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I am working with a data-intensive application that displays many tabs and inside those tabs are different panels with related content. It is form-oriented, so the panels have a read mode and edit mode where the displayed content is switched to an input field. However, on some panels the fields do not have any content to enter. When a field does not have any content in read mode we just show an empty space. The main reason for doing this is so that we do not confuse the user by adding and removing fields.

My question is when the panel does not contain a lot of fields (2-3) and one of those fields is a checkbox what would be the best way to indicate to the user that the field is empty without displaying just white space?

mockup showing four panels - two with check box in unchecked state, two with it checked. for unchecked and checked, also shows panels in read and edit modes

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2 Answers 2

It depends...

One of the biggest challenges with "data intensive" is making sure the information is displayed is meaningful to what the user is trying to accomplish at that step.

So first, make sure you have the right information - and the right non-information, ie: the information NOT shown at this step also makes sense and it's expected to NOT be there. (Make sense?)

To answer your question using the simplified example you've shown above, you could do one of the following, but again, only if it makes sense given the task scenario:

  1. Display nothing. But only if nothing actually means something that is mutually understood by all users.
  2. Say nothing. Show some text that tells the user the input field was left blank, like literally: "None" or "Intentionally left blank" - but again, only if the words don't imply something they shouldn't be implying.
  3. Use a visual cue. If this occurs often, you might want to use the same graphic to indicate the same situation - like an input box that's grayed out - so that the user knows it's possibly something to edit/modify versus a data point being automatically displayed or pulled in from elsewhere.

That's all I think of off the top of my head for now. Again, all of this is contingent on what the actual information is and how the user expects to interact with it, behaviorally or cognitively.

P.S. For checkboxes, you can use Enabled/Disabled or On/Off - but again, I can't stress this enough because of how often these controls are used inappropriately - it depends on what it represents to the end user.

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A simple -- should suffice if the user knows that only text/numerical entries are allowed.

mockup

download bmml source – Wireframes created with Balsamiq Mockups

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This is a great idea, I never thought to do that. But how would you propose to show the empty checkbox when in read mode? –  Jason Frade May 17 '13 at 18:04
    
@JasonFrade Checkboxes can have only 2 states, on and off. If you mean un-usable, you can lock the checkbox(non-clickable) and grey out the thing. –  rk. May 17 '13 at 18:08

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