Contact Forms

Talking with clients, everyone wants a contact form on their website. Visitors simply type a subject, message, a reply email address, and hit “send.” While they can be found everywhere, I argue that website contact forms are generally a bad practice, arduous to manage for website owners, and a disservice to visitors.

What is a contact form?

Many websites have contact forms. Their purpose is simple: allow a visitor to send some message to the owners of the website. These forms usually have four essential fields: name, return email address, subject, and message. Visitors type all this information, hit submit, and the message is sent to the owners of the website.

The problems

The idea of a contact form is great in theory, but looking at the usability of this communication mechanism leaves a lot to be desired.

The website owner issues

Contact forms have their cost to the website owner who wants it. The easiest to recognize is spam, anyone on the internet typing garbage into the contact form, hitting “send” hundreds of times. No one can guarantee you spam-free submissions. (I could use a spam filter system, but is this where you want me spending my time?) Spam will make it harder to find good messages in the waves of all the bad.

The biggest problem is that websites cannot send email. This means that when a visitor submits a form the server hosting the website must process the form somehow in order for it to reach you. It then becomes the job of the server to not only serve the website, but also either expose a web interface to see submissions or send them to an email address. In the former case, the website owner now needs to remember to check that web interface for new messages and with no notification system that would be quite annoying (see variable-ratio reinforcement). The latter is much better, except now there is the problem of dropped messages, changing of the owner’s email address, and other problems inherit with an email system.

The visitor issues

The visitor suffers most from having a contact form on the website. They arrive from the internet, fall in love with your gib so much that they want to talk, and BAM: fill out this form. Fill out four fields (and whatever else was deemed necessary) without making any typos in your email address and submit it. That was a lot of tedious upfront work just to send a message. That was the first impression.

Once the message is sent, the visitor is greeted with an awful question: “Did my message reach the owners?” How are they to know? Even if visitors are presented with a confirmation message, will they perceive it as genuine? Where did they just send all of their information, a digital trash bin? Even worse if they think this far ahead before actually sending any message at all. Responsiveness matters and the communication has to be authentic.

Probably the worst problem is what happens after the visitor sends a message: they forget. They have no record of the fact they even sent a message, let alone what they said. If the owners fail to respond in a timely manner, what recourse can the visitor take? They must submit their message all over again (probably in all caps). Context and record of communication is important for both sides and a contact form leaves the visitor (and thus ultimately the owner) at a disadvantage.

The solution

Email. Email is the best solution for the purpose of a contact form: communicating with the website owner. Everyone already has an email address. Contact forms go out of their way to ask for an email address anyways. Looking back at the problems of contact forms, email solves them all and with less effort.

Spam? Email providers like Google and Microsoft can fight and filter spam better than I ever could. Creating an email address with either of these services is fast and free, providing more protection from spam than a contact form could.

Form processing? There is no form to process. Visitors click an email link and are taken to their preferred mail application and send a message through that. The server does not need to operate as a mail server as well as a web server. No email redirects or web interface is needed. If the owner’s email address changes, only the email link needs to be updated.

Too many form fields? Again, there is no form. Email messages already have subject and message fields, the name and email address of the sender are baked into the metadata of the message. Email allows for more than plain text: bolds, italics, lists, attachments. Email messages can also be saved as drafts; visitors can craft their message at their own pace and send it even when they are not on the website.

Did it send? If an email does not send properly, the visitor will get a report back from their email service provider. They know it got sent.

Loss of context? Visitors can easily look back at emails they sent, everything they wrote and when they sent it. A visitor’s recourse for no response is clear: a simple “did you see this?” follow-up email. No need to waste time typing the whole message out from memory, double-sending.

Conclusion

Contact forms are bad, email is good. I use email on this website and push for it with my website owners. There are appropriate uses for a form, but just sending a message to a website owner is not one of them.