Stop that fax! Use an electronic signature instead. We try out 8 different apps.

If you are tired of scanning then faxing documents back and forth to get them signed, there is a better way: using electronic signatures attached digitally to your documents. It is convenient, saves time, and avoids the hassle of converting your files to paper only to scan them once they are signed, or to use an overnight courier to deliver the documents back and forth.

If you send out a batch of contracts as part of your job then it is worth taking a closer look at these apps. As an example, take a look at the sales department of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team. Before they used electronic signatures, they relied on the physical delivery of contracts, and getting them signed took weeks. With the electronic signatures and according to Adobe's blog, "salespeople can email contracts to prospects while on the phone with them and have signatures returned in as fast as two minutes." Sometimes this fast turn-around time can make the difference in the sale, too.

The technology has been around for more than a decade, and with the combination of Web services and mobile apps is finally coming into its own. There are nearly a dozen different services of varying shapes and sizes, including ones from Adobe, RightSignature and Docusign, the market leaders.

What these apps have mostly in common is a Web-based service that is customized for each user. You bring up your browser, add your recipient and the document to be signed, add your signature and date blocks and other signing information, and send it via the service. When the message arrives in your recipient's inbox, they click on a URL to bring up the document and then can sign and date it and return it to you or to send to the next signer in the chain. RPost and Intralinks Courier have Outlook plug-ins to make the process easier.

Here is an example of the many options available with RPost in the screenshot below.


Some services have associated mobile apps that run on iPhones and Androids. And some come with very extensive lists of third-party tools such as SharePoint, SugarCRM, and Google Docs to make it easier to sign, deliver and track documents directly from these applications.

The typical price tag for these services starts around $15 per user per month and go up from there depending on a variety of features, and how much signing you intend to do. The table goes into more details for each of the products. Adobe has the widest range of prices that start at a free plan for a single user (with a lot of limitations) and go as high as $400 a month for more advanced services for a minimum of ten users. Many of the services offer free trials for a week or two to give you an idea of their workflow and features.

Let's look at some of the questions and issues in selecting one of these services for your document needs.

  • How do they actually "sign" your document? Some services make you actually move the mouse or your finger on screen to create a signature that ends up looking like something a small child might attempt. Others use a cursive handwriting-style font to insert something that looks like a generic signature instead. Or you can take a picture of your actual signature and upload to the service. These cosmetic differences might matter in a legal sense, depending on the local laws. EchoSign allows for all three kinds of signatures, as you can see from the screenshot below. RightSignature even will incorporate a captured photo from your PC's built-in camera too. And Signix uses digital signatures for further security.
  • How can you track the document through the workflow? Some products are chatty Cathy and send emails at every step in the process: when a recipient opens your email, when it is signed, and when the completed document is returned to you. Others are less verbose. At whatever level, make sure the service you select satisfies your legal chain of custody requirements for a real signed document, which is the whole point of using electronic signatures. Some also support parallel workflows: meaning you can collect multiple signatures concurrently on the same document. Others allow the signer to suggest document revisions.
  • Is your document encrypted during transit and at rest? Some services such as Intralinks Courier do, others don't. Again, depending on your needs, this could be important.
  • Can these services work with any other SaaS-based vendors' products or online document repositories? Adobe, Docusign, and RightSignature support the widest collection of third-party platforms. This means you can use a saved document in Google Docs or Salesforce and have it transmitted directly for a signature, which is very convenient.
  • Can you expire people from being valid signatories if they leave your company or take too long to sign your document? Most of these are self-signed based on your email address, so as long as that is a valid address, you can't really expire the service. EchoSign and others can set expiration dates for individual documents. Intralinks Courier can also revoke access to a document even after it has been signed and sent, or after a particular date and can also be blocked from downloading or being printed out.
  • Is there a monthly limit on the number of signed documents covered by each plan? Each vendor has a variety of prices and plans, depending on your signature needs. Some like DocuSign and Signix limit the number of signed documents per user, others charge for unlimited plans or have bare-bone free plans.
  • How do you know your document arrived intact? Some of the services also employ digital signatures embedded in the document, to prove authenticity and prevent any tampering. (For more on the legal issues involved, see this blog post.) EchoSign will display your document with a blue bar at the top of the page. This indicates that the document has not been altered or tampered with in any way since it was signed. There are other reports that show you the entire signing history. For example, RightSignature sends out the completed and signed document at the end, and you can see below the tracking information available in the screenshot. Signix also offers something similar.

  • Is there a mobile version, and how does it differ from the Web version? A few of the services have companion mobile apps that run on iOS, BlackBerry and Android devices. (SignEasy just has mobile apps.) Of course, you can always use the built-in mobile browsers, but these are designed for the smaller mobile screens. Some have reduced feature sets to match the diminutive screen real estate. Some will capture a signature drawn with your figure or stylus on the mobile touchscreen itself.
  • Does it support faxed signatures? Some of the services, such as DocuSign and EchoSign, allow you to mix faxing a document and collecting a signature that way too.
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