Sunday, September 19, 2010

Repeating email addresses

A few days ago James Hunter and I were talking about why forms often require the user to repeat their email address. I've always found it irritating, although I'll happily concede that for people who don't spend an inordinate amount of time filling in online forms, it's at most a petty annoyance.

There are two reasons for requesting the repetition:

  1. The email address is a key piece of information, without which it may not be possible to complete the transaction (such as a registration process)
  2. The email address may be a relatively complex string, and a high degree of precision is required for it to be used successfully.

However, these apply equally to a credit card number or card holder name (for example), even though I can't recall a form asking me to repeat those fields. In fact I have mistyped my credit card number on occasion, but the resulting error, or non-confirmation of the transaction, has alerted me to the fact.

The credit card number is a slightly different case, of course, since it is more amenable to parsing and, consequently, error trapping. (Some email address parsing is also possible if the address is not "well formed".)

I find the requirement to repeat the email address patronising and unnecessary. If I really want something and I mis-enter my email address, I am likely to notice I haven't received the service I requested. I don't actually need the sort of hand-holding that a repeated email address implies.

When I run design sessions, and a registration is required, I find that initial designs almost always require the email address to be repeated. When questioned, people generally don't have a rationale other than the fact that it's common practice, and that users "might make a mistake". However, there's seldom any concern about making a mistake with any other information.

There's also an underlying assumption that having a user enter their email address twice will eliminate errors. It won't. Some users are unsure of their email address, and will dutifully enter the wrong address twice.

I've observed many people use copy-and-paste to copy the address from the first field into the second. In my experience, the presence of such workarounds is invariably a sign that there's something amiss from a user experience perspective.

Some implementations take the even more patronising approach of disabling the ability to paste the address into the confirmation field.

Amazon and Facebook both require new customers to repeat their email addresses, although Amazon does not do so until the second step (thus keeping the initial form simpler).

Google doesn't require Gmail users to repeat their email addresses (at least in the selection of processes I checked).

It would be very interesting to know what data on user behaviour informs these different approaches. What does Google know that Facebook doesn't (or vice versa)?

I don't have enough data to support my opinion on this, but, for me, being perceived as patronising is likely a poorer outcome than risking the occasional failure due to mis-typing.


  1. Gerry - I absolutely agree that we need to stop asking for email confirmation. James Mansfield made a similar call earlier this year:

    Hopefully we can get rid of this soon!

  2. Gerry...

    Just off the top of my head (I know I've seen people write a lot about this over the years):

    I always figured that this special treatment of email evolved because--as you suggest--in most transactions if my email address is wrong, the whole thing could be dead in the water. If my name, my phone number, or my credit card number has a typo, as long as the "vendor" has a working email address, they can get in touch with me to let me know and get it fixed. And in a lot of transactions (like subscribing to a newsletter), the email adress is the *only* significant bit of information I provide--and the only one they need.

    I think, as you suggest, that for most people who aren't us, it's a petty annoyance at worst, and the extremely technical-minded may even go so far as to set up an auto-fill macro. (I use Roboform myself, so I rarely spend time filling in forms, but in my case its because I'm lazy rather than annoyed. For very simple forms, I don't even bother triggering it, because typing my email adress twice doesn't feel onerous.)

    In my time spent watching users, I'e rarely found people questioning the double-entry effort because it's been the norm on so many sites for so long that they figure there must be a good reason for it.

    I don't think I can even agree that the tendency to copy and paste (with the risk of replicating errors) is such a bad thing. From my perspective, the act of selecting what's in the first field and pasting it in the second probably increases (albeit slightly) the user's chance of noticing an inadvertent typo, especially if it's glaring. (As for the people who are unsure about their email address to begin with, *nothing* is really going to help them except validating that the address exists before accepting the form as final.)

    Now that I've written this down, I have to say that I'm amazed that I'd disagree with that many parts of something you wrote, because I usually agree with whatever you say. (Maybe it's all James Hunter's fault.)


  3. Thanks Rian - I wasn't aware of James Mansfield's discussion on the topic.

    And thanks Steve. It's interesting that you point out (and I quite agree) that people tend to enter the email address twice without demur. I'm often surprised at the extent to which some people complete every single field on form, even in forms which to my mind over-step the mark in terms of the basic social norms.

    I still don't like the double-entry requirement...