I'm beating myself up over this one, since we had just that discussion today. We were arguing why a customer was eager to pay a week of work for something that could be trained. And to me it’s pretty straight forward. But let me start with the discussion.

A company has two taxonomy trees which it tags its documents with. One is location, the other is organization. Today leaving the field blank means everywhere (location) and everyone (organization). The blank field is default, and when not set everyone everywhere can read it.

I’m arguing for the fact that setting either organization or location to nothing (null), means that no one, nowhere can access the document. This is the way security works, if no one is granted access, no one can read it.


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The customer want to change the default field to everyone or everywhere since users don't understand blank meaning all. I'm all for customer needs and usability on this one - but meet comments as "they could be taught what it means saving them a week of work".

What am I missing?

  • 3
    If you and your customer are discussion what a blank field can be interpreted as, how do you expect users to guess the meaning? Be explicit Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 8:27
  • 1
    Don't we all just love arguing usability stuff, that could be taught?-) Very nice use case to think about.
    – Samuel M
    Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 13:04
  • What happens if the user wants to include everyone except one or two? Do they have to enter in each one, leaving out the exception? Is that a common scenario? Or do they generally only want a few people included if they're not including everyone? Are there user groups or levels?
    – Taj Moore
    Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 20:13
  • @tajmo These are a managed metadata, where only predetermined values are allowed. No single user, just groups of people in organisation and/or location Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 20:22
  • Why not just have a more explicit label? "Restrict access to..." or "Only visible to..." might make it clearer. Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 23:06

9 Answers 9


Having a blank field that means that all Organizations/Locations can access the item is really confusing. There should be a default that says "All Organizations" and "All Locations". It can be shown if the value is Null, if that is appropriate for the underlying code, but it needs to show the user what is going on. Changing the code to not confuse the users is a better use of time than having to always train the users what the confusing UI means.

  • 4
    Precisely: Explicit is better than implicit Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 8:25
  • 3
    Yes, I would find this extremely confusing as a user. Two organisations in the list, I delete one, now one organisation is in the list. I delete one more, now all the organisations are in the list. Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 10:36

Regardless of the solution criteria, why not populating the field with a default value in grey? Telling your users what the field actually does without their input. If they're happy with it they'll move on, otherwise they'll replace it.

As per the default criteria, I would choose the less painful i.e. "As a user the less input I have to provide the better I feel"

Hope that helps.


Why make users guess or learn something when you can be explicit and unambiguous?

Taking organisation as an example, I suggest having the following entries in the picker:

  • "All organisations"
  • "No organisations"

and no blank entry.

Default to "all" or "no", or — if it makes sense to do so — one of the organisations.

Doing this means no party can have any confusion as to the selection and the corresponding required access.

If, for some reason, this is not possible, your next best option would be to have a placeholder in the text field, e.g. "Choose organisation(s) to have access". If you do this, the placeholder text must be styled differently from actual selections/text field text (e.g. italics, mid grey), to make it clear that it is not a valid selection. This is a bit of a band-aid solution, though — you will have some users thinking the question is already answered and so neglecting to — so it is not ideal.

For what it's worth, I think some of the difficulty here is coming from the fact that you have a text field and a picker — rather than, say, a drop-down — and the two widgets can each act independently.

If you don't need to allow for multiple selections, you might be better off using a drop-down. If it is valid to select multiple organisations/locations, how about showing just the picker when the screen first loads?


Edit: think I understand better now - there are 2 fields (one per taxonomy)?

Your customer's view is not an incorrect one if the security model is more permissive (i.e., most things are open to everybody). From a UX perspective it might still be better to make the user select a value to indicate this choice, i.e., "All Locations", rather than it being implicit.

  • That's right. Two taxonomy fields (I'll update with an image soon). Do you have a link to support what we feel is correct? Commented Mar 18, 2013 at 21:24
  • 2
    I don't have a specific source other than what (I feel) is a general design principle that explicit is better than implicit; it is better to have good defaults that are clear to user than "magic values" (blank inputs that have an unexpected business result). Commented Mar 18, 2013 at 21:30
  • 1
    I would second the notion that in the event that the user has not specified an option choose a default display value that in the least informs them what the outcome of the action would be if all they did was click "ok". Commented Mar 18, 2013 at 21:57
  • @JoshuaBarron You're probably referring to the Zen of Python Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 8:15

A blank means nothing and nothing may mean many things to many minds. I don't see any harm is changing Blank to Everyone and Everywhere but if it was blank, you would need to educate your user for blank's intended behavior. Having a note text under the blank field may do the job.

"Leaving the field blank would mean everybody has access to this document".

Where this approach would do the job for you, this is a bandage approach which is doing the job but it is not fundamentally user-friendly. While using this approach, you must also not overlook the fact that user do not want to read until it needs to. Here learning the expected behavior of blank field is not his need and thus doesn't justify its existence unless there was no other way to handle that.


To quote from the Zen of Python:

Explicit is better than implicit

An empty field can mean anything from those two default values mentioned to the software crashing if no input is provided, and there is no way this will not be ambiguous. So do provide the default as e.g. light-grey text, be that a simple "none" or "any". Which of these to choose is a different question.


I would argue that it depends on what kind of control it is (everyone can't just agree with each other :) )

If it's a filter it makes sense to leave it blank to let it let through all results, especially if it's a live filter, where the user immediately sees the result list being updated while typing. An empty filter shouldn't mean that nothing should be shown.

A live filter can be tested in Spotify for example. Press ctrl+f (or option+f on Mac) to see the filter box. From the start when the filter box is empty all the files are listed. As soon as you type a letter the filtering starts.

Search, sort and filter patterns

  • I would have said something pretty similar: the interpretation of an empty value depends on whether that is a search or a filter. For a search, it is particularly important to clarify what leaving the field blank actually means. If the security model dictates that one or the other taxonomy must be populated, then perhaps the 'submit' should be disabled until a selection is made. Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 13:40

If you are working on a query screen, a blank typically would mean "ignore this criteria". Your original concept would work well for that. The worst that would happen would be a report that has more data than they expected.

When entering data, the user should have a clear indication of what they are choosing. This is a data changing event.


I experienced same scenario today. Which did not support 'All'field and i was searching for it. Later i came across blank which indicates 'All'. Leaving text-field blank is not a good practice. There is no standardized practice.We can solve it by marking the text-field with watermarking to indicate every possible alternative the user can choose instead of keeping it blank.

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