Here's something I come across fairly frequently: A large collection (list or table) of items serves as an overview, displaying only the name of each individual item (with a link to the respective resource).

For example, let's imagine a list of fast-food restaurant addresses:

    | London    Berlin    Moscow    Paris
McD | <ML1>     <MB1>     <MM1>     <MP1>
    | <ML2>     <MB2>               <MP2>
    | <ML3>
BK  | <BL1>     <BB1>     <BM1>     <BP1>
    | <BL2>     <BB2>     <BM2>
SW  | <SL1>     <SB1>               <SP1>
    | <SL2>
    | <SL3>

Now the global Health Inspector General wants to use this overview to display employees, schedule inspection dates and assign priorities - without having to click through to each individual restaurant's page.

So essentially, what we need here is some sort of on-demand context menu, both for displaying additional details and for performing actions on the respective item.

However, none of the options I can think of seem appealing to me:

  1. overload item link to display a modal dialog -- undesirable because the direct link should still be accessible
  2. display icon(s) next to each item to bring up a modal dialog -- with many items, this adds a lot of noise
  3. make the aforementioned icon(s) only display on-mouse-over -- this seems a bit jarring and unintuitive
  4. expand each item on-click, accordion-style -- this seems like a weird combination of #1 + #2 + #3 and adds the issue of layout disruption
  5. hijack mouse right-clicking -- nobody should do this on the web, ever

Is there a better way, perhaps an already established convention? Any suggestions would be most welcome!

  • A selectable list (like the GMail list of mail messages) and a sidebar menu seem to address most if not all of your concerns. Jul 8, 2012 at 9:50
  • I use GMail only rarely, but AFAICT this seems like my #1 - so I'm not thrilled about it. The sidebar option sounds interesting though - could you elaborate on that?
    – AnC
    Jul 8, 2012 at 18:39
  • 1
    Well, in GMail, you can select a single or multiple mail messages and then perform an action on the selected messages. In GMail the actions are in a toolbar at the top of the list. You can also put them to the side of the list. That is all I meant with a side bar menu. Just a list of actions you can perform on the selected items. Preferably dimmed if the action cannot be performed on the selected item(s). Jul 9, 2012 at 8:44

2 Answers 2


What about using progressive disclosure pattern - if user pauses mouse move for half of second or so - link can expand to a block, containing more information about hovered item.

You can see how it's working on stackoverflow - info about active users (ex. in this question: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/11253339/testing-ember-js-apps-with-jasmine)

progressive disclosure on stackoverflow

  • Progressive disclosure is just a technique for displaying more detailed information about something that requires user to activate the trigger (either click/touch or hover).
    – dnbrv
    Jul 8, 2012 at 18:03
  • Thanks for the response. I'm afraid I'm not a fan of this though (cf. my #3); it might be less jarring, but a lot less intuitive/obvious.
    – AnC
    Jul 8, 2012 at 18:41

Thanks for the responses.

We eventually went with a reveal-on-click solution, sort of like a combination of dropdowns and popovers, with a subtle trigger button to avoid visual noise.

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