“Please enter a valid last name”

Getting UX right starts with a name.

A few weeks back, a friend posted the following screenshot to Facebook:

Image for post
Image for post

The first comment:

And just like that, you never existed.

Another comment:

I guess this makes you an invalid.

Several of her friends — an O’Hare and an O’Dooley, a Janet Alice and a Caseyrenée, and me — all chimed in: same here.

Our names are invalid.

Now—if you work in tech or web development, you might look at that error message and think, “So what? Her entry is clearly invalid according to the rules of the login form.”

And yes. You’re obviously right. The form has been set up so as to follow particular rules about what can be entered into a Last name field. Rules that apparently include a stipulation that last names can’t have a “special character” like a space in them.

Because whose last name has a space in it, amiright?

But the perspective behind that rebuttal is pure techie. In such a perspective, there are systems with rules and the rules are more or less good based on how well they enable human interaction with a system.

To the techie perspective, a result of invalid on someone’s last name is simply an edge case the original design didn’t allow for, which causes the system to throw an error. The rule is bad to the extent to which it failed to allow interaction.

But to the rest of the world, invalid is very much a charged term. Few words, in fact, have so much power to speak to displacement, marginalization, diminution.

To the rest of the world, to be invalid is to be set apart. To be abnormal.

Common usage doesn’t care about our jargon, our focus on systems and what breaks systems. In common usage, our seemingly neutral diction can turn, at the press of a tab or enter key, into a recapitulation of deeply fraught power relations that aren’t merely academic issues, but also, and far more powerfully, existential issues of identity and exclusion.

In the abstract, in its function within the software systems it informs, sure: Invalid is harmless, is charge-neutral.

But when a human being enters the equation … well, charged particles fly.

Imagine the impact of that: the feeling of being told that your name is invalid.

Think of all the history and emotion bound up in a name.

Think of the woman I know who was born a man, and who now has to hear a digital product tell her that her now-legal last name—the one that she chose to reflect her transition into a fully embodied self—is invalid.

Ask yourself: what does that mean to her?

Imagine telling the young man who gained his surname via a system of violent oppression that that name is invalid.

Ask yourself: what does that mean to him?

Consider the middle-aged tech worker whose hyphenated last name is a palimpsest of broken promises and heroic efforts, half the legacy of a dead-beat dad, half the mark of a devoted stepfather. (That’s me, by the way.)

Ask yourself: what does invalid mean to him?

And in the face of all your answers to those 3 questions: is invalid really a term you want to keep using in your software?

Does it reflect the kind of empathy you want your products to possess?

Okay, so invalid is a tricky term to use in interfaces. What do you say instead?

The key is to not think in terms of the system, but to think in terms of the human being trying to use the system.

Instead, think of the concrete realities of the error. Not that it is an error but why it’s an error. And then explain that.

So instead of “Please enter a valid Last name” you could say:

Sorry, this form doesn’t allow for spaces in last names. Please enter your last name again, without spaces.

Or better yet, we could just fix the fucking problem. We could acknowledge that names not only can but definitely do include things like dashes, spaces, apostrophes, and more. We could remember that they’re wild, squirrely things, with deep, often-fraught histories.

And we could remember that a hyphen might be the tie that binds a life together. That tells a very human, very valid story.

And hey, if we’re going to make empathy part of our design process, maybe we could start with getting people’s names right.

Thanks to Jonathon Colman

John Moore Williams

Written by

Director of Content Strategy @webflow. Fascinated by content, strategy, the web, UX, devices, lit, & art. All these opines are mine.

John Moore Williams

Written by

Director of Content Strategy @webflow. Fascinated by content, strategy, the web, UX, devices, lit, & art. All these opines are mine.

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