Performance Center Introduction, Computers, Servers, Networking, Site Design

Getting effective feedback, using mailto links and HTML forms

Your Web site exists to serve its visitors. Prospective customers have to be able to find the information they need to decide whether they want to do business with you, and existing customers need ongoing support. You know your site tells people what you want it to tell them. But does it explain what your customers want to know? If it’s already doing an adequate job, is there still room for improvement? Where? Who knows better where your flaws are than your customers? Why not encourage feedback from them? Though it’s not a complex issue, there’s a little more to it than merely saying, “Tell us what you think.” The way you ask makes a big difference, in both the quality and quantity of feedback you’ll receive.

Methods of feedback

There are two Web-based methods you have at your disposal.

  1. The mailto link is a hyperlink that launches the user’s e-mail client and allows visitors to compose an e-mail message to your company.
  2. The HTML form gives the user one or more text boxes on a Web page to type a message, usually asking questions to prompt the user what to enter in each box.

Mailto makes it easy for visitors

As you would expect, each method has its advantages. There are some Web designers who suggest that you should have at least one mailto link in the same spot on each page, and typically in an accepted location, such as an Info or Webmaster link in the footer of a page. In theory, this makes it easy for a visitor with something on his mind to initiate contact at any point during the visit. Unfortunately though, mailto has its drawbacks. Some designers seem to feel that feedback is poorly directed.

As an example, visitors tend to initiate a discussion about a page without referencing it, or ask incomplete questions, forcing the recipient to guess at the motive or require them to ask the sender what was meant. It also tends to be more specific to site issues.

For a small site directed at one issue or a handful of products or services, this may not be a problem, but for a large multifaceted Web site, this could create a massive problem, especially if the visitor was trying to tell you about a problem. There is a way to handle this though, and it is rather simple.

When you create your mailto link, you can automatically complete the subject line and/or content with a reference that will provide you with some guidance.

As an example, this would be the typical HTML code for a mailto page entry centered on a page:

Now by changing this slightly, we can add a comment:

This will automatically complete the subject line, and have it read “Service Department”. In this way, you would almost immediately know where it came from.

Using HTML forms can get right to the point HTML forms can solve this problem, as it allows you to direct user feedback into specific areas of interest. Users can ask questions about your products, support, the site itself, or anything else you want to know about. To further focus feedback, you can use multiple-choice questions and have the user click on checkboxes to choose an answer. The method you use will have a direct influence how much feedback you get. Experience points out that it is at least two-to-one margin in favor of forms, even with the simplest of forms. Many visitors might not think of anything to say if you leave them on their own, but could nonetheless have valuable ideas if prompted. Using a form provides us with the ability to hold a users hand through the process. We can gently nudge them for more specific information and ask for information they may likely forget in a free-form mail. As an example, a contact form should ask for various items of contact information, pose specific questions about the subject, including goals if any, budget range if need be, and a timeline. Many visitors wouldn’t think to volunteer such details, but for a Web designer, it’s information that they need before starting work. Now, if you were to add a mailto to the bottom of your contact form, if the form doesn’t have an appropriate place for the comments a user might want to make, a mailto link would offer a viable alternative.

The bottom line is that you want to do whatever you can to encourage feedback. This means using both mailto links and HTML forms. Even though designing an effective form can involve extra time and expense, it’s well worth it. If you make it simple for people to contact you, they will!

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