Daniel Alves is the design director for the small business web design division at the digital marketing and web design company, 352 Media Group.

If you’re like most business owners, getting leads online is the main reason you created a website in the first place. Sure, you may have a stellar SEO campaign, a beautiful design and an über low bounce rate, but without a well-planned contact strategy, you can’t turn those pageviews into conversions.

Online conversions aren’t just for ecommerce websites. In fact, most businesses use their websites to initiate one-on-one conversations. By personally engaging a contact, you are more likely to turn that contact into a customer. So, what’s the trick?

First, you need to understand that most people don’t want to give their phone numbers or email addresses to yet another website — the thought of spam is horrifying. And it’s not just privacy hawks who shy away from contact forms; most websites only achieve a 2-3% conversion rate. Furthermore, people don’t want to have to worry about waiting for a return phone call to address their problems or questions. They want to get the answers they need with as little effort as possible.

Follow these nine tips to make your website design and customer service more approachable, and thus, gain the trust of more customers.

Go with the Flow

Website usability is built on convention. Follow tried and true design strategies to ensure that your users can move through your site as easily as possible. Remember, the less effort, the better.

  • Use the words “Contact Us.” It may sound boring or generic, but the phrase works. (There’s a reason exit signs don’t use the words “leave” or “depart.”) People don’t read your site — they scan — and they’ve been trained over time to instantly recognize those two words.
  • Place contact info and phone number at the top, right corner of the page, where it’s expected. Also, make sure to include your phone number as an HTML, not an image. That way, a mobile user can tap the phone number link and launch into a call immediately. When mobile browsing eclipses desktop browsing in two years, nearly everyone will need that instant access. While you open yourself up to potential spamming, the benefits certainly outweigh the risks.

Make It Easy

A user must already overcome an internal battle in order to share her personal contact information. Your job is to remove as many obstacles as possible so that she makes the leap.

  • Keep contact forms simple. While it may help to get a full profile of your visitor by asking pre-qualifying questions, it can be very intimidating for that user. Ask for as little information as possible and require only that person’s name and email address. If you seek other information, such as phone number and address, make it optional.
  • Create one-column form fields for quick contact. It helps to put form labels directly above form fields. Usability studies show that users who filled out these types of forms saved time by only having to move their eyes vertically, not laterally.
  • Don’t be afraid of large input boxes. While considered a design trend, large input boxes are not only more fun to fill out, but also force you to limit the number of fields on a contact form.
  • Give visitors a clear action button. Because people read from left to right and top to bottom, place the final action button in the lower-right of the form. Give the button plenty of weight with a standout color.

Be Reassuring

Trust goes a long way with online clients. People fear that their contact information will get dumped into a huge database that marketers can access at will. By making your contact form unique, fun and reassuring, your user will know there’s a human on the receiving end and, therefore, be more likely to share.

  • Have some fun. Nothing eases people’s worries better than good humor. Why not spice up your contact form with some personality? Not only will it give your users a laugh, but it will also make your contact page more human. Consider a witty introduction or quirky photo.
  • Make a promise. Tell your users that their information is safe, that you won’t share it with any third party. Place this promise right next to the submit button; that way they’ll experience a nice aftertaste upon opting in.

Offer Instant Chat

Instant chat has been around for quite some time, but has traditionally only been used by the customer service departments of large Internet companies. Now, many low-cost services enable your users to reach you instantly wherever you are.

  • The future is instant. Perhaps the lowest website threshold is instant chat. It requires the user to supply little, if any, personal information and allows you to provide quick and personal customer service. Consider giving one of these services a chance.
  • LiveChat: Unlike other services, LiveChat offers a range of innovative features and third-party integration modules. You can use Facebook to gain access to your users’ social media profiles, Skype to elevate the chat into a phone call and Join.Me to perform a screen share. LiveChat also offers a free trial that makes trying this service a no-brainer.
    Olark: Another promising contender, Olark features a beautiful and seamless user experience, great reporting tools, CRM and Helpdesk integration, and it works with just about any IM client. Plus, you can live chat with a customer straight from your mobile phone. While not as feature-rich as some of its competitors, Olark is an efficient and inexpensive solution that fills the needs of most businesses.

