What Does Your ENTER Key Do?

Friends, I think we’ve moved enough from dumb terminal mainframe applications that most modern users do not expect the ENTER key to move them from one green- or amber-hued field to the next. Ergo, perhaps it’s time to establish, yea verily, a best practice for what the ENTER key should do in your application or form, especially when an edit box has focus.

Now we all know how it works when a radio button, checkbox, or button has focus: the ENTER key activates the button, toggles the checkbox, or sets the radio button. Okay, cool. But the whole ENTER key while in a text box thing seems to have a random number generator attached to it. I’ve seen the ENTER key do the following:

  • Act as though the user clicked SUBMIT/SAVE or what have you.
  • Act as though the user clicked the first button on the screen layout, which happened to be the CLEAR/RESET button (which the application set focus to on page load for some reason).
  • Make the Internet browser trigger the DING! sound.
  • In the case of the 2008 Subzero Dream Kitchen Sweepstakes, it identifies that data is missing if there’s no data in the field:

There is no data in that field.  Of course, there's no data in any field.
Click for full size

I think we can agree that validating the presence of data in only the field with the focus is not what we wanted. If you have some data in the field in which you press ENTER, the form sounds the DING! for you without providing other messages.

In absence of any other prevailing reasons why not to make the application behave in a reasonable fashion*, how about we just have it so that, when the user presses ENTER, it’s just like he or she clicked SAVE/SUBMIT. Have a little sympathy for the unmousy amongst your users.

* Note to designers, project managers, developers: “Because I want it like that” or “Because it’s already like that” are not inherently reasonable answers.

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