Avoid putting a reset button on your web forms

The history of RESET

HTML 2.0 appeared in 1995. At that time, I was working in usability of forms – and I still am. But I didn’t have email or an internet connection. So I think it was remarkably nice of the authors to include a piece of mark-up just for me: the RESET button.

Can I hear you thinking: “Hang on a minute, Caroline, RESET buttons are everywhere!”

I agree. They’re everywhere. They were in the HTML specification in 1995 (and they had appeared before that). So, dedicated programmers have been carefully inserting them in their pages for at least 10 years.

RESET on web forms is mostly used by mistake

Why do I say the RESET buttons are just for me? Because I love them. Almost every day, I hunt around on websites looking for forms, filling them in and then gleefully pressing RESET instead of submit. It’s part of my job, and that’s what I do. Looking at forms without filling them in is a waste of time. To get any idea of how a user might react to the form, you have to have to try to fill it in as honestly as possible. Using silly data such as a person called “Test Test” who lives at “123 Main Street” just isn’t as effective. So in order to assess a form, I have to complete it. But when I’ve gotten to the end, then I want to discard everything I’ve put in and RESET is perfect.

But who else uses RESET?

How many real visitors to your website understand the term ‘RESET’? How many of them deliberately look for and press the RESET button so as to discard all their careful clicking and typing? I put it to you: none of them. You show me a person who has pressed RESET and I’ll show you a person who is bemused, disconcerted or annoyed because their form has suddenly gone blank. They meant to press SEND and clicked on RESET by mistake.

Problems with RESET have been around for nearly as long as RESET

Right from the early days, there were plenty of hints that RESET might not be a good name for this button. For example, way back in 1993, Dave Raggett (w3C guru and author of HTML 4.0, plus many other good things) explained how to change the names of Submit/Reset buttons.

The HTML 2.0 specification itself, when describing Reset button: INPUT TYPE=RESET hints that not all is well with the default names, and adds some explanation for the user:

“When you are finished, you may submit this request:

“You may clear the form and start over at any time: 

Sadly, most websites don’t bother with a proper, descriptive name for the button. They just say RESET. Cue mistakes by the users and their consequent upset.

What to do about RESET on web forms

If you’re especially keen to make your form helpful for usability consultants specialising in forms (a small group, but important to me), then please continue to put RESET buttons on your forms.

If you truly believe that some of your genuine users are likely to want to throw away their work and start over, then include a button that allows them to do that. Give it a clear name such as ‘THROW AWAY ALL INPUT’ or ‘CLEAR FORM AND START OVER’. Place it well away from the SEND button.

If you don’t think your users want to trash their entries,  then scrap the RESET button.

This article first appeared on Forms Talk, the BFMA newsletter.