How has your company improved its contact forms and its customer service? Has it strengthened your business? Please share in the comments below.

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If you use Gmail, Google Reader, Google+, Google Search, Google Maps — indeed, just about any Google product — you’ve likely become familiar with that black strip across the top of the screen with links to the company’s other services. Google introduced it back in June. Opinions have varied ever since, but many of us have gone with: what on Earth is that ugly thing?

Wonder no longer, because the black bar is going away. In a blog post Wednesday, Google announced it would be replaced with a pop-up that appears when you mouse over the Google logo. There will also be a smaller, less obtrusive light grey bar dominated by a search box.

“Instead of the horizontal black bar at the top of the page, you’ll now find links to your services in a new drop-down Google menu nested under the Google logo,” writes technical lead Eddie Kessler — whose Google profile identifies him as a “cat herder” — in an official announcement blog post. “We’ll show you a list of links and you can access additional services by hovering over the “More” link at the bottom of the list. Click on what you want, and you’re off.”

Kessler describes the new setup as “the next stage in our redesign.” What remains unclear is why Google’s redesign had to go through a “black bar” phase in its evolution in the first place. This is, perhaps, best seen as an illustration of something we’ve pointed out before: that Google’s entire design aesthetic is uninspired and haphazard. We’re still waiting for the company to find its Jonathan Ive of web design.

Detail of Gmail’s Latest Interface

The new desktop version of Gmail is hardly recognizable as the Gmail we once knew.

Click here to view this gallery.

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Word on the street is that YouTube has a slick new design. It’s a revamped homepage with some pretty tight Google+ social integration and content discovery features.

But if you’ve fired up your trusty Internet machine and the new YouTube hasn’t yet appeared for you, don’t fret. Our friends at The Verge have figured out an easy way (via Google+ user Mortiz Tolxdorff) to turn on the new features right the heck now.

At present, the trick only seems to work in Firefox and Chrome. Open up your browser’s development tools:

In Firefox: Ctrl + Shift + K (Win) | Cmd + Shift + K (Mac)

In Chrome: Ctrl + Shift + J (Win) | or Cmd + Alt + J (Mac)

Then add this string of delicious and nutritious code to the console:


Close your development tools, then reload The YouTubes. Voila! A fresh homepage for videos. Here’s what’s new:

1. Welcome

Once you get the new design, a message will pop up, prompting you to take a tour.

Click here to view this gallery.

Via The Verge.

More About: design, features, How-To, Social Media, trending, Video, YouTube

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Jonathan Goldford is a partner at JG Visual, an Internet strategy company that works with organizations to develop and implement their online presence. You can connect with Jonathan on the JG Visual Facebook page.

Sometimes as programmers, we forget that 99.9% of the population doesn’t care how a piece of text, a button, an image or a video ends up onscreen. Most people just care that it’s fast, easy to use and gives them the content they want. Otherwise, they get upset — and rightfully so. Here are three common mistakes we programmers make, and what we can do to fix them.

1. Forgetting About Conventions

Ever since they started using the Internet, users have been trained how to interact with a website. Therefore, they often get frustrated when websites don’t meet their expectations. Here are some examples.

  • They hover over an object they think is clickable, but become confused when they see an arrow instead of a hand pointer.
  • They click on blue, underlined text, but find it’s not a link.
  • They click on the logo in the top left, believing it will return them to the homepage, only to find it takes them nowhere.

Web design doesn’t always meet our expectations. However, developers and designers should always maintain certain rules to avoid user confusion. Here are three.

Clickable Elements Should Have the Pointer on Rollover
Everything clickable should switch to the hand pointer when a user hovers over it. You can accomplish this using simple CSS. The code would look like this

div:hover { cursor: pointer; }

Style Links Appropriately
Links should look different than regular text, and should be underlined within a page’s main content. If you really want to stick with convention, make them blue — research found users engage most with blue links.

