Webforms: always taking, never giving

In my post about the Travelodge website I got angry about a webform that wouldn’t let me press the Submit button. This post is about what can go wrong after you press Submit.

Today I needed to contact Nokia about a problem with the battery on my mobile phone. I didn’t fancy getting lost in an automatic phone system, so I decided to send an email to kick things off. So I clicked the link saying “Contact Nokia via email”.

I’m sure you’re ahead of me here. The link didn’t take me to an email address; it took me to a webform. Luckily Nokia have the sense to give “Other” as an option on the initial dropdown, so you don’t have to worry about squeezing your query into a predetermined category.

As well as my actual query, Nokia required

  • my full name
  • my email address
  • my gender (why? So they know how patronising to be when they respond?)
  • my email address again (because I might have typed it wrong the first time, being a girl and all?)
  • my phone number
  • my phone’s serial number
  • my phone’s software version.

I dutifully supplied all this information and got a nice reassuring message.

Thank you! Your email question has now been sent to Nokia. You will shortly receive a confirmation to the email address you gave while submitting the form. Please also check your Junk or Spam email folder if you cannot see the confirmation email in your Inbox.

I checked my spam folder. There was a message in there all right. It was from the Nokia mail system saying that delivery of my message had failed. The message gave the final recipient of my webform as rfc822;Ext-WebAskNokiaSupport.gb@nokia.com.

I tried stripping off the rubbish at the beginning and forwarding my message to AskNokiaSupport.gb@nokia.com. Another delivery failure.

Then I checked the body text of the message and spotted a third address mixed in with my details: ContactCentre.Europe@nokia.com. I tried this one and it worked. (I know this because I received an automatically generated acknowledgement.)

This is a good illustration of my main problem with webforms: they set up a one-sided exchange by demanding so much and promising so little. Tonight I supplied Nokia with eight pieces of information. In return, Nokia gives the site user nothing except for an 0845 number: no email address, no postal address, no geographical phone number. They showed how much they valued my personal information by dumping it in a black hole. If it wasn’t for my detective work, that black hole is where my message would have stayed.

Well-designed webforms can be a great way of letting users do something specific through your site. The fields tell the user exactly what information you need from them, so they don’t have to waste time wondering how to word an email. But they shouldn’t be the only way in which users can contact you. Your Contact Us page should give your email address, postal address and phone number so people have alternative ways to get in touch. I’m sure Travelodge think having just a webform is fine. They’ll never know about all the users (like me) who tried to contact them through it, got frustrated and went away.

There’s a growing cultural expectation that we can all “create” if we’re just given the tools. We tell people to “share stories” and “make videos” in a way that’s so open-ended, it becomes intimidating. Mobile phone companies have helped to promote the idea that we can all be musicians, artists, inventors, if we just get the right piece of kit. The idea that formal constraints promote creativity doesn’t come into it.

But somehow, when it comes to actually contacting a company like Nokia, the user isn’t given the tools to “create” something as simple as an email. They’ll take the user’s information, but only on their terms.