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We're on a project where the concept of a 'soft' error for a web form came up. It's an interesting idea, but I can't actually think of an example of it being used in the past, so perhaps it's not a good idea.

To give an example is validating an email address. For a number of reasons, it's not a good idea to force heavy email validation in the form itself.

In addition, a person can enter a valid email address, but misspell it, so we can never truly validate that the email a person types into a field matches their actual email. But, it would be nice to catch malformed addresses.

The thought would be to do something akin to this:

Email:
[                      ]

And then the 'soft error' messaging that could happen in-line:

Email:
[ my name @google. com ] (!) We noticed this may not be a valid email. 
                             Please double check just to make sure. 
                             Note that email addresses typically don't 
                             have spaces.

I like this idea of this. Has anyone see an implementation like this?

My main concern with it is that it still feels like an error, and that usually means I can't submit the form until I 'fix' it. Perhaps that pattern is just so ingrained into us that a soft error message just would never work as it would always be seen as a blocker, rather than just a suggestion.

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Working on tax return submittal software we used this approach. We had error messages (this is plain incorrect), warning messages (we think your data is inconsistent) and informational messages (you entered X, you may be eligible for Y). Main thing users appreciated was the fact that none of these prevented them from entering incorrect information or from saving their tax return even when required information was still missing (error). Any errors did however prevent them from submitting the tax return to the tax people. –  Marjan Venema Apr 25 at 10:27
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[Error, warning, info] is a common pattern in development contexts, and may make sense for some UIs as well. Errors block progress; warnings don't, but should be heeded; Info is strictly for additional assistance. –  Alex Feinman Apr 25 at 12:45
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2 Answers 2

You asked for an example of an implementation:

enter image description here

Wordpress warns the user when it's likely they misspelled their email address.

Like you said, this does feel like an error and not a 'soft error'. I agree with @Franchesca that you can use this, but should go for a less threatening color than red. But I wouldn't go for blue. I think orange is a better choice. Let's look at traffic lights and what those colors tell you.

  • Green: "Go, you're good."
  • Orange: "Hey you, heads up, the light is about to change. Stay alert."
  • Red: STOP!!

With the 'soft error' you basically want to warn people and make them alert of a situation. (I think those two words are basically synonyms for 'soft error') The color orange does that and people have a direct association with the color.

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Wow! That's clever, actually--checking for misspelled common email domains. Good idea! I agree about the red, but I do like that it is in-line. Kind of an instant reminder. –  DA01 Apr 25 at 7:24
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Example found on littlebigdetails.com. If you like those things you should also check capptivate.co and sixux.com (..if you didn't know them yet) –  Paul Apr 25 at 7:36
    
I am subscribed to the littlebigdetails feed, but didn't yet know about the other two. Thanks! –  Marjan Venema Apr 25 at 10:30
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I don't see anything wrong with this in principle. Anything that helps the user avoid mistakes is good. If you avoid all the trappings of error messages, such as exclamation marks and red writing then this could work. Perhaps use a question mark and a more neutral colour (blue?). Just make sure that the validation you are using doesn't have too many false positives, and that the text isn't too harsh (though I think you already understand this), as this will move it from helpful to irritating, like a mother who always nags you about every little thing.

If you are unsure then a bit of usability testing might help. You never really know if something will work until you test with real users.

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Good points. This may rely heavily on the visual approach more than anything. Thanks! –  DA01 Apr 24 at 19:05
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