Currently we are working on a project that includes many datatables. Before deciding to use zebra stripes to make datatables easier to manage, I wanted to ask if you could advise a better solution than it.
It depends on your definition of "better", but whether you define user performance or user preference as your metric, there are studies that objectively measure zebra striping (which can be done in more than one way).
A study was done in 2008 that looked at how effective zebra striping is on tables, and it drew some interesting conclusions.
The study tested the following table designs and measured both user performance and user preference:
The study found that zebra striping doesn't harm, and in some cases improves, user performance:
The table shows that for three of the eight questions, the striped version yielded a more accurate response than did the plain and lined versions. A fourth question comes very close to being statistically significant. For the remaining four questions, the difference in accuracy between all three styles is so small that it cannot be statistically separated from random noise. In these cases, performance with zebra striping is just as good as—and certainly no worse than—the plain or lined version.
This means that, in this study at least, zebra striping doesn’t harm performance—and in many cases, it actually leads to an improvement.
Not only did the striping improve performance, but users indicated a clear preference in favor of them (and a strong aversion to plain tables):
The typical zebra striping approach (single-color, single-row) is the most preferred: 31% of participants rated it as the table that helps the most and only 4% rated it as the table that helps the least. (Note that the maximum margin of error on these estimates is 2.8%.)
What I would take away from this study with regard to your question is that you have several options available:
- Plain Table
- Double striped
- Triple striped
- Single striped
- Two color striped
There are measurable differences in how users react to and use these designs, and the study's results suggest that the single striped table is the best approach.
As a web developer, I decide according to the data a particular table holds. Now why do I decide according to the data the element holds?
Say for example I am having a list of messages rendered in a tabular form, I tend to highlight rows for the messages say that are unread, or say I've another table with tasks listed, so I highlight the tasks according to the priority, so inhere, obviously zebra pattern isn't a way to go for.
To show you what I mean, I will attach an image from a System I am programming for business, where the user enquiry are logged and shown to the administrator where the admin has an option to mark the enquiry as unread... which is highlighted in mild yellow..
Apart from that, I often use highlight when a user hovers over table rows.. So using zebra pattern with similar highlight color will confuse your users.
So my approach towards this is to use a plain table with the header row highlighted and footer row highlighted (If a table has footer), you can optionally highlight few special rows or cells, just like I've done in the example below.
I've also used a chess pattern recently but that is useful when you want to show a user that none of the cells are related to each other... For example
The above pattern helps the user to focus on single cell.
So my suggestion to you is that use a simple table and use hover for rows.
Note that zebra-striping evolved as a way of helping users read tables on paper. If you've got the data in a computer, you can use dynamic highlighting, filtering, or other mechanisms to help users see how rows/columns are associated.
(Or, of course, pull the data out of a table entirely and present it in some more useful form.)
Also note that even in print, striping doesn't have to strictly line-by-line alternation. Two-and-two, three-and-three, or other combinations can work perfectly well, and sometimes better; the important thing is for users to have a clear visual reference nearby that they can use to track across the page. (I wouldn't normally go father than three-and-three, giving top/middle/bottom of each three-line group.)