It’s not rocket science…

November 23, 2010

But from the way some web forms are created — and their error messages — you’d think it was really difficult to get it right.

Medibank Private, the Australian health insurance organization I wrote about the other day, emailed me a link to answer a quick survey about my recent experiences with them. I was happy to do so, but frustrated — yet again — with web form and error message stuff that isn’t rocket science.

In this case, a simple field on a form for my phone number so they could contact me if I was happy to answer any further questions. I duly entered my phone number, using the standard convention in Australia for writing phone numbers — (area_code) <four_numbers> <four numbers>. There was no user assistance on the survey form next to the field to tell me how to format my phone number. So I pressed tab to move to the next field.

And I got this error message:

Hello? Macquarie Dictionary defines a digit as ‘any of the Arabic figures 0, 1 … 9’. I had entered 10 digits, despite what the error message said. Maybe, just maybe, they meant ‘characters’, which are totally different than ‘digits’.

So I removed the parentheses from the area code. Nope. It didn’t like that either and repeated the same error message about ’10 digits’. So I removed the spaces from the phone number and then it accepted my phone number without further complaint.

So, what’s the problem here and how could the survey designer fix it? There are several problems that I can see:

  • It would appear that there was no usability testing of this survey form with real-life, ordinary users. Anyone observing someone trying to complete that field would have realized that there are many ways to enter a phone number, and thus many ways to get it wrong.
  • There was no user assistance next to the field to tell you that you can’t enter spaces, parentheses, dashes etc. — you can only enter one long string of 10 numbers.
  • The designer used an incorrect term in the error message. Digits and characters are two quite different things, so to tell me that I had to enter 10 digits when I had already done so was incorrect.
  • And using ‘digits’? Puh-lease. What about the more understandable term, ‘numbers’? ‘Digit’ might be fine for database designers, but users use ‘numbers’ or perhaps ‘numerals’.
  • Finally, don’t shout at me like I’m an idiot. The error message is in red — that’s enough to tell me you think I’m stupid, so don’t add insult to injury by using upper case text to shout at me too!

How could the survey designer have fixed this form?

  • Add some user assistance text next to the field to show an example of the accepted format (e.g. ‘Enter your 10-digit phone number; do not use spaces or other non-numeric characters. For example: 0712345678.’)
  • Improve the error message: If an error was made after providing the correct format in the user assistance, then repeat those instructions with an error message worded something like this: “Enter 10 numbers with no spaces, dashes, brackets, etc.” In sentence case.

It’s not rocket science…

Update: I wanted to rent a car online for my trip to the US for the WritersUA Conference. Here’s how Dollar deal with phone numbers:

Simple, easy to understand, and no need for an error message if the user follows the instructions/pattern shown to the right of the field.

[Link last checked November 2010]

One comment

  1. Or they could strip out non-numeric characters and see whether what’s left over is Bingo! a 10-digit number.

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