Make Logos Clickable
The logo in the header of your website should be clickable, and should take the user to the homepage. This is pretty simple: Just wrap your logo in a tag.

<a href="http://www.example.com">
<img src="logo.gif" alt="Example Company" title="Example Company Logo" height="100" width="100" />

2. Creating Slowly-Loading Websites

Users hate slow websites. Studies have shown that 40% of users will abandon a website that takes more than three seconds to load. Here’s how to avoid common speed mistakes by new programmers.

Resize Images Outside the Browser
New programmers will sometimes use a very large image, let’s say 600 pixels wide by 600 pixels tall, but will set the height and width so the image shrinks to the desired size. They use the following code.

<img src="big-domo.jpg" alt="Domo" title="Big domo at the park" height="200" width="200" />

There are two problems with this method: First, the full image still needs to load. Typically, bigger image files mean longer load times.

Second, shrinking an image using the height and width attributes can render a photo awkwardly, causing the browser to display a photo not nearly as clear as it would be were the image sized 200 x 200 pixels.

To fix these issues, resize and compress images in an editor like Photoshop or Gimp. Then code the image like we did above. Try to use a tool like Photoshop’s Save for Web & Devices to further shrink the file size.

Load JavaScript in the Footer
Many programmers unnecessarily load all the page’s JavaScript files in the head tag. This stalls the rest of the page load. In almost all cases, except for JavaScript critical to user interface navigation, it’s okay to load script in the footer. Then the rest of the page can load beforehand. Try this code.

Rest of the page...
<script type="text/javascript" src="js/scripts.js"></script>

Load CSS Externally
Sometimes new programmers load CSS on each individual page using inline styles or an internal stylesheet. For inline styles, code looks like this.

<p style="margin-top: 50px;">Hi Mom!</p>

And for an internal stylesheet, you’d most likely see this code in the head tag.

<style type="text/css">
p { margin-top: 50px; }

You should almost never use CSS in the page that holds your html. Store it externally using code like this.

<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="css/style.css" />

There are two advantages to loading CSS externally: First, the user’s computer will save the external stylesheet to be used on every page, instead of retrieving the same styles over and over. This greatly speeds up load time.
Second, using an external stylesheet is much easier to maintain. If you need to change the font size of your website’s paragraphs, you’re able change it in one place, without having to access each individual html file.
Learn more about good CSS practices at CSS Basics.

3. Not Accounting for Potential Backend Changes

Most programmers nowadays are using a content management system like WordPress, Joomla or Drupal to build their websites. This is great because it gives website owners the ability to make changes and updates.

The problem is that a lot of developers only program for a website’s content at launch time. For example, at launch a developer may only create CSS styles for website headings 1, 2 and 3. What if two months after the website’s launch, the communications director decides to set some text to heading 6, since that’s an option in WordPress’s format? That decision would revert to the default styles of the browser since the developer never styled for it initially. Here is how to avoid this situation.

Include Styles for All the Common Tags
To make sure that the design of your website remains consistent with any backend formatting, programmers should include styles to handle the following html tags.

  • Body (<body>)
  • Heading 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 (<h1>, <h2>, <h3>, <h4>, <h5>, <h6>)
  • Link (<a>)
  • Paragraph (<p>)
  • Address (<address>)
  • Preformatted (<pre>)
  • Strong (<strong>)
  • Unordered list (<ul>)
  • Ordered list (<ol>)
  • Quotes (<blockquote>)

It’s best to check the WYSIWYG that your website owners are using to make sure you have all the appropriate tags covered.

Basic styling isn’t the only opportunity for your website to break down. Also make sure to prepare for large image uploads and for copy/paste from Word. Although items like these can seem trivial, educating your website owners about how to add content can make all the difference.

You’re Smart, But It’s Hard To Remember Everything

The mistakes listed here have nothing to do with a developer’s intelligence. Like most jobs, things fall through the cracks, especially when you’re just getting started.

Do you agree with the items listed above? Are there any others we should have included?

