Is Your Web Site a Swiss Bakery Lady?

By John Ekman

Chief Conversionista, Conversionista!


In the 90’s I studied Engineering Physics for one year at the Technical University of Lausanne, Switzerland. I studied stuff like Quantum Mechanics, Solid State Physics, Complex Analysis and similar. In French. No kidding. It was not easy, but actually not as hard as you might think. However, during this year I NEVER managed to to buy bread in the bakery without being hassled. Here’s how it unfolded:

I went into the bakery, approached the lady behind the counter and spoke to her in French  -which  by this time was pretty decent:

– “Good morning, I would like two pieces of the dark little round bread with seeds which is on the second shelf, to the far right, thank you very much.”

Only silence.

Then: “Vous parlez de Pain de Siègle de Campagne Vaudois ???!!”, accompanied by a soul-penetrating gaze. As close as you can get to a slap in the face without actually delivering it.

The Bakery lady meant that if I had the audacity to come into her nice little bakery then I certainly should use HER language. How could I have the nerve to just walk in there and point at things without calling them by their proper names?!


So what do Swiss bakery ladies have in common with your web site?

Way too much unfortunately. Most sites have some point where they give their visitors a good old slap-in-the-face, if the visitor has the audacity not to use the proper language which should be used on that fine site.

Below I have some examples of the validation of Swedish Personal ID (social security) numbers. Although your site might not deal with such numbers you most certainly can use these ideas for your own validation of dates, postal codes, vehicle registration numbers and similar.

The examples below show perfectly valid variations of the same Swedish social security number. I was born on the 21st of March in 1965 so the first string is my birth date. It can be given with our without the initial “19”, and the separator can be a hyphen, a space or no space, like so:





19650321 8937

650321 8937


Different sites use different formats but only one is correct in their little (bakery) shop.

So, if you write your social security number in any other way than “their way”, they’ll give you an error message which is the equivalent of a Swiss palm in the face. For example:


Trygg Hansa (Top Insurance company) TryggHansa

“The social security number you entered is incorrect.” Wow, that was not so fun to learn.

Should I seek help with the authorities to correct it?



SEB(Top bank)SEB-Validering

SEB do something which is quite common. They only allow only ten digits in the field where you enter the number (= the format  YYMMDDXXX). If one decides to write “19” at the beginning or a hyphen before the last four digits, you simply can’t enter the entire number, and it becomes “automatic failure”.

Then they tell you: “The social security number is not correct.” Oops, I really must have a bad number. (Top E-commerce site)

Wrong number. “You must enter a valid number.” But hey, wasn’t that exactly

what I was trying to do?!
 (Top E-commerce site)

“You have entered an invalid number.” Please give me a break, I’m trying my best here.


In addition to annoying their users, these sites do themselves a disservice. They get lower conversion rates and poorer outcome on their campaigns.


Validation – How should you do it then?

Ok, now you understand what I am getting at and it’s easy to talk others down. “Do it better yourself then, if you’re so damn smart,” you might think.

Sure. I will.

For starters: Accept all normal variations that the user may enter without any hassle. In the case of a Swedish Personal ID number – start with the six variations I wrote at the beginning of the article.

If you speak to your tech people they will tell you there are all kinds of methods you can use to “Parse”, “Scrub” or “Append” a text input string, so that whatever the user types in it’ll be passed along in the clean correct format you want.


“Put the blame on yourself, not on the user”

Secondly, if you still have to give an error message – blame yourself, not the user. Here is a suggested text:

“We could not figure out which number you meant. Write it in the format YYMMDDXXX and we’ll do the best we can.”

So do your visitors and yourself a favor: stop being a Swiss bakery lady. Stop giving your visitors a slap in the face and you will see that your conversion rate will increase.


(This post originally appeared at in Swedish)


About the Author

John Ekman is the founder and CEO of Conversionista! He is regarded as a Swedish authority on Conversion Rate Optimization. According to John, a Conversionista is someone deeply and crazily passionate about improving Conversion Rates. John has a long history in the optimization of online businesses going back to 1996.

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