After careful research and consideration, the latest version of PatternFly is introducing a new standard for buttons, recommending left-alignment for button groups in forms, with primary buttons always appearing as the first button in the button group. This approach is being applied across components like form, wizard, and modal, and the updates will be rolled out to the community in the coming weeks.
Members of the PatternFly community have questioned this decision for a few different reasons, but most commonly it’s because this alignment isn’t the convention users are most familiar with. So, why is PatternFly challenging designers and developers to move away from a familiar standard? Very simply, it’s not compatible with universal design, and it doesn’t align with our PatternFly principles.
The PatternFly principles ensure that, even as we evolve, we’re always staying true to the original goals we set out for the design system.
By following the principles of modularity, accessibility, and responsive design, we made several key decisions:
- To maintain consistency, the order and position of form submit buttons shouldn’t change based on context. Alignment should be the same whether we present a form on a page, a form in a modal, or a form in a wizard.
- To prioritize the user’s primary task, the primary action button should be presented first.
- This approach reinforces a natural, conversational style where affirmative choices are generally presented first.
- Accessibility standards require that actions be presented visually to users in the same order they are defined in the DOM. As a result of responsive design, interfaces can be laid out differently depending on screen size, meaning actions could be displayed to users horizontally or vertically. If the first action in a vertical stack of actions should be the primary action, then the first action in a row of actions should also be the primary action.
- An observation made by a low vision student who participated in a UX design and research workshop confirmed that it would be beneficial to have primary actions presented first. 
- To make it easier for users to complete a form, submit buttons should be presented in the same scan line as the form inputs.
- This approach benefits users displaying the webpage in full screen mode on a large monitor. Based on previous feedback, we realized a large spatial gap between form content, like input fields, and buttons caused users to miss critical parts of their workflow.
- This approach also benefits low vision users who use screen magnification devices to view the contents of a web page and rely on related information, like form inputs and form submit buttons, being in close proximity. The straw test is a great way to test the accessibility of a layout for these users.
- Finally, this approach is consistent with a finding provided by Luke Wroblewski in his book Web Form Design. 
If you’re interested in learning more about how the PatternFly principles helped guide this decision, we go into further detail in the following sections.
Modularity and flexibility
Modular design systems enable you to take very isolated interaction patterns and combine them to build complex designs that can support different user tasks. Modularity helps ensure consistency, since isolated patterns shouldn’t change much between different contexts. With this in mind, we felt it critical for PatternFly that form submit buttons remain consistent in order and position as they are moved between various contexts.
When deciding on button placement, we considered every possible context: forms on pages, in wizards, in small modals, in large modals, forms with a single input, forms with numerous inputs. Because considering all possible scenarios—and not just your basic use case—is important when creating a design system.
After reviewing every possible variation, one approach—to align form submit buttons to the left with the primary action appearing first— emerged as the pattern that could be successfully applied to any context with consistency and without concern of creating any pain points for users.
Accessibility adds a new level of challenges and forces you to consider all the possible ways that a user can experience a web page. Are users sighted? Are they using magnification? Is the page full screen on a huge monitor, or on a screen the size of a phone? Are they using a keyboard to interact with the form? Are they using a screen reader?
When you start to consider all the ways that a user can interact with a web page, you realize that small things like alignment, proximity, and order can have a huge impact on their experience. Using spatial concepts to reinforce the progression of a workflow aren’t applicable to all users, specifically low vision, no vision, and also mobile users. Low vision users benefit from having the form submit buttons in the same scan line as the form fields. No vision users benefit from having the order of form submit buttons be consistent across any context. As designers, we should be willing to recognize that the spatial concepts we applied in the past to the placement and order of buttons were optimized to the needs of sighted users with good vision. Sometimes being inclusive means letting go of the standards we have been following for so long when we realize they no longer satisfy the needs of all users.
Standards that exist for desktop applications aren’t always applicable to the design of web applications. Designers of desktop applications have a lot control over the presentation and layout of UI elements, whereas users of web applications access the interface on a variety of devices and screens. Web designers have to consider every possible viewport size. This means the order of elements have to be considered sequentially, where the most important elements come first and least important elements come last. This way, when elements need to be stacked vertically, the most important things are encountered first. This also means that when elements are presented in a row, the most important items (e.g. the Next button) should be presented on the left.
We hope the research and rationale outlined in this post helps shine some light on the updated approach we’re taking to button alignment on forms. As always, we welcome and encourage feedback from the community. For additional questions or concerns, feel free to reach out to us on the PatternFly forum.
- Presenting the primary task first was something noted by one of the low vision students in a user research workshop we had with students at Governor Morehead School in Raleigh. When presented with a card that stated “Previous & Next Page” she stated, “Next should be first because it’s the action I most likely want.”
- Luke Wroblewski makes the following statements in his book Web Form Design:
- In chapter 3, Path to Completion, he provides two examples and states: “One has a clear scan line that starts at the first information point, ends at the primary action, and allows people to take in all the information they need to review quickly. The other has a number of different visual treatments that break up the path to completion into a series of zigzagging eye movements. A single path makes it easier to process the questions a form is asking through a consistent layout.”
- In chapter 6, Actions, when talking about the style and placement of form submit buttons, he states: “According to the data we collected, the most effective designs of the six we tested all shared a common characteristic: they presented their Submit and Cancel options left-aligned with the input fields and labels above them.”