June 6th, 2010


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.