Web Form Design Patterns: Sign-Up Forms, Part 2


Last week we have presented first findings of our web forms survey1. The main objective of the survey was to provide designers and developers with some intuition of how effective web forms are designed; we also presented some guidelines of how an effective and user-friendly web form can be achieved.

We have focused on sign-up forms as we wanted to consider further crucial forms (e.g. checkout forms) separately. Afterwards we’ve gone through each and every one sign-up form of the selected sites and analyzed the design approaches implemented in these forms. Below we present the second part of our findings — the results of our survey among web-forms of 100 popular web-sites where web-forms (should) matter.

Please notice that this post is not about checkout forms — that’s a topic for another discussion, we may consider them separately in one of the upcoming posts. We would like to thank Wufoo2 for providing us with a framework to conduct our survey.

3. Functionality of the forms

In the first part of our research we have considered the placement of the sign-up links and sign-up forms as well as on the visual appearance of forms. However, no matter how nice a design looks like, if the form doesn’t work properly, the completion rates will remain low. Let us now consider the functionality of the sign-up forms as well as typical problems, patterns and solutions used when it comes to the design of these forms.

3.1. Hover, active, focus – effects in use?

Apparently, to improve form completion rates designers try to avoid all kind of distractions and offer a clear, unambiguous and simple web form. This is essentially the reason why any visual effects are used very moderately — if used at all.


  • 84% of the web forms which we’ve reviewed didn’t have any kind of hover, active or focus-effects,
  • 16% used very subtle hover-effects.

3.2. Help, support, tooltips: static or dynamic?

Sometimes the label of the input fields isn’t concrete enough; however, users need to have a sufficient understanding of the information they need to provide. Which characters are allowed in the username? How many characters should a password have? Does a provided e-mail automatically become login to use the service?

Hints and tooltips provide assistance helping users to minimize the number of times an input should be reconsidered. Besides, there is nothing more annoying that some input field which doesn’t accept user’s input although it seems to be perfectly correct. To avoid it, designers make use of (usually) unobtrusive and clear hints.


57% of the reviewed web forms provided “static” help — tips which are supposed to explain what is expected from the user’s input; these tips are obviously placed next to the input field. 10% of the tooltips appear on demand – usually after some help-icon is clicked or when the user is typing the information in the input field.

3.3. Help, support, tooltips: where are they placed?

When providing users with assistance it is necessary to make sure not that the help is simply provided, but that it can be easily found and understood by users. It is crucial to make sure that users don’t make mistakes associating a hint to an input field. To achieve it you need to know where users expect hints to appear. So where are hints and help usually placed within the form?


If hints and help appear, they appear…

  • below the field (57%)
  • on the right side of the field (26%)
  • above the field (13%)
  • on the left side of the field (4%)

We have observed a strong trend toward hints placed directly below the input field. Usually such hints have a slightly different color, in most cases lighter than the main content.

3.4. Input validation: static or Ajax?

Although Ajax seems to have literally flooded web sites with a rich user interaction over the last years, it still hasn’t managed to reach a critical mass among popular web-services. Surprisingly, we weren’t able to identify a trend toward Ajax. The “classic” validation techniques which validate input after the user has clicked on the submit-button are more popular than real-time-validation with JavaScript.

According to our research,

  • 30% of the forms displayed only an error-message at the top of the form (no input fields were highlighted),
  • 29% had highlighted input fields with corresponding messages next to the input field (no error-messages were provided at the top of the page),
  • 25% used both error-messages and input fields,
  • 22% used real-time validation with Ajax,
  • 14% used JavaScript-error warnings,
  • 1% used a system-message with a “go back”-link.

3.5. Design of error messages

As you can see, we have identified six different types of error validation. It is remarkable that 14% of the forms still use Javascript-error-windows to communicate problems (e.g. YouSendIt6, Mail.ru7, Newsvine128, Clipmarks9, Yandex10, see screenshot below) while only 22% had at least partial Ajax-validation (usually for checking available user names). It is also remarkable that not a single site had no validation whatsoever.

