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Hello, My Name is <Error>

Whenever I had to take standardized tests in high school, I would get anxious over the easiest part: filling out my name.

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Tests like the SAT and ACT insist that you fill your name out exactly as it appears on your identification documents. But when I wrote the hyphen in my surname—Gonzalez-Cameron—it would throw back an error, or I would run out of space. Either way, I could not make the information on the form match my documents.

More recently, I found myself in a standardized testing environment again, this time to take the GRE. Although their website is more upfront about how to handle last names, they still require and refuse accuracy in the same breath—particularly frustrating for Hispanic-Americans and many other test-takers:

Important: The name you use when you register for a GRE test must exactly match (excluding accents, apostrophes and spaces) the name on the identification (ID) documents that you will present on the day of your GRE test. If it does not, you may be prohibited from taking the test or your test scores may be canceled after you take the test. For example, a last name of Fernandez de Córdova would be entered as FernandezdeCordova.” (Emphasis mine.)

This is where design and cultural awareness intersect. What determines the space limitations for collecting last names? Why can’t hyphens, spaces, accent marks, or nonstandard characters be used? What would it take to alter the code to accept a wider range of naming conventions, especially given that Hispanic-Americans make up 17% of the population?

These are seemingly small considerations for the design process. Students shouldn’t stress about instructions or worry that their answers will be thrown out because they can’t complete the first step correctly. Designers have a responsibility to understand their users, and to build forms that can accommodate an increasingly common style of surname—whether that’s for standardized tests, government documentation, health-care forms, or other systems that people use to live their daily lives.

If we want to make the web a better tool for communication, we need to better understand our audiences and capture the correct cultural nuances in our content and experience designs.

Understanding Hispanic-American naming conventions#section1

Naming conventions are just one of many distinctions for the Hispanic-American population—a group that itself is hardly monolithic, subject to millions of variations by ethnic background, location, age, dialect, and other factors. But understanding how names work and taking them into consideration can go a long way toward a better user experience.

Most Hispanic-Americans have at least two last names. They are not hyphenated; hyphenation is a practice that many have adopted to avoid confusion in the United States’ single-name infrastructure.

Here’s how it works: in traditional marriages, the husband and wife keep their respective two surnames. The wife may add on “de <name>” to show that she is now “of” her husband’s family—so now she’s working with three surnames.

If the couple have children, their surnames will be constructed from the first surnames of the parents. To illustrate:

José Miguel González Haro + María Elena García Rubio (de González) =

José Miguel González García

Even without considering accent marks, you can probably already imagine how this would break things on the English-based Internet and backend databases. And this doesn’t even begin to touch on the challenges created by tildes, cedillas, non-Latin scripts, nontraditional naming conventions, and naming systems used by other ethnic groups.

Let’s improve our processes#section2

We’ve walked into the spiderweb of intricacies around making our stuff work better for more people, specifically around the accommodation of names. There’s obviously room for improvement—from the tactical aspects of forms all the way up to the culture of our workplaces.

Review or study form design#section3

There is already conversation about accommodating names on web forms. For example, in “Personal names around the world,” the W3C provides a great primer on how these issues affect everyone, not just Hispanic-Americans.

Luke Wroblewski literally wrote the book on web forms—in which he walks through the overarching process for designing a good form, focusing on specific aspects such as viewports and inline validation—and has also published a number of informative articles. In “Inline Validation in Web Forms,” Wroblewski points out that “web forms aren’t great conversationalists. They ask a bunch of questions, then wait until you answer them all before they respond.”

I like to use this observation to reimagine forms as dialogues. This makes it easy to spot potential pain points for your audience. For example, the form input of “Name:” can be reimagined as “What’s your name?” Similarly, the form response of “Error: last name not valid” can be heard as, “I’m sorry, I can’t understand your last name, so it’s not valid”—not a particularly kind response.

Form functionality gains traction at the development stage, so it’s useful to look at work on that side as well. Aaron Gustafson’s presentation “Falling in Love with Forms” goes through common form patterns and how to build more intuitive, responsive forms in HTML5. While Gustafson doesn’t address name accommodation directly, his approach supports better form design across the board; he encourages designers and developers to “focus on making the form read naturally and easily. You can’t always make an interface perfect, but you can make it usable.”

It may be helpful for your team to take a day and workshop how you build your web forms. You should look at the challenges and considerations that arise in making forms, building research into the budget and scope of projects, and incorporating more usability testing with diverse testers. Not only will this build skills and provide insights, but it can mark an important shift in your organization’s culture; often people get so bogged down in daily tasks that carving out space for the whole group signals permission to stop and learn more intentionally.

