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You are here: Home ~ Desktop UIs ~ Dialog Box - Drop-down List

Dialog Box, Expanding

A dialog box or palette that becomes larger when the user clicks an "expand" button.

Good for:

Showing advanced or application-specific functionality without opening another dialog box.

dialog box, unexpanded

Fig. 17. An expandable dialog box.

dialog box, expanding

Fig. 18. The expanded version.

Showing details of system operations in error and progress messages.

dialog box, expanding

Fig. 19. Details of a communication, unexpanded and expanded.

Not good for:

Holding primary functions. Don’t put important functions in the expandable part of the dialog box.

Design guidelines:

Expanding dialog boxes can make an application look less choppy than opening secondary dialog boxes (Weinschenk and Yao 1995, 42). However, since expanding dialog boxes are rarely used for settings, their affordances can be poor for this purpose. Try tabbed dialog boxes instead.

However, if you must create an expanding dialog box for settings:

  • To indicate that the dialog box expands, label the pushbutton with two right angle-brackets: Expand >>. To indicate that it contracts, label it with two left angle-brackets: << Contract.
  • The primary pane should contain all controls needed to complete the dialog box’s task. Use the expansion area for advanced or infrequently used options.
  • Expand the dialog box down if the workflow moves from top to bottom. Expand the dialog box to the right if the workflow moves left to right. (See "Where to put the pushbuttons" in Dialog Box, Standard).
  • Don't move the pushbuttons when you expand or contract the dialog box. Keep them in the same place, as shown in Fig. 19.

Usability tests:

Check for affordances:

  • Will users recognize the meaning of the >> button?
  • If not, will they abandon the dialog box and look through the menus for the missing functionality?
  • Will users be surprised by the expansion?
  • Will they even notice the >> button?

Make sure that the users can contract the box, once expanded.

See also:

Dialog Box, Standard; Dialog Box, Tabbed; Palette.

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Dialog Box, Standard

A window used to hold settings or secondary information and to gather information from the user. Whereas the main window contains the user’s actual task (a what-if analysis, for example), dialog boxes let users change how the application itself works (the currency type used during the analysis).

Good for:

Dialog boxes have three equally important functions:

Transactional. Gathering the details needed to complete a command—for example, which file to save or which file to open (Fig. 20).

dialog box
Fig. 20: A transactional dialog box.

Tools. Holding tools such as spelling checkers, floating toolbars, and palettes (Fig. 21). Tools usually float on top of main windows, are always visible, and are not confined to any secondary window or document in a multiple-document interface (MDI). A common subtype is the property window or property sheet (in Windows 95), which is used to set properties for GUI objects—for example, selecting the default font for a spreadsheet.

dialog box
Fig. 21
. A tool dialog box.

Messages. Delivering messages and providing feedback (Fig. 22). Message boxes are used to ask questions, confirm actions, and warn of problems. See Message Box for details.

dialog box
Fig. 22. A message dialog box.

Not good for:

Holding top-level business information. Dialog boxes are, by nature, hidden under pushbuttons or menu options. They can be used to modify primary tasks or add to primary information, but they are not the user’s main view of the application or the data.

Design guidelines:

A dialog box:

  • is usually smaller than the main window or windows
  • has no menu of its own (except for control menus and minimize/maximize buttons in the title bar)

The development platforms now supply common or standard dialog boxes--for example, File Open, File Save, Print, and a handful of others are available in the development kits. Microsoft suggests that you use the standard dialog boxes but, if you need to create your own for some reason, that you model yours on the standard dialog boxes rather than create new designs from scratch.

Laying out dialog boxes

As Leavens says (1994, 187), "Users will gain an understanding of what your dialog box does and why simply by the way the controls are laid out. Of course, if your controls are laid out badly, the user won’t get this information."

Make groups of related items

Related items should be visually grouped. (In fact, in the case of check boxes and radio buttons, most development packages require that you group related buttons inside a frame or group box.) Unrelated items should not be grouped (because grouping always implies a relationship).

Follow the workflow

Lay out your windows to match the user’s workflow. Put the most common or critical information at the top left (for language systems in which text reads left to right, top to bottom; adjust for other systems). Then add entry areas and buttons from top to bottom and left to right.

