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Web Forms: First/Last Name vs. Full Name

Posted on 2005-05-09
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Last Modified: 2012-06-27
I am reworking a system with a form that collects the Prefix, First Name, Last Name and Suffix using four separate textboxes.  

We lookup registrants but the query looks in both the First Name and Last Name fields combined.  We currently use the fields for correspondence but nothing different than what people would normally enter their name as (Mr. John Smith, PHD).

My question is, why should I bother collecting this information in separate fields?  Why not just use a Full Name field?  I understand the obvious stuff like: being able to format the name and sorting by first/last name.  But, fundementally, doesn't it make more sense to let people just enter their own name?

I am looking for comments from those who have contemplated this and made a decision one way or another.  I am part of a comittee and I proposed this a way to simplify our form but I would like some expert input.

Points will increase based on the number of responses and the level of information provided.  Links to specific articles or resources would be very helpful as well.

Thank you all.
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Question by:stengelj
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by:jaysef
jaysef earned 600 total points
ID: 13962640
When I used to design web forms, this came up a couple of times.

First:
I have two middle names. Whenever I come across a website that has no middle name option or just has the space for an initial, I become frustrated.


I recommend just putting first and last together, maybe even putting suffix in that too.
It's pretty standard to keep prefix its own option, so I would do that.

Names, especially from non-western countries, are often more complicated than John Smith. Even common names are easy to mess up if you try to format names - One user complained when I didn't allow a space inside last name -- I had forgotten that some people have "van" before their last name.

So, I thoroughly recommend one box for first and last, unless you absolutely need to be able to sort by last name. Then, of course, you'll have to keep it the way you have it.

hth,
Jay
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by:rdivilbiss
rdivilbiss earned 600 total points
ID: 13962763
People usually are not reliable enough to enter their own name in a format which you are prepared to accept in a computer processing environment.

J. K. O'Brian Jon O'Brian John O'Brian John K. O'Brian J. Kellogg OBriam Kellog O'Brian J. Kellogg O'Brian Mr. J. K. O'Brian Mr. Jon O'Brian Mr. John O'Brian Mr. John K. O'Brian Mr. J. Kellogg OBriam Mr. Kellog O'Brian Mr. J. Kellogg O'Brian J. K. O'Brian, Jr. Jon O'Brian, Jr. John O'Brian, Jr. John K. O'Brian, Jr. J. Kellogg OBriam, Jr. Kellog O'Brian, Jr. J. Kellogg O'Brian, Jr. J. K. O'Brian, II Jon O'Brian, II John O'Brian, II John K. O'Brian, II J. Kellogg OBriam, II Kellog O'Brian, II J. Kellogg O'Brian, II

All of the above are valid responses to a single field name, (even though some contains a typo).  You can not write computer instructions to reliably parse the names into formats you can use for matching.  If you can't match you can't search.  I didn't even finish the valid combinatons, such a Mister John Kellog O'Brian, Junior.

Many people will enter names in a lower case, or all capital letters.  Just putting a person's surname into propercase is so difficult (for a computer) that there is no algorithm extant to deal with every possible name.  Actually, it is impossible.

Example:  Person enters vandyke or VANDYKE.  Is the propercase of that name "VanDyke" or "Vandyke"?  You have no way to know the answer such that you can program a computer.  Before you ignore the difficulty of dealing with just the surname versus the whole name, you need to consider that all people do not enter their name first middle last.  In fact some people have names that have no relationship the the Eurpoean style name.  A Vietnamese name is completely different.

The complexity of the computer code to deal with names entered in one text box would bring your system to its knees.

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by:stengelj
ID: 13962967
rdivilbiss,

Thank you for your comments but is seems as if you are really making a case for a single text box.  Given the level of complexity and number of possible variations, wouldn't two boxes be even more complicated than one?

In our case, I don't really care if they have no first name, 5 middle names or a last name with an @ sign in it.  Our only pupose for collecting the name is to look them up (by some matching string in the name or email address) and to say:

Dear <fieldname>,

The case formatting is one I hadn't really thought about, but I think I would ultimately have the same issues with multiple boxes vs. one box.

>"You can not write computer instructions to reliably parse the names into formats you can use for matching"

Not quite sure what you mean here...Assuming my search script strips out single-quotes, wouldn't a search for "obrian" match pretty much all your examples by last name?  Probably what you mean is I could not directly search for a last name of O'Brian.  In other words, "Steven" would also match Steven Smith and John Stevens.  This is a valid point but, since, at most we will only ever be dealing with fewer than 10,000 names, I don't know that this would be that big of an issue.  I could see how it could generate unnecessary results but I'll have to test against our existing database to see whether it would be significant.

