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 Best practices for contact form development 

Some contact forms can be confusing and frustrating for many people - which can lead to lost online sales.

If someone is semi-interested in your products or services or is a hesitant shopper; any inconvenience in contacting you can turn them away - sending them directly to your competitors.

The following are some best practices for contact form development and implementation, some of which also apply to order forms.

1. Minimize cognitive load

Wow, quite a technical term huh? 

People don't like to think too much - use radio buttons, check boxes and multiple choice selections where possible - but not to the point of overkill and bearing in mind the next point. Also ensure field labels/questions are clear - avoid jargon and high fallutin' terms such as "minimize cognitive load" :). I could have used a much simpler heading for this point; such as "keep it simple".

[_borders/ad_web_revenue.htm]

2. Sufficient request type options.

While helpful to users and useful in categorizing the type of request in order to prioritize and also for data mining at a later date; many dropdown boxes and other multiple choice features on forms don't present sufficient options. At the very least, "other" or "not sure" should be an option for those people who may be confused with other choices, or to whom the other choices do not apply.

3. CAPTCHA readability. 

CAPTCHA is a great way to cut down on spam submissions, but some implementations use image distortions that are very hard to read, particularly for the vision impaired. Try to ensure the image set you use is easily discernable some distance from the monitor, or that you include audio options whereby a series of numbers is read out to the user.

4. Use (and test) thank you pages.

This is quite a common occurrence - the person submits their details and is then presented with an error page, a blank page or back to the contact page. They really don't have any reassurance that their message has been submitted. 

A proper thank you page should be used and the form should be tested from time to time to ensure that it is displayed. The thank you page should also give some sort of indication when they'll likely be to hear back from you. Hint: 5 business days doesn't cut it :).

5. Minimize compulsory fields

If a person is making a pre-sales inquiry, is it really necessary for them to enter their address if an email reply will suffice? I've seen some contact forms with so many compulsory fields, I've questioned what the company may do with the information and haven't bothered to proceed. 

Only ask for what you really need, anything added should be optional and clearly labeled as such. Even if you do make items optional, be careful how many you add as the user may not stop and see the optional flags - they'll just see a bunch of form fields and leave.

6. Provide formatting tips

If you have fields with validation rules, on the form give users tips as to how to complete the field. For example

Phone number: <Field> (enter in this format XXX-XXX-XXXX) 

7. Correct validation rules

Where you do have compulsory fields, ensure the validation rules are flexible enough. For example, many USA merchants have phone number validation rules that aren't compatible with international phone number formats.

8. Relevant validation alerts

When using validation rules, ensure the alert to the user contains enough information for the person to understand what may be wrong; instead of just a generic alert stating that the input was incorrect.

9. Validation timing

There is nothing more frustrating for someone to have spent substantial time in completing a form, submitting it, getting a validation error, being returned to the form or clicking back and all the data they've entered is gone. This issue is most common with server side validation that's been poorly implemented in the form processing script. 

If your form demonstrates this behavior and you can't fix the form script yourself, consider adding some client side validation to the form itself using Javascript; which is very easy to do.

The JavaScript validation will occur first; preventing this issue from occurring. When the person clicks the submit button, an alert box will appear asking them to correct the problem before submission can occur.

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10. Tab order

Many people use the tab key to move from field to field - check your forms to see if tabbing follows the form sequence.

11. Easy accessibility

Contact form access should be a single click away from any page and preferably not buried in a drop-down menu structure. If it is necessary to place the link in a dropdown menu, ensure that the menu group is labeled with standard text, such as "About" or "Company".

It's not unusual for people to make pre-sale inquiries prior to purchasing; particularly if they haven't purchased from that business before. It could be a genuine request for advice, or just sounding out the company to get some indication of what they are like to deal with. Their first point of contact with you may be the contact form - it's an important part of the sales process and should be given special attention in development.

Related:

Reassuring your site visitors

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
Tutorials, web content, tools and software.
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In the interests of transparency and disclosure, please note that the owner of Taming the Beast.net often receives goods and services mentioned in reviews for free, or may receive payments or affiliate commissions for advertising or referring others to merchants of products and services reviewed.

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