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pulldown menus

So I'm running this survey still and it's got an input box for "Country", which lead to some discussion with Marc yesterday.

I am against pulldown menus. So is Jakob Nielsen, a usability expert who I respect very much and whose column I've been reading every since I knew what usability is. Drop down menus can be very long, users have to scroll and scroll to find what they need, and it's much faster just to type.

For my survey well over 90% of the participants are from US or Canada... so far:
New Zealand2

So I think it's silly to make everyone scroll through a list of countries of the world. You can put US and Canada at the top of the menu, but odds are someone will be looking for them under "U" or "C", and even if you put them there too, that's time.

I did notice a few days into the survey that I had lots of forms of "US" as answers... US, USA, U.S., America... and a couple people entered either "California" or "Texas" which are not countries but apparently I'm not supposed to tell them that. Anyway after noticing this I put "US" as the default text to eliminate that confusion. Hopefully this won't alienate my takers from outside the US. If I was bothered deeply by alternate spellings I could add about three lines of code that would detect those alternate spellings and change them all to "US". I think that computers are smart and we should make computers work for people... we should not make people work for computers, which is what a giant dropdown does. Limits options to be more computer-friendly, but at the expense of people's time.

Nielsen's column has addressed this issue a lot... with phone numbers, states, dates, anything. He says to let users input whatever they're feeling and make the computer do its own formatting... they're smart enough. Or if you do any menus use radio boxes, where users can tell at a glance what all the options are and where they will click. The worst choice is a pulldown menu with dozens or hundreds of options, it takes forever for people to find what they want. And how many users screw up a two-digit code for their state, when asked to type it in?

On the other hand... Marc disagrees and thinks people like dropdowns because they know whatever they put in will be accepted by the computer, they get scared when presented with open text fields because they don't have confidence that the computer will accept what they put in.

(Yeah, I know, every married couple gets into it about stuff like this. Don't even get us started on the use of asterisks in SQL statements... he thinks it's never right, I think there's a place for them, we've agreed to disagree but still don't know how we'll raise our child.)

It's hard to say. I have noticed that people have low expectations of usability. When I write applications at work, I have to really pull teeth to convince people to give me feedback. It's like we all expect computers to make our lives a little more confusing, and figure no one hears us scream when we're frustrated. I wish it didn't have to be like that.



( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 6th, 2010 07:08 pm (UTC)
For this sentiment, Spacefem, I am making you a Methodist saint. Congratulations!
Jun. 6th, 2010 07:19 pm (UTC)
As a non computer person, I often don't know that it CAN be easier. I just accept what I'm given because that's all I know.

I do disagree with Marc though. Open menus don't scare me.
Jun. 6th, 2010 07:45 pm (UTC)
The best thing for countries would be some kind of T9 predictive text. I get fed up of going down to U to look for UK or United Kingdom, then up to B to see if it's Britain/British, then down to G to see if it's Great Britain or GBR. It would be easier if I could type "UK - nope - Unit - nope - Brit - aha". Or a thing like the clicky pop-up calendars that travel booking websites have, but a map of the world where you can click continent, then part of continent, then country. Also prevents people who do not know where their own country is from escaping :)
Jun. 6th, 2010 10:51 pm (UTC)
I was going to say something like this — Facebook and Google do this pretty well, with the little list of "search matches that are likely given what you've typed" popping up as you type. For open-ended lists of search results it's probably pretty hard to do well, but for 200ish countries or fixed-format things like dates, I imagine it wouldn't be absurdly hard to implement.
Jun. 7th, 2010 12:28 am (UTC)
The real question is... curly braces on the same line, or the line below??

if (blah dee blah) {

if (blah dee blah)

Emacs indents them differently. Grr.
Jun. 7th, 2010 04:08 pm (UTC)
Same line, and use vi(yet another nerd war!). It's so much easier; metakeys are the devil's tool.
Jun. 7th, 2010 03:30 am (UTC)
I would agree with his point that people prefer drop down menus, but not necessarily because they don't have confidence. I think it's because people are indecisive and can't figure out what to write.

Or maybe that's just me...
Jun. 8th, 2010 02:27 am (UTC)
what, people don't just hit "u" (if looking for US/A) until the one they want comes up? I imagine Britain/UK would be harder then. But most countries you just have one beginning letter choice, don't you?

I know how many times I have to hit "M" to get my state to come up. It's shorter than typing out the state anyway.
Jun. 19th, 2010 09:21 pm (UTC)
Exactly. When presented with a drop down box for "state" i hit "T" twice and lo, there is Texas. Maybe the general public doesn't realize you don't actually have to expand the box and scroll?
Jun. 8th, 2010 02:46 pm (UTC)
I prefer combo boxes. While it takes time to scan through the list, the cost of that time is offset by fewer data entry errors.

Many of our applications here have a "District" drop down list. We have some 295 districts. It helps that we have standardized our drops downs so that they are all the same - a particular user will get (for the most part) the same list of districts available to them. Our drop downs also allow for typing - not just the first letter, but the whole entry if the keep typing - but I have found that users never use this feature.

More often than not, users ask for drop down lists when allowable data entry for a field is fixed to a finite set. The alternative is to put real time validation and check their spelling for a valid district - and even *then*, they might accidentally pick the wrong one...
Jun. 10th, 2010 02:31 am (UTC)
What I like about drop downs is being able to type the first couple of letters and maybe the down arrow and be on my merry way, but when you can just type the two letter postal code anyway...

What about a little icon to the side that pops up a sample entry when you hover over it?

State: _________

of course, with things like that, you have to be careful with quotation marks. I remember when I pondered whether I was supposed to type those in, too!
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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