-----------------------------

jaysef (welcome to EE!),

I hear what you are saying about the prefix...My dilema (and probably everyone else) is do you leave it open as a simple textbox or do you create a fixed dropdownlist to preserve formatting?


-----------------------------
Point bump 250 to 300 (see how that works!)
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by:mrichmon
ID: 13963104
Just my input here...

It is always beneficial to collect these portions separately.  You never know what request you may need later of the data and this gives you the most flexibility.

You also are not preventing people from entering their name.  You just have more separation of data.

Now if you want to do searches on combined data that IS possible even if separated.  But the reverse is not true.

We always have names entered in pieces (and you will find almost every major system does the same).  But we have queries that return the name already put together in the way the system calling the query needs it.

it doesn't hurt to collect the data as pieces and then use as combined elements and gives you the most flexibility for any future expansion.  And the collection isn't that much more effort.  And people it is not uncommon so people are used to the interface of entering their names in parts.
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by:jaysef
ID: 13963184
Thanks for the welcome! I consider myself a reasonable all-around guy with technology, from C# to computer building, so I thought it would be fun to hang out with people who are into tech stuff too.

For prefix, I think that a fixed drop down list is usually more efficient than a textbox, assuming you provide a couple of options, such as Mr, Mrs, Ms, Dr, Rev. If you want to get specific, you could include other things, like General, (a google brought up this site, and scrolling down it looked pretty good: http://www.globalwebarch.com/freesite/RDBMS-GG-C04-8.html)

I know that I said I like the flexibility of a single textbox for names - but I like the rigidness of a single list for prefixes. (Hope that doesn't sound like I'm contradicting myself :-)

Have fun and I hope this helps,
Jay

ps - This part is really just my personal opinion. I don't have experience with any other than a dropdown list, so I can't say anything bad about a small textbox.
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Expert Comment

by:rdivilbiss
ID: 13963239
>wouldn't two boxes be even more complicated than one?

No, you reduce the complexity by separating the name into labeled parts.

>Our only pupose for collecting the name is to look them up ...

When you say look them up, I am assuming from your language you mean find a match.  All of the variations of J K O'Brian are the same human yet none of them match.  Maybe you need to clarify "look them up"  Look them up where?  Against what?

>The case formatting is one I hadn't really thought about, but I think I would ultimately have the same issues with multiple boxes vs. one box.

Not really.  First you do not have to parse punctuation, and with the exception of the last name, you can usually proper case first names and initials.  Or you can capitalize the entire name, to avoid the issue, but you still have look up or matching problems.

Do not understand>"You can not write computer instructions to reliably parse the names into formats you can use for matching"

Write a program to take all the variations of J. K. O'Brian and return the name you can use for matching (looking up) without missing a match and without matching Jane Kelly O'Brian... almost impossible.

Heck, just write a program to take the surname alone out of a conjoined field.  What is the surname in Tran Thanti Cam Van?

Why introduce the complexity in the first place?  If you ask for a first name and a surname, the person will likely give you the same answer each time (except for women who take their husband's surname at marraige.)

When you simply ask for a name, you may get any number of variations and it may not be the same variation on the person's next visit.  If for no other reason than I can not remember a single important form I have complete, since before computers were available for business that did not ask for my name to be separated into parts.  If I am not commonly asked to give my whole name in a single entry, I will not remember if I use Rod or Roderick, did or did not give my middle initial, etc.  You are asking the person to give you errors.

I have no vested interest in which way you choose to do this, but if you ask for one whole name, rather than the individual parts, you will be very unhappy when it comes time to sort, match or do anything useful with the data.




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by:jaysef
ID: 13963902
rdivilbiss does have some good comments in that message above.

Are you going to be asking for users to enter their name and contact info more than once?
I figured that it would just be one time so they could get on a mailing list or something like that.

However, if you are going to need to work with the data a lot, and users will have to enter their info a lot, my one box idea might not be the best.

If they just have to sign up for a mailing list or a similar thing - which it looks like you're doing at the moment, I don't think that it would hurt to just have one name box - users can customize exactly what gets sent to them. Considering that you already had a surname field, I think users shouldn't be expected to always enter the same data (my father has a Ph.D., occasionally he goes by Dr. or with a ,PhD at the end, but 99.9% of the time he does plain Mr.)

