We often get asked how HotDocs templates differ from Word templates. The quick answer is that Word templates are applied horizontally and HotDocs templates are applied vertically. Put another way, Word templates can be used for widely divergent purposes, while HotDocs templates are used almost exclusively for enterprise-grade document production (a.k.a. document generation or document assembly). Just the same, the question is understandable, given that Word templates are often stretched in the direction of document assembly via keystroke macros and Visual Basic for Applications. Herein lies the source of most confusion on the Word vs. HotDocs question.
Common Uses for Word Templates
One of the most common uses for Word templates is to provide complex formatting and style characteristics to documents. For example, someone needing to produce a monthly newsletter could begin with a newsletter template, which, in theory, would enable someone without professional-grade design skills to produce a professional-looking document. This particular application of a Word template, of course, has little in common with automated document production (document assembly), the practice of building business logic into standard word processing files and graphical forms (PDF files) to enable the rapid and reliable generation of custom versions of a document based on a new set of facts or answers.
However, another common application for Word templates does trend in the direction of automated document production. This application begins when a practitioner merely converts a word processing file into a template, which can then serve as a pristine starting point for all custom versions of the document. Having taken this initial step towards systematizing the process, though, a user may then choose to move on to the next logical phase: reducing the number of steps needed to generate a custom document by recording common key-stroke sequences as simple macros.
This level of process automation barely scratches the surface of what a complex document production template (i.e. a HotDocs template) could do, and yet, unfortunately, keystroke macros are probably the outer limit of what non-software engineers can hope for in a Word template. To expand into more powerful functionality, a user would need to employ Visual Basic for Applications, a full-on software engineering technology.
HotDocs vs. VBA
What it really renders down to, then, is this: How does VBA for Word template automation compare to HotDocs, the global leader in document assembly technology? VBA, while it is a powerful technology that dramatically extends the functionality of MS Office applications, is simply not designed for enterprise-grade document assembly. Consequently, VBA lacks many common feature sets and utilities that are absolutely necessary within professional document assembly environments. (Read my post "VBA and Macros and the Cost of Building a Bathroom" for more on this)
HotDocs, in contrast, is the most powerful, flexible document assembly RAD (Rapid Application Development) platform available. What would take software engineers hours in VBA can be accomplished by non-engineers—content experts—in HotDocs in minutes, or in some cases, mere seconds. And because HotDocs is the result of nearly three decades of evolution in thought and design, its ability to deliver enterprise-grade document production in multiple environments (desktop, client/server, and cloud) on a global scale and in the most complex documentation environments imaginable far exceeds what even the most elite VBA programmers could hope to accomplish in Word Templates.
VBA is a powerful technology with a vast range of functionality within the MS Office environment; however, it’s not designed specifically for automating the production of documents. HotDocs is. And that’s the difference.