Many Microsoft softwares, like the Office suite and the Windows Explorer, feature a type of column filter that they have dubbed the Autofilter.

  • It filters rows based on column content.

  • It adapts the filter options to both the type and the content of the column.

Now, in our own software (for Windows), we have created a similar function and accordingly officially called it the Autofilter. But as our co-workers and users get familiar with it, they tend to call it the Column filter in everyday conversations.

So my question is, in general, how to go about the problem of keeping an original name, or making up our own? "Autofilter" is quite ambiguous, while "Column filter" is much more descriptive. What is more important, terminology that is recognizable to a few, and consistent with the platform; or the ease of adapting the term?


Excel - Filtering a text column on entered content:

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Windows Explorer- Filtering a Date column by calendar or on relative time:

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  • Perhaps the 'Auto' part for Excel might refer to the fact that the filters depend on the data in the grid. Searching in Windows 7's help for 'AutoFilter' I get no results, so I don't think that's how MS calls the File Explorer's column filters.
    – frozenkoi
    Apr 4, 2013 at 18:53
  • Yes, the filter options adapt "automatically" to the columns' both type and content. I cannot find a name for it in the Windows Explorer case, but it basically does the same thing.
    – JOG
    Apr 5, 2013 at 7:52

3 Answers 3


If a term is wrong, even from a big company such as Microsoft, you should use the one recognized by your users. Your users are the ones who are going to use this feature, and they just want an unambiguous name as possible, instead of a trademark name. But be careful, your users are not the same as your co-workers. You need to test this on actual users – and see what they say to be certain.

On general, labeling are supposed to make users know what the control is doing. Not to make it easy to sell, since that’s what marketing does. But if marketing wants to call this an auto-filter instead of a column filter, let them do so in advertising and selling the product. When it comes to support, from real users, use the name they use. And if you titled the element column filter (shown on hover) your users will use that term.

To answer your question on recognition: "What is more important, terminology that is recognizable to a few, and consistent with the platform; or the ease of adapting the term?"

People are better at recognizing things they have previously experienced than they are at recalling those things from memory.


  • Use when you want to maximize the data you receive about your users tastes and preferences when you ask them a question
  • Use when you want to minimize the amount of cognitive energy spent by the users inputting data
  • Use when you want to gain a broader insight into users’ preferences through recognition than what they usually tell recalling from memory.
  • Use to let users tell more about their tastes and preferences in an easy and fun way.

Recognition over recall

  • It was hard to select an answer but by "labeling are supposed to make users know what the control is doing" you made me realize that the label (or tooltip) should say "Filter this column", "Filter column" or "Column filter". From there, other terms are reduntant.
    – JOG
    Apr 5, 2013 at 14:32
  • I did not get the Recognition part, though. Which option would be more recognizable?
    – JOG
    Apr 5, 2013 at 14:44
  • @JOG Det handlar om att det är lättare att "känna igen" saker än att "komma ihåg" saker. Mönster sätter sig bättre i hjärnan än att försöka komma ihåg något. Sorry for the Swedish talk here. It's describing the difference between recognition and recall. Apr 5, 2013 at 17:30
  • Tack, I got that, but I do not see how it applies here.
    – JOG
    Apr 6, 2013 at 21:24

Users will prefer to use a term that means something to them.

Imagine a conversation between a user and support center staff.

"How do I only show rows of information with a certain item from column A?"

"You can use the AutoFilter for that."

"OK, great. Where is that?"

"They are at the top of each column."

"Oh - there's more than one then?"

"Yes, you can filter the rows using a combination of filters from each column."

"OK, and when I use these column filters, will they be saved with the document".


So - you can easily see how 'official' terminology is completely ignored and the user takes on a name which means more to them. There is no accounting for how users will use your software. The example above is for one user. Another user may pick a different term. Maybe some will use your term AutoFilter. Maybe a majority will call it Column Filter, but you can't rule on terminology:

"By using this software you undertake to use the terminology outlined in the glossary found in Appendix C of the online manual, during all communication with our support center, social media, etc, whether written, verbal or digital."

You have to accept that different users will use different terminology.

What is important is that this is accepted, allowed for, and handled during communications.

By all means offer them an initial term that they may or may not accept depending on whether they feel comfortable or familiar with that, but ensure that the initial term is sourced from the user's mental model, not the developer's system model. And that means listening to, and learning from your target audience.

  • +1, this is great. But generally, it might as well be the other way around. "My" term can be ignored no matter which term I pick.
    – JOG
    Apr 5, 2013 at 14:51

I recently had a similar problem where there were two different names in common use for the same object. There really isn't right and wrong answer, but what we did was:

  1. Ask a number of our users what word they would use to describe that object. You have to be careful not to use any of the candidate words though, so that you get their most natural response.
  2. After they have given you a response, ask them what they would understand each of the candidate words to mean. This gives you more feedback on what to avoid, and what words they would still be okay with.

From there you should choose a term, and stick to it. At first it will be hard for people in the internal team to change (if they have to), but eventually it becomes more natural.

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