Forget Select – it is Browse, Browse, Browse


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The other day I was floored and humbled as I regularly am during a session of usability testing for a site prototype. Up to this point the testing and functionality determination had gone well. Then someone put a massive road block in the way. There it was sticking up out of the ground blocking all findability of the core information on a site. Well maybe it wasn’t that bad, but it did make me think; which is good.

The Persona

Part of the root of the problem was the demographic of the main user segment’s persona. They where mainly low technology users, with extremely low computer use, but still significant use when required for certain tasks. This computer use was often their own time. Their work was very linear in nature with little room for any abstracted cognitive reasoning.

The Problem

Now we all assume you know how to use a select list (like below). You click on the arrow and select an item or tab, open and select.

But consider when the user doesn’t go near the select list, or will only use the default highlighted select. To them the out of sight items are hidden, invisible. They just can’t visually make the leap that the select list is in fact a number of selection items.

Hence all select lists, search or browse filters are deemed void.

The Solution

It’s really simple to fix, we thought, this one is just a matter of education, people will nut it out. But then the first time user is lost, what then. So out churned the solutions:

  • We tried check boxes. They where partly successful, but if the checked state was presented as a “cross” then the user did a reverse selection to what they really desired.
  • Next we tried a open, multiple line selection box, this worked when you could see the items they required. Otherwise it failed.
  • Finally we ended up with a simple list of links (see below) to represent the items concerned. With this the users had not problem and progressed as expected.

The key here was the user demographic, and that you should assume nothing. So what show stoppers like this have you come against and how did you get around them?

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  1. Neat insight for something we take for granted. Did you try radio buttons (given it was a single-select?)

  2. lol I was just about to suggest radio buttons too!

  3. Interesting post Gary. I always put a small instruction as the first entry in a drop-down select box along the lines “Select an [insert option here]” – was this tried for your case above?

  4. @Alex – Yes we tried the instruction first off. That totally failed. Comments like “select what..”

    @Ruth,, @Donna – The radio buttons, that was interesting, people selected a button and it worked well if you didn’t have to press anything else.

    Problem was the amount of screen real estate was also in high demand.

    But the amount of room for radio buttons was 30% more than the list which is doing the same thing at the end of the day. So the list wins

    It was just amusing to see the web used in a totally different way.

    All test results where 100% over all subjects.

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