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Never stop Grokking

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Bad use of HTML5 form validation is worse than not using it at all

...or why I'm glad we don't use fidelity any more

Fidelity's online stock trading account uses HTML5 form's pattern attribute to do better form validation, only they get it horribly wrong.

First some background...

The pattern attribute that was added to input elements allows the page developer to tell the browser what kind of pre-validation to do on the form before submitting it to the server. This is akin to JavaScript based form validation that runs through the form's onsubmit event, except that it's done before the form's onsubmit event fires. Pages can choose to use this feature while falling back to JS validation if it isn't available. They'd still need to do server-side validation, but that's a different matter. Unfortunately, when you get these patterns wrong, it's not possible to submit a valid value, and given how new this attribute is, many web devs have probably implemented it incorrectly while never having tested on a browser that actually supports the attribute.

This is the problem I faced with fidelity. First some screenshots. This is what the wire transfer page looks like if you try to transfer $100. The message shows up when you click on the submit button:

On Firefox 4:
Fidelity's wire transfer page on Firefox 4
On Opera:
Fidelity's wire transfer page on Opera

There are a few things wrong with this. First, to any reasonable human being (and any reasonably well programmed computer too), the amount entered (100.00) looks like a valid format for currency information. I tried alternatives like $100, $100.00, 100, etc., but ended up with the same errors for all of them. Viewing the source told me what the problem was. This is what the relevant portion of the page source looks like:
$<input type="text" name="RED_AMT" id="RED_AMT"
        maxlength="11" size="14" value="" tabindex="10"
        type="currency" onblur="onBlurRedAmt();"/>
The onblur handler reformatted the value so that it always had two decimal places and a comma to separate thousands, but didn't do anything else. The form's onsubmit event handler was never called. The pattern attribute, looked suspicious. This kind of pattern is what I'd expect for code written in COBOL, or perhaps something using perl forms. The pattern attribute, however, is supposed to be a JavaScript valid regular expression, and the pattern in the code was either not a regular expression, or a very bad one that requires several # characters after the end of the string.

The code also omits the title attribute which is strongly recommended for anything that uses the pattern attribute to make the resulting error message more meaningful, and in fact just usable. The result is that it's impossible to make a wire transfer using any browser that supports HTML5's new form element types and attributes. This is sad because while it looks like Fidelity had good intentions, they messed up horribly on the implementation, and put out an unusable product (unless of course you have firebug or greasemonkey and can mess with the code yourself).

I hacked up a little test page to see if I could reproduce the problem. It's reproducible in Firefox, but not in Opera and I can't figure out why. (Any ideas?). Also notice how using a title attribute makes the error message clearer.

One last point in closing. It looks like both Firefox and Opera's implementations (on Linux at least) have a bad focus grabbing bug. While the error message is visible, the browser grabs complete keyboard focus from the OS (or Windowing environment if you prefer). This means you can't do things like Alt+Tab, or PrtScrn, switching windows, etc. If you click the mouse anywhere, the error disappears. The result is that it's really hard to take a screenshot of the error message. I managed to do it by setting gimp to take a screenshot of the entire Desktop with a 4 second delay. The funny thing is that you can still use the keyboard within the browser to navigate through links, and this does not dismiss the error.

Update: The modality problem with the error message doesn't show up on Firefox 4 on MacOSX


July 14, 2011 9:48 PM

FWIW, the fidelity page works in epiphany-3.0.3. Probably something that webkit ends up doing right, as opposed to the opera and gecko engines. I'm obviously not implying that the opera and gecko engines are doing anything wrong.

July 14, 2011 9:58 PM

If it works in a particular browser, it's not because the browser implements the spec differently, it's because the browser does not implement the spec at all. HTML5's new attributes are designed to degrade gracefully.

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