Put the pushbuttons in the right place

The rules for locating pushbuttons and other controls are:

  1. Pushbuttons that affect only part of the dialog box should be located inside that part, at the bottom or right side (in countries where text is read from left to right).
  2. Whenever possible, place buttons in this order: affirmative buttons used to save any changes and leave the dialog box (OK); negative buttons to cancel changes and leave the window (Cancel); buttons unique to that window (Weinschenk and Yao 1995, 11).
  3. Put pushbuttons that affect the entire dialog box (OK, Cancel) at the bottom or right side of the dialog box.
  4. Whether the pushbuttons appear at the bottom or the right depends on the flow of movement through the dialog box. For example, if users will move horizontally through entry areas, put the buttons to the right. If they will move vertically, but the buttons on the bottom. See Fig. 23 and Fig. 24. Or, alternatively, just pick one scheme—at the right or at the bottom—and stick with it for every dialog box in the application.

dialog box

Fig. 23. When the general movement is horizontal,
put the pushbuttons to the right.

dialog box

Fig. 24. When the general movement is vertical,
put the pushbuttons at the top or bottom.

Behavior guidelines

Dialog boxes must behave appropriately, not just look right. Following are guidelines on dialog box activities.

Always on top

If a dialog box has Always on Top set, make sure that this behavior is restricted to your own application (Microsoft 1995a, 181). (Overbearing "Always on Top" settings are sometimes a problem with online help systems.)

To minimize or not?

In Windows 95 applications, do not put dialog boxes on the taskbar.

Dialog boxes are not officially minimizable on any platform, although some applications do allow users to minimize or compress palettes and toolbars (see the CorelDraw roll-up palette in Fig. 25 and Fig. 26).


In Windows 95 (and other platforms as well), a dialog box can contain a pushbutton that opens another dialog box. The Microsoft guidelines say:

  • If the second dialog box is independent of the first, close the first dialog box and show only the new window. (Do usability testing before implementing this approach, however. For reasons you would never think of, users may actually want to leave all of the dialog boxes open.)
  • If the intent of the second dialog box is to get information for the original dialog box, put the new window on top, offset to the right and below the first.

Go no deeper than one level to avoid "creating a cluttered cascading chain of hierarchical windows" (Microsoft 1995a, 182).


Avoid horizontal scrolling of lists in dialog boxes (Weinschenk and Yao 1995, 40-41). Instead:

  • Use a larger dialog box.
  • Break the information up into more than one dialog box or view (see Dialog Box, Tabbed).
  • Allow the dialog box to expand (see Dialog Box, Expanding).

Cascade or tile?

In general, use cascading dialog boxes unless users need to see all the information at the same time--for example, a real-time news or stock-market window (Weinschenk and Yao 1995, 40).

Resizing dialog boxes

Resizing the dialog box in which a list box appears can affect the list box. If the dialog box gets bigger, the list should get longer or wider as well. (Why else would a user bother to make the dialog box larger?) If the dialog box gets smaller, the number of choices in the list box should drop to your default minimum but no further (see List Box, Multiple-Selection and List Box, Single-Selection). Remember to also set a reasonable minimum size.

If you will be internationalizing your application, size the windows to accommodate the language with the longest terms (see Table 12). The development toolkits have methods for dynamically resizing dialog boxes and windows to suit whatever the current language is. Just make sure that the buttons are positioned so that they are always visible.

Titles of dialog boxes

Whenever possible, the name in the title bar should match the name of the menu option or pushbutton used to display the dialog box. Table 1 contains specific guidelines for titles.

Table 1. Guidelines for Dialog Box Titles

Dialog Box Type

Title Contains


Detail collection, transaction

parent name - action name


Settings, property sheet

action name or situation name: parameters

Spelling: English (US)


parent name

Stock Picker

Modes in dialog boxes

The paradox of dialog boxes (and windows) is this: Computer screens offer significantly less real estate than the printed page. To do the same work on a computer that one would do on paper means working with many small pages rather than one large page. In short, as a developer you are forced to offer the job in chunks, sequentially, whenever you move a task to a computer. As Dave Collins puts it, "Information that cannot be presented all at once must be presented over time" (1994, 218).

