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When writing help or validation messages on a form I usually write something along the lines of:

  • "This field is required"
  • "5 fields need to be corrected on this form"
  • etc

Is the term field too technical or is it a widely understood by the general public/users of tinternet?

Are there any better alternatives?

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20  
It's always good to question stuff like this that otherwise would just be presumed as true. 'Well off course people understand it... I think' –  JonW Jan 23 at 10:09
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I have always wondered why people actually call it "field". –  Bart Gijssens Jan 23 at 10:51
    
Maybe ask english.stackexchange.com @Bart? –  Liam Jan 23 at 10:56
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Saved you the effort @BartGijssens –  Liam Jan 23 at 10:59
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For me it's not so much that the term "field" is too technical, but that there are much better alternatives easily available "Please enter your name", "Your name is required", etc. –  Iain Galloway Jan 23 at 13:53
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7 Answers

up vote 42 down vote accepted

In short yes - unless you are dealing with a technical audience.

Instead, refer to what is required in this case. If it's name, say 'Your name is required'.

One useful bit of advice that all UX people should stick to is 'decode your language'. That means remove technical jargon and get rid of code names for projects and abbreviations. Many UX people coming from a technical background have a big problem with this as it goes against most of their programming instincts.

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I agree with the intuition here, but it doesn't deal well with the second example "5 fields need to be corrected on this form". You sometimes end up with long lists (in red, often :( ) at the top of the page of all the things you're missing, which is also a bit discouraging. Synonyms like item, spot, area, piece of info, etc. could work better for that example but I haven't found one that fully convinces me. –  amp Jan 23 at 16:55
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Can you please provide some evidence for your point of view? Frankly, I'm not convinced that "field" is an intimidatingly technical term for the typical Internet user. –  Kevin Jan 23 at 17:08
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I don't have evidence that I can share but in order to convince yourself I would suggest testing the term with users. No matter how experienced I am the users will answer your particular question with more authority. I can only say that field is not something I would not expect to test well with users. Other terms like 'Radio Button' would have a similar response even though we know the term well. –  Stewart Dean Jan 23 at 17:24
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Amp - in the case of you have multiple fields failing you still don't need to say fields. You can say 'Please check below for missing or incorrect information.' or 'The information marked in read is either missing or incorrect'. –  Stewart Dean Jan 23 at 17:26
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I won't downvote this answer, but I did upvote an alternative. At one level I can kind-of agree that avoiding "field" in some cases might be better, I think that most people have seen it used enough to understand it by now. –  TecBrat Jan 23 at 17:59
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A "field" wouldn't just apply to the internet (or technical manifestations of forms).

Any form where the user fills in spaces contains "fields" and it's common on paper forms (such as application forms, tax return forms, etc.) to see text such as *Please complete all the fields marked with a * *, etc.

So I'd say this is a widely used term in the "real world". So the use of the term "fields" in this scenario would be generally accepted and makes perfect sense.

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I think you'll find the average user doesn't know what 'feilds' mean even if your peers do. Be careful of assumed knowledge in UX. –  Stewart Dean Jan 23 at 12:33
    
Could you post some evidence (like a reference to a UX study) to support your view? –  Kevin Jan 23 at 17:10
    
Sorry nothing I can share. –  Stewart Dean Jan 23 at 17:18
    
Interestingly, no definition of "field" in the Oxford English Dictionary matches what you describe here, so my suspicion is that this is a back-formation from the computer-related meaning (which in the OED's definition is specifically restricted to use as computer terminology). This is therefore probably a new meaning, and perhaps not widely understood. The only relevant def. is "III.15.f Computers. A set of one or more characters in a record, or a group of columns on a punched card, which together represent a single item of information; an item of information that can be so represented." –  Jules Jan 24 at 14:40
    
(That's from the 2009 version of the OED CDROM, which includes changes that had been prepared up until that year) –  Jules Jan 24 at 14:44
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The term "field" is not sufficient on it's own without context - we should strive to reduce surprise for our users by filling in the context for a term that could arguably be considered 'technical.'

"Field errors, Last Name, SSN, Home Phone are required." doesn't do any good to explain what the user should do - and really what the heck a 'field' error is.

"The form is incomplete, please fill out the following fields before submitting the form: Last Name, SSN, and Home Phone." (emphasis added) - This is a message that puts enough context to the term 'field' that it is easily understood, even if the term itself is unknown to the user.

