The Best Place for Error Messages on Forms

Where are you placing the error messages on your form? If they’re not placed where users expect to see them, you could jeopardize their capability to complete your form.


Where are you placing the error messages on your form? If they’re not placed where users expect to see them, you could jeopardize their capability to complete your form.

When users make mistakes, they need to understand what those mistakes are so they can correct them and re-submit the form. They want to complete your form, but if doing so takes too much effort they’ll change their minds.

Top of Form Validation Vs. Inline Validation

The two most common placements for error messages are at the top of the form and inline with erroneous fields. Which placement is more intuitive for users?

A research study discovered that displaying all error messages at the top of the form puts a high cognitive load on user memory. This forces users to recall each error message for each erroneous field.

error_message-comparison

The approach that reduced the user’s cognitive load was displaying error messages inline with erroneous fields. Inline validation relies on recognition instead of recall so users can correct their mistakes faster and easier.

Another study found “the distance between the erroneous field and error message influences the efficiency of error correction”. Top of form and bottom of form validation resulted in the longest amount of time to initiate correction, while inline validation resulted in the shortest.

Top of form and bottom of form validation also resulted in the highest error rates, longest completion times, and the least user satisfaction. Bottom of form validation had the lowest error correction success rate compared to top of form and all inline validation locations.

User Preference of Error Message Locations

The study proved placing error messages inline with the erroneous fields lead to the best performance. It also showed which location next to the field was the most intuitive.

error_message-preference

Users rated which error message location they found most satisfying. There was a strong user preference and expectation for right of the field placement.

Error messages placed to the left of the field were rated the worst. Error messages placed above the field caused the highest cognitive load followed by error messages below the field.

Why Right of the Field Is Best

It’s important to understand why placing error messages to the right of field is preferred and expected. This way designers can better educate others about how users behave when making design decisions.

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The western reading system goes from left to right. When users move their eyes from the input to the error message, it feels like a natural progression that requires little mental and visual effort. Moving their eyes from the error message back to input for correction also follows the natural flow for rereading text.

Why Left of the Field Is Worst

Placing error messages to the left of the field goes against the western reading system. Users move their eyes in the opposite direction of their natural reading flow when the error message appears. Instead of a natural progression, it feels unnatural and is suboptimal when users want to complete the form.

error_message-left

It also feels counter-intuitive because users expect higher priority elements to be on the left side. Placing the error message on the left makes it more important than the field. But the field is more important because users need to focus on it to correct their input.

Why Above the Field Increases Cognitive Load

Users experience a higher cognitive load with error messages above the field (i.e. forms with top aligned labels). This is caused by a combination of the error message and field label text that confuses users.

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The close proximity of the two texts creates visual noise that distracts users when they’re trying to read the error message or the label. Seeing both texts in their field of vision makes it difficult to concentrate on just one of them and can confuse them.

Best Error Message Location for Mobile Forms

Mobile screens lack the horizontal space to display an error message and field side by side. This means error messages to the right of the field is not the best location on mobile forms.

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Instead, place your error messages below the field. This was users second most preferred location in the study. Although it doesn’t correspond with the user’s natural left to right reading flow, it does correspond with their natural top to bottom reading flow.

When users read text, they move their eyes left to right going down a page. Error messages below the field feel less awkward than above the field because it follows their vertical reading progression.

Placing the error message too close to the field label below it can increase cognitive load when users read the text. You can prevent this by separating them with enough spacing.

Right of Field Vs. Below Field: Which Is Best?

Both to the right of the field and below the field are optimal locations for error messages. But which placement should you use? This depends on how much work you’re able to do.

If you want the placement that takes less time to implement for desktop and mobile devices, opt for error messages below the field. Implementing them for desktops will make them usable for mobile devices as well.

If you have time to implement error messages for both devices, opt for placing them to the right of the field on desktop and below the field for mobile devices. Not only will error messages to the right aid user scanning better, but it also results in a shorter form length.

Intuitive Error Message Placement

Follow these practices and place your error messages where users expect to see them. Error messages should correspond with user reading flow, so errors take less cognitive effort to correct.

When users work and think less, they’re able to complete your form faster. No one enjoys filling out forms. The faster you help users get through it, the sooner they can move on to what they really want to do.


Why Users Make More Errors with Instant Inline Validation

Designers who use instant inline validation are slowing users down from completing the form. Inline validation displays error messages inline with its offending field.


Designers who use instant inline validation are slowing users down from completing the form.

Inline validation displays error messages inline with its offending field. When this is done before users submit the form, it causes them to make more errors and takes them longer to complete the form.

Validating Fields Before Submission

Two research studies, one with 77 participants and the other with 90 participants, concluded users made significantly more errors completing a form if error messages were presented the moment a user filled out an erroneous field.

validation-pre_submission

Even though users had the chance to correct their errors immediately, they ignored the error messages. Users continued to fill out the form and encountered more error messages when they submitted the form. Error messages presented pre-submission frustrated users in the study.

This finding proves validating fields before submission causes users to make more errors, and more errors leads to user frustration. It’s more favorable to have a low error rate on your form, so users don’t spend a long time to complete it. The slower it takes to complete the form the more frustrated they’ll get, which can lead them to abandon the form.

Validating Fields After Submission

In contrast, the study discovered users made fewer errors when error messages were presented after they pressed the submit button.

validation-post_submission

This finding can be explained by understanding the different modes users enter when completing a form. Users enter completion mode when they initiate a form. They’re focused on filling out each field regardless of making mistakes. After filling out each field, they switch to revision mode and are then focused on correcting errors.

Switching attention back and forth from completion to revision mode interrupts and splits the user’s focus of attention. A split and interrupted focus cause users to think more and make more errors leading to longer completion times.

Users prefer to focus on one task mode at a time because it allows them to complete the form faster. Attention to one task mode impairs their attention to the other task mode. When their full attention is focused only on completion or revision, they have more mental resources they can commit to that task mode.

Change Blindness

Validation pre-submission can cause change blindness in users. Users tend to ignore error messages when they’re in completion mode. When they do this and press the submit button, any new error messages that appear will likely be missed. It’s harder for users to detect a visual change to the form when it’s already populated with error messages.

Validation post submission prevents change blindness because users progress from an errorless form to a form with errors. This gives users a prominent visual change that indicates their submission attempt was performed.

Exceptional Fields to the Rule

Inline validation post submission isn’t suitable for every type of field. Username and password fields need to be validated pre-submission because they have the strictest input requirements. If these fields were validated post submission, it would take users an excessive amount of submissions to enter a valid input.

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Users often choose usernames that are already claimed by other users. Finding an available username would require multiple input attempts.

Password fields have many character rules for user security. Meeting each character rule would also require multiple input attempts.

Inline validation pre-submission is not only for the username and password field, but any field with the strictest input requirements.

Validate Fields After Users Submit the Form

Inline validation post submission minimizes completion times, form errors, and user frustration. Designers need to stop validating fields before the user submits the form if they want to improve these benchmarks.

Validating fields after form submission matches the mental model of how users fill out forms. Users want to complete the form as quick as possible and will behave in ways that allow them to do so. Make sure you’re validating your fields when users are in revision mode, not completion mode, otherwise you’ll slow them down.