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Preface to the GUI Design Handbook
Checkbox to Cursor
Dialog Box to Drop-down List
Graph to Iconic Label
Keyboard Shortcuts to List Box
Menubar to Message Box
Online Help
Palette to Pushbutton
Radio Buttons to Status Bar
Table to Wizard

14 Steps of GUI Design
Color & Pattern
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You are here: Home ~ Desktop UIs ~ Keyboard Shortcut - List Box

Keyboard Shortcuts: Mnemonic, Accelerator

A mnemonic is a programmer-defined keyboard shortcut consisting of the Alt key and one character. A mnemonic must be visible before the user can invoke it. Mnemonics are indicated with underlines in the labels of the menu options, pushbuttons, and other GUI components for which they are defined.

An accelerator is a function key (F1, F2, etc.), a [Ctrl] key or z key sequence, or a keyboard key marked with a function name (for example, Help or Delete). Accelerator keys are always available¾ unlike mnemonics, they don't have to be visible to be used.

Good for:

Users with disabilities that make mouse use difficult.

Accessing commands and operations quickly, by bypassing the graphical (mouse-oriented) user interface (Fig. 17).


Fig. 17. N, O, and e are mnemonics. Ctrl+N and Ctrl+O are accelerators.

When a mouse is unavailable—for example, on trading floors and in manufacturing clean rooms—or too irritating to use—for example, on laptop computers.

Not good for:

Novice computer users. (Graphical interfaces, by making important options and activities visible, are better for users who have never used a computer before.) Mnemonics and accelerators are, relatively speaking, hidden functionality.

Design guidelines:

Define mnemonics and accelerators for users who work faster without the mouse: power users, users of earlier command-line systems, touch-typists, and laptop users who don’t want to use the built-in trackball or touch-pad.

Defining mnemonics

Keyboard shortcuts take advantage of "body" or kinesthetic memory, which comes into play when you learn to type, ride a bicycle, or drive a car. This kinesthetic memory is the reason that touch-typists dislike interfaces in which too much functionality is tied to the mouse¾you can't memorize the mouse's location the way you can memorize keyboard positions. Keys are always in the same place. The mouse pointer rarely is.

Platform guidelines require mnemonics (or the equivalent) for all menu options. Some mnemonics are already defined in the platform specifications. Most guidelines also suggest adding mnemonics to pushbuttons.

mnemonic button

Fig. 18. Mnemonics on pushbuttons.

The rules for defining mnemonics are as follows (IBM 1992, 344-349; Microsoft 1995a, 33-34; OSF 1993, 5-3- 5-4):

  • Mnemonics are combinations of Alt and single characters.
  • The program accepting the mnemonic must be case-insensitive.
  • When focus is on the menu or menubar, the user just presses the mnemonic letter or number. If focus is anywhere else, he or she must press the special key (in Windows, for example, Alt) plus the mnemonic.
  • The label must contain the character to be used as the mnemonic unless there are no characters in the label (pictures can be used as labels) or the labels will change (on lists of open windows, for example). In either of these situations, number the labels and use the numbers as the mnemonics.
  • As long as the label does contain characters, the mnemonic character must be underlined, except in language environments in which underlining is unavailable. There are two exceptions: OK and Cancel. OK, when it appears, is always the default button and always uses Enter as its accelerator. Cancel always uses Esc as its accelerator.
  • For all systems except OSF/Motif: When a mnemonic is not part of the label but instead is a number or other code, put the number or code flush left in front of the label (at the fourth space) and underline it. Do not include parentheses or periods. For Motif, put a letter mnemonic in parentheses after the label (OSF 1993, 5-3). Numbers go in front of the label.
  • Avoid using the same letter more than once on any individual pulldown menu. (The problem with using the same mnemonic twice is that the user has to stop to think about which one she wants.) If, nevertheless, you reuse a letter, the first keypress goes to the first item on the menu; when you press it again, it goes to the second. Note: This does not currently work in Java applications.
  • You can use the same letter more than once on different pulldown menus or on a menu and a submenu. In other words, you can use F for File on one menu, and F for Film Stars on another. The items are differentiated from one another by the titles of the menus themselves¾ say, [Alt]-[F] for File menu plus [F] for File versus [Alt]-[T] for Talent plus [F] for Film Stars.
  • All duplicate menu items should use the same mnemonic. For example, if Save shows up on two menus on two windows in the same application, both Saves should use the same mnemonic.

