Data fam, we need to have a talk.

It’s time to change the dominant framework of how we use data validation rules. In this blog post, I’m going to write about Salesforce features, but the problem extends beyond just this platform. Even though I’ve gone on record as someone who Loves Error Messages (and I do!), I think it’s time to think twice about introducing error messages into database systems when there are so many other ways to gently guide our colleagues through the data entry experience and into the rainbows-and-lollipops realm of clean data.

In pretty much any data collection system…

  • Spreadsheets (Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel)
  • Forms (Google Forms, Survey Monkey, Form Assembly)
  • Proprietary databases (Salesforce, NationBuilder, Every Action)
  • even APIs (automated solution for passing data between systems)

… there are ways to check that data are entered in the right format before permanently saving the entry. These “checking methods” can be simple (like, “yellow” is not a valid option, only “green, blue, purple” are allowed) or complex (“is Catthhee a real name?”). The database world is replete with options for “validating” data, but there is a huge missing link in our field, which for me boils down to VALIDATING HUMANS.

Becoming fluent in the tools and strategies of validating data was a huge milestone in my own data literacy journey. When I first got my day job, I set up a bunch of validation rules (Salesforce type) right away! Every time I heard someone say magic words like “always” or “never,” I would dutifully set up a rule that would prevent our system from accepting entries that had “too many deliverables” (maximum of 10!) or not enough budget rows (minimum of 1!). I made fields required, made approval process criteria more stringent, and created a “dashboard of zeros” to monitor data quality. In the beginning, data quality improved, but my team was ready to have a mutiny. The rules impeded them from doing their daily work. For example, if someone was proactively submitting data ahead of time and didn’t yet have a date or a designation that I made required, they would experience a slew of <RED> BOOMING ERROR MESSAGES, which, let’s be honest, none of us enjoy.

I learned the hard way validation rules can quickly become “too much of a good thing.”

Since then, I’ve rolled back most of those early changes, and I have a new philosophy that focuses more on validating humans and less on validating data.

The 3 A’s of validating a human*

*This is made up (by me) and based on personal experience but is not a definition that has caught on outside of this blog.

  1. Acknowledge that the person did something hard
  2. Affirm that this thing is worthwhile and connected to mission/purpose
  3. Applaud the impact this will have on shared goals

Unfortunately, I think validation rules (the way they are currently used) miss the opportunity to uplift our frontline data entry super stars.

From data validation to human validation

Here are 8 methods that you can immediately incorporate into your work!

  • Document, document, document (and make it fun!) Write meaningful Record Type descriptions, field help text, Guidance for Success to help your colleagues stay on track with your “data dictionary” and expectations. This will reduce the friction and that face-slapping moment when someone thinks “UGH I can never remember which one I am supposed to choose!” To the extent possible, try not to make these notes dry or repetitive, but rather, provide helpful pointers for easy-to-forget factoids.

