Thanks to reader Bob Squirrell for suggesting a topic which is a pet hate of his …and mine. What is it? Drop-down selection boxes on forms. Please, if you have any of these abominations on your site, please do review their existence. They have their place, but it’s quite specific, and the real problem is with the vast majority of implementations where they’re used wrongly.
I’m sure you’ve come across both of the main incorrect uses of drop-down selection boxes. The first is when you’re given a list of choices which is so long that it would be both quicker and easier to type in the entry. The obvious example is the “select your country” drop-down, which offers you over 200 choices; what’s worse is that if your country can be identified in more than one way (e.g England, Great Britain or the United Kingdom), it’s not even easy to find. Seriously, how much easier would it be for people completing your form to type in “UK”, especially when they’ve already just probably typed in their address? Use a bit of AI (or just human grunt-work) to tidy things up at your end if necessary. The second incorrect use is when you don’t give all of the choices available, and resort to having “other” as the final option. The chances are that some people will select a “nearest” choice when “other” might have been more accurate, and others will put something specific in “other” when they might more accurately have selected one of the main choices. You’re not helping the user, and you’re getting back data which won’t be of much use.
There are two situations when using drop-down selection boxes does make sense. The first is when there are just a few unambiguous choices, all of which might take the user more than a few keystrokes to fill in, if that was even possible without presenting them with choices. Selections such as “salary range” spring to mind. Even so, is the space really so tight that you couldn’t offer all the options at a glance and have a tick-box system? The second situation is where the choices are again unambiguous, and the data is going directly into a database where for some reason it must be in a particular format, such as in order to be counted. So if you simply must have “Mr” against all of the over-18 males on your database who don’t have specific qualifications, then use one of those irritating drop-downs which says “Mr/Mrs/Dr/Other”, but otherwise, just let them type in “Mr” or “Mr.” or “Mister” or whatever they want (if you actually need that data at all anyway).