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We have an application where users can update a "description" portion of their personal page. For the description, we are using a plain textarea. The textarea we are using is unmodified except for CSS changes from Foundation. We have its size set to rows="6" and width of 100% of its parent container (which has a max-width of 970 px).

We recently had a client complain that the "resizability" of the textarea was not apparent, and they wanted a tooltip or some other piece of "helpful text" that indicated the textarea could be resized by dragging the bottom right corner.

This feature of a textarea is standard on the textarea element. My initial reaction was to be against this (what I perceived to be) and un-needed bit of instruction on the form.

This to me brings up a larger issue. That is, when to explain to the user about basic standard web components they might encounter on any given website.

My question is, is there any literature on when and/or when not to explain how to use basic web elements? In my particular case, explaining how to interact with a standard textarea element.

At some point, I have to imagine that you have to trust the user knows basic facts about how to interact with a website / use a computer. At what point does "helpful text" or instructions become overkill? In my opinion, putting something like this on your form:

Click inside this box to focus the element so you can use your keyboard to type a message

Is overkill and unnecessary clutter. I'm curious to see what others have written about where that line is drawn though.

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    This is interesting. One of the first web applications I created was a replacement for an old "green screen" insurance system, so the user documentation had to describe what radio buttons, check boxes, etc were and how they worked. This was an extreme scenario and in general I think it is safe to assume a certain level of knowledge. Otherwise, you'd have to wonder about the decision to go with a web solution in the first place, if the users were unfamiliar with common browser controls. – Steve Jones May 8 '17 at 15:20
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    FYI: If only one client is complaining and this isn't a consistent thing in your client base, then don't add it. You have to measure the greater necessity for all of your clients. Because what's to stop them from asking you change other smaller things too? If that becomes an additional problem, you need to start charging them. – Majo0od May 8 '17 at 15:57
  • Since resizing the text field isn't necessary to the use of the system (I assume), I wouldn't bother explaining how to do it. However, that's a really good question for controls that are required for the user to accomplish their tasks. – Ken Mohnkern May 8 '17 at 17:10
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    Doesn't answer the question as a whole, but for this specific case you could likely just add a character countdown or "(max 1200 characters)" to imply that it will be able to hold large amounts of characters (as well as apply limits) without having to handhold a user through it. – DasBeasto May 8 '17 at 18:34
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How big is your current description field? Judging by what you wrote, the problem might be that the description field looks like it may only fit a few words, e.g. looks like an input-field for a first or last name. Users might think they need to fit their answer in the current field size. If you are using a resizable input-field you have to make it obvious by making it larger than the other fields. That signifies that bigger inputs are acceptable. This is a far more common 'fix' than the use of tooltips. I'd reserve those for when you have new information.

Edit: Popular services like Facebook signify this in the same way; a big input box implies that you can add a large description.

  • The textarea has rows="6" on the element, which I think is sufficient. For instance, the current textarea that I'm typing this comment in only has 3 rows of space. – romellem May 8 '17 at 16:37
  • Ah, that is definitely enough space. Have you tested it with users? This might be a simple case of user and client needs not aligning. It's a slippery slope to add tooltips or extra labels because there's more common design out there that relies on familiarity e.g. hamburgers. You'd have to add things there too. If users say/behave like they don't know they can add more text, then I'd start adding things like showing character limits. – Wanda May 9 '17 at 8:13

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