    *BEST TIP*
  • Conditionally reveal affirmation messages for impeccable data entry. Create conditional visibility for components in Lightning Record Pages that display “Great job” if the record is set up properly, or helpful pointers if the record is missing some key information. Check out some great examples of this idea in this SalesforceBen post.
    There are so many examples of “bad/gotcha” examples but so few “thumbs up/affirmation” examples. Will you help me shift this dynamic?
  • Celebrate! If it fits within your org culture, consider implementing Salesforce Celebration (confetti) for updating a record to be “complete” (whatever that definition means to you). There’s even a free extension you can download to display confetti upon completion of a Flow.
  • Be thoughtful about the last panel in a Screen Flow. In the past, I’ve used a simple message like “Done” or “Complete.” Instead, consider something fun and aligned with your org’s culture (could be a meme, a gif, or a sincere thank you message). Heck, you could even give points (assigned in a child record that rolls up to the User’s contact, where you can keep track and reward their successful data entry efforts!). This is a great opportunity to thank your data enter-ers for their attention to detail!
  • Carefully curate pop up messages – this is useful for announcements of big changes, deadlines, and other types of reminders that effect everyone who logs into Salesforce. There are some built in features called In-App Guidance. Regrettably, I haven’t utilized them as much as I should. Have you? Advanced Mode: Have you tried Salesforce Alerts? (Code required). If yes, I’d love to hear from you!
  • Use dashboards to affirm your colleagues. Like conditional Record Page components, I see dashboards used frequently to point out mistakes. This is totally acceptable and – even – recommended! However, I’d like to see us expand this tactic to include praise for complete records, high user adoption, and colleagues using Salesforce in a correct and engaging way. I have created “adoption” dashboards that show # of records modified, # logins by person, # new opportunities created, etc. We can use a similar model to showcase how well we are doing with data entry (while fixing the outliers) and shift culture toward accentuating the positive.
  • Rebrand data entry as a group activity. So often, I see data entry relegated to the back burner, delegated, procrastinated upon, or even given up on. This makes my heart ache because I find so much value and meaning in data entry, both from the perspective of “job well done” as well as my (ok, corny) spiritual practice of thinking about each record entered and wishing warm thoughts toward the person represented in the data. Doing data entry as a group builds momentum, accountability, and camaraderie while demonstrating that your organization thinks data is important and worth taking good care of. Adding a reward like ice cream, Zoom dance party, or being able to accurately calculate a social impact metric can contribute to a sense of accomplishment.
  • Use validation rules sparingly, and when you do, write helpful, encouraging error messages such as “you’re almost there – just make sure this record has X filled in, thanks!”

Sure, at the end of the day, data entry is work, not fun and games. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t incorporate whimsy, purpose, and affirmation into the experience.

If you change anything in your org as a result of this blog post, whether:

  • softening the language in existing validation rules
  • removing validation rules that aren’t serving you
  • auditing Flows for affirming final screens
  • configuring in-app guidance
  • turning on confetti
  • finding time to genuinely connect with and thank your coworkers over matters of data entry

please please leave me a comment! It would mean so much to me, and I know I could learn so much from YOU! So don’t be shy! I read and respond to every comment, and this is a conversation that I desperately want to continue. To my fellow travelers in the activist dataverse, I see you! Even if your validation rules are harsh today, we can make them shine tomorrow. Let’s get to work, and I’ll be here to cheer you on along the way.

12 thoughts on “How to make Validation Rules into *Validating* Rules

    1. Thanks! I think you must see a different image than I uploaded, which is a person holding a dead houseplant saying “I love error messages.”

      1. Nope. we’re seeing the same one! I just couldn’t tell that it was a plant!! Love this blog post. Just shared it on an admins webinar!

  1. I think we need to back track even further in the data capture culture AND can we broaden integration of GMS-hacks/solutions πŸ™‚

    1. Agree! I think this is a bit more relevant to use cases on the fundraising/program management side of things, but definitely clear lessons for GMS too!

  2. Sam, this reminds me of something I learned a long time ago as a middle manager — you want to “catch” people doing something good! Also it subtly speaks to the advantage of creating exception reports so folks can quickly review and catch their own errors. Overall, a great approach and recommendations for changing the Admin’s mindset!

  3. So timely as my team was discussing today how to make sure our records are filled out to completion. I’ll ask again how many hours are in your day, Samantha, as you are literally a fount of brilliant and well thought out content to support fellow techies? Linking to this as recommended reading for my team!

  4. Applause for 3 A’s of validating a human*! There are so many great tips for building a healthy data (and confetti) culture here! I would love to dive into a chat about a so called user dashboard design that’s more kind and motivational Sam! I could lend some cognitive theory to it😊

  5. Thank you for generously sharing your thoughts around this! I’ve always felt like error messages were too heavy handed, and you articulated this in a way I wouldn’t have been able to. I feel like sharing this article far and wide! Thanks so much for the generous work you do πŸ™‚

    1. Thank you Rebecca! This is such a kind comment and it means the world to me that this resonated with you! Want to plan a webinar about it? <3

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