I'm here to ask you about a checkbox usage I'd like to know better.


These are some folders. Let's say I want to select them. What do these checbox different states mean to you? I have to admit I'm having problems with the first one meaning.

Add: I give you a use case to work with. Let's say these folders contains objects and other folders. At the moment, the system I have found (already made) works like this: in the first case, when I select the folder in that way, just the folders inside the father are going to be selected but NOT the objects inside it. To me, it's strange. I've never seen this behaviour before but I wanted to ask to someone else.

Thank you!

  • Is this a mock-up that you made or from an existing software? Because the first one is not telling me much.
    – Big_Chair
    Sep 26, 2017 at 10:35
  • Nope. It's a fast wireframe I made to explain better the single case. But the fact the first is not telling you so much answers me partially. :)
    – Alessandro
    Sep 26, 2017 at 10:42
  • the - sometimes misinterpreted as delete icon
    – i--
    Sep 26, 2017 at 10:45
  • I would interpret the right set (where Somalia has a checkmark) as meaning that Somalia is included in whatever data is being selected for the purposes of the form. The left side is ambiguous. The color green, to me, suggests inclusion, but the minus could suggest either exclusion or "Somalia has sub-selections, some of which aren't selected, or some of which are explicitly excluded". Modulo issues regarding addressing red/green color-blindness (deuteranopia), I would use a red background for the checkbox to signal exclusion, and a + to indicate that there are subfolders. Sep 26, 2017 at 12:25

2 Answers 2


Conceptually, nested checkbox lists with cascading check/uncheck-all behavior require a third indeterminate (unchecked functionally but neither checked not unchecked in appearance) visual state for any selectable item with children:

Checked parent = all children selected Unchecked parent = all children unselected Indeterminate parent = some children selected, some children unselected

Checking or unchecking a box then cascades the same state down to all children.

A checkbox with an indeterminate state is still unchecked, of course, and the visual distinction is just a cue to convey state of its children.

It's more intuitive and learnable than my long-winded description would imply.

What you are describing, I believe, is a new wrinkle on top of that. It looks like your nested list is composed of unlike objects, and for some reason it was decided that this made it necessary to deviate from the common behavior of such lists (or at least the behavior as I described it above.)

If I described that correctly then yes I agree it's strange, and I haven't encountered it before.

Might be worth unpacking why that decision was made, as far as what benefit it confers.

Beware the unique snowflake of a domain model or use case that calls for an exception to the norm.


To me the first one means that folder contains some sub-folders that are ticked. You're right it isn't obvious and could indicate something different. So my suggestion is to use it in conjunction with another indicator (might have a tooltip explainer or a key somewhere on the page).

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