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I have read the discussion from some years ago about whether to use a "minus sign" in front of a negative balance or to put it inside parenthesis. Our website is used primarily by people 45 and older. They may/may not have much experience with investing and financial planning.

Our concern is that displaying a negative balance in parentheses may be unfamiliar to (maybe a significant) percentage of our customers. Putting a "minus sign" in front of it does not seem as visible as we'd like it to be.

We do not want to show it in red type, as we fear (esp. during this COVID-induced financial terror) it is a bit too alarming.

My husband, who is well into "seniorhood" said that he often does not notice a "minus" sign -- and suggested putting it in red type. When I said "not a good option" he said just make it much more prominent.

I am wondering if showing a negative balance in italic type might do the trick? I have searched and not seen any examples of this. Would love to research it, but as a first step, going to toss it out here and see what y'all think?

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    Hi, would it be possible to share a screenshot or give other information about the context? – Izquierdo Oct 29 '20 at 18:32
  • Why are you trying to reduce the alarm? The reason why is important to define the context. Sometimes it's VERY IMPORTANT you know something is negative and you WANT it to be visible. – Tim Holt Oct 30 '20 at 4:25
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    Hi Tim, Because much of this site is investing to meet long-term goals, such as saving for college or retirement. Markets fluctuate -- and research shows that staying invested (esp. in mutual funds and solid ETFs) rather than jumping in and out of the market is usually the better long-term strategy. That means that there will be times when account balances drop and people "lose" money (on paper, if they haven't sold) in a month or a quarter, etc. The concern is that we don't want to alarm people. Showing a negative balance in a checking account to "sound the alarm" is somewhat different. – S Fry Oct 30 '20 at 16:19
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Make the minus sign red. It's extremely common to use red for negative, and you don't want to use all red to be overly alarming. And you acknowledge that a minus sign is appropriate, but not as visible.

So make the minus sign red, which is a nice hybrid compromise of the two approaches.

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Where are you putting the minus sign? I can imagine that if you do it like this:

$ 1100
$ −100
$  200

then it's easily overlooked. On the other hand, if you put it before the currency symbol (or if you don't show currency symbols, or show them after the amounts) in a separate column, it's much more visible:

  $ 1100
− $  100
  $  200

Note that I've used a proper minus sign (−) instead of a hyphen (-).

Italic for emphasis is fine (but a bit unusual); note that a minus sign doesn't visibly change in italics, and I can imagine that visually impaired users won't really notice it.

Our concern is that displaying a negative balance in parentheses may be unfamiliar to (maybe a significant) percentage of our customers.

That's a correct observation; I've only seen it used by finance professionals (accountants, bookkeepers).

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  • Thank you -- agreed that the placement of the "minus" sign makes a difference. On the MINT.com website, they place the "minus" sign to the left of the dollar sign -- but they don't put a space between the minus and the dollar, so it's like this " -$ 125.00" -- which makes it very hard to read. If visually impaired readers don't notice it that's one thing -- just wouldn't want to make it more difficult. (My husband said he wasn't sure he'd notice it -- he wears glasses but certainly doesn't need any accessibility accommodations!) – S Fry Oct 29 '20 at 18:35
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I would agree with Tim Holt. I've had problems with content not being recognised or overlooked because people did not want to use any colours in the design. You can also make it a softer red, it doesn't have to be rgb 255,0,0. Combining what Glorfindel and Tim Holt said is probably your best bet. You don't want people to miss crucial information.

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  • Thank you. Sincerely appreciate everyone's thoughts on this! This is my first post here. I'm a UX Writer and this is a question that our UX group is working on, so I thought I'd see what thoughts "the community" has. This is my first post. – S Fry Oct 30 '20 at 16:26
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If small signs might be a problem, write everything.

As far as not using colours, I understand the concern, but it really is something to be reconsidered, specially if you are dealing with values related to finance, where "being in the red" is an actual expression. As another user suggested, you can use a gentler shade of red to "soften the blow" as it were; but by not using it, you might be replacing the concern of alarming people with a bigger concern (at least in UX) which is misinforming people by accident.

I don't know if that is a possibility for you, but you don't have to use the actual -/+ signs of the typeface you chose (which can be small). Try using a small icon instead.

Here's a quick suggestion:

enter image description here

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