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I'm developing a large application with hundreds of forms. Some of their input fields are mandatory. Right now, if it is a select list, we do not display an empty option.

This has the advantage that we do not have to validate those inputs against null values. Moreover, it prevents the user from thinking he could choose "nothing" as an option. Another advantage is that it reduces clicks, if the default option is already correct.

The default value is either a specified value (e.g. this is what you chose last time, this makes sense because of another choice you made, ...) or simply the first option.

I'm starting to think that it might be better to make the user choose explicitely to avoid errors/wrong inputs). If a default value is chosen from the start, he might ignore this field and not choose his preferred option because it is already filled out for him.

I think it might be possible to divide the inputs into two groups, one where we would want a useful default value and others where we want the user to choose explicitely.

But shoudn't we act consistently within the same component? If I had two mandatory select lists on the same form, one with an empty value and one without, this would confuse me. How can I handle this problem?

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I'm starting to think that it might be better to make the user choose explicitely to avoid errors/wrong inputs.

Sometimes what to do is mandated by law exactly to prevent this kind of errors. Imagine you're a nurse working in Emergency and you have to fill the gender field of a form, if it is pre-compiled and you're working under high stress then you may accidentally leave the field with the wrong predefined value.

I don't know what your application is for (and you should consult your PM and/or QO about this) but you may have no choice.

I think it might be possible to divide the inputs into two groups, one where we would want a useful default value and others where we want the user to choose explicitly.

Assuming the you can provide a default then you should not even think about this, a useless default should NEVER be provided. Does make any sense to have 0 for the field weight? Or actually any other value? Never ever provide arbitrary defaults that operator will always need to change. As a rule of thumb, when applicable, I do not even consider to provide a default unless its frequency is at least 80%.

But shoudn't we act consistently within the same component? If I had two mandatory select lists on the same form, one with an empty value and one without, this would confuse me. How can I handle this problem?

No, it's not confusing if defaults you provide are really the most common choice. In every other case then they're just another source of errors. You may like to read Designing Adaptive Feedback for Improving Data Entry Accuracy , not just for their suggestion in itself but for their bibliography and acquired data. These entries are (IMO) especially useful:

  • S. Day, P. Fayers, and D. Harvey. Double data entry: what value, what price? Controlled Clinical Trials, 1998.
  • R. M. Groves, F. J. Fowler, M. P. Couper, J. M. Lepkowski, E. Singer, and R. Tourangeau. Survey Methodology. Wiley-Interscience, 2004.
  • J. M. Hellerstein. Quantitative data cleaning for large databases. United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), 2008.

Additional care should be taken when you change them, after some time users will remember those defaults and a change will go unnoticed (causing wrong data to be entered.)

Note that defaults may also be used to drive user choice (for example to accept to receive a weekly newsletter...), that's the evidence the should be used cum grano salis.

Obviously you should be careful both choosing which defaults you provide and which fields will have them, it's not something you can decide alone, do it with your PM and with some user testing and telemetry data.

What you may consider to do (if applicable) is to design your forms to be filled with templates. User will prepare few templates for most common scenarios and instantly apply them when required (like browsers autocomplete for credit card payments.)

  • Thanks for your answer. In my case, it is not mandated by law, so we do have a choice. You mention a lot of interesting aspects, I like the template idea. Although for this application it is most likely a "one fits all" template, so we're kind of back to the default value problem. I don't know if useful/useless default were the right terms to choose here, still there are some widely accepted user interface elements like checkboxes etc. that have a default value by default. Tough topic, I guess. – User42 Nov 21 '16 at 15:26
  • Checkboxes have a third (undetermined) state also because of this. The same reasoning obviously applies also to them, however it's also true that they're not widely recognized when in this state then a dropdown list is sometimes preferable. Defaults aren't an easy topic if you really care about data correctness and we often need to make UI less easy to enforce correctness. That said if default isn't almost always used then you should not have it (just perform some testing and you will see how many errors you find!) – Adriano Repetti Nov 21 '16 at 15:39
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I would act consistently.

I don't think it is a good idea to give a default value and assume the user agrees on that value. The user might have simply skipped it and you wouldn't notice it.

Minimizing cognitive load is not always better.

The fact that a user chooses an option benefits both of you:

  • It makes the user aware of what is he choosing
  • It helps you confirm that he knows what he choose.

Check this question.


Edit:

If you are really concerned about the user selecting each option because there are no defaults, then you might want to do sets of predefined options. You could also consider presenting a checkbox which states that the user agrees on the chosen above options (in a similar way Software Terms of use, License agreements, etc.). However you can not rely that the choosen options are intended by the user (not even the ones that he in fact chose).

Please understand these are not the correct approaches of solving a probably bad UX premise of "hundreds of forms".

  • Thank you for your answer. I probably agree with you. It sure is the safest option, I just fear that users will freak out without defaults (it is a business application they might use from 9 to 5 each day). – User42 Nov 21 '16 at 15:17
  • Well, you can provide defaults, but then you can not be certain that the user actually wanted that choice. Ill add an edit. – Alvaro Nov 21 '16 at 15:32

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