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I'm going to be presenting university students with an entry field, into which they will have to enter a value. The value might be an integer, or it might be a floating point value. I'm trying to work out what the best way to label these is so they know what they have to enter.

Currently I have: Enter an integer and enter a real number. But I worry that some students are going to be confused by "real number" (Hmm, are the other types "unreal"?). We are pondering Enter a whole number and Enter a number, but the latter doesn't give an implicit clue that a decimal point is allowed. It is important that the student knows that the decimal is available, as it is most likely going to be needed (the question might be What is 5 divided by 2?).

What terms are good for a wide audience to refer to integers and real numbers in this manner?

[edit] There are some good suggestions for asking questions better, but in my case I have no idea what the question might be, and my prompt has to be suitable for whatever that question might be. And it is a single question at a time, so that might help. Another suggestion from someone here was Enter a number and Enter a number (decimals allowed) which lets people know that they can go floating point.

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6 Answers 6

up vote 1 down vote accepted

I think this brings up some more questions and potential issues:

  1. Is it really necessary to have two separate kinds of fields for these types of numbers? The fact that you are having trouble properly labeling them means that it will likely result in a poor user experience.
  2. What if the user thinks the answer contains a decimal, but is only allowed to put in a whole number? Should they round up or down?
  3. Is there a way you can just provide them with one number field and take care of the rest programmatically? Maybe rounding or removing decimal places?

If you cannot combine them into one field type, how about being explicit on each label:

  • Enter a number (decimals allowed)
  • Enter a number (no decimals)
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After consideration, I've decided that this really does bring up more questions, and while I like some of the other answers they can't apply in my situation. Accepted this one. –  mj2008 May 11 '11 at 8:03

Think in actions rather than in number classes. Number systems are only familiar to technical students. (I recall a conversation in a psychology class. Teacher asked 'do you know complex numbers?' Psychology student answered completely serious and with confidence 'yes, pi and e'.)

My suggestion: 'What is 10 divided by 3 (round to nearest whole number)?', as opposed to ''What is 10 divided by 3 (round to 2 decimal places)?'

An alternative would be: 'What is 10 divided by 3 (don't round off)?' -- here you could expect either a fraction for an answer, or a completely desparate student.

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I think this is a good answer, but I don't know the context of the question. The prompt has to live completely separate to the question. –  mj2008 May 9 '11 at 8:42

Before the web era, there were quite smart input fields. The characters were fixed width, it was easy to recognize how many digits can fit about into the field. Started entering a number, e.g. 12.34, the following displayed (the '_' is the cursor):

get focused: [_   .  ] 
pressed '1': [1_  .  ]
pressed '2': [12_ .  ]
pressed '.': [  12._ ]
pressed '3': [  12.3_]
pressed '4': [  12.34]  - the cursor is blinking under the ']'

It would be great to see such smart input fields again.

I'm not a native English, but I feel these two words appropiate to refer to integer and floating: "number of" foos, and "amount of" bar. For floating, I would add a remark: "(max. 2 decimals)", which makes the data type clear without explicit naming it on its frightening "scientific" name.

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I don't think that masked edit fields are that uncommon? Eg: ui-patterns.com/users/1/collections/11/entry/614 –  Jørn E. Angeltveit May 6 '11 at 14:03
    
Masked files went out of fashion because of HTML input field... err... primit... err... simplicity. –  ern0 May 6 '11 at 17:15
    
There's a jQuery plugin for that: digitalbush.com/projects/masked-input-plugin –  Matt Potts Nov 24 '11 at 13:07

Depending on the context, you could show default values (with precision) in the fields:

Enter an integer: [      0]
Ender a real:     [   0.00]

Or you could specify the precision/definiton as a hint:

What is 10 divided by 2:  [       ]   (a whole number)
What is 10 divided by 3:  [       ]   (with 2 decimals)
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Formatting it nicely that way isn't possible unfortunately. –  mj2008 May 6 '11 at 13:45

If your example question is representative of the type of question that is going to be asked (I understand it is an oversimplified example), then I think the question is going to drive them to understanding of what type of number belongs. You shouldn't even really need the Enter a number labels because the answer is obvious. You might be confusing the matter more by doing so - adding text where you don't need it is rarely useful for your users.

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I think this is a very good point, but there is a disconnect between the location of the question and the entry of the data (different screens) so some sort of prompt will help. Particularly as there are other types, like plain text (which I didn't mention). –  mj2008 May 8 '11 at 10:25
    
@mj2008 - How are they going to answer the question if the question and answer form are on different screen? I think you've got a much bigger UX issue there. –  Charles Boyung May 9 '11 at 14:49
    
An example might be where they are watching television, and the person on the telly asks a question. –  mj2008 May 10 '11 at 10:29

I think you're correct in going for:

Enter a whole number

for those fields that will only accept integers. This should be understandable by university students - what ever subject they are studying.

In your context

Enter a number

might be OK. Does this appear on the same page as the integer fields? This will make it stand out. If the first question makes it clear that a decimal is required (5 divided by 2 is a good example) then it should be obvious that they can enter e.g. 2.5.

Is there room for adding instructions somewhere that state that these fields may require the number including any decimals?

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