A List Apart


Making Compact Forms More Accessible

Issue № 229

Making Compact Forms More Accessible

by Published in JavaScript, Accessibility56 Comments

Forms pose a series of usability and accessibility challenges, many of which are made more complex when you need to build a form to fit into a small space. Tightly spaced forms can look great on paper, but they often ignore accessibility issues altogether.

A designer recently handed me a compact-form design that included the oft-seen technique of putting field names directly inside of the text fields themselves.

The typical method of marking this up is to put the field name in the value attribute of each input element. You would then throw in some JavaScript and server-side scripting to make sure that the user didn’t submit the form with the default values of “username” and “password.” Password fields, though, are designed to safely hide input from prying eyes, replacing each character with an asterisk or bullet. So this method prevents us from putting anything useful into the password field—and even if this were not the case, default values provide no truly accessible information about the form itself.

Sample layout of a compact form

Figure 1: Example of a compact-form with the field names inside text fields.

In this article, we’ll create a compact form that provides a high degree of accessibility, despite its reduced size. Note that I’m not saying that tiny forms are a good idea. Rather, I’m providing a means for reconciling the space-saving aims of your client (or boss, or designer) with your desire to offer a good user experience.

Starting with accessible markup

To maintain accessibility, each form element should have an associated label that identifies that element’s purpose. Despite its compact design, there’s no reason our form can’t meet this guideline. As with any new site or page, we’ll start with plain-vanilla markup that is functionally correct and accessible and then we’ll use style sheets and JavaScript to enhance layout and functionality.

In this demonstration, we’ll use style sheets to make it look like form labels are actually inside of the fields themselves, but they will in fact be separate elements. (Line wraps marked » —Ed.)

<form name="login" acti method="post"> 

     <div id="username">     
	<label for="username-field" »
	<input id="username-field" type="text" »
name="username" title="Username" »
value="" tabindex="1" />

	<div id="password">
	<label for="password-field" »
	<input id="password-field" type="password" »
name="password" title="Password" »
value="" tabindex="2" />

	<div id="submit">
	<input type="submit" name="submit" »
value="Login" tabindex="3" />


Each label and input element is wrapped in a div to provide a clean appearance when it’s viewed without a style sheet. You could wrap these in fieldset elements instead, but in my opinion, a single field does not make a set.

We’ve given each of the labels the class name of “overlabel.” Rather than using this class as a CSS selector, we’ll use JavaScript to locate all label elements with this class name and apply event handlers to each of them. Using classes instead of ids allows us to easily add functionality to sets of elements without having to keep track of specific ids.

In addition to the label tags, we’ve added title attributes to each input field to enhance usability for sighted viewers, since the label itself will be hidden from view once the user enters information into each field.

Next, we’ll add the styles needed to overlay each label.

form#login {

div#password {

input#password-field {

label.overlabel {

There’s nothing surprising about the style sheet. Using absolute positioning on the labels takes them out of the flow of the form, and since the divs are floated to the left, the input fields line up next to each other without any extra spacing. This works especially well for my form, where these fields lie next to each other in a horizontal arrangement. The label elements have also been given a z-index because they will sit in front of other field elements.

Depending on the size of your font and form fields, you may need to juggle the positioning for the labels, but this example renders consistently across all modern browsers. We’ll use scalable units—in this case, ems—to allow users to resize the text size in their browsers and ensure that the text fields and labels grow proportionally.

Add a reusable script

The labels for each field need to be hidden when the associated field is selected, and if there is a value in either of the fields, its label should stay hidden. This should be the case whether the page was loaded with a value in the value attribute or if it was added by the user after the page is loaded.

We’ll be relying on JavaScript to hide the labels, so we’re going to make a small swap in the “overlabel” class we defined. The labels should remain visible if JavaScript is not available.

label.overlabel {
label.overlabel-apply {

To maintain accessibility of the labels, we will use a negative text-indent to hide the text from view, rather than setting the display to “none.” (Line wraps marked » —Ed.)

function initOverLabels () {
  if (!document.getElementById) return;        var labels, id, field;  // Set focus and blur handlers to hide and show 
  // labels with 'overlabel' class names.
  labels = document.getElementsByTagName('label');
  for (var i = 0; i < labels.length; i++) {    if (labels<i>.className == 'overlabel') {      // Skip labels that do not have a named association
      // with another field.
      id = labels<i>.htmlFor || labels<i>.getAttribute »
      if (!id || !(field = document.getElementById(id))) {
      }       // Change the applied class to hover the label 
      // over the form field.
      labels<i>.className = 'overlabel-apply';      // Hide any fields having an initial value.
      if (field.value !== '') {
        hideLabel(field.getAttribute('id'), true);
      }      // Set handlers to show and hide labels.
      field.onfocus = function () {
        hideLabel(this.getAttribute('id'), true);
      field.onblur = function () {
        if (this.value === '') {
          hideLabel(this.getAttribute('id'), false);
      };      // Handle clicks to label elements (for Safari).
      labels<i>.onclick = function () {
        var id, field;
        id = this.getAttribute('for');
        if (id && (field = document.getElementById(id))) {
      };    }
};function hideLabel (field_id, hide) {
  var field_for;
  var labels = document.getElementsByTagName('label');
  for (var i = 0; i < labels.length; i++) {
    field_for = labels<i>.htmlFor || labels<i>. »
    if (field_for == field_id) {
      labels<i>.style.textIndent = (hide) ? '-1000px' : »
      return true;
}window.onload = function () {
  setTimeout(initOverLabels, 50);

The script looks through all of the labels on the page for any that include the class name “overlabel.” It locates associated fields based on the value of the label’s for attribute, which should match an input tag’s id. Our new class, “overlabel-apply”, is applied to each of these labels. Additionally, onfocus and onblur event handlers are added to these input fields that will control the text-indent of associated labels, hiding them from view.

As mentioned above, this script works independently from the names and ids of the input fields. It identifies labels with the class name of “overlabel.” Just as class can be used to apply styles to sets of elements on a page, so we use it here to add functionality to those same elements. (Hat tip to Daniel Nolan, whose Image Rollover code demonstrated this approach to me a few years ago.)

It may strike you as odd that the onload handler uses a short timeout, but this pause allows us to accommodate browsers that offer to save login credentials for frequently-visited sites. These browsers often insert saved values into HTML forms after the page has completed loading, and a built-in pause seems to ensure that a label won’t be left hovering on top of your saved account information if this happens.

Note that only in the last section of the initOverLabels function do we have to provide any browser-specific code. Clicking on a label element typically passes the cursor’s focus to the related input field, but not so with Safari, where the label effectively blocks the user from selecting the field. To get around this, we add an onclick handler to the label that simply passes the focus for us.


This working example provides a clean, accessible technique for visually locating a field name inside of the field itself without tampering with the initial value. Submitting the form without touching any of the fields provides an empty set of data, rather than sending “username” and “password” to your script as values. Furthermore, we can easily add these “overlabels” to any form by adding a class name, a little bit of CSS, and the JavaScript code provided above.

As icing on the cake, if the user visits the site without JavaScript or CSS capabilities, the form is still usable and the labels will lie next to each field as was originally intended before your designers got involved.

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