Thursday, 23 October 2008

Web form name fields: how to lose business & annoy customers

Many Webform designers don't seem to realise (or maybe care?) that "name" boxes on many websites just don't work for some non-Anglo Saxon cultures.

Site owners who aren't fussed about "political correctness", racial discrimination or cultural sensitivity should surely still consider that it's not just about respect for other cultures or not causing offence - it's also about money, i.e. the risk of losing potential customers:

  1. who in frustration give up trying to register because the site just won't accept their proper real names, or
  2. who are wrongly rejected by their system because the customer tried to enter a mangled version of their real name to get the web form validator to stop rejecting it, and then of course the name won't match up with other (online or offline hard copy) proof of their real name because, errr, it's different!

Yes, there is a serious usability / customer / consumer and therefore commercial point, here.

Take the ubiquitous "Surname", "First Name".

"First Name"

"First Name" is the worst offender, in my view. At least most forms no longer use "Christian Name" for this box, which is some consolation!

It's not always "first". In many cultures e.g. Chinese, the "first name", literally, is the surname - not the personal name (see Wikipedia on Chinese names). In terms of order, it's the surname that comes first.

So why not label the field "Personal name" or "Given name" instead of "First" name?

Of course, many Chinese people just give up and reverse the real order of their names when they Anglicise it, putting the surname last. But why should they have to?

It's not always just one word. Worse still, most web forms only accept one word for the "first" name. But personal names can consist of two words (or even three), and the second word isn't necessarily a "middle" name - it's an integral part of the "first name".

Again, take the example of Chinese society. The personal name often consists of two separate characters which, taken together, make up one name. Sometimes one character, usually the last one in terms of order, can be used by itself as the abbreviation - rather like you can use "Sue" instead of "Susan". But the real name is still "Susan".

Insisting on a 1-word "first name" field is like making Susan enter her name as either "Su" or "San" without the ability to enter her full personal name. Or making Andrew enter either "And" or "Rew".

Many Chinese people concatenate the Anglicised versions of their personal name, joining the two parts without using a space (e.g. Zhang Yimou or indeed Mao Zedong) or by using a hyphen between them (e.g. Chow Yun-Fat).

But again, why should they have to? And risk being rejected by a computer that (having been programmed on the same basis perhaps) mechanically checks the name against the name on e.g. a passport or birth certificate, and rejects it because "Yimou" is not literally identical to "Yi Mou".

And don't forget that "Sally Anne", "Mary Lou" and "Jim Bob" are also affected by this "first name must comprise one word only" issue.

It may have punctuation. Some forms refuse to accept names with punctuation. So names with hyphens in, see above, are rejected. As are names with apostrophes (though this is more of an issue with surnames).

It can be shorter than 3 letters or longer than 10. More of an issue with surnames, see below.

"Surname" / "Family Name"

The surname may not be "last" in order. One good thing is that the "Last Name" label isn't so common now - it's less used than "First Name", but it's still more common than it should be.

There may be no "family" name. Here I'd go for the "Surname" label rather than "Family Name"; it's not perfect (it comes from "Sire Name") but perhaps it's less inaccurate than "Family Name".

I suggest that because in some Indian cultures (see Wikipedia on Indian names), if your grandfather's name is (rather unrealistically but just to illustrate) say Albert, your father's name is James and your name is Bob, then your name will in fact be James Bob, or J. Bob (and your father's name would be A. James). There isn't a "Family Name" as such, traditionally - see e.g. Wikipedia on Nobel laureate C V Raman ("C" is for his father's name, "Raman" is in fact his personal name not his surname or family name). And, notice, the "first name" doesn't actually appear first in order in this culture, either.

Many of them give up and write it as "Bob James" with "James" as the "Family Name", just as many Chinese people give up and write their personal name as one word in the Roman alphabet. But again, why should they have to?

It's not always just one word. Same issue here, the surname may in fact comprise two words - to continue with the Chinese example, e.g. "Au Yong".

But this issue also affects people from white non-Anglo Saxon societies e.g. "De Souza", or more famously "da Vinci" or "De Niro". Who's probably forced to enter his name as "DeNiro" most of the time. But oooh, it doesn't exactly match the name on his passport, reject reject! Which is silly.

It may have punctuation. I give you "d'Alembert", or again more famously, "d'Artagnan". So some Web forms which reject names entered with punctuation manage to discriminate against people from French, Latin, Indian and Chinese societies! At least they don't force the first letter to be uppercase - I think.

Some English surnames may be double-barreled too, i.e. hyphenated. Many sites do accept hyphens in surnames, at least.

It can be shorter than 3 letters and longer than 10. What about Jet Li? How fed up must he be with web forms that say "Too short" or "Invalid" when he tries to input his surname?

As for length limits, Thai names are often very long e.g. Chulalongkorn. I even know an English person who has a double-barreled surname which is 13 letters long (including the hyphen). He sure has fun with websites which arbitrarily limit the length of the input field for "Surname" to 10 characters (or have name fields for the full name with a size limit of 25 characters).

A plea... (and advice to Web sites)

It really isn't that hard to label, delimit and validate name fields in a more culturally neutral way when designing a Web form.

So come on, Web designers, or at least the businesses that hire them - if only for selfish financial reasons when trying to expand your customer base globally and multi-culturally, please re-think all this Web form nonsense!

(This post was triggered by the frustration of a friend of Italian descent who couldn't enter a "Di ... " surname on a web form without running together the two separate words of their surname.)


Mia said...

I'll comfort myself that at least I'm not Jet Li every time I have to make up a funny name because 'Mia' is apparently too short to be a username!

Márcia W. said...

I can totally relate to this, having a "de" myself connecting 2 surnames, i.e. not a composed as in
Maria de Fátima´s. Then just to try to fill a form to make a hotel reservation. You enter your full name in the form, something like, Pedro Rodrigues da Silva. In Brazil your registration will be under Silva, in the rest of Latin America under Rodrigues and in most places in Europe under Da Silva. My piece of advice: keep 2 good neurones apart during your trip to face the hotel desk....