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Would it be considered a good practice to add the word "Select..." as the first option of a dropdown list? I think it's redundant and not at all necessary and what is in the dropdown list should be only a list of options that are available, not instructions.

Am I wrong?

Edit: Just to make it clear, by first option I don't mean DEFAULT. Most of the answers are about default option being preselected etc. That's not what this question is about. It's about displaying the combobox with "Select..." or other instructional text so people know they have to select something in there.

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The reason the answers discuss default values is that this question really is about default values. What you are calling a "placeholder" is a default value. You may be distinguishing between the two in thinking that a "placeholder" that would not pass input validation is in fact not a "default" (I am just guessing here. I really don't know how you are trying to define them differently.), but many (most?) people would call whatever appears in the box before any user interaction the "default". –  A.M. Aug 7 '13 at 14:45
    
@A.M. I disagree. The most immediately obvious is a selection for which there is NO default, the requirement being that the form user MUST make the choice. The purpose of the placeholder text would be to indicate that without driving the user through an error response for failing to choose one of the selections. –  Jim Sep 12 at 20:58

4 Answers 4

up vote 18 down vote accepted

A dropdown list (or combobox) should already be a clear indication that you need to select an item from there, so wasting the first item by telling someone this is redundant and a poor idea.

The only times that I would recommend having some other text in the dropdown are:

  1. when it is not essential to select an item
  2. when you want effectively to select all items.

Here are some examples:

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A default value that is clearly not a valid option (all of the options here: ux.stackexchange.com/questions/4078/… and the one given by the questioner) provides more than just an indication that an item needs to be selected (the role you say the mere presence of a list or box fulfills). It also provides a clear indication that what option appears there right now was not selected by you, and that can be valuable. –  A.M. Aug 7 '13 at 14:38

This is a tough question that is very much dependent on the proficiency of your user and the type and importance of the information being requested. That said, I have found a few things to be true in testing.

It is usually not a great idea to have a default selected unless you are very certain that the overwhelming majority of users want that option. Most cases require either a blank entry (for dropdowns) or clear placeholder/prompt text (combo boxes) so both the user and the system know that a selection has not been made.

A labeled box and placeholder/prompt text in it can make a difference in getting users to interact. I've been surprised by the uplift in testing this approach more than once. Primarily in very information dense forms. Even with a dropdown where a dummy entry is required, we saw an improvement in the user's interaction. In the dropdown case (where we couldn't have true placeholder text) we had to indicate it's placeholder status with surrounding hyphens.

On the other hand, I've had great success with much simpler solutions where the context and users can handle it.

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This is a great answer (+1). I would add, though, that even being "very certain that the overwhelming majority of users want that option" is not enough. You have to also consider the costs of having an incorrect option submitted. Due to this, the case for not having the kind of default value that would pass input validation is likely to be even stronger. –  A.M. Aug 7 '13 at 14:51

It's a good practice to use default values in dropdowns. If you can guess or preselect one of the options the user won't need to select it him or herself.

In other cases you maybe won't know which is a good default or maybe for political reasons you would prefer not to preselect it. In these cases I would recommend using radio buttons when possible (this way the user can see the options available without clicking), but if you really need to use a dropdown you need an extra option.

If the dropdown is optional the extra option can be named "Not specified" or similar, but if the dropdown is required you need to use a non-selectable extra option. In this particular case I won't recommend using a "blank" text and I think that "Select..." is the best alternative.

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It becomes difficult to detect and handle the failure mode wherein a user forgets to make a selection, if the default option is a valid selection. As an example, many forms asking you to choose a state would get submitted with AK (Alaska), the first by alphabetical order.

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