Clarify your digital governance process#section4

I’m certain no one makes forms intentionally difficult to fill out. To tactfully suggest and work toward improvement, though, requires an understanding of your organization’s digital governance process. Knowing that you have a strong framework in place for getting things done or getting approval makes it easier to work on specific changes.

What if you don’t have a digital governance process or don’t know what it is? I once worked in a government setting where no individual had the authority to decide what would get published, why, or when. Our team knew we needed to overhaul a section of the website because the grant program’s terms were going to change, but no one seemed to have the freedom to try things out or make changes, or the power to make the final call. Meetings became a lot of discussion with little to no decision-making.

When these kinds of meetings are the norm, teams lose momentum, which means nothing changes, and then the old, outdated versions persist. In her fantastic book, Managing Chaos, Lisa Welchman explains that clear digital governance is the way forward:

“Governance is an enabler. It allows organizations to minimize some of the churn and uncertainty in development by clearly establishing accountability and decision-making authority for all matters digital. That doesn’t mean that the people who aren’t decision makers can’t provide input or offer new and innovative ideas. Rather, it means that at the end of the day, after all the information is considered, the organization clearly understands how decisions will be made about the digital portfolio.”

Clarifying your organization’s digital governance plan makes it easier to make changes—whether to fields in your web forms or to the design process that built them.

Getting team buy-in on change#section5

The strongest step is to begin building a more culturally aware process in your organization. If you’re in a decision-making position, you have the agency to set the tone and make changes. If you’re not in a decision-making position, it’s still possible to take action, if you work carefully and diplomatically.

  1. Start asking why. How does the webpage editing process at your office work? Does everything have to get run by Sally now because someone published something offensive once by accident? Write down your questions about how content is created and developed. Maybe you notice that no one speaks up about additional audience research, or asks why this content needs to be published. Start asking “why” yourself—all the time, genuinely.
  2. Do your research. Look for analytics, case studies, or real-world examples to show that these ideas have worked elsewhere, then put together a plan for your own pilot project. For example, you might suggest taking two days to do more detailed audience research for a particular web page or small section redesign.
  3. Demonstrate critical thinking. Know what your goals are with the pilot project. How will the additional research help? What questions are you trying to answer? How can you apply the research to the design? What metrics will you use to test the results?
  4. Create a safety net. Pitch your project as an experiment (or, if you have the freedom, implement it regardless). Ideally, you’ll demonstrate the business case for more research, get some time to try it out, and then allow the work to speak for itself. When decision-makers can see the benefits to the users and the team, it may become a permanent part of the process.

What’s in a name?#section6

Names and naming conventions seem like such innocuous, inconsequential details in designing web experiences. But without getting that right, we potentially prevent people from completing forms or executing tasks. We become responsible for telling users that they do not exist or are not valid. How is that improving the web or making it easier to communicate and get things done?

A busy designer or developer can be forgiven for not knowing the nuances of every piece of the mosaic that is the Hispanic-American group. I certainly don’t know, and I’m a member of it.

But we can learn to ask ourselves what we don’t know, and understand concrete aspects that help us do our jobs more thoughtfully. Starting with learning something consistent about the mosaic of “Hispanic-American,” like a naming system, and applying what we learn to our work—such as making forms more accommodating—is a step in the right direction. That direction is toward a strong multicultural awareness, which we all need to do our best work in an increasingly diverse society.

While you do that, I’m going to go talk to Spain about their habit of duplicating people’s single last names to fit their government forms, which require two surnames. (Sarah Smith Smith, anyone?)

About the Author

Aimee Gonzalez-Cameron

Aimee Gonzalez-Cameron is a UX and content strategy consultant starting her PhD in learning technologies at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) in Minneapolis. The irony of all the form-filling-out activity that she has invited into her life is not lost on her. Don’t worry, her dogs help keep her blood pressure under control.

26 Reader Comments

  1. Thank you!

    People (rightfully) get extremely upset when a company can’t get their name right. Comcast, to this day, insists that a first name can’t be more than 8 characters, leading to mail addressed to “Nathanie” or “Stephani” — why 8 characters? No idea, but nobody at the company has any intention of doing anything about it, no matter how many times we’ve asked.

    We get even more upset when a company forces us to enter our own names wrong. “Pretend this isn’t really your name and we know better than you, Mr. D. Anthony Smith.”