Image courtesy of Flickr, …Tim

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Though there are plenty of fonts out there for you to choose from (and many are even free), you may have the desire to create your very own custom font. Perhaps you want to design your own unique font for your company’s logo, or you may have a specific font design in mind and, after looking at hundreds of fonts, you’ve concluded that you’d have to make your own lettering to get exactly what you want.

Software for designing your own fonts (often called font editors) can be expensive, with FontLab Studio, one of the industry’s standards, fetching over $600. Though professional font foundries — which make a business designing and selling fonts — would be happy paying this high sticker price, the cost is prohibitively high for those of us who want to build simple fonts.

What’s great is there are several free font editors out there that you can use to create your own fonts. Below, you’ll discover seven of the best free tools for designing fonts.

With these tools, don’t expect to create high quality professional fonts right from the start — it will take time and practice, just like with any endeavor. But, if you’re simply looking to create a custom font or would like to try your hand at a fun, fulfilling and creative activity like font design, these tools will certainly help you get the job done.

1. FontStruct

FontStruct is a free online font editor, which means you can create your own fonts directly in a web browser, without having to install special software on your computer.

Once you’re happy with your work, you can save and download it as a TrueType font file (.ttf), install it in your computer and use it in any Windows and/or Mac application (e.g. Microsoft Office products, Photoshop and so on). You can even use it as a custom web font for your site.

Click here to view this gallery.

Though there are many free font editors out there, we focused on those that are still actively maintained and those that we can comfortably recommend. But if you’re the adventurous type, do check out other free font editing software and projects such as GNU Font Editor, DoubleType, Horus, Bitmap Font Editor, and Bitmap Font Editor.

What font editor do you use? Let us know in the comments below.

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Fourteen years ago, in my first job where my title was “Information Architect,” I clashed with a designer. We were working at a large advertising agency that was known for stunning design work. The art directors wielded a level of power at the agency that I have never seen anywhere else, and the result over the decades was a portfolio of gorgeous print and TV ads. The design-first method had worked well for this agency, winning them awards and a long roster of Fortune 500 clients, so they naturally decided to use this approach in their newly launched web department, too.

Things went well for a while, until I attended a kickoff meeting for a new website project. The designer came to the meeting with an already completed graphic design, before any information had been provided about who the site was for or what it would do. This designer had been at the company longer than me, and she had been happily designing sites without an information architect for several months. As far as she was concerned, this was a process that worked well for her, and why shouldn’t it? She had complete control of the site, her designs looked lovely, and they were not in any way influenced by user needs, site goals, or reality.

What followed was a long, drawn-out battle for control of the site between me and the designer. This battle usually sounded something like this, played out again and again:

Me: And when you click on this button where does it take you?

Designer: I haven’t worked that out yet, but it’ll be fine.

At the time, I thought I had encountered a particularly obstinate designer, but in fact I had just bulldozed my way into the biggest challenge in information architecture (IA): navigating the line between beautiful design and usable IA. Because this was early in the web world, the agency had yet to learn about this balance between usability and design, and I hadn’t either. And in the intervening years, things haven’t changed much. Designers still want to make things beautiful, UXers still want to make things usable, and those two goals are frequently at odds. What has changed for me, though, is the approach I now take to working with designers.

1. Get the Right Designer on the Project

We don’t always have the luxury of selecting the designer who will bring our wireframes and prototypes to life, but on occasion this happens. All UXers should have a roster of designers who are UX-friendly who they can call when the opportunity arises. More and more frequently, I have clients who either ask us to handle design or ask for designer referrals. When this happens I always feel like I’ve won the lottery. I have a collection of designers I’ve met over the years who are great at working with highly functional sites; if you have the opportunity to influence the designer selection, you need to be ready to jump in with names and portfolios.

2. Don’t Just Throw Wireframes Over the Fence

Last year, I worked on an unusual project where the timeframe was so compressed that there was no time for wireframes. Instead I spent many, many hours each day on the phone with the designer discussing the interface, working out where each element should go and exactly how it should function. While I wouldn’t recommend this process as a rule, the end result was a beautiful working relationship and an interface that we were both thrilled with.