When you have to present a task progressively, one strong temptation is to keep it on track with modes—in other words, until the user finishes one chunk, she cannot see or work on the next chunk. An equally strong temptation, however, is to find modes too restrictive and therefore philosophically abhorrent. As Carl Zetie says (1995, 105), there are two well-established and widely held principles about modes:

  • Modes are fundamentally evil and should be avoided at all costs.
  • Modes provide support and guidance and should be provided whenever possible.

With these two contradictory principles, how do you decide when to make a dialog box modal, partially modal, or modeless?

Again, Zetie provides some help. First, he points out that a highly restrictive modal-dependent system may strike a self-directed, self-confident developer as unwarranted interference. However, it may strike an uncertain or busy user as a safe and comfortable route to his goal.

Secondly, Zetie says, you can use the distinction between tool-type dialog boxes and detail-gathering dialog boxes to pick modes.

Tool dialog boxes need to be modeless, moveable, and perhaps even minimizable (Fig. 25 and Fig. 26).

dialog box

Fig. 25. A CorelDraw palette, full-size.

dialog box

Fig. 26. The same palette, rolled up (minimized).

Picking modes for transactional dialog boxes is more difficult because transactional dialog boxes can affect a part or all of an application, and thereby interfere either with the activities of some local part of the application or the entire application. Mode failures occur when a dialog box’s mode (its effect) is broader than (or, more rarely, narrower than) its sphere of influence.

For example, say that you develop an e-mail spellchecker that checks individual messages. If the e-mail application lets users edit more than one message at a time, then the users should be able to spellcheck more than one message at a time—they should be able to switch among messages modelessly, carrying the spellchecker with them. If they can’t jump between messages without first closing the spellchecker, they will probably refuse to use it. The spellchecker, in other words, can’t be modal at the individual message level, especially not while the more important message editor is modal at the application level.

You can analyze message-box modes in the same way—if the message is about a small part of the application, then it should be model only for that part. If the message situation affects the entire application, then the message box should affect the entire application.

Since error messages tend to get lost under other windows, developers sometimes make them application-modal or even system-modal to keep them in front of the user until the error situation is cleared up. However, you don’t have to make them modal to solve the visibility problem—just give them an "Always on Top" property.

Table 2 lists modes from a technological point of view. However, the true answer to whether a dialog box should be modal or not is the nature of the task or subtask. A single application may use different types of modes in different places. Sometimes the user may be strongly constrained; at other times he or she may have plenty of freedom. Some tasks may be inherently serial; others may be serial or parallel at the user’s preference (Zetie 1995, 87).

For an excellent discussion of these issues, see chapter 3, "Taskflow," and chapter 4, "Dialog Design," in Zetie (1995).

Table 2. Dialog Box Modes


Use and Behavior



Used for tools.

Lets users make multiple changes easily by changing the settings or entries in the dialog box itself and by changing the selection in the main window.

If the dialog box is used to change visual attributes, provide a preview area inside the dialog box that shows the effects of the user’s changes.

  • Toolbars and palettes
  • Find-and-replace panels
  • Spelling checkers
  • Online help

Semi-modal (Windows 95), Primary modal (OSF/Motif)

Used for gathering details within an application.

The user can access some windows outside the dialog box as a way of responding to the dialog.

In a spreadsheet, the user might have a font dialog box open but be able to change the range of cells.

In a database, the user might be able to open a separate window or dialog box to find missing information.

Movable (or Application) modal

Used to request input or complete a command--which file to save, how to format text.

Lets the user switch to and work in another application but not the current application. The user can move the box so that it doesn't obscure the area in which he or she is working.

Dialog box used to change a password.

Dialog box used to change application-wide settings—for example, in Internet applications, the list of local-access phone numbers.

System modal, Alert modal

Used for system-level messages and warnings.

The user must respond to the dialog box before he or she can do anything in any application.

Microsoft says to avoid using system modes unless your application operates as a system-level utility and then only for severe situations such as an impending fatal system error.

