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Data is Driving Our Future So Leave the Forms Behind

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

Online forms are an anachronistic by-product of the desire to recreate the physical world inside the digital one. Virtual forms should be eliminated and replaced with the underlying data that is relevant for each process. This will liberate people from the tyranny of forms!


E-signatures are big business. Docusign, the largest vendor, processes 1.5 million documents daily. The market is expected to reach $5.5 billion by 2023. That’s a lot of paperwork.

But why do we still use the term “paperwork” for digital forms? It conjures up thoughts of bureaucratic red tape and filing everything out in triplicate. We keep using words like “paper” and “form” because they anchor us to our familiar manual processes that have been translated to the virtual world, just as the file, folder and recycle bin that were iconified on screen.

The vast amount of personal data locked up in these electronic forms amounts to a sea of duplication since the same data is often repeated on multiple forms. It exemplifies the inefficient business paradigms underlying a lot of our technology. If the data displayed on a form is discrete and has already been verified, then why store the entire form?

We should manage and display data in the most user-friendly, device-friendly and storage-friendly way. Data is not obligated to live only in virtual forms or be displayed on screen in the same way they are on paper.

So why haven’t we moved to a data-centric view and eliminated virtual forms? Most consumers would likely welcome the absence of duplicated information on forms, virtual or otherwise. The world as a whole would see an evolutionary uptick in global system efficiencies.

Why haven’t we realized the future that technology promises us? The simple answer is fear of changing our minds. The paradigm of paperwork is still strong even as society outgrows it. Like the telephone casting off the wire anchoring it to the wall, let’s stop holding technology back and kill the virtual form.

Free the data!

How e-Signature Locks Us Into a Virtual Forms Jail

Docusign claims that their eSignature service has saved over 2 million gallons of water by avoiding the consumption of 20 billion sheets of paper. While this is a win for both businesses and the environment, it isn’t the whole story.

The passing of the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA), and the Electronic Signatures in Global National Commerce Act (ESIGN) in 1999 and 2000, respectively, gave the government’s blessing to allow e-signatures to be legally binding. They became the digital equivalent of a wet signature.

While eSig was the logical successor to a physical pen on paper, the design is more similar to microfiche. Signing a digitized copy of a form is tantamount to a digital scan of a signed paper copy. Those 20 billion sheets paper saved are now virtual paper locked in our databases forever.

Even the term “signature” is an artifact of the physical world. We shed the paper but kept the rest of the paradigm. We saved some trees, but we didn’t evolve our methodology to take full advantage of the technology. We ignored the power inherent in the combination of cloud-based computing and data with ubiquitous broadband access.

So, why are we still creating virtual forms in order to digitally sign them?

Each piece of data about a consumer is stored separately in a database somewhere. Yet we still pre-populate a screen that is designed to look like an old paper form

This has become the standard. But is this verification process still valid?

An eSignature is authenticated by the user logging into their online account. But why does the signature feel safe when it's only the login credentials backing them up? Because in the old paradigm, the other party (plus a witness) watched a mark being created by hand to visually authenticate. The witnesses signature assigned legitimacy and became legally binding proof of the agreement.

Practically though, login credentials are more like house keys than signatures, where possession equals access. But in our technologically modern world there are more reliable means of authentication available.

Biometric technologies offer a more secure replacement for wet signatures with non-repudiation and are becoming more acceptable with 35% of consumers regularly using fingerprint recognition. Other biometric technologies are rapidly entering the market including voice, facial and even vein pattern analysis.

Moving beyond authentication based on login credentials is a first step in killing virtual forms and freeing the data. So what is standing in our way?

Fear of Being the First

As fast as the world is changing, why haven’t we already moved away from virtual forms? The biggest reason is the fear of being first! E-signature is an institutionalized practice with huge private and public adoption. Changing to a new paradigm require leaderships from a strong first mover, perhaps even the government, to overcome the inherent fear of change.

