Placeholders are problematic

Since the placeholder attribute came along, many of us have started using it as means of storing hints for form fields. The appeal lies in their minimal aesthetic (they save space).

Some of us have even gone a step further and replace labels with placeholders. Either way, placeholders are an inclusive design anti-pattern which causes problems for users. Here's why:

1. They're hard to remember

The placeholder disappears when the user types making it hard to recall.

Placeholder disappears when typing
Placeholder text disappears as you type.

2. Lack of browser support

Not all browsers support placeholders. In this case, users will see no placeholder text.

Broken for browsers lacking support
Broken experience for browsers lacking support.

3. Populated values lack clarity

It's obvious that a missing label is fatal. But if the hint is missing, users will find it difficult to provide an answer.

Populated field are hard to use
Populated fields are hard to use.

4. Reviewing entries before submission is difficult

Users often check their entries before submitting the form. As the placeholder text won't be there any more it will be especially difficult to make sure they're happy with their entries. The longer the form the bigger the problem.

5. Errors are hard to fix

Labels and hints help users know how to fill out a field. If an error message appears without context it's harder to fix.

Error message with a label for context.
Different hint patterns when there are errors.

6. Some browsers hide the placeholder on focus

Some browsers hide the placeholder on focus instead of when they start typing. This means the user has to read ahead of the current field to read the hint.

Placeholders disappear on focus
Placeholders disappear on focus.

7. Placeholder text may be mistaken for a value

People that don't notice the subtle difference in contrast will skip the field mistaking it for a value. One test showed that 99% of users thought they didn't need to enter a value. When the user submits the form they'll have to fix an error.

Placeholders mistaken for real values
Placeholders might be mistaken for real values.

Some users try and select placeholder text because they think it's actual text which is confusing when they can't actually select it.

8. They have insufficient contrast

Placeholder text has low contrast to tell users it's not a value. Some people will struggle to read the text because of this.

9. Screen readers may not announce them

Some screen reader don't announce placeholder text making the form difficult to use for screen reader users.

10. The hit area is reduced

Clicking a label moves the focus to the field. This helps everyone but especially users with fine motor skill impairments. Fields with the label and hint outside increases the size of the hit area.

No label means a smaller hit area.
No label means a smaller hit area..

11. Placeholder text can be cut off

If the placeholder is longer than the size of the field it will be cut off. This means you're unnecessarily constrained as to what information you can put inside it.

Placeholder copy gets cropped.
Long text gets cropped.

12. Some browsers don't translate them

For example, when Chrome translates a web page, it will fail to translate placeholder text.

13. Browser auto-complete makes the problem worse

The browser's auto-completion routine populates form fields automatically. This means placeholder text disappears before users get to see it making it difficult for the user to check the values against what the fields intended.

14. In Windows High Contrast Mode placeholder text looks like an actual value

In High Contrast Mode placeholder text is given high contrast color making it look like an actual value.

Placeholder copy gets cropped.
Placeholder text in Windows 10 High Contrast Mode

Summary

Some people ask me if it's okay to use a placeholder in addition to a label. If the hint is valuable to the user, we should make it easy-to-read and readily accessible to everyone.

Other people say that the placeholder is just an enhancement and not essential. If the hint isn't essential then don't include it. Content is not an enhancement.

It's clear—at least in the case of placeholders—that minimal does not mean simple. Avoid placeholders. Always use a label. And, if you need a hint, put it above the field.

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