Table 1 is a decision tree for selecting letters. In addition, there are two high-level rules:

  1. Find the five to seven most important options in the entire menu system and assign their mnemonics first. (These five to seven options will also get accelerators.) The reason for this is the chunking rule: You can remember only five items at a time, plus or minus two. Since users are likely to memorize only five to seven mnemonics (or only five to seven at a time), it is best to make the most important options the most memorable.
  2. If the option has a traditional mnemonic, use it.

You might also let users redefine the mnemonics to suit themselves¾ for example, typists who memorized the old Wordstar keys (in international markets where Wordstar is still popular) might want to redefine your keys to match.

Table 1. Picking Mnemonics

Default: Use the first letter in the word or phrase.



That letter is already used.

Use the first consonant or the most interesting consonant.



The first or most interesting consonant is already used.

Use the first letter of the second or third word in the phrase.



There is only one word.

Use any available (non-conflicting) letter.



The label contains no letters or the letters will change.

Use numbers in front of the label. Start with 1 and end with 9.



The label uses a non-Roman writing scheme (Kanji, for example) but a Roman keyboard.

Prefix the label with a Roman number or letter and use that character as the mnemonic.

Defining accelerators

Certain key combinations are reserved for system-wide accelerators¾ [Ctrl]-[C], for example, has come to mean "copy" in nearly every environment. Users automatically have access to the system accelerators unless your program prevents it. Defining new accelerators for important application functions is encouraged but not required.

The rules are:

  • Accelerators are function keys, Ctrl or z key combinations, or named keys on the keyboard. Note: The IBM guidelines say, "Use the Alt key only to provide access to mnemonics," then list a number of nonmnemonic uses for the [Alt] key (IBM 1992, 315). However, that stricture seems to be a "guideline" rather than a "requirement." Just something else to keep in mind.
  • Don't use the accelerators that are already defined in the environment for application-specific operations. In other words, don't use [F1] or the [Help] key to open a tutorial.
  • Define accelerators only for high-frequency functions. Find the five to seven most often-used options in the entire menu system and assign accelerators to them (if there isn’t a system-defined accelerator already).
  • On option labels, use a plus sign (+) between the key names to indicate that a user must press two or more keys at once¾ for example, use Ctrl+F4, not Ctrl-F4.
  • Remember that function-key shortcuts are easier to localize than modifier-plus-letter shortcuts. Since no name or letter is associated with a key, no translation is required.
  • Avoid using punctuation character keys in accelerators if you expect to internationalize your application. International keyboards have different punctuation characters. Also, if you select a letter primarily because of its mnemonic association (for example, Ctrl+B for bold), you may have to change it to fit a particular language. (Microsoft 1995a, 418).

For the standard accelerators on your platform, refer to the guidelines for your current environment.

Usability tests:

To decide which accelerators to define, find the five to seven options used most often. Test experienced users, not novices.

For the most accurate results, use a usage or keystroke-capture program. Do the analysis by playing back the sessions and counting the number of accesses.

Note that accelerators, although shown on menus, do not work on menus. For example, pressing Ctrl+P while the File menu is open doesn’t let users access the Print dialog box. Users new to GUIs may have trouble with this idea—"It’s right there on the menu! Why won’t it work?"

See also:

Command Line; Menu, Pop-Up.

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A description, usually text but sometimes pictorial, of fields, buttons, and areas of windows or dialog boxes.

Good for:

Indicating expected content for fields (Fig. 19).

