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I know that a select box takes up less space and is good for lots of options. But should there be any deeper influences to my choice than space? Are there any studies that show users preferring one or the other?

There's also the issue of multi-select vs checkboxes in html, which can be discussed here as well, seeing as the answer will probably be the same.

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See also on SO: Select vs Radio Buttons and Checkboxes –  unor Sep 7 '13 at 20:02

7 Answers 7

up vote 44 down vote accepted

I use select when the user doesn't need to know all of the alternative choices available. Autosuggest is useful for a long list. Generally, they know what they want and selects save space. Example: Choose a "State" like California or New York. You would never use radio buttons.

I use radio buttons when the alternatives matter. When I want to user to see what they are NOT choosing. Radio buttons allow you to expand the selection and even use longer text.

Rule of thumb: If it's a long list or the alternatives aren't that important, use a select.

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Other than space and the number of options, there really isn't a big difference. One thing I do like about radio buttons is that you can style them to look like large buttons, which can be useful for touch interfaces. If you only have a few options, it would be much easier to push a big button than to push the little dropdown and push the little option.

As far as multi-selects vs checkboxes, I really prefer not to use multi-selects. Just because you have to use a key combination along with your mouse click. Many users are unaware of how shortcuts work and would be unable to select multiple options.

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Good point about the multi-selects –  Sruly Aug 17 '10 at 6:36
Now multiselect can be a "dropdown+checkbox menu". So no ctrl+click for multi-selecting elements. code.google.com/p/dropdown-check-list –  Marc D May 4 '11 at 9:22

I was just pondering this myself for an interaction, and think another benefit of radio buttons is can they provide a bit of extra space for support text or explanation about the possible choices.

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User interface guidelines like from MS, Apple, Gnome etc give usually quite clear suggestions on this:

  • Radio buttons: less than 5 choices

  • Select Box: 6 to 10 options

  • Scrollable list: 11 or more options or
    • Need to support drag and drop into list
    • number of elements vary

In addition you can use select box when you have to save space or default choices is usually good enough, so users seldom have to look at their choices.

Thirdly it can be used for days of week, months etc. That is things where you know what choices you have without being shown all of them. If I see "February" in a select box I can pretty much guess what all the other options will be.

Rational for why you use one GUI element over another

I general radio buttons are usually preferred because users can see all their choices right away. However showing all the choices can take up a lot of valuable space in the user interface. That is why most guidelines suggest using other methods of selecting when there are a lot of choices.

E.g. a scrollable list can show arbitrary number of choices without taking up a lot of space. The downside is that you can't see all the choices.

A select box is different in that we use it when showing the user all the choices are not that important. E.g. when the user can can guess the choices, or will very seldom need to change the default settings. The select box is primarily there to show the user what the setting is. However when there are lot of choices a select box can be awkward to navigate and thus a scrollable list would be preferable.

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Other than coming from the guidelines, what is the underlying rationale for the number of items to the type of control being used? There seems to be conflicting opinions about the 'magic number' +/- 2, and it seems like you still have to take into account the context of the task to be completed. –  Michael Lai Jul 10 '13 at 23:31
+1 for clearly giving numbers. –  Shivanand Sep 21 '13 at 8:19

Radio buttons are usually preferable until you have more than couple of options. They only require a single click compared to two. Radio buttons are also better for nesting sub options.

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I use select boxes (check box) to enable selection of multiple options or while making a binary choice.

Best Practice For using Select Boxes:

  1. Consider setting a default for the option users select 80% or more of the time.
  2. Avoid default opt-ins, such as signing up for email marketing.

I use Radio Buttons to enable of one item from two or more mutually exclusive options.

Best Practice For using Radio Buttons :

  1. Don not use radio buttons to launch actions.
  2. Always use two or more radio buttons
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If just a few choices, radio buttons win for ease of use and fast selection. using a dropdown select prevents the user from seeing all choices until they get to that field.

This question could equally be applied to checkboxes vs multi-selects.

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