customers or end users.

Sloan demonstrated how this would work, citing the example of a fictitious credit card firm that sends an interactive statement to a business client.

The document, much like a conventional electronic statement, includes summary details about the customer’s balance.

However, the interactive statement goes further. It enables customers to view their information in a variety of different ways. For instance, customers can opt to see their spending details by category, amount, type of purchase (major or minor), and so on.

Customers can choose to have this information presented as text or a table, bar chart, or graph.

Sloan also demoed the “payment calculator” included within the Interactive Statement. Again, much like a conventional statement, it showed the customer’s current balance with the suggested monthly payment.

But it also enabled customers to see how increasing or decreasing monthly payments by various amounts would affect their payout schedule. “For instance, (the customer) would know that if it increased monthly payments by $200, its balance would be paid out in 13 months,” Sloan said.

She said customers could also manage their account details directly from within the statement. “They could check and edit their address and other details. Likewise they could kick off a process to increase their credit limit.”

Typically, customers would need to visit the company’s Web site to perform these tasks. “Bringing all of them into one interactive PDF document makes for a much more satisfying experience,” Sloan said.

“The more users can be led through a process rather than requiring them to take action — go online, log in, and navigate to what they need to do — the better,” said Melissa Webster, program vice-president of content and digital media technologies at IDC in Framingham, Mass.

Tim Hickernell, associate lead research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont., agreed

“For nearly 15 years, vendors of utility-based services — electricity, gas, telephony, cable, data, financial management services providers, to name a few — have been offering their customers analytical portals.”

But for most of these customers, the electronic statement from the vendor is the primary user interface, Hickernell said. “So bringing analytics into the statement itself, as Adobe has done, is a smart move.”

Webster predicts all three solution accelerators in ES 2.5 will be enthusiastically received, as they would bring down implementation costs and shorten a company’s time to go live.

She said Adobe would likely add even more solution accelerators over time.

“Customers implement LiveCycle to improve their business processes. Getting templates and prototype code that are ‘informed’ by best practices should help.” 

According to Sloan, Interactive Statements can also be used as a tool in marketing campaigns by displaying marketing messages tailored to the recipient.  

“Financecorp. could promote an offering to a customer based on their profile – age group, spending habits and so on. Interactive Statements lets you integrate data capture and form-based processes directly within the statements.”

Using Interactive Statements as a marketing and customer communications tool could help companies reduce call centre and marketing campaign costs, said Sloan. Likewise, she said, a company could integrate its loyalty programs within the statement.

“For instance, a merchant could build redemption of loyalty points right into the PDF package. Customers could specify what rewards they want to work towards and the statement would show them their progress up to date, the points they still need to redeem their rewards, and so on.”

Webster noted that while companies, for a long time, have included promotional offers and flyers with statements sent in the mail, typically users just throw away the inserts since they’re often not relevant.

With an electronic, interactive statement, however, the user gets something of real value, she said. “It’s a smart way to engage, rather than just impart transactional information to, the customer.”

The second ES 2.5 solution accelerator — Correspondence Management — helps business users create and manage their own content and rules using pre-approved layouts and templates.

“It makes for a far richer end user experience,” said Sloan.

Hickernell, however, believes there are other, more pragmatic reasons why many firms would find this an attractive offering.

“Most companies don’t buy this functionality as part of call centre of customer contact centre software.” On the other hand, he said, many businesses with an in-house correspondence management system use Microsoft Word macros as the platform for automation.

“This causes challenges for companies upgrading to a higher version of Office, moving to a new file format for Word, and consequently switching to a new version of Microsoft’s visual basic for applications (VBA),” the Info-Tech analyst said.

As a result, he said, many companies are looking to ditch their home built systems. “It’s a propitious time for Adobe to fill the void and demonstrate how easily you can do Correspondence Management.”

While pricing for the Correspondence Management solution accelerator hasn’t been announced, Hickernell believes the target customer is the larger enterprise.

“In all likelihood, we won’t be looking at entry-level pricing that a small firm would be able to afford. But a lot of larger companies have just pushed their old world automation applications as are as they can go – and this will be a great fit for them.”

With the Managed Review and Approval solution accelerator, Hickernell predicts there’ll be a lot of uptake by smaller outfits as well.

He many smaller companies or departments already use Adobe’s PDF-based products in this way. “They get by buying Acrobat, creating PDFs, enabling them for review and sending them via e-mail. So there’s already a strong tribal usage at the low end.”

He said for more critical business processes – such as standard operating procedures, documents that need to meet regulatory or formal audit requirements – the managed review capability provided by ES 2.5 would come in handy.

“It would also be useful to firms that are new to electronic approval workflows and could help them as they struggle with the initial rollout of their system.”

Hickernell said the three new solution accelerators draw on the capabilities of a host of new Adobe technologies.

“For instance, in Acrobat 9 Adobe added a runtime version of the Flash Player. So PDFs now are now capable of rendering high-engagement, high-interactive experiences.”

He said the availability of PDF portfolios is also contributing to this experience.

PDF portfolos is a key capability in Acrobat X — the latest version of Adobe’s software offering to create, manipulate, print and manage PDF files — that was unveiled last week.

“The portfolio is a PDF document, but it’s also a package of several information files, such as a Web page, a self-running SWF video, or another PDF file. I can also embed a YouTube video or the reference to it,” said Rick Brown, Adobe senior product director for Acrobat, told IT World Canada.

Brown said while creating a PDF portfolio may seem a complex task, it’s actually a piece of cake.

“You don’t have to be a designer or have any IT expertise,” he said. “A tool [within Acrobat X Pro] allows you to select various documents and bring them into the portfolio. You can then tweak the user interface by customizing the background a bit, changing the colour palette, and so on.”

The final Portfolio can then be e-mailed a target group, and anyone with the free Adobe Reader software would be able to access it.

Businesses and their clients can also benefit from the security features of Interactive Statements and PDF Portfolios, Adobe Canada’s Sloan said.

“Firms can associate rights management and security controls with the document, or require digital signatures for access.”

For Ron Usher these security protections represent one of the most attractive features of PDF.

“It’s the chief reason why we’ve only used PDF documents ever since our firm was launched five years ago,” said Usher, senior counsel at Bell Alliance, a Vancouver-based law firm focusing on real estate and estate planning.

“As a law firm we have an obligation to protect confidential client information, and PDF offers us the tools to do that.”
He said PDF has always been the format of choice at his firm for all incoming and outgoing documents.

Today Bell Alliance has more than 535,000 PDF files. “We use digitally signed PDFs for registering land title documents, transfers, mortgages and other important transactions.”

Usher said the ability offered by Acrobat X to export PDFs, as Word or Excel files, is also a feature his firm would find useful.

“In the past we bought third-party tools to do that, but with Acrobat X that feature comes right out-of-the-box,” he said. 

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