Common form myths

Forms That Work – Questions and Answsers is about how to design forms for the web. It’s a bit vague on tips though, and sometimes even plain clueless.

When answering a question about how to deal with error messages, they say things like “The cursor appears in the ‘error’ field (if technically possible)”. That’s not just clueless about web technology (javascript can put the cursor in any field), it’s even badly thought trough advice (what if you have more than just one error field? Pick the top one one the page?) The advice really seems to come from people who have never designed a form, else they’d discuss things like client side of server side input validation. A bit dissapointing.

Anyways, a few common myths about forms in my experience – I’m sure there’s more:

1. “Client side validation (javascript) is always a good thing.” I’ve found that with certain types of longer forms, it just confuses the user to have popups tell them there are problems with their forms. The user has to scroll up, fix it, scroll down, click submit again, and up comes another warning. That’s frustrating. In cases like that (long, complex forms on one page), it’s better to have server side validation only, and an error page that only shows the incorrect fields, with good explanations.
2. “It’s a web standard to indicate required fields with an asterix * and most people understand that.” No they don’t. I’ve been surprised noticing how many people do not know that a field with an asterix is required. For most forms, I’d recommend (if most fields are required) to put “optional” next to optional fields, or (if most fields are optional) to put “required” next to the required fields. Of course, often you’ll be able to separate them out into separate sections (a required section first, and an optional section later), which is even better for the user.

A common objection to making fields clearly optional, is that it reduces the amount of data the marketing department can work with (these optional fields are usually for marketing purposes). But what are the numbers like? Experimenting with your form, the way it’s worded, the way it’s layed out, can bring a high level of opt-ins even though the information isn’t required. Assuming making things vague will increase the value of your marketing data doesn’t seem right to me.

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