Newsvine128 uses JavaScript-error warnings to communicate problems.

Usually designers tend to report mistakes using a) error messages appearing after the submit-button is clicked and / or b) highlighting “incorrect” input fields visually. In the first case errors are usually bulleted and presented as a list at the top of the page, before the form. In the second case usually the color of the border of the “wrong” input field is highlighted together with the label of the field (in most cases with a red text color and red background color).

Sometimes designers combine both techniques and use error message as well as the input field highlighting. For instance, consider the sign-up form on Ning2113 (see image below) which combines both techniques.


Usually, red is used to indicate mistakes; however it is not necessarily the case. Tickspot15, Mixx.com16 and Furl17 use yellow to communicate problems occurred during the form completion.


However, if any color is used at all to communicate a successful registration, then it is green. It was the case in 97% of web-sites where success was highlighted visually.


3.6. Is it necessary to confirm the e-mail?

Only in 18% of the cases it was necessary to confirm the e-mail (e.g. Odeo20, Ning2113). To be honest, we don’t really see any rationale in asking users to re-type the e-mail — after all, users can see what they input because the e-mail field is not starred out (updated). Do you?


3.7. Is it necessary to confirm the password?

It sounds reasonable to ask the user to confirm the input as the user doesn’t see the information typed in (he/she sees asterisks instead). However, many sited decide to remove one input field to minimize the time required to complete the form.


In 72% of the cases it was necessary to confirm the password. However, many large sites such as Facebook, Friendster, LinkedIn, Stumbleupon, Pownce and Twitter don’t require password confirmation.

3.8. Is captcha in use?

While users would definitely be glad if captchas were gone, they are necessary in practice, because web-sites need to make it impossible for spambots to create numerous accounts as otherwise they would need to filter spam accounts in the database.

According to our research,

  • 52% of the sites don’t use captcha,
  • in 39% of the cases it was impossible to reload the captcha without reloading the whole form. This is really dramatic from the usability point of view.

However, we couldn’t identify a trend toward sign-up forms with or without captchas. In any case, if you use a captcha, please make sure that it is either always easily readable or users can reload the image in case it is not readable. Some sites haven’t offered the possibility to reload the captcha, but Digg, AOL, Slashdot, Google and Last.fm have made it possible to the users to listen to it in case it is hard to recognize.

3.9. Cancel-button in use?

When we were coming up with the design problems to consider when designing web forms, we have expected sign-up forms to not have a cancel-button, as it doesn’t really make much sense for the users to abort the form completion after all fields have been typed in. Yet we were partly wrong.

The cancel-button was used only in 8% of the cases. In some of these cases the “cancel”-button came right after the “terms and conditions”-section (e.g. Zoho Writer24). Consequently, if users do not want to agree to the service conditions, they could abort the process. On the other side, some services offer a payment plan before the registration (e.g. Crazyegg25). In case users have selected the wrong payment plan they can get back with the cancel-button and select another plan they prefer.


Apart from that: we just don’t understand why Dzone27 has a cancel-button placed on the left in its sign-up form.

If the cancel-button is used, it is placed on the right side of the submit-button (4%). Among the sites reviewed in the post cancel and submit-buttons didn’t have a strong visual difference and were placed next to each other. From the usability point of view it makes more sense to use a clear visual distinction between primary action buttons and secondary action buttons and introduce a significant amount of space to clearly separate them.

3.10. Alignment of the submit-button

Depending on the form layout it may make sense to align the submit-button on the left, on the right side or place it in the middle of the layout. Designers seem to have a strong preference toward left-aligned submit-buttons (56%), followed by centered buttons (26%).


Right-aligned submit-button is still popular (17%), however it is often used when designers want to indicate the next step of the registration. In such cases submit-buttons are often titled “Continue” or “Next”. Reason: in usual desktop-applications “Next”-button is also often right-aligned.

3.11. Thank-you message

While few years ago most services offered a simple, basic thank-you message after a successful registration (usually with a link to the login-page), now most sites try to motivate users to explore the service immediately.

