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Overview of docassemble

docassemble is a platform for creating mobile-friendly web applications called Interviews that ask one question at a time in order to reach an end point. This end point may be the presentation of advice, the creation of a signed document, the submission of an application, or something else. Run the Demonstration to get an idea for what docassemble applications look like.

You can run docassemble on your laptop, but most people run it “in the cloud” on Amazon Web Services, Digital Ocean, or another hosting service. The Deploy page describes a variety of ways you can get your own docassemble instance up and running. You can install docassemble on a server using Docker or (if you are an expert) follow the detailed Installation instructions. For the most part, the Administration and Configuration of docassemble can be handled through the web interface.

Introduction to docassemble

Interview developers write interviews in YAML format, a plain-text format that is human-readable but also machine-readable.

An interview consists of multiple “blocks.” Blocks are pieces of text separated by ---, which is a record separator in YAML. For example:

question: Do you like turnips?
yesno: likes_turnips
question: When did you stop idolizing worms?
  - Date: worm_idolizing_stop_date
    datatype: date
Screenshot of turnips-worms example

You can click the screenshot above to see this interview in action. If you hover over the source code, three dots will appear in the lower-right corner; if you click the three dots, you can see full interview YAML behind the sample interview.

Some blocks are Question Blocks that represent screens that the user will actually see. (Two examples are above.) The basic structure of question blocks is simple, but there are a lot of possible Question Modifiers that can make your screens do different things.

The information gathered from users is stored in “variables,” and the purpose of most question blocks will be Setting Variables. You can use whatever variable names you want, except you can’t use the names of Special Variables that already have their own meaning.

docassemble supports many different types of variables – even file uploads and touchscreen signatures. One of the most powerful features is the ability to store information in a structured way using Objects. When you want to collect one or more pieces of related information, you can collect the information into Groups such as lists and dictionaries.

There are other types of blocks besides question blocks.

Initial Blocks set interview-wide options, like the special features of an interview, or the default screen parts.

Code blocks allow you to set variables through computation. Code is written in Python. To write an interview, you do not need to know much about Python except how to write “if/then/else” statements.

code: |
  if plaintiff.county == defendant.county:
    jurisdiction_is_proper = True

You can even use “fuzzy logic” with docassemble’s Machine Learning feature.

docassemble decides which questions to ask, and the order in which to ask them, according to the Interview Logic. You can specify the order of questions with great specificity if you want, or you can just specify an end goal and let docassemble figure everything out on its own.

A popular use of interviews is the assembly of Documents (hence the name docassemble). You can write document templates in DOCX or PDF formats. You can also write documents the same way you write questions, in plain text using Markup to indicate formatting.

As your interviews become more sophisticated, you will find it useful to invoke Functions to do things like conjugate verbs, compute differences between dates, or offer the user hyperlinks that perform special actions.

docassemble uses a User Login system that allows users to create accounts, save their answers, and resume their interviews at a later date.

Since docassemble is a free and open-source application, it is designed to be interoperable with other applications. There are a variety of ways to work with External Data; you can move information easily into and out of a docassemble interview session. There is also a full-featured API for interacting with docassemble programmatically. You can also design your own Custom Front Ends.

Developers can prototype and test their interviews in the browser, using the interview developers’ Playground.

Once you get a docassemble server up and running, go through the Hello World tutorial to learn more about how interviews work. As you become more experienced using the system, you may want to explore using other Development Workflows than just the Playground.

One of docassemble’s most powerful features is its ability to operate multi-user interviews through the Roles feature. For example, a user could fill out an interview and then an attorney could enter the interview to evaluate the information and provide legal advice, which the user would see the next time they log in.

Using the Background Tasks features, you can have your interviews do things on the server at times other than when the user presses a button to advance to a new page. Time-intensive tasks can run in the background. The interview can evaluate user input before the user clicks the Continue button. Interviews can do things when the user is not logged in, like send a reminder e-mail to a user about a deadline as the date approaches.

docassemble is a multi-purpose platform, but it is particularly designed for Legal Applications, and has special functionality for that specific purpose.

If you need to make an interview available in more than one language, docassemble’s Language Support features can help you manage translations. docassemble also has a number of features for Accessibility by persons with disabilities.

docassemble was built on the model of the open-source software development world. Interviews can be bundled into Packages, which can be shared on GitHub or moved between servers as ZIP files.

The mobile-friendly web interface is the primary way that users will run interviews, but there is also the option of making interviews available via Text Messaging.

When you deploy your interviews, there are a variety of ways you can provide support to your users. The Live Help features allow operators to communicate with users using on-line chat. Operators can see users’ screens and even take control if necessary. If communication by phone is necessary, operators can provide users with a special phone number and code that forwards a call without revealing the operator’s actual phone number.

docassemble has excellent Scalability when deployed in the cloud, so you don’t have to worry about what will happen if your interviews get a lot of traffic.

If your interviews will process sensitive information, docassemble has a number of Security features to keep that information safe, such as server-side encryption.

Developers will invariably make mistakes and encounter Errors. docassemble tries to provide helpful error messages in the browser or in logs stored on the server.

If you get stuck, you can seek out Support from the docassemble community, in particular by posting a question on the docassemble Slack. You might also find that there is an example interview in the Recipes that will help you solve your problem.

docassemble is free software available with a highly permissive open-source License. The software is updated frequently, and you can see what new features are available by reading the Change Log.

Note that if you have been using docassemble for a long time, you need learn about the necessity of doing a Python Upgrade.

Using the documentation

The docassemble documentation is intended more as a reference guide than as a manual that you have to read before getting started.

The best way to learn about docassemble is to start creating your own interview. Start by following along with the “Hello, world” tutorial that explains how to create a simple interview. Once you get that working, you can experiment with adding more questions to it.

The best way to learn about more advanced docassemble features is to study working examples. The sections of this documentation site contain a number of side-by-side examples comparing source code to screenshots. You can click on the screenshots to run the interviews. The code next to the screenshots is often only an excerpt of the full interview. To see the full source code of the interview, hover over the source code and click the button that appears in the lower right corner. In addition, while you are developing interviews in the Playground, you can browse working examples of many of docassemble’s features.

There is also a full-featured sample interview linked from the demonstration page. While you are using the interview you can click “Source” in the navigation bar to toggle display of the source code for the question and an explanation of the path docassemble took to decide to ask that question.

Sections of the documentation