Sentence or title case for labels

tray containing typesetting characters , capital letters
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For those few of us who are deeply interested in forms, there’s nothing so fascinating as a subtle detail. Like, for example, the question that appeared in my email in-box earlier this month.

The question

Martin McGuire wrote to me to ask ‘How labels / captions for forms should be formatted’.

As he points out, the ISO-9241 part 17 standard seems to recommend that the first letter of the word only is capitalised. It says that you should use: ‘Initial upper-case (capital) letter for field labels: To facilitate readability, the text field labels begin with an upper-case letter. The rest of the label should contain lower case (small) letters except for cases where the label is a logo, an acronym or language convention that requires each word in the label to begin with a capital letter.’

But he pointed out that we often see form labels in title case. Indeed, he had a client who had rigidly enforced title case for every label on every one of their applications.

So, for example, the client’s labels are like this (taking a random selection): First Name, Last Name, Date of Birth, Email Address.

Whereas ISO 9241-17 would recommend labels like this: First name, Last name, Date of birth, Email address.

And there’s also the interpretation of title case. Should the ‘of’ in Date of birth be capitalised or not?

The answer, part 1: sentence case is better

One crucial issue in legibility (possibly the most crucial) is the question of familiarity. The most familiar presentation of sentences is in sentence case. Most reading is reading of sentences. Therefore, sentence case is easiest to read. Therefore, I consider that ISO 9241-17 is correct.

The answer, part 2: but not much better

However, labels on forms are rarely whole sentences. So while the ISO standard is correct, it’s not a disaster if labels use title case. It really depends on how familiar the word themselves are.

For example, commonly used phrases such as First Name, Last Name (or First name, Last name) are so familiar that the slight loss of legibility from the title case capitals hardly makes any difference. Arguably, they are so familiar even in title case that it still doesn’t make any difference – almost attaining the status of proper nouns such as ‘London’ which is easier to read with an initial capital.

However, an unfamiliar phrase such as ‘Total dividend resident withholding tax and withholding payment credits’ (I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on tax forms) is a challenge even in sentence case. Title case would make it worse. But how much worse? The big challenge here isn’t legibility. It’s that the words seem somewhat meaningless (unless you happen to be a tax expert).

Notice that ‘familiar’ in this context means ‘familiar to the people filling in the form’ not ‘familiar to anyone’. A phrase such as ‘Corresponding Deficiency Relief’ might be completely unfamiliar to one group of users, such as the general public, but no problem at all to another group, such as people working in the taxation of insurance.

The answer, part 3: but maybe there is no difference at all

If people are using the same form day in and day out then they stop reading the labels altogether and start working solely from the relative positions of the boxes on the page.

So then you could put the labels in Polish (for example) and it wouldn’t matter all that much. I’ve actually tested this on a machine tool data entry screen where the labels were available in either English or Polish, and once operators became familiar with the system in their native language they could then work comfortably with labels in the opposite language even though it was incomprehensible to them.

The answer, part 4: what about accessibility?

Let’s look at it from the point of view of the type of disability.

For people with no sight, or who prefer to use a screen-reader for some other reason: sentence or title case doesn’t make any difference at all.

For the far larger number of people who use a screen magnifier: I don’t really know. Musing on it, I think it is possible that the extra capital letters in the title case might create a ‘false start’ to the prompt. The user is scrolling backwards and forwards horizontally for every line, and they might not quite scroll back to the beginning of the line of the prompt if they alight on a capital without backing up all the way. However, I don’t have any evidence of this happening – I’m just speculating that it might conceivably be a problem.

For people who have other types of reading difficulties such as cognitive disabilities or dyslexia, then the tiniest details of improved legibility are really much more important than for the rest of us. Dyslexia is so common that it would tip the balance for me in favour of using sentence case for labels. But it’s still a tiny detail, so I don’t think it would justify a whole-scale change across a complete suite of forms.

And finally, consistency helps

One small thing that we can do to help people who are grappling with unfamiliar words in the labels is to be completely consistent in the way we use them. If you have to ask about Corresponding Deficiency Relief, then make sure that you always capitalise it (or not) completely consistently. If your users are likely to encounter more than one of your forms, then be consistent in your choice of case.

Acknowledgement

Thanks to Martin McGuire for suggesting the topic.

This article first appeared in Usability News

Image, tray of type, by Edinburgh City of Print, creative commons