System warning message; alert box.

Guidelines for using modes

Following are guidelines for using modes in your application (adapted from Zetie 1995, 109-110):

  1. Use modes consistently. If one tool, like a spell checker, is modeless, another similar tool, like a thesaurus, should also be modeless.
  2. Do not initiate modes unexpectedly. For example, don’t suddenly trap a user in a required field.
  3. Make it clear to the user that she has entered a mode. Offer feedback— for example, a pointer change or a status-bar message.
  4. Make it clear how to escape from the mode. If the user starts a database query, for example, show him how to cancel the query with a Cancel Query button.
  5. Always make it possible for the user to escape from a mode harmlessly—at the very least, make sure that every dialog box has a Cancel button.

Usability tests:

If you notice that users are opening windows, dialog boxes, or other applications to get additional information, consider redesigning the application to pull in the information automatically with OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) functions.

If you notice that users are moving or canceling dialog boxes to get at "buried" information, consider redesigning the dialog-box sequences and modes.

If users seem to get hopelessly stuck—for example, they cancel the procedure without saving anything or they reboot the machine to start over—then look for feedback and mode failures:

  • When feedback is poor, they may be unable to figure out what mode they are in and how to get out of it. Make sure that the mode change is blatantly obvious—for example, make the pointer change its shape.
  • Overly restrictive taskflows may force users to exit from the dialog boxes prematurely because they cannot fill a required field or answer a question accurately.

With cognitive walkthroughs, you can test modes and taskflows even before you have access to users. When you do have users, try low-fidelity prototyping to test taskflow. See Appendix B, "Usability Tests," for details.

See Pushbutton for more on testing dialog-box pushbuttons.

See also:

Dialog Box, Expanding; Dialog Box, Tabbed; Field, Required; Palette; Toolbar; Window.

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Dialog Box, Tabbed

A dialog box in which settings are grouped into sections. Each section has its own labeled "file" tab. Users switch among the groups by clicking on the tabs.

Good for:

  • Grouping related application features, attributes, or settings (Fig. 27).
  • When internationalizing programs, for handling large amounts of text and labels (Kano 1995, 27).

Dialog box, tabbed

Fig. 27. A tabbed dialog box.

Not good for:

  • Presenting unrelated settings or too many settings. Don’t have more than two rows of tabs. See "Single-level tabs" below.
  • Presenting hierarchical information (tabs within tabs). Use methods other than tabs to select levels. See "Hierarchical tabs" below.
  • Presenting sequential information. Use wizards instead.

Design guidelines:

The following guidelines are recommended by Chauncey Wilson, a human-computer interaction (HCI) expert who has been designing, reviewing, and testing standard dialog boxes for 12 years and tabbed controls for the last six years (Wilson 1997).

Tabbed controls (dialog boxes and windows) are based on the metaphor of dividers in filing cabinets or ringed notebooks. The individual tabs, usually called "pages," have textual or graphic labels that indicate the general contents of each page. Microsoft has defined certain types of dialog boxes—property sheets, for example—as tabbed dialog boxes. See Fig. 28 and Fig. 29.

Dialog box, tabbed

Fig. 28. The standard tabbed dialog box style.

Dialog box, tabbed

Fig. 29. The notebook tabbed window style (see Window for details).

Tabbed dialog boxes are convenient for organizing product functions. Robinson (1996, 1) notes that developers like tabbed dialog boxs because they are a convenient method for grouping many functions. However, tabbed dialog boxes can present a bewildering array of choices for users. For example, the Options tabbed dialog box in Word for Windows 6 has 12 tab pages, each with at least 10 choices (and some with many more).

General layout guidelines

Wilson recommends using a consistent layout for tab pages because variations in margins, common button position, and the vertical starting point of components can result in an annoying tachistoscopic effect as the user moves from tab to tab (Wilson 1997).

Make sure that components’ vertical and horizontal starting points are consistent. A common design flaw in tabbed dialogs is to center data-entry areas, pushbuttons, and other components, especially when there are only a few of them. However, centering components means that they will seem to jump around as users flip between tabs. Left-justifying components and putting all pushbuttons on the bottom or at the right is visually more consistent.

