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In the process of converting some legacy desktop applications to the web. The majority of the screens are simply managing data associated to a key field. For example, a contact id and then the associated address information { address, city, state, zip }. The screen allows users to query/update by providing the system generated contact id. It also allows them to simply fill in the address information and it will create a new contact id with the next sequence number.

In the legacy application, when the screen is opened it is showing a placeholder field as below to present to the user that a value is going to be assigned if they leave it blank.

<New>

As they mouse into the field it clears and allows them to key in the contact id to query. In the move to the web, there is some difficulty in keeping this consistent with passing the New in tags around.

Is there a better way to present to users that a value will auto-generated for them without showing a placeholder in the field?

  • Who are your users? Established clientelle who are experienced with the legacy system? – Mayo Apr 28 '15 at 0:28
  • The majority of users will be established clients upgrading to the new version. – Matt Apr 28 '15 at 15:25
  • Would putting (optional) beside the field suffice? That way if they don't have the contact id they'll assume to just leave it blank? – DasBeasto Jul 27 '15 at 12:45
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If ...

  1. It is expected behavior that some fields will be left blank
  2. And the system default is an important user visible value
  3. And and this isn't going to happen on every field in the app

I would indicate the default using a field caption:

If left blank: "Not available"

Else if ...

  1. The user doesn't need to know the default value
  2. You want to encourage field entry
  3. The data point isn't important and is likely to be blank

Indicating the default may have either a neutral or negative impact on your app's best practices.

In most cases, you'll be better off with hint text when not in focus. Though, the Nielsen Norman Group doesn't agree with me on that one:

According to Katie Sherwin @ NN/g:

"Placeholder text within a form field makes it difficult for people to remember what information belongs in a field, and to check for and fix errors. It also poses additional burdens for users with visual and cognitive impairments."

  • For the record ... I feel your pain. I'm working on a similar legacy to web-app transition right now. "Legacy" can be good in branding but rarely so in software. – plainclothes Apr 27 '15 at 23:09
  • I don't see the NN/g commentary as directly relevant to your suggestion. The author is talking about using placeholder text as the sole label for a field, whereas you're talking about using it for supplemental information. Moreover, that information is relevant when the field is left blank and becomes irrelevant when the user starts to enter data, so field focus is a pretty good time to have it disappear. – octern Dec 24 '15 at 5:52
  • @octern Read the whole article: "even when using labels, placing important hints or instructions within a form field can still cause the 7 issues mentioned above" – plainclothes Dec 24 '15 at 7:06
  • The following sentence says, "If some of the fields require an extra description that is essential to completing the form correctly, it’s best to place that text outside the field so that it is always visible." (emphasis in original). The question I was debating is whether the information in the placeholder is ever important to determining whether the user should enter a value / what it should say. If not, then I'd think that marking the field as not required (persistently, not in a placeholder) is all they need. – octern Dec 24 '15 at 9:46
  • But perhaps I'm wrong about that -- I could imagine a user not looking at the placeholder info until focusing the field, and therefore not being aware that the information wasn't necessary to determining their response. That would lead to the problems described in the article after all. – octern Dec 24 '15 at 9:52

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