Indicating the purpose of a button or other control.

Fig. 19. Typical field and button labels.

Not good for:

Showing detailed instructions. Offer instructions using tooltips, status-bar messages, or context-sensitive online help.

Design guidelines:

Following are some general guidelines on window and dialog-box layout. Labels, although not as important as the fields and buttons themselves, are nevertheless the most visible items on most windows.

Make labels match tasks

In "The Cognitive Walkthrough Method" (1994, 112), Nielsen and Mack suggest that users often follow a "label-following" strategy. They will select an action if the label matches the description they have in mind for the task. For instance, a user who wants to print a document might select an action with the label "Print" or "Document" (or an icon that shows a printer or document).

Reduce complexity

Reduce complexity not necessarily by eliminating information but by organizing it. Following are some guidelines.

Organize the information

Put the most often entered or referenced information at the top, and the least often used information at the bottom or in dialog boxes.

Create functional groups of information

Create groups of information by putting, for example, names and addresses at the top, billing information in the middle, sales data at the bottom. Break up the groups by putting them in boxes or by separating them with blank lines or rules. If there are no functional breaks, then break the screen every five to seven rows (Galitz 1994, 78). See Fig. 20 and Fig. 21 for a demonstration.

Note that you might want to group all required fields at the top of the window or dialog box, even though this might break up your functional groups. See Fields, Required, for more information.

Align field labels

Fig. 20 and Fig. 21 contain exactly the same fields, but Fig. 20 looks much more complicated. Minimizing the number of columns and rows—the number of alignment points, in other words—is one of the best ways to reduce window complexity. Fig. 21, the revised version, is about 50 percent simpler.

Fig. 20. Unaligned fields on a window makes the window look complicated.

Fig. 21. Aligned and grouped fields make the same window look simpler.

Provide only need-to-know information

If the user is looking for price relative to yield, then show her price and yield at the top of the window. Information about the company issuing the stock, the number of shares outstanding, the broker recommending the stock, and so on, can go at the bottom of the window.

Put nice-to-know information in dialog boxes

When space is tight, separate need-to-know from nice-to-know information. For instance, a lab analyst needs to know whether a test result was positive or negative¾ therefore, this information goes on the main window at the top left. However, he might also like to know the statistical likelihood of a false positive using this batch of reagent, this level of humidity, and so on. This information can go in a separate dialog box.

Position buttons correctly

Put buttons related to the entire window at the bottom of the window. Put buttons related to sections of the windows inside those sections.

How dense is too dense?

Some early guidelines suggested keeping screen densities to under 25 percent—in other words, only 25 percent of the window should actually contain fields or displayed information (Galitz 1994, 83). Studies support these recommended densities. For example, NASA researchers found that densely packed screens (70 percent full) took an average of 5 seconds to scan, while sparsely filled screens (30 percent full) took only 3.4 seconds. By improving the labeling, clustering related information, using indentation and underlining, aligning numbers, and eliminating unnecessary characters, the researchers reduced task time by 31 percent and errors by 28 percent for inexperienced users. Experienced users did not improve their task times, but they did become more accurate. A study of telephone operators found that maintaining a 25 percent density and suppressing redundant family names reduced search times by 0.8 seconds per search (Schneiderman 1992, 318-319).

However, expert users (stock brokers, air traffic controllers, and so on) prefer denser displays because more information per screen means fewer computer-related operations. Since these users are familiar with the data, they can find what they need even on a screen with 80 or 90 percent densities.

The key to the density mystery may be Jared Spool’s breakdown of applications into "core" and "ring": A core application enhances the user’s core competencies. For example, an engine analysis system enhances a car mechanic’s core competencies. A ring application—for example, a parts locator program—helps with tasks outside the mechanic’s core competencies. A core application can and should be as dense as necessary, since their users will be spending a lot of time with it and will want to have as much information available as possible. Since, on the other hand, users will use ring applications only occasionally, they will need all the help they can get—not just white space and careful grouping but built-in templates and wizards to get them over the learning hump quickly (Spool 1996a, 1-3).