  • 45% of the forms asked just registered users to proceed with submitting further information, finding friends in the networks, suggesting the site to friends or filling out his or her profile.
  • 33% of the forms presented “places to go” and functions to explore in an engaging, user-friendly-tone,
  • 4% offered a basic “thank you”-message,
  • 2% had a redirect to the homepage.

Further findings

  • tab index was used correctly in 99% of the cases (the only exception was Habrahabr29)
  • 24% of forms used conversational talk, trying to address users needs by speaking with them through labels. Informal phrases such as “What’s your name?”, “Your e-mail, please?” or “I’d like to…” are common in this context.
  • 38% of sites prefer to remain formal and use business talk, asking users the required information user-friendly (e.g. “Your name”, “Confirm password” etc.),
  • 38% of sites use system talk; here visitors are asked for their “Login”, “User password”, “Location” etc.

Bottom line

Let’s conclude with a brief overview of the findings presented above. Please keep in mind that we have considered only sign-up forms.

  • sign-up forms don’t have any hover, active or focus-effects (84%),
  • hints and help are either static (57%) or dynamic (33%) and appear below the input field (57%) or on the right side of the field (26%),
  • static validation is as popular as dynamic validation — no trend toward Ajax;
  • e-mail confirmation is not used (82%),
  • password confirmation is used (72%),
  • captcha can be used or not used (48% vs. 52%),
  • cancel button is not used (92%),
  • the submit-button is left-aligned (56%) or centered (26%),
  • thank-you message motivates users to proceed with exploring the services of the site (45%).


  1. 1 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/07/04/web-form-design-patterns-sign-up-forms/
  2. 2 http://www.wufoo.com
  3. 3 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/images/web-form-design-patterns-part2/hover.jpg
  4. 4 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/images/web-form-design-patterns-part2/help-support.jpg
  5. 5 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/images/web-form-design-patterns-part2/help.jpg
  6. 6 http://www.yousendit.com/
  7. 7 http://www.mail.ru
  8. 8 http://www.newsvine.com
  9. 9 http://www.clipmarks.com
  10. 10 http://passport.yandex.ru
  11. 11 https://www.newsvine.com/_tools/new/user
  12. 12 http://www.newsvine.com
  13. 13 http://www.ning.com
  14. 14 https://www.ning.com/main/profile/signUp?target=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ning.com%2Fhome%2Fapps%2Fcreate%3FappUrl%3Dsocialnetwork%26network_name%3D%26network_url%3D&from=home
  15. 15 http://www.tickspot.com/
  16. 16 http://www.mixx.com/
  17. 17 http://www.furl.net/
  18. 18 http://www.tickspot.com/
  19. 19 http://www.tickspot.com/
  20. 20 http://www.odeo.com
  21. 21 http://www.ning.com
  22. 22 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/images/web-form-design-patterns-part2/re-type-email.jpg
  23. 23 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/images/web-form-design-patterns-part2/re-type-pass.jpg
  24. 24 http://writer.zoho.com/jsp/home.jsp?serviceurl=%2Findex.do
  25. 25 http://www.crazyegg.com
  26. 26 http://www.dzone.com/links/users/register.html
  27. 27 http://www.dzone.com/links/users/register.html
  28. 28 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/images/web-form-design-patterns-part2/submit-alignment.jpg
  29. 29 http://www.habrahabr.ru/

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Vitaly Friedman loves beautiful content and doesn’t like to give in easily. Vitaly is writer, speaker, author and editor-in-chief of Smashing Magazine. He runs responsive Web design workshops, online workshops and loves solving complex performance problems in large companies. Get in touch.

  1. 1

    Kanchan Tamhankar

    July 9, 2008 11:35 pm

    Very informative and useful as ever.. Good job..

    Just bumped on this article when I was about to start with a new form design. So can say it was more than the “timely” help.. :))

    Looking forward to more articles..

  2. 52

    Decent article!

