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In my application I have a text field that should display numbers (representing money) ranging from 0 to 999 trillion.

The users of my application are the general public, so displaying a scientific notation such as "1.021356e16" is not acceptable.

What formatting options do I have?

I wouldn't want to display 999,999,999,999,999.00. It's not really readable and would require a large text field, which would waste a lot of space for the majority cases which are lower than 100M.

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What are you trying to represent with the numbers? Their size relative to something else or each other? Absolute values? What accuracy do you need? These things will inform your formatting just as much as readability. –  dhmholley Jul 5 '12 at 9:14
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Since when does the general public not understand scientific notation? Doesn't everyone learn that in, like, 7th grade? –  Rahul Jul 5 '12 at 9:23
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@dhmholley - the number represents money (account balance). the accuracy required is 2 decimal points, and the format is according to the users' locale (i.e. thousands separator, etc.) –  Ami Jul 5 '12 at 9:30
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@Rahul - I think if you ask 100 people on the street what is the number 1.1e10, most of them would not know. I just asked around in my office (which is full of technical people, but not programmers...), 1 out of 4 knew what 1.1e10 is. –  Ami Jul 5 '12 at 9:33
    
@Rahul The research suggests that most people are not very numerate: nationalnumeracy.org.uk/what-the-research-says/index.html and also nrdc.org.uk/projects_details.asp?ProjectID=42 –  dhmholley Jul 5 '12 at 9:35
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4 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

I think (a) * 10^x, e.g. 1.02 * 10^16, is easier for people to read than scientific notation.

Even easier would be to just use the abbreviations for the powers of 1000:

107K
44M
392B
602T
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good suggestion, we'll probably go for displaying large numbers as "38,288M" instead of "38,288,455,321.00" which is the accurate amount. we'll lose accuracy (in display only), but it's much more readable. in mouse over event we can display the full amount. –  Ami Jul 5 '12 at 9:01
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(a) * 10^x is not a notation that a large proportion of the general population will understand, let alone be able to interpret easily. I would suggest avoiding it outside of specialist circles. –  dhmholley Jul 5 '12 at 9:15
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Also, there aren't universally-agreed-upon abbreviations for thousands, millions, billions, etc. (unless you're using SI units of measure, which probably aren't applicable). Provided space is not a concern, write the word out in full as it will aid comprehension. –  dhmholley Jul 5 '12 at 9:17
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Further to @dhmholley's point: almost every style guide I've read (sadly most aren't accessible on the Internet) says to spell out words like "million" and "billion". Also be aware that "billion" may mean a different amount to different people. –  Kit Grose Jul 6 '12 at 3:58
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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

Display the number figuratively, as you expect the user to take it in

e.g. "about 10 billion" maybe with a tooltip of 9,999,999,999

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I would just say on top if your data that all amount are in millions or billions. All government currency data is displayed this way.

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I'm not understanding your answer here. How would you display these numbers? –  JonW Jul 5 '12 at 23:56
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I'd love to see an example, but consider:

  • dymanically changing the size of your text field (I'm assuming it's an editable form field from your description)
  • Displaying a legend for thousands and millions, and use notation in the form
  • If your values are being displayed vertically, align values to the right to allow easier comparison
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