Avis: Trying Too Hard?

Jared Spool

September 5th, 2005

Apparently, not to be outdone by their competition, Hertz, Avis.com has chosen the rebellious route and decided to defy standard convention. They’ve decided that they would demonstrate how hard they try (after all, they do try harder) and change the way people fill out forms.

Convention has it that, in a form, a designer will designate mandatory fields with that old standby, the asterisk (*). Not that this is written in stone or anything.

As conventions go, it’s actually fairly recent. Nobody knows where it happened. But, somewhere, somebody decided that putting an asterisk next to an input field would indicate that the user would have to fill it with meaningful data (or at least some data), preventing them from moving to the next screen until they complied.

Avis’ designers found themselves faced with a different problem. Virtually every field on their forms is mandatory. Just a small handful are optional. Why clutter almost every field with that asterisk?

So, they did it. They dared to be different. And they decided, on their forms, the asterisk would denote an optional field, not a mandatory one like everyone else.

The Avis form where Optional fields are marked with an asterisk.

This is not a problem, if the users of Avis don’t use any other sites following the standard convention. But, being that it is the standard convention, what are the chances of that?

If those users do follow said convention, then their current knowledge may be that asterisks denote mandatory fields and they miss the bold text at the top of the form explaining otherwise. This could create several moments of confusion, much like a door that clearly is marked push even though it has a big bar that really wants to be pulled.

Maybe the designers at Avis should try a little less hard next time?
Avis: We Try Harder

9 Responses to “Avis: Trying Too Hard?”

  1. Eric Meyer Says:

    As a frequent Avis.com user, I can’t say I’d ever noticed this, though I probably don’t represent the typical user of the site.

    I do have to give them major credit, however, for making their “would you like to sign up for our newsletter and special offers mailing list?” an opt-in checkbox: it defaults to unchecked, and you must check it in order to start getting their newsletter. I wish more companies were as respectful.

  2. Daniel Szuc Says:

    How about a form that only includes mandatory fields? Even better, if its short and simple!

  3. DonnaM Says:

    Consistency is a lovely thing, and I generally use the magic asterisk too. However I’ve rarely see a user identify what’s happening – it is usually ‘fill in everything’ or ‘fill in what I think is OK and wait for the error’.

    I also reckon you’d get this one pretty easily just because of context – middle initial is odd and there’s a star on it, therefore other things with a star must also be odd ;)

  4. Jared Spool Says:

    Well, the reason it hit our radar screen (and why it’s posted here) is just because it caused at least one user grief as we were watching. The user in question ground to a complete halt as she tried to reconcile her desire to provide mandatory information with information she didn’t have, such as Company name and Address 2.

    She didn’t understand why that information would be mandatory…

  5. DonnaM Says:

    Ahah! That’s interesting.

  6. Ben Byrd Says:

    Love you sites. Avis should have an optional section. “Fill this out if you feel like it.” I’m assuming the form went on from the graphic that you showed because I was thinking that wasn’t too long. Thanks.

  7. Ron Fernandez Says:

    Color and type weight could have been used to imply mandatory vs. optional fields without cluttering up the screen with asterisks. Bold & black/dark gray = mandatory, regular weight and lighter gray = optional. It’s not immediately obvious, but it is discoverable.

    It’s a shame so few web designers have ever had traditional typographic training. Would improve things significantly.

  8. Chris Cavallucci Says:

    My teams have struggled with these issues, too. I’ve heard developers argue for and against asterisks on required or optional fields. Developers ask: “When do we process the input data? Should we process the whole form upon click of the submit button? Or, should we evaluate a response field-by-field?”

    On some projects we decided to forego the asterisk representation altogether since we process the form field-by-field, checking the field input for length, data type, and value range using JavaScript. If it’s a required field, the form validation script checks to see if the field has cursor focus — if the field has focus and the length of the input is 0 and the user moves the cursor to a different field, the script alerts the user. If it’s an optional field, the script skips the 0-length check, but validates the input data if provided by the user.

    Traditionally, this input validation technique has been purely client-side. Now, I wonder if we can continue to omit the asterisks and somehow use AJAX to validate the form data *AND* gather user behavior data. We could figure out which fields users skip, leave the site, etc.

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