  3. 103

    As someone who’s been creating websites and developing forms since the 1997 it is nice to see that there are some parts of the web that still maintain the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid). Forms have become much more visually appealing but without the need to clutter or confuse. If forms can acheive this balance then more thought really should be going into what you put on a page. “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should” is the motto I live by and it has served me very well.

    Nice topic!

  4. 154

    Great research! This is a very helpful article! Congratulations

  5. 205

    Excellent article.. Love all the stats about web forms..

  6. 256

    I love it!

    I think it’s very important to us, know more about some patterns when we will design a new form.

    Thank you for this new post series :)

  7. 307

    Excellent article.

  8. 358

    If I’m looking for a ‘good’ way of doing something, SM is the page I hit first, always! With articles like the above, it’s a no-brainer. Conversion rates would be the icing on the cake… nice.

  9. 409

    Could you suggest a color other than red?

  10. 460

    This is very timely as I’m in the middle of undertaking my first serious storefront application. Please do follow up with the article on checkout forms. This is consistently one of the most useful blogs I’ve seen. Thanks!

  11. 511

    I would like to echo everyone elses sentiment, very good article.

    In responce to antpaw (comment #4), I think the reason people use a backend script is because you can use ssl or something like that to encrypt the traffic, I believe simple ajax requests go un-encrypted / plain-text.!!?

    If anybody knows different I would be interesting in finding out to acheive a level of encryption with ajax.

  12. 562

    Thanks for the great write-up; very informative! I’ve noticed one inconsistency though. Section 3.2 says:
    57% use static hints.
    33% use no hints.
    10% use dynamic hints.

    However, the conclusion (“Bottom Line”) says that dynamic hints occur 33% of the time.


  13. 613

    The reason most sites still use the server side validation is that the AJAX validation is really easy to bypass. Rather than writing and maintaining two sets of identical functionality, most sites are simply focusing on keeping it where it’s most important: on the server.

  14. 664

    i follow it since part 1. thx for this good article, very usefull data

  15. 715

    Anyone have an opinion about using the “obscured” password fields in a sign-up form? I mean, this is a pain for users (often requiring a second, confirmation field to confirm you typed it the way you intended to), and seems a little outdated. Really, are people peeking over your cubicle trying to read your password while you’re signing up?

  16. 766

    Geert van Grunderbeek

    July 14, 2008 12:54 am

    @Vitaly Friedman & Sven Lennartz: tx, i will stay tuned! :-)

  17. 817

    Really Impressing .. Thanks SM

  18. 868

    Me Gusto Bastante el Articulo.. sobre todo el buen estudio que realizaron.. acerca del boton cancelar si no se usa nada mejor sacarlo :D

    Saludos de Chile!!!
    Viva chile Mierd….a

  19. 919

    Very informative thanks

  20. 970

    Can’t disagree more with the couple of folks that want people to type in long emails (that they can actually see) twice.
    Would you then ask ppl to fill EVERYTHING in twice? No you wouldn’t, because you know they can type pretty accurately and when they DO mistype, they can actually SEE it (as opposed to a ‘hidden’ pwd) and correct it.
    So don’t think people are more stupid than they really are, all you’re gonna do is p*ss the large majority right off, just because of the 1% that don’t care enough anyway… Bad move, mister.

  21. 1021

    I really think the input validation functionality is most important. Through your post, I did get to learn some interesting stuff. Thanks

  22. 1072

    Any information on how many of these sites require new members to leave the site after signup to retrieve an email sent to them and then re-enter through a link in that email so their email address is fully confirmed? Our web designer thinks this is common but I’d like some outside confirmation.

  23. 1123

    You guys are always on top of it. Thanks for the great article!

  24. 1174

    Adriatic Web Design Company

    October 25, 2008 6:27 am

    Thanks for the research, this info is useful!

  25. 1225

    Jelle Vervloessem

    October 29, 2008 1:44 am

    When can we expect the guidelines for effective web form implementation?
    Is it also possible to give us some information about the Login forms and Password Retrieve/Reset systems and lay-out ?


  26. 1276

    Really useful survey, good and objective work. Thanks guys!

