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EDIT To clarify, I meant hiding vs. disabling actions with a message (similar to a toast) showing why it's disabled.

I'm curious as to whether it makes sense to hide or disable actions on mobile. I've read a couple of threads on this already, but it seems to mostly be focused on desktop applications (see here: Don't hide or disable menu items?).

I am wondering if it is different for mobile design? I have never seen an action disabled on mobile. Also, Android's developer action bar guidelines recommends:

The action bar should show only those actions that are available to the user. If an action is unavailable in the current context, hide it. Do not show it as disabled.

For some context, depending on the user's permissions, the actions (in a bottom bar) they see will change. They may see upload, and sometimes they don't see it. What are the best practices? Is it better to just hide it to keep the UI clean, or should we disable it? In some cases, based on their permissions, they may never have a certain action.

  • What is your reasoning behind hiding it? Most recommendations seem to suggest disabling, so that the user understands why it's hidden. But is it because of the small space on a mobile device, we shouldn't clutter it with hidden actions? – castorda Aug 26 '15 at 16:32
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    The catch is that disabling a control doesn't explain to the user why it's disabled. – DA01 Aug 26 '15 at 17:19
  • But if we disable a control and include a message, is that better than hiding it? – castorda Aug 26 '15 at 23:20
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It's a fuzzy world we live in

People seem to take a boolean stance on this problem, where like mostly in UX there aren't hard and fast rules - optimal design depends on context.

Hide vs disable

Just to bring all to par, the recommendation is to hide a control unless another user action can enable it - no point having something disabled if it will always be that way during the current transaction (even this may have exceptions - eg, serendipity).

Why you shouldn't disable

There is great sense in recommending not to disable certain things, as users may not be able to work out why things are disabled. I have seen this first hand (eg, people skipping the T&C checkbox and try to click a disabled submit button).

Giving error messages upon action could work a treat sometimes, especially with buttons; but menu items and input controls are each a different story.

Why you should disable

  • Promote recognition of valid actions - with both menu items and file lists, it is sometimes pays to tell users what they can and cannot do or select. If I've asked to upload an image, a file dialog that greys out non-image files would be of great aid, focusing me on valid choices.

  • Obviousness - designers tend sometimes to overthink things, and forget that users are humans and humans are intelligent beings. Sometimes it is obvious why something is disabled, so why fool the user to think they can perform an action which they can't (in that promoting errors - the word constraints comes to mind here)? If I have just chosen to upload an image, is it really that hard to work out why audio files are greyed out?

  • Save users from expanding futile effort - sometimes an action will take time to complete, and it is stupid to tell users at the end that it was invalid. Consider an expenses claim form where users enter expenses - each expense will have various fields (sum, VAT, entity, purpose, etc.). Once the expense has been paid (especially if it's in a VAT period that was already submitted to the customs authority) it cannot be changed. Would you really let users edit these paid expenses only to then tell them that doing so was invalid? What about the visual distinction between those that can be edited and those that don't?

  • Negative reinforcements are bad for you - yes, Skinner! We don't like negative reinforcements, we don't like being told we did something wrong, and when we formulate a course of action we nearly always build a mental expectation of what shall happen next. If our expectation is proven wrong the brain is, in simple terms at least, cognitively disappointed. The point? Tell your kids not to touch fire rather than let them do it and get burned.

On Mobile

I can't quite see how this is a desktop-mobile issue. I'd argue that this UX debate is a platform-independent.

And just as you've mentioned you haven't seen it yet, the add button in Apple's calendar iPhone app is disabled until you type something into either the title or location field:

A screenshot of the iPhone Calendar app upon creating a new event

Now how many people you know will land on this screen and rather than typing an event name (or press cancel) will be thinking

Why the hell can't I add a blank event?

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  • I actually find the apple example a good example of why you SHOULDN'T disable at all. Apple has become less and less consistent with things like these over the years and that's not helping things either. That said, this is maybe a forgivable situation. And potentially one remedied through learning. But I'd still advocate that that ADD should be active and if you haven't filled in the correct fields, it tells you that when you try to tap it. – DA01 Aug 27 '15 at 3:33
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What's the argument for disabling? Typically disabled controls are confusing as one then has to figure out why they are disabled in the first place. I'd argue disabled controls should be avoided in general regardless of the device.

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  • After searching on here the general consensus is to disable, but again this was a couple of years ago: ux.stackexchange.com/questions/12756/… – castorda Aug 26 '15 at 17:04
  • @castorda I don't know if there was general consensus formed on the answer you linked to. I would agree that in application menus it'd be acceptable as its become the norm, but in general I still want to see a good argument as to how disabling a control is better than leaving it active (but with a message) or just hiding it. – DA01 Aug 26 '15 at 17:17
  • @DA01, see the arguments in my answer (pretty sure I've missed a few points, but hopefully the ones there will demonstrate disabling something is OK sometimes). – Izhaki Aug 27 '15 at 0:10

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