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Explain, with examples

If a field is required, say so.

Explain why you want the information

Label those fields

How should I enter a date, or create a new password, so your system accepts it? What do you mean, province? Do I really have to fill in this second address line?

Silly questions. Stupid users, right?

No--stupid interface.

You can smarten up the interface by having it explain exactly how to enter information.

Explain, with examples

Take the date, for example. A weak attempt to explain what the program expects is the old-fashioned but ugly expression, "MM/DD/YYYY", left over from ancient mainframe applications.

You have room to say you want the month, day, and year, in that order, and you can give an example, so people don't accidentally confuse the software by entering March when the programmers expected "3" or, worse, "03."

Please enter month, day, year, like this: 3/25/2002
Notice that we are also trying to make the interface polite. As your mother told you, well-brought-up writers say "Please" and "Thank you," even in these labels.

Related articles

Creating customer assistance that actually helps, from Hot Text: Web Writing that Works (2002, PDF, 993K, or about 18 minutes at 56K)

Writing in a genre (Full chapter from Hot Text, in PDF, 770K, or about 13 minutes at 56K)

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) from Hot Text (PDF, 995K, or about 18 minutes at 56K)

 If a field is required, say so.

I know, the marketing team worries that saying "Required" over and over again sounds authoritarian, and it is.

But you need to make sure that users don't inadvertently miss a field, and then press Submit only to be bounced back to the form, with an error message like "Illegal input. Retry."

(And, in some cases, all the data has been wiped out of the form, so the user has to type it all in again).

Marking required fields with red asterisks is a start in the right direction, but, alas, many people ignore those little punctuation marks. A verbal label, saying "Required" reenforces those fuzzy marks.

If you reject someone's form because they have not filled out a required field, highlight the field, for gosh sakes. (And preserve all the data they already entered, so they do not have to retype, and retype, while trying to enter enough information to pass through your validation process.)

Explain why you want the information

If you suspect people will wonder why you are asking for some unusual or embarrassing fact, give a parenthetical explanation.

If you are asking for a visitor's mother's maiden name, say why: "So we can make sure it's you calling, if you want to check your account or change your password over the phone."

Yes, a lot of words. But more words equal more reassurance, here.

Generally, any request that you have to explain belongs on a secure server, and you should be constantly--over and over--stressing that the information will be protected. Make a big deal of your secure server. At least once on every form page, down by the Submit button, state your privacy policy in a sentence, to allay fears, and encourage that final click.

Design the interface as if the product will have no documentation.
--Andrea Ames

Now let's see, I inserted Leg M into Slot M, but...

 

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