To facilitate transfer of training, use consistent GUI mechanisms for similar tasks in different tab pages and in different tabbed dialog boxs. For example, the mechanism for adding items (passwords, words in a spell checker, network equipment) should be consistent in general look and feel across all tabbed dialog boxs and standard dialog boxes.

Don’t hide information

One of the advantages of tabs over menu access is visibility. Don’t lose that advantage by hiding the information, says Wilson:

  • Put the most frequently used controls or information on the first tab page that the user sees.
  • If your users want to see or compare information on more than one tab, accommodate them either by using two or more modeless tabbed dialog boxes or by letting them tear the tab off (like a tear-off menu or palette). Making users remember information while they switch between tabs puts a serious burden on short-term memory.
  • Avoid complex interactions among controls on different tabs. A user may not understand that a disabled control on tab 4 can only be enabled if the proper radio button is chosen on tab page 2.
  • For the same reason, don’t put required fields on more than one tab. Also, to reduce errors, provide feedback about which fields are required and which are optional. Consider grouping all required fields together or using visual cues to differentiate required and optional fields. See Field, Entry and Field, Required for more information.

Help buttons

Help buttons on tabbed dialog boxes should provide help on the current tab page, Wilson says, rather than on the dialog box as a whole. Tab-sensitive help buttons speeds up access to help.

Rows of tabs

Tabs can be arranged in rows on a single level (see Fig. 28) or in hierarchical ranks (see Fig. 32). The problems of the two styles differ.

Single-level tabs

Once you move beyond two rows of tabs, you place a cognitive burden on the user, says Wilson. Put tabs on only one edge and use at most two levels of tabs, five to seven tabs per edge. If you think you need more than two levels, you probably have too much information going into each set. Try re-categorizing the tabs into smaller sets.

If you must have more than one row of tabs, don’t compound the problem by moving them around when the user selects a tab. For example, the tabs in Fig. 30 and Fig. 31 are confusing to most users.

Dialog box, tabbed
Fig. 30. The set of rows before the user selects the File Locations tab.

Dialog box, tabbed

Fig. 31. The set of rows after the user selects the File Locations tab.

Experienced users explore the interface to learn how to use the program, generally by starting at the top-left tab (in Western languages) and moving to the bottom-right tab. If the tabs move by themselves, however, the user may never get through all the tabs. She may decide, in fact, that the dialog box is unreliable and avoid it whenever possible.

Hierarchical tabs

Dialog box, tabbed

Fig. 32. Hierarchical tabs.

For property-type dialog boxes, avoid hierarchical sets of tabs—tabs in which one set of tabs is secondary to another (Fig. 32). Instead, try combining list boxes with tabs (Fig. 33) when a set of properties can be applied to more than one object, as per Microsoft (1995a, 189). In this type of design, the user first chooses a type of control or data view from a drop-down list, then chooses the desired attributes tab from a group of related tabs. Although this approach is like having tabs within tabs, the use of the drop-down list reduces the visual complexity.

Dialog box, tabbed

Fig. 33. Combining list boxes with tabs.

The same approach can be used in other circumstances as well, especially in tabbed windows. See Window for examples.

Labels on tabs

A set of tabs is functionally equivalent to a set of menu items. The important difference is layout: Unlike menus, the structure is always visible as a row of tab labels.

Dialog box, tabbed

Fig. 34. Show which tab is selected by changing the label from normal to bold.


Make sure that the user can identify the current tab page—use good cues (Wilson 1997). Common cues include changing the font of the label from normal to bold (Fig. 34) and changing the background color of the tab. The use of multiple cues (bold text plus a white background) is also effective (Fig. 35).

Dialog box, tabbed

Fig. 35. Excel tabs change the background and turn the text bold.

Scrolling labels

Dialog box, tabbed

Fig. 36. A scrolling set of tabs means that functionality is hidden.


Some development packages will automatically create scrolling tabs (Fig. 36) if the labels become too long to fit in the dialog box (as they might when translated). Other packages will add new rows. If you plan to localize your product, translate a sample of your tab pages to determine the impact of text expansion. Text can expand from 30 to 200 percent and create major labeling and layout problems. (See Labels for more information on expanding text.)

