I have read discussion about tri-state checkboxes and even those are controversial - we have an even more complex problem with our software. We need 4 options and can't figure out best way to do this in a logical fashion. I have read over and over that a parent should not be selectable without any children being selected. For us, this just does not hold true. Sample hierarchy below. A user might be a member of the parent, or any of the children, but not both. We need a way to

A) easily select checkboxes to filter and locate users of any of these scenarios:

B) Have some way to visually show the user that different items are selected without having to expand the tree.

1) Parent ALONE (since they may not be a member of the child org)
2) Child ALONE (since being in child org does not mean you are member of parent org, just simply that your org reports to the parent)
3) ALL children (without parent - there may be up to 20 children so selecting each individually takes too much time)
4) ALL - parent plus children

This issue comes up again and again - even with the tri-state checkbox option, we still have no easy way to toggle between these options. I would welcome any ideas no matter how random! We train our customers specifically on all items in our system, so if not instantly intuitive, time saving functionality in this case is more important than extra training!!!

Thank you!

sample hierarchy

  • I'm trying to figure out the requirements you mention: you say "a user might be a member of the parent, or any of the children, but not both", but then later say "4) ALL - parent plus children" is a valid option. Are the parent options and child options able to be selected at the same time? Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 18:16
  • The issue is searching for members of these orgs - we need to be able to filter using any of the 4 criteria - in some cases we DO want members of BOTH parent and children to appear in the results
    – Michele
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 18:20
  • Gotcha. Yeah, after rereading it, it became clearer. Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 18:21
  • Selecting ALL is not really a problem, neither is selecting parent alone - both of those we do currently. Our biggest sticking point is how do we allow them to select all children simultaneously WITHOUT parent?
    – Michele
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 18:23

3 Answers 3


For 3, all you need is another option called 'Others' or 'Unspecified' as a child. And keep that unchecked while the rest are selected. There is no harm in adding a few additional options if those make sense. At the heart of it all, the tree structure should be clear to the users.

Including a fourth state is definitely not recommended because no one will be expecting it. Introducing new patterns which need getting used to have their own problems, primarily - low usage.

I believe the data can be modified to suit the needs. For example -

[x] Parent

  • Parent - General (or unspecified)
  • Child
  • Child

Try selecting children as a separate control, but display the status at the parent level.

I'm not sure I'm clear on the constraints, but without messing with known conventions on checkbox controls, you can use some descriptive labels, and consider child selection a separate control:

Are these parent objects appearing in a list? I'm a little unclear of the surrounding context and constraints.

Chips can indicate child selection status with tight space constraints.

From your comments on space constraints, could you bundle the info into a small material style chip?

enter image description here

You could also provide hover details on the chip, indicating the total amount vs selected, and clicking the chip can also expand the child list as well as the chevron on the left.

  • I like this idea - however, ALL we are displaying to the user in our filter is the tree drop down with the checkboxes - being a small drop down (usually within a grid) we don't really have space to add the text to the right. I am toying with the idea of having 4 visually different checkbox images but not sure from a coding standpoint if that is even possible
    – Michele
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 19:53
  • Can you elaborate on the '4 visually different checkboxes'?
    – Mike M
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 19:54
  • I guess in my dream world, I want them to both be able to have options to check all things they need easily and then when viewing, be able to have at a glance instant feedback on what they have selected. These drop downs are used VERY heavily in our system for org selection and changed all the time but it is hard for the user to know then without expanding sometimes 4 tiers what is clicked or not clicked. I can't figure out how to post another graphic of my desired OUTPUT in this comment, so I will post in another answer below..
    – Michele
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 20:56
  • Thank you so much Mike for this idea - I think this might actually work IF I moved the chip between the checkbox and the org name (we have VERY long org names sometimes, so then the number would otherwise get lost!) It would be a tiny bit awkard, but certainly better than the ZERO info we have now!
    – Michele
    Commented Apr 24, 2019 at 0:11
  • You could do some truncation rules in that case. We have that same problem with super long names.
    – Mike M
    Commented Apr 24, 2019 at 0:23

@Mike M -

Here is what I kind of have in my brain

Here is what I have in my brain - lol

  • I see where you're going, I've encountered this before.
    – Mike M
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 23:28

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