The Pinnacle of Bad Usability, Checkbox Edition

Checkbox in all three states
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Usability is always an interesting topic. In some cases, you are dealing with how difficult something is to complete. However, some people decide to make sure that a task is fundamentally difficult to use, no matter how simple it is supposed to be. Some of the worst offenders are the online education providers. While they provide a valuable service and have some good points, usability is not something they seem to be good at.

One of the most basic aspects of usability is, do not change common UI elements to work differently than they are supposed to. What I mean is, a button makes something happen, drop-downs select things from a list and radio buttons have two states, on and off. Or at least I thought this was a basic idea. Even though I have seen several issues with some of these sites, I am going to focus on one thing that I saw today, checkboxes.

So, when you see a normal checkbox, , you expect to be able to change from off to on, and on to off, right? Well, it seems like the basic checkbox wasn’t good enough. Imagine you are taking a multiple choice test, and some questions allow you to select multiple answers. Normally, you would expect to see a basic checkbox. What if you saw something like Question mark checkbox. Now, that is better styled than what I saw today, but it should give you a good idea of what I am talking about. How do you think this “question mark checkbox” is supposed to work?

Honestly, I did not know what to expect. My wife, who had the pleasure of running into this, figured it worked like a normal checkbox. Sadly, she was wrong. What happened was the first click selected the checkbox, and the second click cleared the checkbox. A third click would return to the question mark. Yes, three states for this checkbox, but not even in the somewhat accepted “some of my children are selected” summary state. We found out that this question mark state was meant to be “no answer selected”. A selected checkbox meant “Yes, this answers the question” and a cleared checkbox meant “No, not a correct answer”. The best part of this three state stupidity is that “no answer selected” was a wrong answer regardless of whether it was supposed to be selected or not. So, if you acted like a normal user and just clicked those items that you thought were correct answers, you would have been wrong. Go figure.

Who knew that the simple checkbox could be so complicated.


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