Placeholders are problematic
Since the placeholder attribute came along, designers have used it as means of storing hints. The appeal lies in their minimal aesthetic (they save space).
Some designers go one one 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 are hard to remember
The placeholder disappears when the user types. Once it’s gone it’s hard to recall.
2. Lack of browser support
Not all browsers support placeholders. In which case, the user will suffer a broken experience.
3. Populated values lack clarity
It’s obvious that a missing label is fatal. But if the hint is missing, a user will find it harder to provide an answer.
4. Reviewing entries before submission is difficult
A user will need to memorise all the hints in order to check their form entries before submission. This is because as each form field is filled out, the hint disappears. The more fields there are, the bigger the problem.
5. Errors are hard to fix
Errors are hard to fix because the message and the value lack context. And the hint may contain information to help fix the error.
You could write a verbose error message. For example “Your password must be at least 8 characters” instead of “Must be at least 8 characters”. But this doesn’t entirely solve the problem.
6. Some browsers hide the placeholder on focus
Some browsers hide the placeholder when the user focuses, instead of when they start typing. This means the user has to read ahead of the current field to read the hint.
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 will be frustratingly shown an error.
Or some users will try and select the placeholder text (because they think it’s actual text) and it will be confusing when they can’t.
8. They have insufficient contrast
Placeholder text has a lower contrast to help users realise it’s not a value. Some people will struggle to read the text due to the lack of contrast.
9. Screen readers may not announce them
Placeholders may not be read out by screen readers making this exclusive to sighted users.
10. The hit area is reduced
Clicking a label moves the focus to the field. This helps everyone but even moreso to users with fine motor skill impairments. Fields with the label and hint outside, increases the size of the 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 to what information you can put inside it.
12. Some browsers don’t translate them
For example, when Chrome translates a web page, it will fail to translate the text inside a placeholder.
13. Browser auto-complete exacerbates the problem
The browser’s auto-completion routine populates the fields automatically. This means the placeholder text disappears 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 colors, making it look like an actual value.
Some people ask me if it’s okay to use a placeholder in addition to a label. I say that if the hint is valuable to the user, we should make it easy-to-read and readily accessible. The placeholder doesn’t meet these requirements.
Others say that the placeholder is just an enhancement and not essential to the user. To this I say that 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 do need a hint, place it outside the field.
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