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Jeff Johnson <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Jeff Johnson <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 31 May 2007 10:43:06 -0700
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Anastasia Fischer wrote:
>I have a client with a web app full of long forms. Many of the 
>selection boxes have been set to no default
>as the client wants the user to 'consciously' select a value. 
>However it is also clear that in most of these
>cases there is an obvious default value that gets selected 80% of 
>the time (80/20 rule).
>Any opinions/thoughts on this? I always opt in favor of efficiency, 
>but in this case the client wants to go
>the other direction....

Normally, computer/Web users prefer forms to set defaults wherever 
sensible defaults are available, because the typical user likes to be 
able to just scan the form, change only a few things, and submit the 
form.  The operative design principle is: "Design to allow users to 
do a little to get a lot."

So, for example, if someone were registering to join the San 
Francisco Bay Area chapter of ACM, it would make sense to default the 
State drop-down menu to California.

When 99+% of users will choose one particular option, you are just 
wasting their time (or annoying them) by forcing them to set an 
option explicitly.  This is even more true when a form contains 
*many* fields for which reasonable defaults could be set.  Want to 
really annoy (and maybe even lose) customers?  Force them to read 
through a form to spot and explicitly set a bunch of settings that 
the system could set for them.

However, there are situations where there is no reasonable default, 
or where a default would be problematic.  E.g., if someone is 
registering online to join the ACM, there is no sensible default for 
State.  On a Canadian government form, it would be a faux pas to 
default the Language dropdown to English, even if most users choose 

Count the total number of non-defaulted settings.  If the form has 
many, you have a problem.
I recommend trying to whittle down the number of settings that have 
no default.  For each setting, assess:
a) whether there is a reasonable default and how likely it is that a 
given user would choose that,
b) whether there is any business, legal, political, or social reason 
why no default should be provided,
c) whether the field is "required", meaning that if the user chooses 
nothing the system will either display an error message or assume 
something anyway, or "non-required", meaning that a null response 
just means "did not state".
d) what the impact is of requiring users to set the setting explicitly.

Required settings that you decide won't have defaults should be 
placed prominently, e.g., all at the top of the form or highlighted 
near the submit button, to make them hard to miss.

Details on this and related issues are covered in the Form Bloopers 
chapter of my Web Bloopers book (Morgan Kaufmann, 2003).  See also:
- Faulty Defaults:
- Evil Defaults:

Anne Deputter wrote:
>  But we have a similar problem with mandatory check boxes. The check box
>  has two states (yes/no).  How can we make sure the user meant really
>  "No" and didn't just forget to check the box?  Should we then use a drop
>  down for Yes, No and use "None" as a default value?

Radiobuttons with no default value need an even stronger 
justification than dropdown menus with no default menu.  Dropdown 
menus can easily have a "no value yet" setting, and users can set the 
menu back to that if they want to.  Radiobutton groups in which none 
of the radiobuttons are checked are a real usability problem because 
it is difficult, if not impossible, for users to return them to the 
initial state.  A set of radiobuttons should represent a one-from-N 
choice, not a zero-or-one-from-N choice.  Therefore, if a 
non-defaulted choice is presented as radiobuttons, the no-choice 
option really should be represented as an explicit choice.  But that 
consumes space and complicates forms, so designers often don't do it, 
causing the "can't return to nothing" problem.

Again, this is covered in Web Bloopers.

Jeff Johnson, Ph.D.
UI Wizards, Inc.
Product Usability Consulting

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