Jay
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Expert Comment

by:mrichmon
ID: 13963948
It takes far less work to ask for names as parts in the beginning than it does to change your system even a year or 10 years down the road....
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Author Comment

by:stengelj
ID: 13964476
This isn't about saving me time.  It's about making it easier for the customer.  Don't get me wrong.  I've used multiple boxes for all 10 years I've been in web development and have always thought it was the logical and standar thing to do and, from a developer standpoint, it probably is in most cases.

I have just now found myself in an awkward spot where it's not necessary to have the name broken out proper, but historically, the more we shorten our form, the more results we get.  So, I'm weighing my options.  

While doing some unrelated research I ran across some big name sites (amazon.com, wired.com) who are only using one box in their registration.  So, I asked myself, "why am I bothering with multiple boxes".

My scenario in more detail:

- We are a research center for a specialized library.  People request research assistance from our research specialists (this is where the form is).  The form initially is a registration process during which we collect necessary information to validate them as eligible for research.  Subsequent request (like on EE) only require a login (account number) or the use of a cookie.  

- The system processes about 15,000 request per year.  About 1/2 of those requests are repeat customers.

- About 1/2 of the responses to the requests are replied to by email.  The other half have materials shipped to them (Name is used for the shipping label).

- For phone requests, receptionists will search for part or all of the customer's name or by email address to see if the caller has already been registered.

---------------------------------------
Point bump 300 to 400
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Expert Comment

by:rdivilbiss
ID: 13965323
This kind of reminds me of a freshman Physics course, where the students have so little knowledge that you have to carefully narrow the scope of a question to such a degree that it can be answered.

Given a ball of perfectly spherical deminsions, in a vacuum chamber with no friction, how much force does it take to ....

If you wish to define your question narrowly enough, your answer can be correct.  Note I say your answer because you have already decided what you want the answer to be and you only want evidence to support your answer in committee.

Given enough points and time, someone who needs the points will agree with you and maybe supply some argument which you deem sufficient.

However, there is no ball of perfectly sperical dimension in the real world and in the real world you will need to sort, dedupe and/or use the data collected for purposes you are not considering at this point or which have not occured to you, but will eventually be asked of you.

In that world, you will need to separate the name.

I am familiar with Amazon and Wired.  Both have my separated first and last name.  Given they have that information, it is perfectly acceptable to ask at another point in time for my preference for my full name, or how my full name appears on my credit card.

If you have a unique identifier, such as the e-mail address, then you may be fine getting only the full name.

But again, this is a very arbitrary and narrowly defined use.  History shows that will not be the norm.  A manager will want information or a report from your list of names which you (or you successor) will have to hand tweak.

>>But, fundementally, doesn't it make more sense to let people just enter their own name?

If you continue to narrow the scope of the question enough, it may.  Doesn't make it a good idea, just justified by the narrowly defined question.


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by:stengelj
ID: 13968712
"...freshman Physics course.."

More like a philosophy class where a student who has run out of insightful comments has resorted to shallow and sarcastic remarks because they don't understand the reason for the question.  I would have expected more class from the "feature expert".  I appreciate your points in your previous comments but this isn't the lounge my friend.

I am looking for answers outside of a technical nature and on a more conceptual level.  If ultimately, the best reason and dominant reason for using multiple boxes is for technical reasons, fine.  I just don't want my justification to be, "Because everyone else does it this way and it's the norm".  I am wanting something a little deeper than the obvious - if there isn't anything, so be it.
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by:jaysef
ID: 13969261
Hey again,
I think if you feel that there is no need for the two boxes, I think that's appropriate then. I have never designed a web database to be used by over 4,500 people, so I've found the "full name" works fine. Many of the other developers here have probably designed a lot more than I have - I'm much more of a user than a designer when it comes to the Internet :)

If a multi-billion dollar Amazon can do it, I'm sure that you can. It's even one or two less fields that you have to manage in the database.

I still think that having a pull down list of prefixes and then the name box is a good way to go. I've seen in web design that after the basics, there are few norms (which can lead to horrid websites, but good ones too :)

If you think that you will ever need to access the first or last name fields, of course you'll need to keep them seperate. But from your situation, it seems like you won't need that.

