Marking Required vs. Optional form fields

10 Jul 2008 - 11:27am
5 years ago
7 replies
4387 reads
Marty DeAngelo
2007

When creating a form, do you feel that it is more advantageous to mark
the required fields, even if they are in the majority? I ask because
I'm working on some guidelines for a client, and there is some debate
about which way to go with this. After reading Luke Wroblewski's book,
"Web Form Design: Filling In the Blanks", I have to agree with his
sentiment about indicating the MINORITY of the form elements:

FROM 'Web Form Design': "Many times there actually are
good reasons for indicating what is required when updating or creating a
record online. In particular, when a Web form has lots of input fields
but only a few of them are required, indicating what has to be answered
can be quite useful...

"Conversely, indicating which input fields are optional
is useful when most questions require an answer but a few do not.
Neither indicator is particularly useful when the input fields are
either all required or all optional. In these circumstances, indicating
required or optional fields adds unnecessary information to the form
that people then have to pause and consider.

"Similarly, indicating the majority case (most input
fields are required or optional) versus the minority case (just a few
input fields are required or optional) increases the amount of
information that overlies a form."

I am trying to make the argument that in a form where all of the fields
are required, or that 9 of 10 are required, indicating the OPTIONAL
fields makes more sense to the user - they have to take in less
information/aren't as distracted by the numerous red asterisks all over
the form. The other side of the discussion feels that required fields
should ALWAYS be marked regardless of any other factors (even if they
are ALL required).

I'd love to get some feedback and any research other than Luke's to
support one direction or the other. Thanks!

Marty DeAngelo
User Experience Lead | D I G I T A S H E A L T H
229 South 18th Street | Rittenhouse Square | Philadelphia, PA 19103 |
USA
Email: mdeangel [@t] digitashealth [d0t} com | www.digitashealth.com

Comments

12 Jul 2008 - 12:14pm
Caroline Jarrett
2007

> After reading Luke Wroblewski's book,
> "Web Form Design: Filling In the Blanks",
> I have to agree with his sentiment about
> indicating the MINORITY of the form elements:

This is one of very few (and possibly, the only) point where I
disagree with Luke. And perhaps, I don't even completely disagree.

My experience has been that very few users pay any attention to the
required field markers. Those who do tend to be highly internet-savvy,
and they also tend to look first of all to see where the asterisks
are. An acceptable alternative is using some distinct, small,
asterisk-like graphic (I'm assuming appropriate handling for screen
readers etc). They interpret these asterisks or whatever as meaning
'required field'. What they don't do is look for the instruction that
tells them what the indicator is signifying on this form.

If you mark optional rather than required, you're trying to work
against this automatic behaviour. That's rarely a good thing to do.

The place where I don't completely disagree is this: if you do mark
optional fields, then use the text "(optional)". That is, spell the
word out rather than using a graphic indicator. This lessens the
probability that your indicator is misinterpreted.

The only really sensible way to resolve this issue is to ensure that
all your fields seem appropriate and non-invasive within the context
of what the user is trying to do and what is expected within a
transaction of this type. Then it doesn't really matter how you decide
to mark them. Unfortunately, making your fields appropriate is a much
harder problem than deciding which indicator to use.

best,

Caroline Jarrett
caroline.jarrett at effortmark.co.uk
07990 570647

Effortmark Ltd
Usability - Forms - Content

We have moved. New address:
16 Heath Road
Leighton Buzzard
LU7 3AB

12 Jul 2008 - 10:59pm
Jared M. Spool
2003

On Jul 10, 2008, at 12:27 PM, Marty DeAngelo wrote:

> I'd love to get some feedback and any research other than Luke's to
> support one direction or the other.

Wrote about this here, years ago: http://tinyurl.com/bae8r

I agree with Caroline.

Basically, it's ok, but don't use asterisks to mean optional. Find
another treatment (like the word "Optional") to make it obvious.

Jared

Jared M. Spool
User Interface Engineering
510 Turnpike St., Suite 102, North Andover, MA 01845
e: jspool at uie.com p: +1 978 327 5561
http://uie.com Blog: http://uie.com/brainsparks

14 Jul 2008 - 7:47am
Marty DeAngelo
2007

Caroline,

We weren't thinking about using the asterisk to indicate the optional
fields - we were considering either having the big "(Optional)" after
the legend or maybe an alternate icon (I was leaning against that
because who knows what an 'field optional' icon looks like?).

My concern is that if 9 out of 10 items are required, then those 9 red
asterisks create more noise in the form. I would rather try to call out
the ONE field which isn't required but necessary to include, such as Apt
# or Suite #.

Make sense?

