I'm creating a dialog and presenting a list of mathematical comparison options to choose from.

e.g. [attribute] [>] [value]

I'm wondering if there's any research as to whether it's more intuitive to use symbols rather than text in the drop down menu or the other way around.

enter image description here

Looking at it myself, I think the text one is too text-heavy and takes a long time to read and process whereas the symbols I can scan quickly.

This is an internal project at the moment, so don't have access to our user base; but they are likely to have a scientific background (if that helps context).

Would appreciate any help, thanks. :)

  • 4
    Very important to note that the symbols in the list on the right aren't so much mathematical symbols, but rather programming symbols. That's not how you're taught to write "not equal to" or "greater than or equal to" in school.
    – Kit Grose
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 0:57
  • 2
    …and to a programmer, the first item is often an assignment operator as opposed to equality (==). So short answer: how technical is your audience?
    – Kit Grose
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 0:59

3 Answers 3


Use specific math symbols, not para-math or pseudo-programming. Some part of your users may not be familiar with math, so provide a description next to symbol.

Group similar symbols (less & less or equal) into pairs.

Consider using "belong/not belong to set" instead of "between".

enter image description here

  • 1
    I’m not convinced about the element of symbol, but maybe that is because (not) between requires two values to compare to, the rest just one. So it depends on how that is solved.
    – Crissov
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 11:42
  • 1
    Maybe it is smarter to always show lower/left and upper/right limits and let them be zero or infinity by default. The user would then only choose between < and =<, but == and != (rather <>) would become harder to select. It really depends on the kind of data points to be compared.
    – Crissov
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 11:49
  • To give you a little more help about "between/not between" I would need a bigger image of context and a goal user needs to complete. Now I have only scratch of an idea. Remember that concept of infinity and sets are easy only for mathematicians. I'd rather go for taking this option somewhere else - on upper level asking: Are you want to compare a single number o interval? It also depends on how often comparing to two numbers will be used.
    – Karpiu
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 12:23
  • Is there a way to capture keyboard input and match them to the symbols? e.g. If you type in >= on your keyboard, it will select ≥? I can see the advantage of using "pseudo programming" if it allows seamless keyboard use.
    – Guest5678
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 3:43

I'd recommend the symbolic version, but with the following modifications:

  • use mathematical symbols instead of programming language-specific ones (e.g. ≠)
  • show the textual version of a symbol on hover (also set it for screen readers for accessibility)

I have been faced with a similar situation in the past. The question to ask would be - would ALL users interpret "symbols" the same way that you intended them to be? Probably not. Although your users may have a scientific background, you CANNOT be rest assured that everyone would interpret the symbols the same way or the way you intended it to be interpreted so, it is perhaps a better idea to just use words even if they appear to be text-heavy. Even if your users had some programming experience it would be hard to determine which "symbols" to use instead of words because not all programming languages use the same expressions for the a purpose. (E.g: != and <> are both used to express 'Not equal to' in different languages)

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