If you set a limit, then set it properly

September 7, 2011

I needed to report a software installation issue to my client’s IT service desk. If it’s urgent, I’ll call them, but this wasn’t urgent, so I followed protocol and went to their web form to log the issue.

And here’s where it got annoying — the Details field had a limit of 500 characters. They told me so in the user assistance next to the field (thank you!). They also told me after I’d written my description and clicked the Submit button. BUT… I wasn’t prevented from entering more than 500 characters!!

The field let me type in well over 500 characters, and it was only when I clicked Submit that I found I’d exceeded the limit. There was nothing in the error message to tell me how many characters I had entered, so I had no idea how many I had to cull. And when I was typing my issue description into the field, there was no counter to let me know I only had, say 23 characters, left.

Fortunately, I’m familiar with the word and character count function in Word, so I copied my text, pasted it into Word and checked to see how many characters I’d typed — it was some 650. So I culled. Then checked the character count again. And culled some more. Then checked again, and culled more… Until I got to 495 characters. I then copied the text from Word back into the web form and submitted it.

Sheesh! It shouldn’t be that hard!

  • Why did the form allow me to enter more than 500 characters in the first place?
  • What’s with the 500 character limit anyway? That’s only about 70 words, which is not a lot when you’re trying to describe a computer problem.
  • Why didn’t the error message tell me how many characters I’d entered so that I didn’t have to copy the text into another application and find out? How would other employees get on who would have no clue that they could check this in Word?
  • Why didn’t the error message or the user assistance tell me that ‘characters’ included spaces, punctuation and the like? I know this because I’ve worked in and around software companies for the past 20+ years, but many of my client’s employees wouldn’t have a clue (they are oil and gas people, not software people).

So, user assistance is a fine thing and they got full marks for that. But the way that they informed the user that they’d exceeded the character limit needs a lot of work. For starters, the designers of the web form could do one or all of these:

  • stop the user from entering any more characters into the field once they’d hit the 500 character limit
  • implement a progress count of the number of characters entered as the user is typing (e.g. TweetDeck does this for 140-character limit Twitter messages, WordPress does it by number of words at each draft save)
  • tell the user via the error message how many characters they’d entered so they know how many to cull
  • tell the user via the error message and/or the user assistance that ‘characters’ includes spaces, punctuation, etc. as well as letters and numbers
  • reconsider the 500 character limit and increase it to, say, 1000 characters
  • get a technical writer or editor to rewrite the error message so that it’s understandable to non-techies!

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