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This doesn't answer the specific question on the use of 'field' –  Dave Haigh Jan 23 at 20:24
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@DaveHaigh Question: "Is the term 'field' too technical when giving messages on a form?" Answer: "The term 'field' is not sufficient on it's own without context..." Can you indicate how that fails to answer the question? –  EtherDragon Jan 23 at 22:21
    
fair point I take that back. re reading your answer I take from it that you think the term 'field' is acceptable if used in conjunction with further explanatory texts, I misread it previously –  Dave Haigh Jan 24 at 10:08
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According to this report from the Nielsen Norman Group,

Our report on designing websites for senior citizens includes the following usability guideline:

"If using web or browser-related terms, consider defining them in place. Avoid using them if they are not necessary." [emphasis theirs, not mine]

[...]

Many users today understand standard web-related terms. But, in this study, many seniors were unsure about web terminology, such as page, homepage, website, or the web.

[...]

Some of the points and questions seniors made about web-related terms:

  • “Is this a website or a web page? I don’t know the difference.”
  • “I don’t know what ‘URL’ means. What is that?”
  • “I don’t always know exactly what the word ‘web’ means.”
  • “Is the homepage part of a website?”
  • Another user couldn’t find an item on a particular page and said, “I don’t think I see it under this site.”

If these users were being confused by terms like "web page" and "URL," it's likely they'd be confused by a word like "field." So, if you're expecting a significant number of your users to be seniors or inexperienced with computers, this report suggests that it would be best to avoid that word.

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thanks for that, interesting read. I agree when dealing with a large number of non-techy users even the simplest of technical terms can be misunderstood. any suggestion for alternatives to the word field? I know about inline messages and referring to specific fields e.g. "Enter a valid email address" but there may be occasions when I need an alternative to 'field' –  Dave Haigh Jan 23 at 17:35
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The thing is I can think of no scenario where saying "field" would feel better than actually specifying what informations you are referring to.

(EDIT: as discussed in the comments, whether such an alternative actually exists in every scenario is another question)

So is it okay to be lazy instead of being precise about the thing you are talking about?

Well, no.

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How would you word the following? "5 fields need to be corrected on this form" –  Dave Haigh Jan 23 at 14:16
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Please fill the following informations:, following with — guess what — the 5 missing informations. –  Arlaud Pierre Jan 23 at 14:17
    
fill or correct. In fact the things needed to be changed are so vague that you can't afford not to be precise. What will a user think if you say "1 field needs to be corrected" and he has no idea which one is it? Or what the actual correction is (why it's failing)? –  Arlaud Pierre Jan 23 at 14:19
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Just commenting to note that "missing informations" isn't proper English. You'd probably say "missing pieces of information", "missing responses" or "missing entries". –  Jamie Bull Jan 23 at 14:52
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@JamieBull "information" is one of those weird collective-plural words, so "missing information" is also valid for referring generically to multiple fields. Only when adding a specific number do you need to switch to one of those. –  Izkata Jan 23 at 15:29
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As @Liam pointed out, the term "field" is used in other contexts and may be known to most users out there. Nevertheless, your application doesn't really requires the "field", but the information it should contain.

So, stating "your e-mail is required to complete your registration" is more accurate than "the field 'e-mail' is required to perform this action".

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I'll have to agree with most on this that a generic term of field is just bad. I would not say it is too technical. I would say that it lacks effort on the developer and/or product team to implement something more robust. Without going into the possibilities of what can be accomplished using something like jquery.validate for simple HTML forms Jquery.Validate, even basic JavaScript can be manipulated to display the bad form field in question and provide the user with a more elegant experience. Throw into this the need for accessible pages and apps and it should not even be a question whether or not to provide a better UX for your users. Using descriptive error messages, field highlights and even floating displays such as tooltips will provide a more robust user experience.

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This doesn't really help answer the question though. Your first part of the post just reiterates what has already been said, then you say the product team should implement something more 'robust' but don't give any suggestions as to what that would be. And then you go on to promote some unrelated jquery and then talk about error messages and highlighted 'fields'. Most of that does not relate to the question. Can you edit your answer so that you're giving some actual reasoning behind why the term 'Field' isn't robust enough? –  JonW Jan 23 at 16:36
    
All of that relates to but isn't the focus of this question. I am aware of the best ways to indicate invalid fields, the focus of this question was to find out that when I do have situations where I need to refer to fields whether the term 'field' is acceptable or whether there are better alternatives. –  Dave Haigh Jan 23 at 16:39
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