See also Cooper’s breakdown of applications into sovereign, transient, daemonic, and parasitic (1995, 151-170).

Conclusion? On core applications, concentrate on reducing overall complexity rather than density. On ring applications, reduce both density and complexity.

Note: You can measure density by counting the total number of characters on the window and dividing by the total number of characters available on the window. This number was easier to calculate on character-based screens, which were always 80 characters across and 26 lines deep (minus a few lines for status bars and other screen apparatus). However, you can count the number of characters on the window by typing "1234567890123..." across the top and down the side. For the total, multiply the horizontal and vertical counts (Galitz 1994, 72-73).

Use abbreviations carefully

If you have to create a visually tight window (a form-based data-entry window, for example), you may need to abbreviate.

Studies of abbreviation methods have found that truncating words is the best method for creating abbreviations. Unless a standard and well-known abbreviation exists—for example, DOB for date of birth, SSN for Social Security number—truncate words.

Avoid making up abbreviations, because people have different ideas about the "natural" abbreviation for any one word—"meeting" might be "mtg" or "meet," for example (Galitz 1989, 115).

Keep in mind, however, that you can end up with the same abbreviation for more than one word. Here are two more methods for shortening terms:

  • Contract words to the first and last letters, delete vowels, and use phonic puns—for example, FX for "effects," XQT for "execute." (If you are going to internationalize your application, note that puns in one language rarely translate well to another. Sometimes puns don’t translate between two versions of English—E-Z Add reads as "easy add" in American English but "ee-zed add" in British English.)
  • Use the abbreviations in commercial abbreviation dictionaries. This strategy may help users who move often between jobs in the same industry.

What labels should look like

Field labels should be a word or phrase followed by a colon and a space:

Label: Data

Microsoft says to put a colon at the end of the text: "Not only does this help communicate that the text represents the label for a control, it is also used by screen review utilities" (Microsoft 1995, 162).

Where to put labels

Put labels for columns above the column. For example:

  Names: Birthdays:
  Lucy 10/06/53
  Sally 11/03/51
  Mud 12/05/58

Put labels for individual fields in front of the fields. For example:

Price: 123.45 Yield: 6.78

Don't put labels above individual fields¾ as well as using two lines per field instead of one, the labels tend to become visually detached from their fields:

Price: Yield:
123.45 6.78
Spread: Benchmark
10 bp TSY10Y


Labels should be as close as possible to their fields, yet line up vertically in unobtrusive but organized columns. The best way to fulfill both requirements is to justify the labels and the fields separately.

In general:

  • Left-justify the labels.
  • Left-justify alphanumeric data.
  • Align decimal numbers on the decimal point.
  • Right-justify whole numbers (since there is no decimal point).

To figure out the spacing for labels, find the longest label and add one space between it and its field or other component. Left-align the rest of the fields with that first field.

How to write labels

Labels can't just look good—they should read good, too. Recommendations:

  • Use symbols—$, #, %—only if all users will understand them. Remember that "all users" may include international users. Some symbols will not be on all keyboards.
  • Try to use short, familiar words—"Cut" instead of "Reduce," for example. As well as being more readily understood, short words tend to be more punchy and authoritative. However, keep in mind that a long, familiar word is better than a short, unfamiliar one (Galitz 1989, 74-75).
  • Try to use positive terms, which are generally easier to understand than negative terms. For example, use "Growing" instead of "Not Shrinking."
  • When comparing objects, use the "more" rather than the "less" dimension if you have a choice—"longer" instead of "shorter," "bigger" instead of "smaller" (Galitz 1989, 74).
  • Don't stack letters to label a column or a table:


Since most readers read words whole, not one letter at a time, the stacked style is difficult to read. Instead, put the label above the column or table or turn the entire word sideways.

