Why it’s important to think outside the check box

April 28, 2011

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 Read the rest of this entry »

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Radio buttons vs. checkboxes: Do you know the difference?

January 9, 2009

I continue to be astonished. It happened again. I found another computer user who didn’t know why some on-line surveys’ questions have “round buttons,” and others, “square buttons” — the difference between radio buttons and checkboxes. So I’m curious… Read the rest of this entry »


Radio buttons apparently not yet common knowledge

October 1, 2008

Most days I feel I do a pretty good job of putting myself in the new user’s shoes, but there are times that I’m reminded I need to take a step back and ask, “Is this concept really common knowledge, or do I just think it is because I’ve known it for so long?” This is the “curse of knowledge,” a term popularized by Chip and Dan Heath, which suggests once a person has too much knowledge about a field, it is difficult for the person to imagine what it is like not to know. (Chip Heath gave this example, in an interview in The McKinsey Quarterly, saying “The IT person knows so much that he or she can’t imagine knowing as little as the rest of us.”)

Even as an advocate for new technology users, I’m occasionally reminded of the need to be diligent in reassessing my own “accursedness.” Recently, I had the opportunity to take an on-line survey offered by a Fortune 100 company. It was the standard radio button survey with five options for each question. You might think that no interface element is as simple as a set of radio buttons, but when I saw the link “Instructions for taking this survey,” I was curious. What could be simpler than a radio button based survey? To my surprise, the instructions contained something worded like the following:

Place the arrow on the circle for your selected response, and left click on your mouse. A black dot should appear in the circle for your selected response. To change your answer, place the arrow on the circle for your new response and left click on your mouse. The black dot will now appear in the circle for your new response.

I have to admit that my first thought was, “Is this really necessary? In this day and age, do users really not know how to operate a set of radio buttons?” But then the amazement gave way to one of those “ah-ha” moments. Here is a survey offered by a major corporation, one which has surely conducted its share of surveys. So it stands to reason that, based on their experience, they’ve discovered there are indeed some users who don’t understand how to operate radio buttons enough to take a simple survey.

After I recovered from the initial astonishment, it occurred to me that I had at one time considered omitting an explanation of radio buttons from my upcoming book. I eventually decided that, though they’re seemingly all too common, radio buttons should be discussed if only for the sake of completeness. This recent survey experience confirms that perhaps I should take one more look at that section prior to publication to ensure I didn’t leave the topic too thin.

Moreover, this experience is a good reminder for all of us who endeavor to explain technology that we are indeed “cursed” with both knowledge and, perhaps more than we realize, the assumption that some topics are too simple to require explanation.