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Which would be the more readable way to format negative numbers:

  • -$99.99
  • ($99.99)
  • Some other format I haven't considered

Details: Most of our user base has finance experience and but some have none at all. We don't deal with international currencies and it's a web application so I don't know of anyway to get the user's system settings.

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Maybe color them red, so the negatives will stand out. –  Marcos Crispino Oct 7 '10 at 15:27

4 Answers 4

up vote 26 down vote accepted

My wife is a Certified General Accountant, so I asked her about this question.

The standard accounting way is always to show negative numbers in parentheses. If you want to appeal to primarily financial professionals, that's the accepted practice.

She also cautions against using red or drawing attention to a negative number. Highlighting a number necessarily draws attention to it, but negative numbers are a normal part of bookkeeping and financial statements. Unless you have a specific reason for drawing attention to a particular number, it's best not to make it stand out. If you're highlighting a number that is completely normal (even if it is negative), you can actually damage readability and usability. The user has to stop and think, why is this number different or special? At best, highlight situationally and only when it makes sense.

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VitiousiMedia's point about only showing the number in red when it's not suppose to be negative is very important and deserves credit for the answer. We'll evaluate each number individually to determine if negative is "normal" or not. We will also be using the "-$ (#.##)" format from Daniel's answer below. I'd give dual credit, but I don't know how. –  jColeson Oct 7 '10 at 18:14
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@Jared - I'd be very careful about formatting that way. If the majority of your userbase is composed of financial professionals, they won't like it and it could provide confusion as it's not how they're used to seeing negative numbers. I'd highly, highly recommend that you do user testing for this from a representative sample of your users. If you simply must have both, make how negative numbers are displayed an option that can be set and then choose parentheses as the default. If you use both parentheses and the negative sign, all of your users will be confused instead of just one subset. –  Virtuosi Media Oct 7 '10 at 18:26
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+1 to VirtuosiMedia for saying "ask your users" without actually saying it and +1 to his wife for throwing in some usability advice. :-) –  Patrick McElhaney Oct 7 '10 at 18:45
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Fantastic answer that could only be given by someone with knowledge in the domain. Proves yet again that most answers on this site based purely on opinion aren't as good as just doing research. –  Rahul Oct 7 '10 at 19:49
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This is a case where it really matters what your target market is. If it's financial professionals, if they see any other format than (##.##), they'll hesitate using the app because they'll perceive it as being consumer-oriented, not business-focused. They may also question how other areas of your app meet their needs. If your market is people with little or no financial or business experience, it might be better to have the negative sign as the parenthesis could give them the impression that it is too complicated. Either is fine, but there is no substitute for knowing your market. –  Virtuosi Media Oct 7 '10 at 23:18

Microsoft Excel displays negative currency in the following format: $ (#.##)

Since some of your users have some financial experience, I would recommend the following format in red: -$ (#.##)

That way, users of all types are most likely to immediately recognize this is a negative number.

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-$(#.##) is a double negative - not the rightway to do it –  rickyduck Sep 16 '13 at 13:22

If most of your user base has finance experience, then go with ($99.99). It is pretty standard in the U.S. Caveat: I have no idea what is common or standard outside the U.S.

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Never seen that notation before so I'm guessing it's a local thing... but it got me curious runs off to accounting and I'm up-voting the "use locale settings" answer instead ;) –  Oskar Duveborn Oct 8 '10 at 9:27

I realize this is a bit old, but it appears that the 'answer' is -($#.##) ??? I was looking for a clear -$ -$ for non accounting here, but this struck me as odd.

I agree with the localization 'answer' and RED as not inherent to 'negativity' as well. But generally, (aside from the numeric and decimal placeholder), a set of () in finance/accounting denotes a negative number.

This holds true in [North] America, as well as [Europe] (at least France, dont j'en sais un peu, donc je dirais que c'est probablement également la même partout pour la comptabilité).

Thus I have to strongly concur with @VirtuosiMedia you are creating a CONFUSING display.

With both a - and (), you are using TWO formats.

Use only one or the other.

When I see both used together, I immediately think

1) Bad formatting
2) Double negative (...equals a positive number)...

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Honestly I don't even remember what application this questions was for anymore, but I'm fairly certain after Virtuosi Media's comment we did just implement ($#.##). I just forgot to come back and comment as such. Thanks for pointing it out! –  jColeson Apr 8 '13 at 14:42

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