Email feedback mechanisms for online help

Email has become a universal conversation mechanism for business to business notification, customer to business communication, you name it. If you’re not doing so already, you can add email links so that readers can send emailed feedback to your technical documentation team. With advanced mailto markup you can automatically enter a subject line, indicate who the email will go to, as well as enter courtesy copies and blind courtesy copies to additional people. Your inbox should not be overwhelmed with feedback emails, but a link should give customers the feeling that their comments are collected and concerns addressed. This is conversational documentation at its simplest.

If you have a large helpsite, you may want to know where the click occurred. You can use Javascript to get the URL of the page or the title of the page and automatically embed that into the email that is sent. Here is sample Javascript code to put into either the top of each HTML file or in a separate file that the HTML file refers to. You can see this code in use at docs.imis.com, thanks to Melissa Burpo‘s implementation (she adapted code from webmasterworld.com for us).

<script language=”Javascript” type=”text/javascript”>
{
//variables
var subject = “Help feedback: ” +  document.title
var bodytext = “Topic: ” + document.URL + ” – ” + document.lastModified
var pagesubject = “Link to topic: ” +  document.title
var pagebodytext = “Topic: ” + document.URL

//output an email link
document.write(‘ | <a href=\”mailto:writers@company.com?subject=’ + pagesubject + ‘&body=’ + pagebodytext + ‘\” title=\”Email this page\”>’);
document.write(‘Email us</a> |’);
}
</script>

Some of the benefits of this approach is that email is simple and universally understood by customers. An email link offers a feedback mechanism without much overhead programming or implementation. But you may need to watch out for email collection robots that take your email addresses from the mailto code and use it for spam purposes. Also, you might not get the type of feedback you want, such as people only reporting typos, rather than offering substantial additional information.

I’ve got an article that will be published on the WritersUA site soon with additional conversation and community documentation examples, but this one is a great starting point if you have your help site on the Internet but haven’t started interaction with customers at all.

5 Comments

  • January 29, 2010 - 11:07 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Anne. I’m working with a client on a help system and this is just the kind of concept I plan to propose to them. The more a company can show it cares about its customers, the better!
    -Bill.

  • January 31, 2010 - 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Great, Bill! Glad it was helpful. Thanks for sayin’ so. :)

  • Jessica
    February 5, 2010 - 10:47 am | Permalink

    Hi Anne,

    I LOVE this idea. The way that lean Agile works here has me sending out draft after draft of my documents and I’m getting so lost. We’re asking a team of 30 user-acceptance testers to look at the doc. Yikes!

    I would love to institute a mechanism like this. I have tried inserting this code in my topics and I get errors or the code shows up on the page without the email address.

    I must be doing something wrong. Do you know where Melissa Burpo’s implementation is?

    (This might just save my life. :))

  • February 5, 2010 - 10:56 am | Permalink

    Sounds like a great method! You can see this email mechanism at http://docs.imis.com/15.1/ in the upper frame. If you look at http://docs.imis.com/15.1/dhtml_toc.js you’ll see the Javascript file that is referred to in that upper frame. I hope that helps you reverse-engineer it so you can do it too.

  • Jessica
    February 5, 2010 - 11:31 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much! We’ll get to work on it. :)

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