Some interfaces, such as file managers, contain icon views where several icons can be selected at once. What is the most usable way(s) to select multiple icons and why?

I can think of a few ways:

  • Drawing a box around the icons. (commonly used) Other methods can be used in conjunction with this
  • Ctrl-clicking multiple icons (commonly used)
  • A single click to toggle each icon

Also, how should deselection be handled. Currently, most icon views deselect all icons when the background is clicked. Is there a better way than this?


1 Answer 1


Multi-selecting through dragging, Ctrl-clicking and Shift-clicking are reasonably usable when the user normally only selects one object at a time. They have weak discoverability, but are very efficient for users. They, along with the deselection method you describe, are standards, so a lot of users already know how to do this, so discoverability isn’t as much of an issue as one might think. Besides, multi-selection is usually an expert shortcut. In most apps, anything a user can do with multi-select they can also do with single-select –it’ll just take longer, so discoverability is not considered to be a requirement. Deviating from the standard, on the other hand, will likely confuse many of your users.

Single click to select is a good idea when the user must select multiple items to complete a key task successfully. It’s faster than Ctrl-clicking but not as fast as Shift-clicking or dragging for larger number of proximate objects. On the other hand it has much better discoverability. Putting a checkbox-like control next to each icon effectively communicates that each selection persists through multiple single click. You may need a Clear button to clear all selections.

  • Just remember that with single-click to select, you need the user to first activate some "selection mode" - otherwise a single click will cancel the previous selection. And when they're done, they need to deactivate that mode. In many cases, the system can handle the deactivation by itself, after performing an action on the selected objects, but it's not always appropriate and may be frustrating. Commented Feb 24, 2011 at 21:39
  • Not sure if I follow. I’m envisioning a simple click always multi-selects. If the user wants to change the selection from one item to another s/he must click twice –deselect the first item and select the second. Like I said, this only makes sense if the task requires multi-selection. It also may make sense to have a Deselect All command so the user can clear the selection and start over. Commented Feb 28, 2011 at 1:41

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