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Form fields and validation

Form fields must be accessible and usable, helping the user to provide valid input

Version:
0.1.0
Status:
Draft

Introduction

Gracefully handling user input is critical to the usability of BBC services, but also an area of Interaction Design fraught with potential problems. The purpose of this document is to set out robust approaches to presenting and validating form fields.

The focus here is on web-based forms. For further guidance specific to mobile/native applications, please consult the BBC Mobile Accessibility Guidelines.

Labeling

Any field's element needs to be associated programmatically with a label. This is achieved by making the label's for attribute and the input's id attribute share the same value.

<label for="username">Username</label>
<input type="text" id="username" name="username" />

Group labels

Sometimes multiple form elements should be grouped together under a common label. The standard method for creating such a group is with the <fieldset> and <legend> elements. The <legend> must be the first child inside the <fieldset>.

<fieldset>
  <legend>Group label</legend>
  <!-- individually labelled elements -->
</fieldset>

This is most important when providing radio button controls: a group of radio buttons, sharing a common name attribute, constitute a single form field and the <legend> labels this field.

<fieldset>
  <legend>Your favourite pet</legend>
  <label>
    <input type="radio" name="favourite-pet">
    Cat
  </label>
  <label>
    <input type="radio" name="favourite-pet">
    Dog
  </label>
  <label>
    <input type="radio" name="favourite-pet">
    Seahorse
  </label>
</fieldset>

It's quite legitimate to place headings inside <legend>s. In fact, this helps to give your form a semantic structure (improving navigation by screen reader users) without having to create separate and redundant labels.

<fieldset>
  <legend><h2>Group label</h2></legend>
  <!-- individually labelled elements -->
</fieldset>

Descriptions, not placeholders

The placeholder attribute is often misused to supplant the primary label. Not only is the placeholder less reliable for accessible name calculation, but it also presents a number of issues relating to cognition, translation, and interoperability[1].

Where they are used, placeholders should only give supplemental information, such as a hint regarding the expected input format. It is strongly recommended you use descriptions instead of placeholders for this purpose. Descriptions are appended to the <label> and, therefore, counted in the accessible name calculation. Unlike placeholders, they persist during input and their text content can wrap, so is not in danger of being obscured.

In the following example, the <small> element is used to demarcate the description visually. By default, it will display smaller text. You can place it on a new line by applying display: block. Note that <label> elements are inline level, so it is non-conforming to include block elements inside them.

<label for="username">
  Username
  <small>You set this when you signed up</small>
</label>
<input type="text" id="username" name="username" />

Not all form fields need descriptions.

Input types

Where specialist HTML5 input types are well supported, it is advised they are used in place of the generic (and default) type="text". The number type, for example, helpfully restricts input to numerals, allows incrementation—typically by providing up and down buttons—and elicits the display of a numerical virtual keyboard.

Error states

When a field has an invalid value, its invalidity and an associated error message must be communicated clearly and accessibly. Since HTML5 native form validation is implemented inconsistently[2], it is recommended novalidate is placed on each field or the parent form, preferring a custom validation process.

The validation process is described in Recommended behaviour.

aria-invalid

A field element in an invalid state should have aria-invalid="true", and aria-invalid="false" once the invalidity is corrected.

The error message

Error messages should be concise but descriptive. They are associated to their field element as an accessible description via aria-describedby. This element is populated with an appropriate error message when the field becomes invalid, and emptied when it is corrected.

<!-- indeterminate (initial) state -->
<label for="username">
  Username
  <small>You set this when you signed up</small>
</label>
<input type="text" id="username" name="username" aria-describedby="username-error" />
<div id="username-error"></div>

<!-- invalid state-->
<label for="username">
  Username
  <small>You set this when you signed up</small>
</label>
<input type="text" id="username" name="username" aria-describedby="username-error" aria-invalid="true" />
<div id="username-error">Error: Your username cannot contain spaces</div>

<!-- valid state-->
<label for="username">
  Username
  <small>You set this when you signed up</small>
</label>
<input type="text" id="username" name="username" aria-describedby="username-error" aria-invalid="false" />
<div id="username-error"></div>

Required fields

It is assumed that any fields presented to the user should be completed, otherwise they should not be present. In which case, it is considered needlessly obstructive to indicate required fields before or during individual field validation.

Only when submission is attempted should the aria-required="true" attribution and error message be instated. This attribution is preferred over the HTML5 required Boolean just as aria-invalid is preferred over invalid.

<label for="username">
  Username
  <small>You set this when you signed up</small>
</label>
<input type="text" id="username" name="username" aria-required="true" aria-invalid="true" aria-describedby="username-error" />
<div id="username-error">Error: This field is required</div>

Instead of indicating required fields, indicate optional ones. These should be fewer in number. Suffix the <label>'s text with '(optional)'.

<label for="fact">Interesting fact (optional)</label>
<input type="text" id="fact" name="fact" aria-describedby="username-error" />

Order and orientation

Place labels (and their descriptions, if present) above form elements. This is especially important on mobile platforms because the invoked virtual keyboard has a habit of obscuring labels to the side or below inputs.