Keyboard access

Provide a method for accessing tab pages through the keyboard. Access can be through accelerator keys like Ctrl+Tab (common in Windows 95) or mnemonics for individual tab pages (for example, Alt+G might display the "Gridlines" tab page).

Stacked labels

Avoid stacked text in labels. Stacked text is very hard to read because we recognize the shapes of the words, not individual letters. This explains why full words turned sideways are easier to read than stacked words. The best option, however, is to run your tab labels horizontally if you can (Fig. 38).

Dialog box, tabbed
Fig. 37. Don’t stack the letters.

Dialog box, tabbed  Dialog box, tabbed

Fig. 38. If you want vertical labels, use either of these styles.

Pushbuttons on tabbed dialog boxes

Usability experts have noticed that users are often unclear about when changes to settings in a tabbed dialog box take effect (Robinson 1996, 1). For example:

  • Do the changes take effect when you move from tab to tab, when you click OK, the next time you start the program, when you click Apply, or when you close the tabbed dialog box?
  • If you take some action on particular page, such as adding a group of users to a network, are the new users saved when you click the Add button or are they saved when you click OK?

Use a consistent method for saving changes to the settings in all tabbed dialog boxs in a product. Avoid doing an auto-save in one tab dialog (changes in one tab are saved when you click on another tab) and manual save (clicking on the OK button) in others.

Also, researchers find that users are most satisfied with explicit information about effects. For example, adding an explicit Apply Settings button means that users no longer have to guess that clicking OK or switching tabs applies their changes. Although the Apply button might add an extra interaction, it eliminates unnecessary cognition. The idea, as ever, is to let users think about their tasks, not yours.

Saving the page versus the dialog box

Dialog box, tabbed

Fig. 39. The pushbuttons are placed outside the tabs to
indicate that they affect the entire dialog box.

Another source of confusion is what OK, Cancel, or Apply actually affect--the entire dialog box or just the current page? Make effects obvious by positioning your pushbuttons inside or outside the page as needed:

  • Place pushbuttons that affect all the pages outside the margins of the tab page (Fig. 39).
  • Place pushbuttons that affect only the page inside the page margins (Wilson, 1997).

Restore the defaults

Tabbed dialog boxs are often used for complex system configuration tasks with many settings. Provide a mechanism for restoring the settings on the current tab page or on all tab pages, Wilson says. This could be a Restore Defaults button placed inside a tab page (which would affect only the settings on the page) or with the main pushbuttons (which would affect the settings on all tab pages). Just make sure that the user is clear about what the Restore Defaults button will do. See Pushbuttons for more information.

What the tabbed dialog box replaced

The tabbed dialog box has become a popular method for combining many individual "preferences" or "properties" dialog boxes into a compact package (Wilson 1997). Before the tabbed dialog box was invented, a GUI designer would create a separate dialog box for each set of related features or attributes, or else use radio buttons, drop-down lists, list boxes, or pushbuttons to display dialog boxes within dialog boxes. Fig. 40, Fig. 41, Fig. 42, and Fig. 43 show some of the methods that tabbed dialog boxes replace.

Dialog box, tabbed
Fig. 40
. A drop-down list instead of tabs.

Dialog box, tabbed
Fig. 41. Radio buttons instead of tabs.

Dialog box, tabbed
Fig. 42
. Single-select list box instead of tabs.

Dialog box, tabbed
Fig. 43
. Pushbuttons instead of tabs.

Other methods include:

  • creating separate menu items for each dialog box, which increases menu complexity
  • opening multiple levels of dialog boxes from the parent dialog box
  • expanding dialog boxes to show second-level information
  • using a tree control on the left

Although expanding dialog boxes and opening multiple dialog boxes from one dialog box still appear occasionally, most of them are also being replaced with tabbed dialog boxes.

When to use a tabbed dialog box

Tabbed dialog boxs are most appropriate for random access to features, attributes, or task objects. Tabbed dialog boxes cue users that they can visit as many or as few of the tab pages as they think are relevant, in any order.