-----Original Message-----
From: Caroline Jarrett [mailto:caroline.jarrett at effortmark.co.uk]
Sent: Saturday, July 12, 2008 1:15 PM
To: Marty DeAngelo; discuss at ixda.org
Subject: Re: [IxDA Discuss] Marking Required vs. Optional form fields

> After reading Luke Wroblewski's book,
> "Web Form Design: Filling In the Blanks",
> I have to agree with his sentiment about
> indicating the MINORITY of the form elements:

This is one of very few (and possibly, the only) point where I
disagree with Luke. And perhaps, I don't even completely disagree.

My experience has been that very few users pay any attention to the
required field markers. Those who do tend to be highly internet-savvy,
and they also tend to look first of all to see where the asterisks
are.

best,
Caroline Jarrett

15 Jul 2008 - 4:41am
Caroline Jarrett
2007

From: "Marty DeAngelo" <mdeangel at digitashealth.com>

> We weren't thinking about using the asterisk to indicate the
> optional fields - we were considering either having the big
> "(Optional)" after
the legend or maybe an alternate icon (I was leaning against that
because who knows what an 'field optional' icon looks like?).

> My concern is that if 9 out of 10 items are required, then those 9
> red asterisks create more noise in the form. I would rather try to
> call out
the ONE field which isn't required but necessary to include, such as
Apt # or Suite #.

> Make sense?

Sure. I'm OK with indicating the optional field with the text
"(Optional)".

Just one concern: it's not really about the number of required fields,
it's the invasiveness of those fields and whether they are appropriate
in the context. Sometimes you'll need more than merely an indication
(or absence of it), you'll need a full explanation of (say) why a
street address is required for a purely electronic transaction.

If every field is appropriate, then indeed the red asterisks are more
noise - although I'd consider replacing them with small, discreet
body-font colour asterisks instead, for those web-savvy users who
specifically look for such things.

best,

Caroline Jarrett
caroline.jarrett at effortmark.co.uk
07990 570647

Effortmark Ltd
Usability - Forms - Content

We have moved. New address:
16 Heath Road
Leighton Buzzard
LU7 3AB

13 Jul 2008 - 2:34am
Mahmoud NAJJAR
2008

I agree with Caroline.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Posted from the new ixda.org
http://www.ixda.org/discuss?post=31241

15 Jul 2008 - 9:53am
Mudit Mittal
2007

Hi all,

I recently designed a form for a banking application where I marked optional
fields as (Optional) with reduced font size (2 pts less). I've used the same
form language to add instructions to some complex/confusing labels, where
required.

Just seeking an opinion on the approach I took.

Regards,
Mudit Mittal
--
www.graffiteria.co.in
[m] +91 99 204 80802
[e ] mittal.mudit at gmail.com

18 Aug 2008 - 7:29pm
Erin Walsh
2007

I'm very late coming to the party, my apologies...

That said, we recently did similar prototype testing on several
search forms with a mixture of required and optional fields. On the
team we were split on the best approach, so we tried to distinct
methods: one with optional spelled out, the other with those fields
having a different visual indicator. Though the sample size was
limited, the "Optional" won hands-down. Remarkably, some
participants even commented on how much they liked that it said
"optional right there".

I know our UI team was not thrilled, but it was extremely
advantageous to spell it out rather than use an icon or other visual
indicators.

Hope this helps,
Erin

erin walsh | product developer | For Rent Media Solutions™
150 granby street, 16th floor | norfolk, va 23510
p:757.351.8444 | f:757.961.4827
erin.walsh at ForRent.com| www.FRMediaSolutions.com

You Have Multiple Marketing Needs... We Have Multiple Solutions!

On Jul 14, 2008, at 8:47 AM, Marty DeAngelo wrote:

Caroline,

We weren't thinking about using the asterisk to indicate the optional
fields - we were considering either having the big "(Optional)" after
the legend or maybe an alternate icon (I was leaning against that
because who knows what an 'field optional' icon looks like?).

My concern is that if 9 out of 10 items are required, then those 9 red
asterisks create more noise in the form. I would rather try to call out
the ONE field which isn't required but necessary to include, such as Apt
# or Suite #.

Make sense?

-----Original Message-----
From: Caroline Jarrett [mailto:caroline.jarrett at effortmark.co.uk]
Sent: Saturday, July 12, 2008 1:15 PM
To: Marty DeAngelo; discuss at ixda.org
Subject: Re: [IxDA Discuss] Marking Required vs. Optional form fields

> After reading Luke Wroblewski's book,
> "Web Form Design: Filling In the Blanks",
> I have to agree with his sentiment about
> indicating the MINORITY of the form elements:

This is one of very few (and possibly, the only) point where I
disagree with Luke. And perhaps, I don't even completely disagree.

My experience has been that very few users pay any attention to the
required field markers. Those who do tend to be highly internet-savvy,
and they also tend to look first of all to see where the asterisks
are.

best,
Caroline Jarrett
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