Home » What is best practice for designing form error messages?

What is best practice for designing form error messages?


Encapsulated flags are the only solution I’ve found that reach all edge cases. Pointing the flag at the label rather than the input allows for consistency with radio buttons and check mark groups or weird inputs like sliders or sorters.

Highlighting the field with red is also helpful, but not always possible. Example usages below.


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download bmml source


download bmml source

In reading @jonW’s answer, I could not agree more with his thoughts on screen-readers, and my solution can be equally as effective depending on implementation. You can place the flags just north on inputs in the markup, and use aria to achieve the same accessibility

“Inline Validation and Validation Events” section on this page seems about ideal:

It seems you’re already marking optional form fields instad of required ones. There seem to be no ‘required’ indicators, but no ‘optional’-indicators, too, so I wanted to mention that.

What I like to do on forms is to “micro-gamify” them: For every field in the form provide a “validation-indicator”. For simplicity, let’s say it’s just a small circle. This starts off on a neutral position: A grey circle with a question mark. For optional fields, it’s a grey circle with a checkmark. Whenever the user leaves a form field, it’s live-validated and the following things happen:

  1. the indicator changes to either “success”, e.g. green circle + checkmark, or “error” (e.g. red circle + exclamation mark)

  2. if there was an error, the field is highlighted

  3. if there is an error, the submit-button will grey out (clicking it will still work, but it only will take the user to the first error) and a general information message will be displayed above it.

If you’re writing good hints it should suffice to just highlight the field and the hint. If you feel like you need a separate error message, chances are your hints could use some work. In my experience it is almost always possible to cover user input errors with good hints.

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The user doesn’t like to mentally go back in a form. It is processed field by field, the user focuses on it field by field, and goes through a mental checklist. By pointing out errors as they happen we support this mode and do not make the user go back “later on”. It’s a break in the flow of the user and an annoyance to click “submit” and then be “blocked” and “sent back”. It’s a much smoother experience if problems are just highlighted, and thus can be corrected, as they happen.

The error message should appear before the form field itself (at a minimum in the markup itself, but ideally visually shown this way on the screen too) so that when someone is reading the form they read that the field has errored before they then read the field in question – that way the user is prepared mentally that “the contents of this field I am about to read is incorrect and I therefore need to amend it”.

This is even more important for creating accessible forms. If someone is reading the form via screenreader they need to be presented with the error before the form field is read out for the same reason as detailed above. (They don’t want to have to go back after hearing the content of a field and then being told that field had an error). This is why it is the label of the form itself that needs to contain the error text, and not just be a popup or scripted alert because you can’t guarantee that screenreaders or older browsers will be able to detect this text.

Also, if it’s a long form, or if the user is browsing via keyboard and using the Tab button several of the fields may exist below the fold, so if you Tab down the form you might not notice that a field is in error until you have then tabbed into the next one (the field will scroll into view but if the error message is below it the error might be displayed off-screen).

Finally, there is an additional route you probably should take for your error messages:

You should summarise the errors right at the start of the form so that the user knows how many errors there are, and what those errors are. Really these should be links that jump you down to the errored fields in question (yet another reason why the error message against those fields should be before the field itself)

Much of this information can be found in the WebAIM article: Usable and Accessible Form Validation and Error Recovery

Here is an example. The errors are displayed at the beginning of the form and are also links so the user can easily navigate to the fields in question, where the error text is also displayed:


download bmml source – Wireframes created with Balsamiq Mockups

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