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Previous Posts

Form fields: Place captions outside; use default styling

Monday, July 31, 2006  

Intranet designers sometimes place captions for form fields inside the field in an attempt to conserve screen real estate. For example, instead of putting the caption "Search intranet" to the left or on top of the search box, they put it inside. Don't do this.

Last month I ran user testing on a proposed intranet design that used this style on all input boxes. It repeatedly caused problems for the predominantly over-40 test group. For example, instead of entering a query in the search input box, they just hit the "Go" button beside the box, assuming it would take them to a page where they could enter the query.

Here’s a graphic to demonstrate the issue more clearly:

Screenshot: Place captions outside of form fields

On a related note, designers are often tempted to stylize form fields and buttons to match their colour palette or to add visual interest to a page. Be very careful here. It's vital that users recognize form elements as such. Messing with the browser defaults is risky. I think form elements are best when they're:
  • Big
  • Three-dimensional
  • Default colouring
Again, here's a visual to illustrate the point:

Screenshot: Use default colouring for forms

About the Author

I'm Chris McGrath, an intranet consultant in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I've been working on intranets since 1997, and on plain ol' web sites for even longer. I run One Intranets, the firm that co-created ThoughtFarmer -- an enterprise collaboration platform for Windows-based intranets.