Why it’s important to think outside the check box

Once again, I recently found myself in a consulting meeting, needing to explain the difference between check boxes and radio buttons. Those that follow my blog might ask, “Ben, why do you gripe about this so much?” So let me clarify why it’s important to think through this issue.

My issue is NOT about

1. expecting others to be able to describe computer technology correctly. (After all, the functionality of check boxes and radio buttons is retroactively obvious. Once you see the function of both explained side by side, it’s readily apparent what the differences are and why.) It has never been my desire to turn the general population into computer engineers, developers, or designers.

It’s only partially about

2. others being able to design appropriately — describing the appropriate interface element for the application — though this is crucially important. I have increasingly seen check boxes and radio buttons used interchangeably and the functionality behind them intentionally coded incorrectly, resulting in a radio button interface behaving like a set of check boxes and check boxes being leveraged like radio buttons. In fact, just a handful of weeks ago I was auditing some on-line training from a standard provider for that particular industry. All the exams were multiple-choice questions. The questions did not indicate if one response or multiple responses were required. Check boxes were used, yet most often, only one response was correct. But not always. Perhaps this was an intentional design choice. But having also just consulted with individuals designing a new website (who clearly did not know the difference and selected the wrong interface element), I can’t guarantee the choice was an informed one. In this case, had I not thought through the interface, applied my technology background, and then assessed the questions again, I might have failed the exam.

Foremost, my quandary is

3. I find so many users who can’t even use them correctly. Specifically, they treat them interchangeably.

Many might argue, “Is this a problem?”  Well, I’m not trying to be a UI fundamentals fanatic. I’m more interested in real-world application and use. So I certainly won’t argue from a theoretical vantage point. Indeed, if only a set of radio buttons or a set of check boxes is presented at one time, maybe it’s not a problem…. that time. But computer users have a way of building mental models based on past interface experiences. So I fret about incorrect assumptions being formed from inconsistent usage.  Will it bite the novice PC user when making that online purchase if the credit card selection is from a  set of check boxes rather than radio buttons? Probably not. But…

Let’s revisit #2 for a moment in the context of a fictitious, but likely scenario. Suppose the learner taking that on-line exam is a 63-year-old man. His retirement savings have eroded due to the poor investment market and weak economy. He needs to “un-retire,” returning to a workforce that has moved on in the time since he departed. His technology skills and knowledge are a little bit behind, and training is not done in classrooms anymore. It’s via the PC. Now, imagine if he can’t understand when multiple answers vs. single answers are required because check boxes and radio buttons aren’t correctly applied…. what will his score be? (As a side discussion, even if they were leveraged correctly, do you see why users might need to understand the difference?)

Interface elements are standard for a reason. And understanding check boxes and radio buttons isn’t just for those of us who learned what they were for when PCs were new. It’s still new to many, which is why a sizable portion of one lesson in The Ultimate PC Primer is on check boxes, radio buttons, and drop downs. I consider them a core concept.

As you think about this topic— outside the check box — do you know of instances that user misunderstanding of these simple interface elements has caused problems?

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