Creating a form is something every web designer will have to do at some point during his or her career. Most are relatively simple, requiring only a few data points while others are behemoths of gargantuan complexity. We strive our best to reduce that complexity, utilizing an array of design principles to improve usability and guide users toward completing the forms and submitting them successfully. But there’s one aspect in form design that often goes overlooked: our names.

It’s pretty common to see separate fields for first name and last name, like the printed paper forms we’ve used in almost every aspect of our lives. However, the first name followed by last name convention is not used in every part of the world. I’ve never really thought about until I met my wife. She’s from Brazil and has two last names, inherited from both her mother and father. Some Brazilians have up to four last names. You can have prepositions and characters. In Asian cultures, you might see the family name appear before the given name.

The point is, building forms with distinct fields for first and last names, as to which we’ve grown so accustomed, may create confusion when many parts of the world do not use that structure. For those filling out the forms, there’s a looming sense of doubt. And for good reason, because it involves a bit of shoehorning something that doesn’t necessarily fit. People reading the forms may misinterpret one of the last names for a middle name, or omit one, or place a hyphen between between them. The result is a cascading effect of erroneous information that will need to be rectified at some point. I know this because I’ve seen it.

Forms are important and filling them out and moving onward in a timely matter can literally make or break major transactions in peoples’ lives. Unnecessary back-and-forth due to errors or additional clarifications need to be prevented before they can happen.

I don’t think there’s an easy or silver bullet solution, given the variety of applications and use cases. The W3C has recognized this as an issues and has offered several points to consider as you build your web forms. Below are some of them:

  • Does your product have a compelling reason to split full names in separate fields?
  • Don’t assume that because your audience is in the United States, that all users will be american.
  • Perhaps add an optional field for how people would like to be addressed.
  • Be clear with labeling your fields. Don’t use non-localized forms containing “first name” and “last name”
  • Single-letter names will not always be an initial
  • Don’t use rigid casing
  • Don’t make family name a required fields. Many people throughout the world only use their given names.

The article is really worth your time if you haven’t read it already. As designers, it is our job to understand our audiences, our clients’ audiences, and have an intent with everything we put to the page. When we are well-informed, we create better products. No matter how mundane something may seem, we can always dig a little deeper, learn, and bring that to our work.