  27. 1327

    Designers seem to have a strong preference toward left-aligned submit-buttons (56%), followed by centered buttons (26%).

    I wonder if that’s really about the design-approval-process, rather than the designers. In my (completely anectodal, unscientific) research, designers prefer the right side for save/continue; possibly as a result of Mac dialog boxes, or an association of right with “future” (turning the page, sliding along a timeline, etc.). The business-types, who often have the final approval, seem to like it on the left.

    I’m a designer with the final word, so mine are on the right ;)

  28. 1378

    This is comman but really help full things

  29. 1429



  30. 1480



  31. 1531

    Thanks for this article, i have really enjoyed reading articles like these

  32. 1582

    This article is quite useful especially when looking on the usability of the form versus design…like it!!!

  33. 1633

    Any word on when the “check out” form how-to is coming out
    Did I miss seeing it?

  34. 1684

    These are all really great and useful tips. But one problem I, as a user, run into all the time are forms that are based around images. if I’m dial-up (yes, it still exists in a few places) and I’m surfing without images because they slow the process down…I won’t be able to see the form elements if they are images. Care is always made to make sites accessible but often this is forgotten when it comes to forms. Just sayin.

  35. 1735

    My 2 cents about the email confirmation: On my website, I need to authenticate the email with an activation email.
    The problem is the 1% of users without computer skills who often do not know their exact email address (typos, mixing the domains (.com instead of .ch), adding “www.” at the beginning, …). Requesting an email confirmation has dropped the error rate.
    But I still have not found a bullet proof system to get the correct email each time and I still have to manage support emails…
    (People do not read the confirmation page (2 sentences!) on which I write where the activation email is sent….)

    Thanks for this great article!!!

  36. 1786

    While each state has its own rules of evidence, many states model their rules on the Federal Rules of Evidence, which themselves relate closely to the common-law mode of examination. ,

  37. 1837

    Great and Thanks….

  38. 1888

    Maciek Saganowski

    April 15, 2010 2:42 am

    Thanks for a great post. I’ve written on a similar topic here http://www.uxandall.com/best-signup-is-no-signup

  39. 1939

    You have done a great job! Thanks so much!

  40. 1990

    Hi. Can anyone point me to an article suggestion best practices for a registration form when the choice is to use an overlay versus a regular page? Thanks

  41. 2041

    I can tell you why the cancel button is on the left when it is used. This dates back to the original UI of the Macintosh where dialog boxes had the (OK) button to the far right, and all other options like (Cancel) were to the left of it.

    There are actually specific reasons to do them this way for a user interface, but you’d have to reference the early HIG documents for the details that I no longer recall off the top of my head.

  42. 2092

    Awesome tips. Seriously useful and to-the-point.
    I see this is Part 2, though. Looking for part 1. Perhaps add a link to related articles somewhere easy to spot on the page? I’m going to look for it now, because I’m sure it’s worth the effort anyway ;)

  43. 2194

    Gr8 Job .. this article is really helpful..

  44. 2245

    Mitchell de Rijcke

    May 3, 2011 12:10 pm

    This is what web designers like me need!
    I would really like more!

  45. 2296

    Hi ,

    I have one challenge ………..

    In one of my website i have one form . In that as usual one submit button is there…..
    My challenge is , If any one fill all the requirements and press the submit button …
    then the receiver have to receive the entire Design of that Form.

    This is it……

  46. 2347

    I can tell you why the cancel button is on the left in this example. It’s because of a continuous eye-tracking: When the cancel-button is on the right, you look at the confirm-button (on the left), then at the cancel-button (real quick) and then back to the confirm-button to click it. So when the cancel-button is on the left you look at it first, then at the confirm-button to click it and you save one step ;D

    Personally I think that sounds logical, but I don’t know if it really works that good, as the “cancel-button-left” version is already convention I think… does anybody has some test results on that?

  47. 2398

    Very interesting idea

  48. 2449

    It would be great to see some design update cases that lead to significant changes in conversion rates, by showing after-before metrics associated with the design changes..


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