Do you want two letters or not?

June 21, 2013

The frustration of online forms… Again…

I tried to register on a website, and was faced — yet again — with the ‘State’ dilemma (I’ll explain this dilemma later in this post).

In the screen shot below, I’m asked to enter my state or province and the user assistance tells me I can’t enter a city or zip code (really? into a ‘State’ field? who’d have thought?? But I digress…). The user assistance also tells me I can ONLY enter a two-letter state code or abbreviated province. But I’m not 100% sure what that means — only a 2-letter state code, OR an abbreviated province (with only two letters), OR an abbreviated province (with any number of letters). If they mean a two-letter code no matter whether it’s a state or province, then they should have written two-letter state/province abbreviation.


So I don’t enter anything in case the State or Province field changes after I select a country (yes, it happens sometimes). Instead, I go to the next field to select my country. Well, the State field didn’t change to reflect Australian states and territories, but I did get a reddish error message shouting at me telling me that my State must contain a minimum of two characters.


Now I’m REALLY confused. First I’m told ONLY two letters; now I’m told a MINIMUM of two characters (remember, a character could be a letter or number or any other symbols on the keyboard — it’s not necessarily a letter). And I haven’t actually put anything in to the State field yet.

What to do? Well, I think I entered CA for California, which was totally wrong for my selection of Australia as my country, but hey, it worked. Stupid bloody validation rules that no-one has checked!

I wonder how many people outside the US/Canada just give up…. How many sales do they lose every single day by people not completing the form and registering?

Now, to the State dilemma:

  • If you’re trying to reach a global audience — or even just an English-speaking one — then don’t put barriers in the way of people trying to register on your site or buy stuff from you.
  • Not every country has states or provinces. So if you’re wanting to attract people from around the world to your website, service offering etc., then DON’T make State a compulsory field; otherwise you’ll automatically prevent those people (some 6+ billion!) from buying your stuff.
  • Not every country that has states/provinces has two-letter codes or abbreviations for them. For example, Australia has two- and three-letter state abbreviations (NSW, VIC, QLD, SA, NT, TAS, WA, ACT). So don’t assume that every country is like the US/Canada otherwise you’ll p*ss off people who live in other countries as they won’t be able to complete your form and thus won’t buy stuff from you. Or they’ll protest in disgust by not bothering to go any further.
  • Not every two-letter state abbreviation is unique. I live in Western Australia, which is abbreviated to WA. Guess what? The state of Washington in the US is also WA. Yes, I’ve had snail mail go to Washington state looking for me before it came to Australia. If I enter WA on a web form, then it will no doubt be recorded as Washington!
  • Get the user to select their Country FIRST. If you put the State field on the form BEFORE the Country field (which is pretty much how everyone does it, and it’s based on addresses on paper envelopes — isn’t it time we let go of that on the web?), the user may get an error message about what they put in the State field before they can even choose/enter their country. But if you put the Country field first, the State field can be populated with the relevant list of states for the selected country (if the developer/designer has been smart).
  • If State is compulsory, ALWAYS offer an option for the outliers. ‘Outliers’ are the other 6+ billion people in the world who don’t live in the US/Canada! For example, if you let me choose my country, and you also have a compulsory drop-down list of states/provinces, make ONE of the choices something like none or outside the US/Canada or non-US/Canada or international or SOMETHING. Better yet, don’t make State compulsory, but if you have to, then at least have something those who live outside the US/Canada can choose.


  1. There are countries outside of the U.S. that have states too?

  2. Very droll, Pete… Very droll ;-)

  3. I’m firmly in the “give up” camp, I seldom want something badly enough to wrestle with the form. In NZ, we have provinces but they’re completely irrelevant to postage and billing and aren’t typically abbreviated at all.
    I completely agree with you about putting first any field that will change the options in a subsequent field. Yes, I can see that it is comfortable to keep the parallel with historical addressing, but it is so frustrating to wade through a lengthy list of options, find the one that you think is least wrong, and then have it removed completely after you do something else.

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