  • For better readability, don't break words between lines.
  • Show abbreviations, mnemonics, and acronyms without punctuation. Periods and other punctuation marks take up valuable window real estate without adding anything to readability.

How to capitalize labels

The Windows 3.1 style guide calls for headline-style capitalization for labels of more than one word. The Windows 95 and OS/2 guidelines call for sentence-style capitalization for labels. Note that, for menus, pushbuttons, and tabs, Windows 95 requires headline-style capitalization (Microsoft 1995, 387-388).

Sentence style: Capitalize only the first letter of each label. For example, Save as. Exception: Capitalize any proper noun that appears in the label. For example, About BoschDraw.

Headline style: Capitalize every word in the label except articles (a, an, the); coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, for, nor); and prepositions (at, by, in, to, from, with) unless they are the first or last words in the label (Chicago 1993, 282-283). For example, Save As.

Avoid using all capital letters in titles. All-uppercase text causes problems. First of all, uppercase letters take up more room than lowercase letters. A title that breaks into two lines when it is all uppercase will often fit on a single line when it is in upper- and lowercase.

Secondly, all uppercase is hard for non-programmers to read. Reading studies indicate that:

  • People get their cues from the tops of letters
  • Capital letters give them fewer cues than lowercase letters

See which of these two samples you can read more easily:

Expansion rates between English and other languages

If you intend to internationalize your software, expect labels and other text to require more room in the new language. For example, "Apply" in English is "Appliquer" in French. See Table 2.

Note that, the shorter the text, the more room you may need (National Language Technical Center 1991, 2-4).

To accommodate internationalization and localization, put all label text in resource files. See the "See also" section below for some good reference books. .

Table 2. Expansion Rates Between English and Other Languages

Number of characters in English

Extra space required for other languages

Field labels, menu options

up to 10 characters

100-200% (20 to 30 characters)

11 to 20 characters

80-100% (31 to 40 characters)

Messages, onscreen instructions

21 to 30 characters

60-80% (34 to 54 characters)

31 to 50 characters

40-60% (43 to 80 characters)

Online help, documentation

51 to 70 characters

30-40% (66 to 98 characters)

over 70 characters


Usability tests:

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

You might also test the time required to find information. Develop a set of "reasonable" timings, then give participants a list of items to find. Time them with a stopwatch. Revise the order and groupings until most participants can find the items within your reasonable timeframes.

Note that experienced and inexperienced users will have very different times. If your application is a core application, use experienced participants. If a ring application, use occasional or novice participants.

See also:

Field, Entry; Field, Protected.

For an overview of the internationalization of GUIs, see Fowler and Stanwick, The GUI Style Guide (1995). For help with internationalization programming, see Nadine Kano, Developing International Software for Windows 95 and Windows NT (1995); Ken Lunde, Understanding Japanese Information Processing (1993); the National Language Technical Center (IBM) National Language Support Reference Manual, vol. 2 (1992); Bill Tuthill, Solaris International Developer’s Guide (1993); and Apple Computer’s Guide to Macintosh Software Localization (1992).

As well as programming structures and hints, these books also contain information on sorting orders, cultural differences, differences in calendars, money, weights and measures, and so on, from one country to another. If you’re serious about internationalization, it is worth your while to get them all, whether they match your development platform or not.

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List Box, Multiple-Selection

A scrollable list from which users can select more than one item.

Good for:

As an alternative to check boxes, especially if the options will change often or be translated.

Letting users select more than one item from a long and possibly dynamic list.

Fig. 22. A multiple-selection list box.

Showing multiple selections (especially when using a selection summary box, as shown in Fig. 23).

Fig. 23. A selection summary box.

Not good for:

Situations in which space is limited. You may need to rethink the function. See "Design guidelines" below.

Situations in which users may need to enter new items. Use a combo box instead (but combo boxes are single-select components) or add data-entry functionality to the list box.

Situations that could be done better graphically. For example, if users need to select states or provinces, it might be better to let them select them from a map rather than a list.

