It’s Not My Default

When you’re designing a form (I’m using the general you, QA; I realize that designing is actually done by a 23 year old fresh out of college whose previous credits include a MySpace page and a Web log that ran for two weeks during the designer’s junior year of high school), you should put some consistency into your default values for your drop-down lists/combo boxes. Of course, since you (I mean the specific you, QA) have insights into best practices (at least those identified here), you should have something to say when the designer does something based on his or her whim.

For starters, jeez Louise, do you really need a drop-down list for yes and no questions? Why put something in a drop-down list when you only have one or two or three options? That calls for radio buttons so the user can see all the choices without having to do an extra mouse click (or down-arrow for the keyboard minded user). Some designers cry about “real estate,” which means the visible portion of a Web page. A drop-down list is indeed slightly smaller than radio buttons. However, this concern collides with usability. I try to make them use the radio buttons; if they really want to handle real estate, let them become land speculators like the executives in the company.

Now, once you’re actually using a drop-down list, you ought to consider what you want to display in that drop-down list by default. You can go right into the values which the user can select, such as states or birth day months or what have you. That makes some sense for situations where you expect users to select one value. That would save them a step of choosing something you expect them to choose, I suppose. Only those who are different, you know, strange, would have to select something else. However, showing an actual value for the default, particularly for a required field, introduces a greater chance of inaccurate data as people will often just submit the form without choosing a value at all, by letting the default ride.

Sometimes, then, the forms should contain a default display value that is not a value suitable for submission. “Select state” or “Select model number” displays by default, and your validation logic should force the user to make a choice. That will ensure that conscientious users select something which will probably be accurate.

As you can make a case for either, I will accept either. However, I do ask for a little consistency. If you’re going to do it one way on your form, do it that way on all of the drop-down lists. I don’t care if you’re adding it later. Add it the same way. Is that too much to ask? Sometimes, apparently.

This came to mind again when I looked at this form for a Major League Baseball sweepstakes (warning, Firefox users: This thing doesn’t play well with my Firefox. Your results might vary, and it would probably be best for MLB and its attendant agencies if that were the case):

Inconsistency is the hobgoblin of lazy minds
Click for full size

Notice that the phone number type is already chosen for you. The sponsor really, really wants the opportunity to call you up, so they’re going to hope you enter a mobile phone number. I’m not really sure why they include a country drop-down list, since the sweepstakes is limited to United States residents. Probably using a form template that makes no sense in this case.

However, note the beauty of these drop-down lists; they actually have a default display value that is not the selection by default:

When is a default not the default?
Click for full size

That, my friends, is funny in a QA sort of way. The absurd QA sort of humor, not the gallows sort.

No Responses to “It’s Not My Default”

  1. scotia_tester Says:

    What I really hate is that in most form DDLBs viewed with Internet Explorer display the default response twice: once in the box (as the selection) and again in the list (try it on the site linked in this article or pretty much any form). Gah! So annoying to me, and probably more so to the developers who I plead with to make a workaround.

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