Sacrifice flexibility for usability

As a programmer, I was trained to always put flexibility in the design of my applications. Customer requirements change a lot and if you can design your application to accommodate these changes with minimal coding, you’re an excellent programmer.

As I study website usability and look at web applications from a customer’s perspective and not from a programmer’s, I learned there are instances where flexibility hurts the usability of our applications.

Consider the case of a drop-down. Before, whenever I need to present a list of options that can be selected in the interface, I would go for drop-down. From a programmer’s point-of-view, it offers the much needed flexibility in code. Simply write a wrapper for adding options in the drop-down regardless of whether the options are pulled from a database or hand-coded (yuck!). But the point is whenever I need to add, remove, or change the options, it is a no-brainer. Flexibility at its best.

But when we consider the experience our customers are going in through, sometimes we have to sacrifice flexibility for usability.

In a drop-down, the customer must click the on it before she can see the options. Afterwards, she must select the option. This simple operation assumes all options are visible. Otherwise, the customer must scroll to see the other options.

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Instead of drop-down, why not use radio buttons or checkboxes. With these, all options are always available and selecting an option only requires one click ?Ĭ a definitely convenient way for the customer.

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But radio buttons and checkboxes are not perfect if there is a long list of options like country names in which case you must use a drop-down. The real value I see in the use of a drop-down is the savings in screen real estate.

I suggest if there are more than 5 options, use a drop-down. Why 5 and not 6? I agree this is something that cannot be cast in stone and you should work this out with your team. But from experience, I am comfortable with 5 visible options. More than that, the interface looks cluttered. Or, maybe I am just on the lower extrema of Miller’s Law.

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