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Cycling through a list of items is a common user interface design pattern.

For example:

  • Browser address bar: hold Up or Down to scroll through the list of websites.
  • On-screen keyboard: hold Left or Right to select a key.
  • Operating system application switcher: hold keys to cycle through a list of all open windows or applications:
    • Windows: AltTab
    • Mac: Tab

After hitting the end of the list, the selection cursor is generally able to go back to the start. But should that next cycle occur immediately and seamlessly? Or after a pause or subsequent action?

This question concerns what should happen when you are holding the key and the list selection cursor hits the end of the list.

There are two frequently used behaviors:

  • The cycle stops or pauses at the end of the list. Hold the key again, in either direction, to restart the cycle.
  • The cycle seamlessly wraps around to the other side of the list and continues cycling.

These behaviors can be easily compared via the Mac and iOS application switchers:

When you hold Tab:

  • macOS application switcher stops at the end of the list, until you manually restart it:

    macOS app switcher

  • iOS application switcher (using an iPad external keyboard) wraps around and cycles continuously:

    iOS app switcher


Which behavior is preferable?

What are the advantages and disadvantages for seamless cycling vs. a stop/pause?

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    Was this question inspired by discussions of this on twitter over the last 36 hours? – Confused Dec 12 '19 at 2:49
  • Cycling through options indefinitely should not be used when there are a lot of options. If the end of the menu is visible on the screen, it may be usable. – Ren Dec 12 '19 at 5:24
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Well it depends on the number of elements that are being cycled and the purpose of the cycle.

In most cases with not a huge number of elements going seamless to the beginning is a life saver. For example the ⌘ Tab I am not even aware of the order of the apps until I have already started cycling so it is easy to go past the app that I was interested in so I seamlessly continue cycling to go back to it.

On longer lists it might come out as a pain to trying to reach the 20th element out of a 21 element list and accidentally going back to the top.

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