As it stands, Schwab has partnerships with both Docusign, which holds 60% of the e-signature market, and Laser App, which provides pre-population of over 33,000 legal and financial forms. Other custodians, like Fidelity, have enhanced their digital customer experience by rolling out their own tech platform Wealthscape, which provides paperless account openings and reduces the number of pages required by 75%. But are e-signatures poised to remain a necessary evil forever?

Some don’t think so. Visa’s acquisition of Plaid and their strategic partnership with Bankable will allow “multiple systems around the world to operate together via a single data platform” and bridge “the gap between the old transaction-led world, and the new data-led world.” It’s an acquisition that could positively position Visa as a future data hub serving more than transactional data but also personal data.

Fintech is showing early signs of disruptions that will open a path to a world where consumers will have more control over their data and access to it via a digital dashboard. Currently, consumers must refer to each bank, mobile app and online lender’s privacy settings to learn how their data is being used. Authentication and aggregation are moving from a “nice to have” to a “must have” explains David Jegen, an early investor in Quovo, acquired by Plaid, “you will see [data aggregators] play a more proactive role in helping consumers understand where their data is at any given time and to limit and revoke access.”

Overcoming the fear and agreeing on a unified authentication and data sharing methodology would be a tangible step towards liberating data.

Universal ID is the Future

We live in a fragmented personal information dystopia. It’s a disjointed reality where our identities are spread over multiple silos including social media, financial providers and government agencies.

Fragmentation will only get more unwieldy if it’s not addressed. A study found that the average internet user has to recall passwords for 92 online accounts, while another clocked it at 191. In 2015 Fernando Corbata, who invented the first computer password, said that passwords have become “a nightmare.”

What is needed is a Universal ID that is backed by biometrics and real-time attributes and authenticated by a trusted identity provider. According to BBVA Group on Digital Identity, “In the long run, to become a trusted identity provider across different industries could represent a [huge] opportunity for financial institutions.” This will be beneficial to businesses because beyond recording name, DOB, and other characteristics, a Universal ID may record personality, status, habits, goals, and more while giving control of that information to the owner.

One idea that has been floated is the Authentication Hub. A data hub that aims to protect firms against fraud while creating for them a superior customer experience using today’s full multi-factor authentication environment. But monitored and regulated closely, an undertaking like the Universal ID is a multi-stakeholder challenge that requires a multi-stakeholder approach to adopting and implementing a data-centric paradigm.

A Data-Centric Paradigm

In 2015, IBM estimated that the world was generating 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every year which made up 90% of the data humans have created since the dawn of civilization. This unbelievably huge data set provides the necessary inputs for AI technologies like machine learning which helps us to better predict the human preferences and hopefully keep pace as ever more data is created.

But why haven’t we created a better, data-centric future? Just imagine a client signing into their dashboard with a single view of all the related legal disclosures for a transaction instead of a stack of “forms”. They could then sign all those forms with one biometric transaction. That’s the power of a new paradigm, and not holding technology back.

Reframing client data validation as part of data collection and not separate “signing events” can kill many birds with one stone. Once a person has been validated and authorized there’s no need for multiple signatures.

In a flash survey of banks about records management, Deloitte found that “50% of clients surveyed [said] that in the last 12 months, they had to re-supply the bank with copies of their ID and Proof of Residence documents.” This is not an optimal client experience.


Society keeps moving forward, all the while generating greater quantities data at an exponential rate. Some of this data is useful, but much is duplicated. We live in a world where technology has provided us more reliable solutions to the mounting virtual forms like biometrics. Even more, data only lives in virtual forms by our design, an anachronistic paradigm adopted hundreds of years ago.

Do signatures matter anymore when it comes to true authentication?

Antiquated thinking is what has us frozen. Fear of changing how we’ve always done things has us stuck. We need to move past our notion of converting physical forms into the virtual world. Instead we must pursue innovated ideas like the Authentication Hub, and from a multi-stakeholder stance commit to a unified authentication and data sharing methodology that will put data first and kill the virtual form once and for all.

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