Many agencies are structured such that designers are just handed a stack of wireframes and told to execute on them. The end result tends to be either a site that looks like a very pretty version of the wireframes, or one that is only very loosely based on the UX design. To strike the right balance that prevents designers from either taking an overly literal interpretation of wireframes or from developing their own new interaction models, designers need to be involved early and often. As soon as you’ve got a few wireframes done, pull your designer in to start mocking up a visual design so you can work together through anything that needs to be rethought.

3. Give Designers Space to Do Their Thing

People go into design because they want to express their creativity, to play with shapes and color, and to have fun doing it. In some ways, information architects just come in and rain on designers’ parades by imposing structure and preferring the obvious over the unique. But there are designers out there — more and more all the time — who look forward to working with information architects because working off of wireframes makes their jobs easier. These designers still want to play and have fun, and (in the right place and time) new and interesting designs and interactions can make people happy, so it’s a good idea to include a design-centric section on sites that warrant it, where the information architecture takes a back seat to the design. This works for areas of a site that needs to provide a visceral feel for a brand, or portfolio sections of sites that need to showcase work or case studies. If you respect the designers’ need to create something beautiful, they are more likely to respect your need to create something usable.

4. Don’t Discount the Importance of Design

It’s important to remember, as Don Norman has famously said and Dana Chisnell recently reiterated, that beautiful design makes people happy. Good UX design is the backbone of good visual design, and one cannot exist without the other. Back when I was engaging the designer at my first IA job in thermonuclear warfare, I did it because I only barely registered design as something that mattered to the user experience. But the joy inherent in beautiful design is important as well, so sometimes when a designer overrides your UX design on aesthetic grounds, the designer is right. UXers need to weigh the pros and cons of all design decisions very carefully in order to determine where visual design should triumph over UX design, and vice versa.

There are still struggles, of course, and there are projects where designers want to go one direction and the UX team wants to go another. But I do seem to encounter fewer and fewer all-out wars between design and UX teams. When designers and UXers work well together, the ultimate winners are the users, who get a product that is not only easy to use but lovely to interact with.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, JamesBrey, and Flickr, Phil Roeder

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Mashable OP-ED: This post reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of Mashable as a publication.

Google Gmail for the iPhone may have had just an hour or two in the sunlight before Google pulled it, but that was more than enough time for people to decide they hated it. The dislike didn’t discriminate. Users hated the feel, the lack of functionality (only one Gmail account?!) and the buginess. For me, though, I couldn’t stand the look of the thing. So stark, boxy and cold.

Google will solve the feature and bug issues and soon enough the Gmail app will be back on iOS devices. What Google is unlikely to change, though, is the design. Black, white and boring. What happened to Google’s signature use of color, its sense of impish fun? Its name is literally built out of five, bright primary colors. This is the company that regularly brings us wonderfully imaginative Google Doodle logos — which all do wild things with that simple, yet attractive logo. It’s the same company that has some of the most entertaining corporate offices I have ever seen (I took a tour, I know).

Yet, something is happening in the halls of Google. Google’s new design language has, essentially, two words: black and white.

It’s not just this new HTML5-based Gmail that is awash in two-tone colors or that brings sharp edges to Apple’s always curved world. I’m reading Steve Jobs’s biography right now and learned that he hated — HATED — corners. Everything had to be curved. He was obsessed with chamfers. Take a look at your iPhone or iPad and you’ll see that design sensibility. Google, though, is going the other way.

Gmail for the iPhone is all hard lines of black, white and gray. There are thin lines and black bars. The icons are simply reverses on their black backgrounds.There’s just a tiny bit of color and impishness in there, like the use of a 3.5-inch floppy icon for “Save.” Otherwise, it’s the culmination of a trend that’s been running through all of Google’s products for months and accelerating in recent days. The new Google Reader, for example, is white, with gray accents and black type. It’s more open than the old version, but somehow less friendly and inviting.