Animated labels that appear as placeholders, then animate upwards to assume the position of a label, should be avoided for their pressure on cognition[3]. A label over an input, similar to a placeholder, can misidentify the field as having a value and being already completed.

The 'general' error message

When the user attempts to submit a form containing errors, a general error message appears (and is alerted to screen reader users as an ARIA live region, see Reference implementation). This error message should appear directly above the submit button, making it visible to the user without the need for scrolling.

The general error message will appear when submission fails and the live region is populated with the error message.

<!-- Initial state -->
<div role="alert"></div>
<button type="submit">Submit</button>

<!-- Submission failed -->
<div role="alert">Errors: Please fix the errors in the form before continuing</div>
<button type="submit">Submit</button>

Invisible labels

It is strongly recommended that form fields have visible and persistent labels; labels that do not disappear upon focus or input.

However, in some specific circumstances an invisible but accessible label is acceptable. For example, a single input search form may have a submit button that reads "Search" — effectively providing a label for both the input and the button itself. In this case, you can hide the <label> visually, using a class that keeps the label available to assistive technologies[4].

<label for="search" class="vh">Your search term</label>
<input id="search">
<button type="submit">Search</button>

High Contrast Mode

A couple of provisions are made to better support Windows High Contrast Mode. A transparent border is added to the error messages so they appear as boxes and, for supporting browsers, the message takes an inversion filter to give it the appearance of a background:

.gel-form__field-error,
.gel-form__warning {
  border: 1px solid transparent;
}

@media (-ms-high-contrast: active) {
  .gel-form__field-error,
  .gel-form__warning {
    filter: invert(100%);
  }
}

Error indication

It is imperative that errors are clearly identified as such. Do not rely on colour to denote an error state[5] since it will fail on monochrome displays, and for those who cannot accurately perceive colour.

Where there are errors, there should always be error messages. Prefixing the error message with 'Error:', or a warning symbol, ensures the nature of the message is conveyed explicitly.

<div id="username-error"><strong>Error:</strong> Your username cannot contain spaces</div>

High contrast

How the component looks with a Windows High Contrast Mode theme active.

The error message is white with black text

A CSS filter is used to reverse the colours of the error message:

@media (-ms-high-contrast: active) {
  .gel-form__field-error,
  .gel-form__warning {
    filter: invert(100%);
  }
}

Form validation should comprise of two phases:

  1. Individual field validation
  2. Form submission and validation

The following describes the validation journey, as exemplified by the Reference implementation.

1. Initial state

  • No fields have the aria-invalid attribution
  • Required fields have aria-required="true"
  • The general error live region is present in the DOM, but not yet populated

2. Individual field validation

  • Fields are validated as the user types subject to a debouncing function, giving the user a chance to type a full valid entry before an error message is displayed.
  • aria-invalid is toggled between true and false as the field becomes valid or invalid.
  • The error element is populated with a priority error message when the field is in an invalid state (priority depends on the order the tests array is populated in the rules object; see the Reference implementation).

3. Failed submission

  • The general error message live region is populated.
  • Focus remains on the submit button.

4. Correcting errors after failed submission

  • Error messages are removed as individual fields are corrected
  • Upon all individual errors being corrected, the general error message is removed.

5. Successful submission

  • The custom gel-submitted event is fired on the form. In the Reference implementation this is just used to fire an alert.

Variants and caveats

  • Some implementations disable the submit button until the subject form is free of errors. This is not recommended since it can be confusing and frustrating to some users[6]. Better to allow submission and be explicit with a warning.
  • Some implementations disable fields that have been correctly completed, in an effort to make it clearer which fields need addressing. It is recommended that all fields remain enabled, so users can adjust their input at any time. In some cases, correcting one input's value may mean having to adjust another's, even if it is superficially correct in terms of format.
  • You may wish to employ 'positive validation', wherein inputs that are successfully completed display a green style and 'tick'. The difficulty here is in discerning between a correct format, and correct information. Showing a tick next to a correctly formatted bank card number, for example, is misleading: the user may believe you're aware it is the correct number for their specific card.

Reference implementation

Form fields and validation

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Further reading, elsewhere on the Web


  1. Do Not Use The Placeholder Attribute — Eric Bailey (Smashing Magazine), https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2018/06/placeholder-attribute/ ↩︎

  2. Native Form Validation — Peter-Paul Koch, https://medium.com/samsung-internet-dev/native-form-validation-part-3-8e643e1dd06 ↩︎

  3. Floating Labels Are Problematic — Adam Silver, https://medium.com/simple-human/floating-labels-are-a-bad-idea-82edb64220f6 ↩︎

  4. Gist of the vh (visually hidden) class, https://gist.github.com/Heydon/c8d46c0dd18ce96b5833b3b564e9f472 ↩︎

  5. WCAG2.1 1.4.1 Use Of Color, https://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG21/#use-of-color ↩︎

  6. Disabled buttons suck — Axesslab, https://axesslab.com/disabled-buttons-suck/ ↩︎

Copyright © 2019 BBC. This content is published under the Open Government Licence, unless otherwise noted.

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