Form Validation Messages - How much is needed?

10 Apr 2008 - 3:28pm
6 years ago
4 replies
862 reads
Don Habas
2008

I'd like to get some feedback on form validation. In my organization (major insurance company), it is necessary to validate the following fields:

For existing and new customers:

- first name (letters only)
- last name (letters only)
- address
- city (only letters)
- state
- zip (only numbers)
- email (correct format is: jsmith at hotmail.com)
- phone (only numbers)

and in some cases:
- SSN
- Date of birth

The question we're struggling with is since most of these fields are very common, how much explanation is needed in the validation messages. For example, do we really need to say that a first name should only contain letters, or is it overkill? (We don't expect 50 Cent to be submitting any forms).
The site is for consumers in the U.S., so we're not concerned about letters in postal codes, etc.

Thanks.

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Comments

11 Apr 2008 - 10:13am
Alexander Baxevanis
2007

I would highlight the field that fails validation and I'd put the
following message next to it:

"This doesn't look like a [first name|last name|city]. Maybe you made
a spelling mistake?"

This should be OK for users that just accidentally pressed a number
key when they were typing. Of course in some cases you will get users
who deliberately attempt to enter junk in some of these fields, but I
can't see why you should give them any more precise explanation.

Just make sure that you cover all cases: names of people and cities
sometimes have apostrophes, dashes, dots etc. and you should accept
that. There's no better way to alienate your users from the beginning
than to discard their name as they choose to spell it.

Regards,
Alex

On Thu, Apr 10, 2008 at 9:28 PM, Don Habas <dhabas1 at yahoo.com> wrote:
> I'd like to get some feedback on form validation. In my organization (major insurance company), it is necessary to validate the following fields:
>
> For existing and new customers:
>
> - first name (letters only)
> - last name (letters only)
> - address
> - city (only letters)
> - state
> - zip (only numbers)
> - email (correct format is: jsmith at hotmail.com)
> - phone (only numbers)
>
> and in some cases:
> - SSN
> - Date of birth
>
> The question we're struggling with is since most of these fields are very common, how much explanation is needed in the validation messages. For example, do we really need to say that a first name should only contain letters, or is it overkill? (We don't expect 50 Cent to be submitting any forms).
> The site is for consumers in the U.S., so we're not concerned about letters in postal codes, etc.
>
> Thanks.
>
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11 Apr 2008 - 11:06am
Jeff Garbers
2008

On Thu, Apr 10, 2008 at 9:28 PM, Don Habas <dhabas1 at yahoo.com> wrote:
> The question we're struggling with is since most of these fields are
> very common, how much explanation is needed in the validation
> message...

On Apr 11, 2008, at 11:13 AM, Alexander Baxevanis wrote:
> I would highlight the field that fails validation and I'd put the
> following message next to it:
>
> "This doesn't look like a [first name|last name|city]. Maybe you
> made a spelling mistake?"

I'd think the message should be as explicit as possible -- if
validation failed because there was a number in the field, the error
should say something like "Sorry, numbers aren't allowed here - please
try again." Alexander's approach is friendlier-sounding, but could
leave users wondering why the data they entered didn't "look like" a
first name. It seems more likely that the user would have
accidentally entered invalid characters, and an explicit message would
be more likely to help them identify what went wrong.

Of course, you may still have issues with users such as this one
mentioned by mathematician / songwriter / satirist Tom Lehrer:

> I am reminded at this point of a fellow I used to know who's name
> was Henry, only to give you an idea of what an individualist he was
> he spelt it HEN3RY. The 3 was silent, you see.

11 Apr 2008 - 10:52am
Matthew Loff
2007

I normally find sign-up forms incredibly irritating-- but Yahoo's is light
years beyond any others I've seen:
https://edit.yahoo.com/registration?.intl=us&new=1

My concern about javascript-driven validation (either entirely on the client
side, or AJAXified) is that it will lead to laziness in developing
validation routines in the back-end process that your browser POSTs the data
to.

*** naive developer: "the form already validated itself-- I should be able
to trust its contents!"

*** paranoid devleper: "what if they have javascript turned off, and their
ZIP code happens to be 'DROP TABLE users' ... ?"

On Fri, Apr 11, 2008 at 11:13 AM, Alexander Baxevanis <
alex.baxevanis at gmail.com> wrote:

> I would highlight the field that fails validation and I'd put the
> following message next to it:
>
> "This doesn't look like a [first name|last name|city]. Maybe you made
> a spelling mistake?"
>

12 Apr 2008 - 12:18pm
Caroline Jarrett
2007

----- Original Message -----
From: "Don Habas" <dhabas1 at yahoo.com>
To: <discuss at ixda.org>
Sent: Thursday, April 10, 2008 9:28 PM
Subject: [IxDA Discuss] Form Validation Messages - How much is needed?

: I'd like to get some feedback on form validation. In my organization (major insurance company), it is necessary to validate the
following fields:
:
<snop - list of fields>
: The question we're struggling with is since most of these fields are very common, how much explanation is needed in the validation
messages. For example, do we really need to say that a first name should only contain letters, or is it overkill? (We don't expect
50 Cent to be submitting any forms).
: The site is for consumers in the U.S., so we're not concerned about letters in postal codes, etc.

I agree with Alexander's general approach, that is to place a message next to the problematic field with a description of what the
problem is.

I also agree with Jeff's point that you should be explicit about what the problem is.

I recommend that you put a general message at the top with a list of each problematic field and its error immediately below it,
preferably with each message linking to the error further down. This helps people who have to read/scan with magnifiers, and I've
also seen it help other people as well.

The general tone of the messages should be "help us to help you". I've seen errors like "oops, you made a mistake" when in fact it
was "no, oops, your programmer/developer/specifier made a mistake and forgot that even in the US people may have names like O'Hara
or John-Francis." Much better to say: "We're sorry, our system can't process a name with this character in it: ~. Please try again"
(or whatever the problem might be).

(Irrelevant aside, because you're designing for the U.S.: over here in England we have a town with "!" in its name: "Westward Ho!"
That's one to test the address process).

Best,

Caroline Jarrett

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