This week, Google also waved the magic wand of starkness over Gmail for the desktop. No more color, no more bounding boxes. It’s super stark and seems ready to slide apart. If I were making it into a game, I’d put it on a tablet and use the accelerometer to judge just how flat you’re holding the screen. If it tips one way or the other, part of Gmail’s interface simply slides off. Google News was probably the first of Google’s many services to get the decolorization makeover. It used to look a tiny bit like a newspaper layout, but no more. Google Apps are no better. The menu bar in Google+ is pretty much the same. Icons are gray, the discussions float in a sea of white and gray lines. When I do see a colorful icon in any of Google’s products I’m now tempted to throw it a lifeline.

Seriously, who is Google’s interface designer these days, and why has he decided to drain all the fun and life out of every single Google product? Some might argue that this is a return to Google’s roots. Its homepage is still essentially just its logo, a search box and an “I’m Feeling Lucky” search option. I’ve always appreciated that Google didn’t junk that up, but I have grown accustomed to Google’s different looks within its standalone apps and services. Now someone is cracking the whip and shoving them all into monochromatic shape.

It’s not attractive and I’d like it to stop.

What do you think? Do you like Google’s new design language or has Google gone too far? Tell us in the comments.

Detail of Gmail’s Latest Interface

The new desktop version of Gmail is hardly recognizable as the Gmail we once knew.

Click here to view this gallery.

More About: design, Google, google apps, google news, google reader

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1. Skullphabet by Skull-A-Day

Simple and bold, the “Skullphabet” font celebrates with great graphic ghoulishness.

Click here to view this gallery.

Halloween is nearly upon us. If you’re anything like the Mashable crew, you’ve already designed your perfect pumpkin, stockpiled mounds of candy for trick-or-treaters, planned an awesome costume and organized an appropriately ghoulish gathering.

Whether you’re sending out Halloween party invites, creating homemade Halloween cards or designing posters for an eerie event, you need a suitably spooky font.

SEE ALSO: Show Us Your Social Media and Tech Pumpkins [CONTEST]

We’ve found 13 fearsome fonts perfect for All Hallows Eve, and what’s more, they’re all free for personal use. Take a look through the gallery for our spook-tastic selection. Please share in the comments any other great, gruesome examples you’ve come across.

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When you think of web typography, CSS instantly comes to mind. And that’s great, because CSS is the primary option when dealing with the style/visual layer of your website.

However, when you hit a roadblock with CSS, take it up a level by using JavaScript (JS).

Open source JavaScript libraries can help you craft responsive web designs (a technique that optimizes webpage layouts for mobile devices), implement fun text effects and more. In this post, we will primarily focus on JavaScript libraries that use modern web typography techniques to underscore and promote current web design best practices.

1. Kerning.js

Kerning.js is an open source JavaScript library that promises web designers complete control of web typography. According to the developer of the project, Joshua Gross, the library is admittedly a “work in progress.” However, by extending CSS, it doesn’t need JS programming outside of referencing the library in your HTML. Simply use Kerning.js’s custom CSS properties such as -letter-kern and -word-color.

With this excellent JavaScript library, you can achieve a variety of type techniques normally associated with print design and desktop publishing, such as perfect kerning and conditional fallback fonts for your @font-face rules.

See live demo.

Click here to view this gallery.

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Image courtesy of iStockphoto, Punkle

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BuildMobile is looking for talented authors to join it’s team. We’ve got a large demand for a wide range of topics and we simply can’t keep up! If you think you can write on these any of these topics, then get in touch below. Mobile Application Design Small Screen Website Design Responsive Web Design Objective-C for iOS Java for Android jQuery Mobile Zepto.js Backbone.js jQTouch Appcelerator Titanium PhoneGap Sencha Touch Content Strategy on Mobile Mobile News and Events Send your ideas or what you’d like to write about through to us now! It might be worthwhile having a quick read of the About and Contribute sections of BuildMobile. Once you’re set, please email The Editor where fame and fortune awaits!

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