Design guidelines:

The more items you can display at the same time, the faster users will be able to select the right item. This is the advantage of multiple-selection lists. However, because multiple-selection lists take up so much room, it is best to restrict their use to large or system-wide functions (like opening files) where obviousness is a virtue; and to keep them in dialog boxes rather than on main windows. You wouldn’t usually want a multiple-selection list as a data-entry component in most database applications, for example. Combo boxes are usually better choices in data-entry applications.

Behavioral guidelines

Leavens suggests the following (1994, 286-288):

  • Make sure that users can make discontiguous selections, not just contiguous. In other words, make sure that they can select items that are separated from one another.
  • Make sure that all items can be viewed horizontally. Too often one sees a list box that isn’t wide enough for the complete path and file name. Test the widths of your lists in the field, not just in your office.
  • Before you specify or start to develop a long list box, make sure you know the limits of your development package. If the built-in multiple-selection list accepts only 200 items, say, you can’t use it (at least not without modification) for a list of ZIP or postal codes.

Make the user’s choices obvious

After users select more than one item, how do they know what they’ve selected? If the entire list appears on the screen—if there is no scrolling, in other words—all the selections appear as well. No problem. But when the list is longer than the list container, then the user needs better feedback.

Two options are the selection summary box (see Fig. 23) and check-box/list box component (Fig. 24). Not only do the check boxes indicate the selections, but they also show users that multiple selection is possible.

Fig. 24. Check boxes in a multiple-selection list box.

Helpful hint: On a scrolled list, because some selections will not be visible, add a label that says how many items were selected.

Make the multiple-selection option obvious

Developers often assume that users will know how to select more than one item (generally with the Shift and Control keys or with sweep-select). This is not necessarily a good assumption, especially with inexperienced users. If your user profile shows that users aren’t familiar with windowing systems or the application and that training may be spotty or nonexistent, add an obvious selection indicator or a tooltip. Note the hint in the title bar in Fig. 22. (It would, however, be better to have the hint just above or next to "File Name.") Also see Fig. 24.

How to organize lists

Once you have a list, how do you organize it so that users can find the items they want? According to Kent Norman (1991, 133-134), there are eight ways to organize information, as described in Table 3. These styles are not mutually exclusive--you can use all of them in a single application.

Table 3. Organization Styles for Lists

Organization Type




Not recommended, although random order (or what appears to be random to an uninitiated observer) is sometimes unavoidable.

Icons on a desktop.


Use when the items can be meaningfully alphabetized and scanned. Also use alphabetical order when no other type of organization springs to mind.

A list of typefaces: Arial, Helvetica, Times Roman.


Use for items that are associated with numbers.

Baud rates, type sizes, numbers of copies, and so on.


Use for items that are most effectively organized by date or time. You can sort by age or in standard cognitive order.

Age: E-mail messages from newest to oldest, articles in a news service from oldest to newest.

Cognitive order: January through December.

Sequential processing

List items according to their likely order in a process or according to a cognitive ordering of items.

Process order: Open Picture, Modify Picture, Save Picture, Close Picture. Cognitive order, from large to small: Galaxy, Cluster, Star, Planet, Moon.

Semantic similarity

Order items in terms of some semantic dimension, such as impact, reversibility, potency, and so on. Items that are most similar are next to each other on the list.

Emphasis styles ordered by impact: Normal, Underlined, Italic, Bold.

Frequency of use

Okay for "last n used" or "last n saved" lists. Can be problematic for other situations since frequencies change

  • when users become more expert, and
  • in data-entry tasks, when demographics change.

If frequency order is the only suitable order, then log usage to find actual frequencies. Or let users change the default themselves.

The four most recently used files on File menus.

Standard or custom

The platform guidelines suggest certain menu options in certain orders. Although all of these suggestions may not be suitable for your application, use them when you can.

Standardization reduces the number of decisions during development and helps users cross program boundaries more easily.

