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I am working on redoing a clients application, which needs to be done for other reason, but one of the changes is to remove tabs.

The application is, in essence, fronting data records, very basic. The original application has 9 tabs on a page, holding various parts of the data, divided by function. However, the user said that she doesn't want tabs, because she always has to go through all of the tabs.

I have therefore worked a new solution without tabs. But I am wondering whether the concept of tabbed pages - a single page holding lots of data in multiple sections - is sometimes a wrong approach to take. We - IT professionals - tend to assume that this is a good way to behave. But maybe we are wrong.

So, to make this a clear question, what are the principles that we should use when utilising tabbed pages? Do we overuse them?

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I have marked Rogers answer as the accepted one, because I think it covers the majority of the issues. However, I am sure there is more discussion worth having on this. –  Schroedingers Cat Sep 7 '11 at 14:31
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6 Answers 6

up vote 9 down vote accepted

This is a topic I'm particularly interested in, because I actually do not like tabs for most situations. I think we do sometimes fall back on tabs a bit because it's an easy and common option to present more information in less space, rather than perhaps thinking around the problem a bit more and understanding the user's relationship with the data.

In general if we do our job properly then after looking at the requirements and understanding how users will interact with the system, then we should have all the necessary information to be able to determine for a given scenario whether tabs are the right way to represent sets of data or not.

Typically we end up implementing tabbed content because we are interested in only one page at a time. Tabs, by their very nature, hide all other content, so if a user is likely to keep needing to refer back and forth between tabs, or is going to sequentially move through all the tabs, then tabs are not the right way of presenting the data because it doesn't make things very easy for the way the users work - in fact it can be downright awkward. I frequently see users of software trying to manage ever increasing numbers of tabs of data and flicking back and forth trying to find the one that has the information they were looking at earlier.

If there is linkage or relationship between the pages of content then either the number of tabs must be reduced or alternative presentations should be considered - or alternative mechanism of accessing the content (hierarchy, favourites, historical, most popular, etc depending on the application in question).

If the tabs simply present sequential information, then tabs are not appropriate either because the criteria for splitting data at one point or another is less well defined or does not help to categorize the data in a clear fashion - you wouldn't present pages of a book using tabs - you wouldn't present pages of search results in tabs.

If there is no linkage or relationship between individual pages, then tabs should generally be fine. So for example in a browser, tabs are good - they divide separate areas of content - although having said that, actually if you really look at how people would like to organize their browsing sessions there is even life beyond tabs - eg Aza Raskin talks about Tab Candy for FireFox (aka Panorama or Tab Groups)

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I picked up on one particular thought in your post, and perhaps this wasn't how you meant it, but I would be curios to hear your thoughts. You said "you wouldn't present pages of search results in tabs." What about Google? If I search for apples I can then click images and see images of apples, or videos, etc. Probably not quite what you meant but would you consider that appropriate tab usage? –  Matt Lavoie Sep 6 '11 at 14:05
    
To clarify, I meant you wouldn't use tabs to display sequential pages of search results which stemmed from a single search - eg results 1-20 in one tab & 21-40 in another. You ask whether images and videos would make sense in separate tabs? Presumably theoretical rather than what you see in Google today? I say 'today' because Google used to have tabs (2003) for their 'vertical search' results as did AltaVista. Both suffered badly from tab blindness. People just didn't see them. The left side bar works well today, but much better is inclusion in results of a special item for 'images of...' –  Roger Attrill Sep 6 '11 at 15:44
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Interesting question. I believe that tabs should only be used to divide sections - if information belongs together, it should be on one page or - if that isn't possible - at least in one section of the website or application.

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I think that tabs should only separate data/content that works by itself with absolutely or almost no relation to the other tabs.

A better approach is to divide the screen grouping by most-related. On top being the most important or most-used group of functions/information.

If the dataset is too big as to put everything on one view and scrolling kicks-in heavy; a side menu does the jobs very well.

Also hotkeys help a lot in such situations; if the user can just press ctrl and the arrows to navigate through the different datasets it will make his/her life much easier.

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I think that everyone has said it well: that tabs should only be on a page to separate unrelated data - that is, as a form of navigation. To add my two cents, I think that another important part of this, though, is the idea that not all information is tabular (which is what I'm assuming you're putting in to these various tabs). Instead of having tabs to divide out all sorts of information that the user may want, it would be better to have a thorough understanding of the actual use of this data. If, say, you realized that they wanted some particular stat, instead of dividing out that data into a tab, why not aggregate it into a chart somewhere on the page? (Charts typically take up less space and present more information when they are well designed)

I think my point is simply this: when you understand the use of the data you are presenting, you can derive more compact, easier to understand ways of consuming this data.

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Just some random ideas about tabs:

  • Don't use tabs:
    • if a change on the current page can influence controls on another page
    • as selection (e.g. the result depends on the selected tab)
    • for dynamic page count (tabs in multiple rows are horror, scrolling tabs are also worse)
  • It might be possible to combine a tab interface with a wizard-like GUI with Previous/Next buttons. This would allow the user to jump back to a previous page easily.
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Applications may need to consider two types of users: those new to the application and those that have used it countless times. The rules of avoiding clutter and confusion are great for new users. Seeing 50 fields on a page may be intimidating at first.

After awhile, some users want to improve functionality. They see having to click a different tab as a hinderance to getting to the other data.

One feature they may not have considered when putting all the data on one page is load time. Having tabs is one way to break up loading the information. This is helpful if there are sections that are used rarely.

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