However, the tab metaphor does not suggest that users must visit each page in order. Thus, avoid tabbed dialog boxs for sequential tasks (in which each tab represents a step in a process). Instead, consider using a wizard to guide users through sequential tasks (Zetie 1995, 148).

If you must use tabbed dialog boxes for sequential tasks, provide clear feedback on:

  • how the user can change things in previous steps
  • whether steps can be skipped
  • what is required within each step
  • when the subtasks for each step are actually accomplished or saved—as each subtask ends or only at the end of all subtasks?
Dialog box, tabbed
Fig. 44
. A wizard with tabs.

There is a recent trend to integrate tabbed dialogs into wizard designs (Fig. 44). This approach, which lets users make many choices at each step, might be due to users complaining that the wizards are not flexible enough. However, adding multiple tabs to each wizard dialog box imposes an extra--and probably unexpected--cognitive load on the user. Wizards are supposed to take the simplest or default route through the task, not the most complicated one.

If you find yourself in this situation, check whether the "expert route" is missing. Your experienced users may be trying, unsuccessfully, to find out how to do the task more more quickly—i.e., without the wizard. Tell them somewhere in the wizard or in help how to make the change directly. Also see if you have a wider diversity in user needs than you expected. Multiple wizards might be an appropriate response. See Wizard for more information.

Usability tests:

Test whether users can locate functions inside tabbed dialog boxs. For example, with a paper and pencil test, ask participants to match functions to tab names. You can test this with a low-fidelity prototype as well.

Test the labels. Ask the participants to find an item and see whether they pick the right tab. For unsuccessful choices, ask them what label they would use. Change the labels between tests until most users pick the right tab.

Test for information overload—in other words, too many sets of tabs and too many unrelated dialog boxes in the same set. If participants have trouble matching functions and labels, try breaking the entire set of pages into smaller sets, then test again.

By direct questioning, see if participants know when their changes have taken effect.

See also:

Dialog Box, Standard; Window.

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Drop-Down List

A data-entry tool that lets users pick items from a list rather than type entries.

Good for:

Limiting choices to the items on the list.

When available space is limited (on a toolbar, for example) and when the mouse is the primary interaction device (as opposed to the combo box, which is more keyboard-oriented). See Fig. 45.

dropdown list

Fig. 45. A closed drop-down list box.

Not good for:

  • Letting users add new items. Use a drop-down combo box instead.
  • Letting users select more than one item. Use a multiple-select list box instead.

Design guidelines:

In Visual Basic and some other development packages, a drop-down list box is a type of combo box. In other words, to create one, you select the combo box control, then change the Style property to "dropdown list."

Note that users cannot add new items to a drop-down list as they can with simple or drop-down combo boxes. They can, however, search the list by typing the first letter of the desired item when the list has focus. See "Searching" in Combo Box.

In Windows 3.x, the drop-down list box may be visually distinguished from the drop-down combo box by the lack of a space between the entry area and the down arrow (Fig. 45).

Weinschenk and Yao (1995, 22) make these recommendations:

  • Since drop-down lists hide all but the first item, use a drop-down list if most users will select the first item.
  • Display a default value in the entry area if users will pick it more than half the time. For example, on a medical insurance form, "Self" is probably the most likely answer to "Relationship to Patient?" and would be a good default value. If there is no clear default, use alphabetical order or some other logical order (see Table 3. "Organization Styles for Lists" in List Box, Multiple-Selection).
  • Do not use a drop-down list if users need to see all options all the time. (To find out, check your specifications and do usability testing.)
  • Consider using filters when there are more than 40 items on the list. (Scrolling through long lists is difficult because there is a tendency for the mouse to slip off the scroll bar.) You can divide the list up alphabetically (for example, users click an M button to get the list of chart types starting with M) or by category (users click "Laser" to get the list of laser printers, "Bubble Jet" for bubble-jet printers, and so on).

Usability tests:

Make sure that users know they can search the list. If half or more users don’t notice the search option, consider adding an instructional label or tooltip such as "Type item or click the down arrow." You can also flag the issue for your online help, documentation, and training teams.

See also:

Combo Box; List Box, Single-Selection.

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