Project Management

Getting effective feedback: Using mailto links and HTML forms

Mailto links and HTML forms are two tools you can use to solicit feedback from visitors to your Web site. Here's what you need to know to get quality comments back from your customers.

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. Web designer Eric Hoffman, of Small Dog Design, explains that his company likes to use both.

"We encourage a client to have at least one mailto link in the same spot on each page, and typically in the 'accepted' location, like Info or Webmaster links in the footer of a page," he said. This makes it easy for a visitor with something on his mind to initiate contact at any point during the visit.

However, mailto has its drawbacks. "The problem we frequently run into with mailto links is that feedback is poorly directed," Hoffman said.

“Many users, for example, tend to initiate a discussion about a page without referencing it, or ask incomplete questions, forcing the recipient to guess at motive or requiring them to ask the sender what they meant,” Hoffman said. “It also tends to be more specific to site issues."

HTML forms can get right to the point
HTML forms can solve this problem. Andre Delgado, of Web-Light Consulting & Design, points out that a form 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 also influence how much feedback you get. "In our experience, it's at least two-to-one in favor of forms, even with the simplest of forms," Delgado said. He points out that many visitors might not think of anything to say if you leave them on their own, but could nonetheless have valuable ideas if you prompt them.

Hoffman agrees. "With a form, we have the ability to handhold users 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."

Small Dog Design's contact form does just that. Geared toward prospective Web design clients, it asks for various items of contact information and poses specific questions about the project, including goals, budget range, and timeline. Many visitors wouldn't think to volunteer such details; nonetheless, it's information that a Web designer needs before starting work.

It's also worth noting that if you look at the bottom of Small Dog's contact form, you'll find mailto links. If the form doesn't have an appropriate place for the comments a user might want to make, a mailto link offers 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, they're more likely to contact you," Delgado said.
Does your business use mailto links or HTML forms? Do you use both? What would you recommend to other businesses? Post a comment below or send us an e-mail .

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