    I’m lucky enough to work for a company that has a good digital governance group. Unfortunately, we also have heavy governmental regulation (financial industry) and multiple systems with different requirements for name fields. (sigh.) As a result, David Malki !’s name is right out.

    I didn’t know anything about the complexity of Hispanic-American names prior to this, so thank you very much for educating me!

  2. Hi Anne,
    I’m so glad you liked the article. That is fantastic that you have a good digital governance group–you’re on your way to rocking the boat a little, hopefully! 🙂

    Also Comcast’s default is basically to make everyone hate them. I’m not surprised about any of that scenario.

  3. This definitely has an impact on how we design accessible forms online, especially when working with an international audience. The number of fields, allowing punctuation and spaces, character support, sorting, etc. should be taken into account.

    This article from W3C includes more examples of how the anglicized First Name + Last Name format doesn’t always work.

  4. Anecdote: Because of this, my name is incorrect in my greencard. (Is there a more important document at this age in the US?) I have to pay a fee and take the time to fingerprinted and have all my documents rechecked if I want it fixed. With no guarantee that re-checking my documents will produce different results this time.

  5. Great share, Ren! I agree. 🙂 Livlab, thank you for sharing a personal story. I want to say I’m surprised, but I have my own stories about the US government and my name. It’s amazing, isn’t it? There is work to do.

  6. Michael Mix (Mix) first, thanks. And second, yes! That article! Someone shared that exact article on Twitter, and I also came across it thanks to a software developer friend. I laughed but also thought “oh no so there’s NO REASON AT ALL for this nonsense.” Good point about addresses, geography, and time. Couldn’t do it all in one go. 🙂

  7. Although I don’t have the exact same problem as you, as someone with a Chinese name, this article does resonate with me. For most of us with three word names, our surname is the first word, while our given name is actually the last two words. The second word is not a middle name (we don’t actually have those). I regular find myself wondering, should I just follow Western convention and type my name as Huijing Chen, which officially is not correct anyway.

  8. Hmm, less of a cultural issue and more of a GITHUB repository matter don’t you think? As a creative director I expect my tinkerers to deliver < a form > that works per my specifications. Regardless of language. Make this a GITHUB entry not a grass roots thingy…

  9. Great read. My first name is Theodor-Constantin, I do know what you mean 🙂 and yes “…no individual had the authority to decide what would get published, why, or when.” – this happens way too often.

    Thank you

  10. Chen Hui Jing thanks for your thoughts. I remember having a roommate in grad school from China who just went ahead and got an “American” name instead of dealing with the order of names or asking us to learn how she was actually called. I felt terrible that she had to discard her true name to make things work in the U.S.

    BKLTD if you have managed to make this simply a Github issue then bravo. 🙂 For most of us, there are way more hurdles in place to overcome than that. It sounds like you’ve managed to do a great job as the creative director!

    Theodor-Constantin, thanks for reading!

  11. Great post! I remember a bank security question wanting my sibling’s name to have a minimum of 3 characters, but we all spell it in 2. Opposite extreme.

    In code and in humans naming things is complicated.

  12. Though it may seem trivial, my advice to all parents is to not hyphenate their children’s names. After moving to North America, my long and hyphenated last name has caused endless troubles, especially when travelling because hyphens are truncated on airline tickets and my name is two characters too long to fit. As a result, the name listed in the flight roster does not match the name in my passport, and I can never check in using a terminal – I have to talk to a person.

    This problem is not limited to airlines though. In Canada, drivers licences can’t have hyphens. And for some unexplained reason, VISA is unable to fit my full name on my card, so according to them my first name is now simply “M”. My only consolation is that I don’t have any of the three traditional Norwegian letters æ, ø, or å in my name.

  13. Morten, while my younger self would have said, “YES PLEASE, REJECT THE HYPHENS” my current self says: I think for some people like my parents, saying not to hyphenate or not give the two names is tantamount to saying “reject your culture.” it’s just not realistic. Also what about accents, or the Norwegian letters you mentioned, or any other diacritical mark? I’m asking rhetorically, but why ask people to reject what is a fundamental part of their identity when it is more realistic to ask our experiences with forms and other information exchange spaces to fit our names? It may take a long time to do, but there are ways of working towards that. And we know for sure that the only reason these form hassles exist is because humans made them. They can change them.

  14. As names are a primary form of identity and relation to other entities, I think web forms that don’t allow for valid names are a very serious matter. So thank you, Aimee, for shedding some light on it.

