Radio Buttons Are Like Selects; Checkboxes Are Like Multiple Selects

May 20, 2020

I was reading Anna Kaley’s “Listboxes vs. Dropdown Lists” post the other day. It’s a fairly straightforward comparison between different UI implementations of selecting options. There is lots of good advice there. Classics like that you should use radio buttons (single select) or checkboxes (multiple select) if you’re showing five or fewer options, and the different options when the number of options grows from there.

One thing that isn’t talked about is how you implement these things. I imagine that’s somewhat on purpose as the point is to talk UX, not tech. But how you implement them plays a huge part in UX. In web design and development circles, the conversation about these things usually involves whether you can pull these things off with native controls, or if you need to rebuild them from scratch. If you can use native controls, you often should, because there are tons of UX that you get for free that that might otherwise be lost or forgotten when you rebuild — like how everything works via the keyboard.

The reason people chose “rebuild” is often for styling reasons, but that’s changing slowly over time. We’ve got lots of control over radios and checkboxes now. We can style the outside of selects pretty well and even the inside with trickery.

But even without custom styling, we still have some UI options. If you need to select one option from many, we’ve got <input type="radio"> buttons, but data and end-result-wise, that’s the same as a <select>. If you need to select multiple options, we’ve got <input type="checkbox">, but that’s data and end-result-wise the same as <select multiple>.

You pick based on the room you have available and the UX of whatever you’re building.