In fact, if the receptionist is searching for part of the name, it could be a little less work if it's all together. (I know that it's not hard to put the name together from seperate fields too)

I know my ideas probably conflict with the other peoples' here, but I just don't see why you need seperate boxes when all you are doing is using the name as a mailing.
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mrichmon earned 600 total points
ID: 13969378
Please everyone, try to remain professional.

stengelj,  The fact is that it is better, in general, for multiple reasons - not just technical ones.  

For example, it turns out that users are less confused when asked to specifically break up their name, than when presented with a single input box.  Run some usability tests and you will see this.  People like it when it is very clear what to enter.  A single box is confusing.  Should I enter Last, First?  First Middle Last?  First Last?  Last, First Middle?  Last First?  (Yes this is common from asian cultures if left with a blank "full name" box).

But rdivilbiss is correct, in that you don't seem interested in the opinions being presented even though you asked for our input.  If you are convinced that you want to collect as a single field then so be it.  We are just offering the input you asked for - you can accept it or not.

I don't know about you, but I have been involved in several re-designs of projects where the original person thought it was better to collect as one field.  The documentation showed that they would NEVER need the data separate.

But guess why I was asked to re-design the project?

Because the original person was no longer around and lo and behold there WAS a need for the data to be separated.  People had to be hired to manually go over all previous data to determine how to convert the old data to new.  And there were errors.  Just because of situations that rdivilbiss brought up such as names like Tran Thanti Cam Van.

So rdivilbiss is just telling you that even though you may be convinced that for now you only need one field, it is better to look at the bigger picture to avoid problems down the road.
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by:stengelj
ID: 13970310
"It's pretty standard to keep prefix its own option, so I would do that."

"If you have a unique identifier, such as the e-mail address, then you may be fine getting only the full name."

"...it turns out that users are less confused when asked to specifically break up their name, than when presented with a single input box.  Run some usability tests and you will see this.  People like it when it is very clear what to enter.  A single box is confusing."

These are examples of the kind of input I am looking for.  I understand the specific technical ramifications and I agree with and understand everyone's warnings but that not really what I wanted.  If that was not clear enough in my original question, I apologize.

My goal is to make the form easier for the user and one of my decision points was whether or not to use just a single box.  I wanted feedback from others who may have seen specific user studies or have personal experience with considering this option.

I'm not rejecting or ignoring any suggestions.  I am merely playing 'devil's advocate' to help you help me.  I have no problem having my comments and questions slammed when they are supported with useful information.

I haven't made a decision either way (yes, I am part of a committe but it is my committee and the only one I need to convince is myself).  My tendency has always been towards separated boxes but I wanted to explore some other options.  I appreciate and value all of the comments you all have provided and will ponder each one as it relates to my decision.
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Expert Comment

by:rdivilbiss
ID: 13970384
>I would have expected more class from the "feature expert".

If you read something into the comment that you took personal that wasn't the intent.  The physics analogy is appropriate to make one of the points I am trying to convey.

You can define a problem in sufficiently narrow terms to fit the answer.  That doesn't mean your answer is wrong, but it is limited by the scope.  If the scope changes the chosen answer may be a liability.

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by:mrichmon
ID: 13970782
playing 'devil's advocate' to a comment is reasonable.  Disagreeing completely with comments is considered professional and reasonable

Making it personal like "I would have expected more class from the "feature expert"." is not considered professional behavior on Experts-Exchange.
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by:stengelj
ID: 13970988
I interpreted his comment as sarcastic in many ways.  He has just stated that is was not personal and I believe him, but it was not the physics analogy that was offensive. Regardless, my apologies, Rod. I overreacted.

"Note I say your answer because you have already decided what you want the answer to be and you only want evidence to support your answer in committee."

"Given enough points and time, someone who needs the points will agree with you and maybe supply some argument which you deem sufficient."
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by:stengelj
ID: 13972250
I'm going to go ahead an close 'er down.  Feel free to post any further comments but I have enough information for my decision.

Given the lack of enthusiasm and support for my one-box dream,  I would appear my wisest option at this point would be to look for other ways to condense my form.

Thank you all for your input and suggestions.
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by:stengelj
ID: 13972577
mrichmon,

I just noticed you're a page editor...Feel free to clean up anything from my posts you feel is not worth keeping.

Thanks again.
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Expert Comment

by:mrichmon
ID: 13972958
I think that it did not get out of hand and actually came back to a reasonable discussion.

Thank you both for remaining professional.

Good luck on your project however you decide to go....
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