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When labeling CheckBoxes is it bad to use "negative" or "opposite" descriptions? Should a checked CheckBox always mean "do something", or is it OK for it to mean "don't do something"?

For example:
Disallow Import VS. Allow Import.
Hide settings VS. Show settings.

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5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I prefer positive phrasing but I think this also has to do with default state. In terms of the description I think it should state what the checkbox is to accomplish when checked and that phrasing should most concisely express the behavior that is entailed regardless of positive or negative phrasing. Naturally positive phrasing tends to be more concise however there are some language dependent cases where a negative phrasing is actually more common or at least better expresses the situation. If the UI is supposed to support more than one language then I would say sticking with positive phrasing as doing so would make translation simpler and reduce possible dramatic differences in the size of the text that the label needs to accommodate.

Check out the Windows UX Guide which has this to say about checkbox labels.

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1  
Raymond Chen of Microsoft urges "don't require your users to have a degree in philosophy" to use a check box at blogs.msdn.com/b/oldnewthing/archive/2007/03/14/1878777.aspx with amusing real-life example at blogs.msdn.com/b/oldnewthing/archive/2008/06/24/8644367.aspx. –  Michael Zuschlag Apr 2 '11 at 12:09
    
I agree, it quite completely depends on the default state. For example, an admin checkbox [ ] disallow private messages for a certain user. The opposite, an [x] allow private messaging would be hard as it is a double "positive"; the checked checkbox and the 'allow'. –  Lode Apr 3 '11 at 20:11

Negative labels for checkboxes are confusing, since a checked checkbox implies choosing for an action or option. We also know from exam questions that people, especially when under stress or with time pressure, find it easier to understand active positive phrases than passive negative ones (and the worst you can do is use a double negative).

Note that this is also an accessibility issue. Clear labels are good for everyone, but are particularly important for dyslexics and people with another mother tongue.

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I'd suggest you always make it a positive. Some people are not so good with instructions, positive vs negative meaning, and in some cases, language itself may be a barrier.

Shouldn't the default be such that nothing happens unless you choose to make it so? Having something happen by default 'unless' someone chooses not to is pretty counter-intuitive.

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I completely agree - If someone sees a keyword, they expect the positive reaction (I include myself in this group). It's often not a matter of language, but rather one of laziness! –  idbentley Apr 1 '11 at 21:49
    
The one case I have seen that seems to make sense to use negative phrasing is when the option represents exclusion of something from a set of results. The alternative would be the phrase it as "include only" which is more verbose. Ex: "exclude female test subjects" vs. "include only mail test subjects". –  jpierson Apr 1 '11 at 21:56
    
Yes, but you are still doing an action in your case and it's active, not passive. Choosing to exclude something is different in meaning than choosing not to. Always side on active vs. passive. –  jameswanless Apr 1 '11 at 23:48

As a rule of thumb one should always go for the positive phrasing, as indicated by this Jeff Johnson GUI Bloopers 2 checklist - item 12: http://www.gui-bloopers.com/checklist.php

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In his book, "GUI Bloopers 2.0" Jeff Johnson describes negative checkboxes as a design blooper and should be avoided. You could argue possible scenarios to use them. Most of the time however, they tend to make more sense to the programmer and just confuse the user. Best advice don't use them. You will have a better GUI if you just use positive checkboxes.

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