74

Which would be the more readable way to format negative numbers:

  • -$99.99
  • ($99.99)
  • Some other format I haven't considered

Details: Most of our user base has finance experience, but some have none at all. We don't deal with international currencies, and it's a web application so I don't know of anyway to get the user's system settings.

5
  • Maybe color them red, so the negatives will stand out. Oct 7, 2010 at 15:27
  • 2
    Case study: I stumbled upon this question after looking up what my bank meant by my credit card balance, which reads ($10.00). I had no idea. I would've preferred it represent over payments with positive numbers, and debts with negative numbers. You know, the way numbers work in all other contexts :|
    – Alexander
    Sep 4, 2017 at 17:12
  • 1
    I'm working for a major financial institution, and they have specifically requested the format of -$99.99 over ($99.99). Further, Excel supports this, why is POI failing to deliver standard functionality
    – rheaghen
    Oct 19, 2018 at 19:21
  • 1
    Given the type of responses that have been provided for this question, more details probably should be provided to avoid the ambiguity in the responses.
    – Michael Lai
    Oct 19, 2018 at 23:26
  • 1
    @MichaelLai I was happy with the answers I got right after posting. But that was when the site was still in beta. You’re right, it has attracted a lot of extra answers that aren’t terribly helpful. This question is 10 years old. I don’t even remember which application this question was referencing. I’m not sure what more I could add to it. Could we lock the question instead?
    – jColeson
    Oct 19, 2018 at 23:37

6 Answers 6

69

My wife is a Certified General Accountant, so I asked her about this question.

The standard accounting way is always to show negative numbers in parentheses. If you want to appeal to primarily financial professionals, that's the accepted practice.

She also cautions against using red or drawing attention to a negative number. Highlighting a number necessarily draws attention to it, but negative numbers are a normal part of bookkeeping and financial statements. Unless you have a specific reason for drawing attention to a particular number, it's best not to make it stand out. If you're highlighting a number that is completely normal (even if it is negative), you can actually damage readability and usability. The user has to stop and think, why is this number different or special? At best, highlight situationally and only when it makes sense.

6
  • 3
    VitiousiMedia's point about only showing the number in red when it's not suppose to be negative is very important and deserves credit for the answer. We'll evaluate each number individually to determine if negative is "normal" or not. We will also be using the "-$ (#.##)" format from Daniel's answer below. I'd give dual credit, but I don't know how.
    – jColeson
    Oct 7, 2010 at 18:14
  • 4
    @Jared - I'd be very careful about formatting that way. If the majority of your userbase is composed of financial professionals, they won't like it and it could provide confusion as it's not how they're used to seeing negative numbers. I'd highly, highly recommend that you do user testing for this from a representative sample of your users. If you simply must have both, make how negative numbers are displayed an option that can be set and then choose parentheses as the default. If you use both parentheses and the negative sign, all of your users will be confused instead of just one subset. Oct 7, 2010 at 18:26
  • 1
    +1 to VirtuosiMedia for saying "ask your users" without actually saying it and +1 to his wife for throwing in some usability advice. :-) Oct 7, 2010 at 18:45
  • 1
    Fantastic answer that could only be given by someone with knowledge in the domain. Proves yet again that most answers on this site based purely on opinion aren't as good as just doing research.
    – Rahul
    Oct 7, 2010 at 19:49
  • 5
    This is a case where it really matters what your target market is. If it's financial professionals, if they see any other format than (##.##), they'll hesitate using the app because they'll perceive it as being consumer-oriented, not business-focused. They may also question how other areas of your app meet their needs. If your market is people with little or no financial or business experience, it might be better to have the negative sign as the parenthesis could give them the impression that it is too complicated. Either is fine, but there is no substitute for knowing your market. Oct 7, 2010 at 23:18
15

I would follow the lead from other consumer-facing financial systems such as Mint and Intuit Turbotax. They use the format -$1.23.

mint

1
  • 1
    mint is a product for every day users that do not necessarily have accounting experience or knowledge. The screenshot you provided is good context to know, but I'd still say that notating with parentheses makes the most sense if the majority of your user base has accounting experience.
    – Chad
    Oct 30, 2018 at 20:31
5

I realize this is a bit old, but it appears that the 'answer' is -($#.##) ??? I was looking for a clear -$ -$ for non accounting here, but this struck me as odd.

I agree with the localization 'answer' and RED as not inherent to 'negativity' as well. But generally, (aside from the numeric and decimal placeholder), a set of () in finance/accounting denotes a negative number.

This holds true in [North] America, as well as [Europe] (at least France, dont j'en sais un peu, donc je dirais que c'est probablement également la même partout pour la comptabilité).

Thus I have to strongly concur with @VirtuosiMedia you are creating a CONFUSING display.

With both a - and (), you are using TWO formats.

Use only one or the other.

When I see both used together, I immediately think

1) Bad formatting
2) Double negative (...equals a positive number)...

1
  • Honestly I don't even remember what application this questions was for anymore, but I'm fairly certain after Virtuosi Media's comment we did just implement ($#.##). I just forgot to come back and comment as such. Thanks for pointing it out!
    – jColeson
    Apr 8, 2013 at 14:42
3

If most of your user base has finance experience, then go with ($99.99). It is pretty standard in the U.S. Caveat: I have no idea what is common or standard outside the U.S.

2
  • 1
    Never seen that notation before so I'm guessing it's a local thing... but it got me curious runs off to accounting and I'm up-voting the "use locale settings" answer instead ;) Oct 8, 2010 at 9:27
  • 1
    Why adding parenthesis around a number makes it negative? My math senses are tingling...
    – Calmarius
    Nov 9, 2018 at 11:01
1

I'm a non-expert, but in my experience, the minus sign is used in arithmetic and algebra, parentheses are used in financial tables. That's just the way it's always been. (At least, in the U.S.)

-2

Microsoft Excel displays negative currency in the following format: $ (#.##)

Since some of your users have some financial experience, I would recommend the following format in red: -$ (#.##)

That way, users of all types are most likely to immediately recognize this is a negative number.

2
  • 5
    -$(#.##) is a double negative - not the rightway to do it
    – rickyduck
    Sep 16, 2013 at 13:22
  • 1
    and if it's red, it's TRIPLE negative!
    – Jun Sato
    Aug 14, 2019 at 20:05

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