For quite some time I've been looking around the web for alternatives to a dropdown list in assignment of data (i.e., during data capture that will be saved, NOT when searching for some data).

One alternative that is commonly suggested are 'auto-complete text boxes' - but only when at least some of the data is known.

Imagine, however, selection of a city in a specific country. The user might not know what he is specifically looking for, therefore listing all cities identified by zipcode or their name. For that scenario, a popup with full search capabilities might be used, however slowing down the process again.

What else comes do your mind? What are you commonly using? Are you aware of any major side which found a great solution for this?


Having found that I failed to properly describe my question (sorry for that), I try to clarify using a screenshot for demonstration purposes.


Please assume a form for adding new customers, where the customer name and your main contact employee to that new customer is captured. The employee (assume a big company with thousands of employees) are identified by four attributes:

  • gender
  • first name
  • last name
  • branch

In the screenshot above, I displayed them in a dropdown list, but I think it is obvious that this list is not usable anymore. Since employees differ in 4 attributes, I think also an auto-suggestion is not really usable. So what else do you commonly use for that purpose?

Hope the question is clear now.

  • 2
    Do you have any other examples of "when possible results are not known"? I'm still not clear from your question what that means exactly.
    – Nicole
    Mar 17, 2011 at 16:12
  • I agree. Would love to provide some feedback but your question is cloudy and ambiguous. Mar 17, 2011 at 19:08
  • Sorry for the confusion. What I mean is "not known to the user", i.e., he does not know in advance what to select but will find out after some search. For instance, the cities. The user might not know which city he will select, so he first needs to be provided a search functionality as provided by a popup. When he would know, for example, he is looking for something starting with "New ..." an auto-complete text box might be suitable ... when he starts typing "New", he is provided with suggestions. But I talk about situations where the user does NOT know what he is possibly looking for.
    – bonifaz
    Mar 17, 2011 at 23:14
  • Another example would be: Selection of a person, where the name, the major identification criterion, is not known. The user will only know which person to select after having seen a list of the available ones, e.g., filtered by their nationality, their city, and their gender. I hope that's more understandable now, otherwise please let me know. Thanks for your efforts.
    – bonifaz
    Mar 18, 2011 at 19:37
  • 1
    @bonifaz BTW, please use the ‘@user’ reference in your comments to have your answers appear in that person's inbox; that makes it easier to respond. Mar 21, 2011 at 12:49

5 Answers 5


How about a dialog with a sortable table with the four parameters as columns, similar to the "TO:" dialog in MS Outlook?

enter image description here

  • Yes, indeed displaying that as a popup might be an option. Are you aware of any web application that made proper use of that already?
    – bonifaz
    Mar 20, 2011 at 22:36
  • @bonifaz Nothing comes to mind right now, sorry.. GMail have something similar when you press "To:", but there's only one column there. Mar 24, 2011 at 18:46

Maybe a good compromise can be something like JQuery - Chosen (http://harvesthq.github.com/chosen/): it simply add a filter keeping the visuals aspects of a normal select box.

  • 1
    I think this is still too similar to the combo-box described above. These fields only allow you to browse by one pre-defined order (usually alphabetically). Yes, it looks better but I don't think this will give the flexibility required.
    – JonW
    Oct 14, 2011 at 10:10

The way I do things on my apps that has a similar function is by using a text-field as the input and a <ul> below it to contain suggestions based off what the user has typed. Similar to the search engines auto-suggest feature.

  • thanks for your thought. However, as described above, I'm mainly focusing on UIs where auto-suggestions is not usable, because the possible results are not known by the user, and several fields of the possible results might be involved.
    – bonifaz
    Mar 20, 2011 at 14:13

Not sure I get the issue with a simple textbox that auto-completes on all four fields? Auto-suggestion should apply seamlessly to all four attributes at the same time.

I use such a textbox in a case where a customer account needs to be selected. Such an account has an id, a full name, a country and an office location and there's about 15000 accounts, way too many for a simple dropdown and you can't require someone to know the id. Typing will quickly match and show filtered results without ever having to leave the keyboard, showing a nicely formatted HTML-dropdown with multiline result items(such as showing country and office on the second row)...

...a bit like a simple Google instant. Because, if you wanted to search by branch and didn't know the name of the person - at least you'd have to know the name of the branch and start typing that?

Also, the query is made to the server async only returning the matches after the first few characters are typed, so there's no need to load 15000 accounts to the browser.

You could have the advanced popup search box as an option when someone is lost or just don't know what to start typing, and leave the seamless typing for normal case efficiency.


How about keeping the drop-down box, but adding a 'filter' text field to narrow the results down? If you filter the results based on the filter text being anywhere in the list item, rather than just the start, it could work.

So for your drop-down box, the user could at least type 'Chicago' into the filter box to reduce the list to people from that city (or people called Chicago I guess!). Or if they're looking for a specific person but all they can remember is that their last name ended with 'son', then they can type in 'son' and get all of the Jacksons, Johnsons, etc to display.

Honestly, if you have a huge dataset to pick from, and the user has no idea what they're looking for, I can't think of many ways to present it elegantly.

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