File, Edit, View, and Help menus.

Alphanumeric vs. categorical order

The list of organization styles (with the exception of random) falls into two parts--alphabetic, numeric, and chronological orders versus frequency, sequence, and semantic orders. If we call the division "alphanumeric versus categorical," is there any advantage of one over the other?

It seems that when users are looking for an exact word or label, alphanumeric order is fastest. For example, if you ask a test participant to find "Shiitake mushrooms," she'll find it quickly on an alphabetized list of foods, like the one in Fig. 25.

Fig. 25. Searching an alphabetized list.

However, when users are looking for an answer to a question (or a command leading to a particular outcome), categorical order is fastest, followed by alphabetical order, then random order (Norman 1991, 135-137). If you ask a test participant to find "mushrooms, Japanese," he'll find "Shiitake mushrooms" faster on a categorical list (Fig. 26).

Fig. 26. Searching a categorized list.

As users’ needs change, however, let them rearrange the list or columns so that this moment's most important information is at the top. This is usually done by turning column headings into sort toggle buttons. See Fig. 27 for example.

Fig. 27. Clicking a column heading ("Date Deleted," for example) toggles the list
between ascending and descending order.

Searching lists electronically

In addition to developing reasonable orders for the application’s list, you might want to let users search them electronically. Try using:

  • filters such as alphabetical buttons—if the user clicks R, the list jumps to the R items
  • search fields—the user types in a match or partial match and the application jumps to the closest match (Fig. 28)

Fig. 28. Search option for a multiple-selection list (in this case, a help index).

Sorting order for multiple columns

When you have a long list of items broken into two or more columns (type styles and sizes, for example), sort the list up and down, not side to side across the columns.

International sorting schemes

Your alphabetical lists will stop being alphabetical as soon as you localize your software, not just because the words change but also because sort orders, especially for accented letters, vary dramatically between one language and the next. Also, ideographic languages such as Chinese don't have alphabetical orders (they don't have alphabets). If your software will be sold internationally, don't depend heavily on alphabetical order.

Usability tests:

Check affordances: Make sure that the test participant knows he or she can select more than one item at a time.

Check sort orders: Do the test participants seem to spend a lot of time scrolling up and down the lists? Make a set of expected timings before you start the test, then time the participants. If they don’t meet your time expectations, you may need to add a dynamic "change sort" option, perhaps by turning the column headings into sort toggle buttons.

Find out whether you need a search option or filter: Do your lists contain hundreds rather than dozens of items? Do the participants spend a lot of time scrolling up and down the lists? Again, check actual task times against your expected times and revise the interface until most of the participants hit the time expections.

See also:

Check Box; Combo Box; Drop-Down List; List Box, Single-Selection.

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List Box, Single-Selection

A scrollable list from which users can select only one item.

Good for:

Making the user select one item from a list of six or more items (Fig. 29).

Can be used as an alternative to radio buttons.

List box, single select

Fig. 29. A single-selection list box.

Not good for:

Situations in which the list is not yet complete or well-defined. Use a combo box instead, since combo boxes let users enter new items when necessary.

Situations in which space is limited. Use a drop-down list box instead.

Design guidelines:

Since single-selection and multiple-selection list boxes look very much alike, provide some clue that users can select only one item from the list at a time. For example, put something like "Select one of [these items]" in the label.

Leavens suggests the following (1994, 286-288):

  • Make sure that all items can be viewed horizontally. Too often one sees a list box that isn’t wide enough for the complete path and file name. Test the widths of your lists in the field, not just in your office.
  • Before you specify or start to develop a long list box, make sure you know the limits of your development package. If the built-in multiple-selection list accepts only 200 items, say, you can’t use it (at least not without modification) for a list of ZIP or postal codes.

Usability tests:

Make sure that users never have to add items. Ask experienced users for advice before designing the list box and watch test participants carefully for signs that items are missing from the list.

See also:

List Box, Multiple-Selection; Radio Button.

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