    Based on my almost 20 years of experience working with forms, I’d say the majority of the issue comes from 3 things:

    1. Legacy systems that are difficult and/or expensive to change.
    2. Validation/business rules that are too tight.
    3. Designers, product owners, developers etc not doing enough research with users.

    Often, fixing 1. is a bigger issue than any one project, but improvements to 2. and 3. can be made immediately, even if only small.

    For more on names, I published this article around the same time as the W3C advice:

    http://www.formulate.com.au/blog/the-name-riddle

    It provides a good overview of the issue and some simple recommendations. Readers may also be interested in the UK GDS design pattern:

    https://www.gov.uk/service-manual/user-centred-design/resources/patterns/names.html

    and discussion:

    https://designpatterns.hackpad.com/Peoples-names-mgFWXkwyPEt

  15. Jessica, thank you for sharing these resources, and your professional wisdom, with us. 🙂 I especially like #3, as a research advocate! (Also, read your article–I like the broader survey of naming conventions throughout the whole world. There are still many conventions I’m not familiar with so that was very helpful.)

  16. Excellent post, this is a problem that all designers need to be aware of and account for. I have a nice short anglo name, but use my middle name and deal with this all the time. Sites and applications that ask for name ‘exactly’ as shown rarely accept a first initial, middle name, which is what I legally use and all my IDs, CC, etc list. The work around is usually a ‘first’ name that is a combination of my first and middle name, which can cause other problems.

    Of course it’s not as easy as just fixing the front systems, as a site that allows for first initial, middle name, or middle name alone, can then feed backend systems that won’t accept such names.

    And there’s the annoyance, now resignation, of all those sites that cheerily greet me with Hello C!

  17. Eric, my dad does the same thing, actually! (Uses first initial and middle name (and then has a nickname for his middle name that he goes by.) There really all kinds of variations, even for “nice short anglo names.” 🙂

  18. I have often been told by web forms that my surname, O’Leary, is not valid. Surprising as the name has been in use long before the invention of computers or web forms. Maybe I’ll try the Irish version in future, Ó’Laoire.

  19. Mark, isn’t that the truth?! Great point. I love the dry humor too. 🙂

    (I did not know about the Irish spelling–that’s fascinating! I can just imagine how the telemarketers would sound trying to pronounce that…)

  20. This scratches a fascinating UX dilemma that has haunted certain American families since Ellis Island.

    My surname is French. I use the Anglicized pronunciation (like ‘Cameron’) for convenience, but I don’t think I’ve heard two people pronounce it the same.

    On standardized tests, I was EMERSO DAMERON. ‘First world problems,’ indeed, but at one point I got so frustrated with my awkward name that I asked to be called ‘Paul.’ Unfortunately, I forgot to respond to it.

    When I order a sandwich, I am ‘Ed,’ so I don’t have to repeat myself.

  21. For some coursework I once had to read a document created for the (failed) NHS IT project on the subject of storing names*. There were pages and pages of advice and recommendations based on the various cultural differences. One thing I took from it was to call name fields “given name” and “family name” to avoid the cultural bias of “first name” and “last name” because not all cultures have these in the same order.

    My middle name is French and I always get stuck because it was spelled incorrectly on my birth certificate (apparently Google wasn’t around back then!), so I never know whether to use this version or the “correct” version.

    * it might have been this: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130502102046/http://www.connectingforhealth.nhs.uk/elearning/pds/flash/supporting documents/Guidance on Ethnic Naming Conventions.pdf

  22. Hi Emerson and contrebis,
    Thanks for sharing your stories!

    Maybe names fitting does qualify as a first world problem but I think if I’m trying to complete something as miserable as standardized tests then at least the easy part could be easy. I have never tried going by a different name except sometimes at Starbucks I just say I’m Jane because the struggle with my actual name is too much… I wonder if there’s a tumblr of “this was the name I said, and this is the name the Starbucks person heard.”

    If your name is spelled wrong on the certificate… Yikes. I would probably go try to change it legally. Otherwise when stuff has to match, it has to match the misspelled version.

    Also this failed NHS IT project sounds really interesting. Why did it fail? What course was this for? Thanks for sharing the link!

  23. There are differences in time as well as geography.
    In the UK there are women old enough to expect to be called Mrs John Smith. When they grew up it was extremely rude to use somebodies given name without their express permission and only then in informal circumstances. There is still a generational difference in attitudes to married women not changing their names.
    Everybody has to adapt to some extent though. Our head of state is Queen Elizabeth Alexandra Mary. She has no surname. The name ‘Windsor’ was created in 1917 because even aristocrats have to fill in forms.

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