Post lasted updated on February 17, 2016.
When you’re building a form, you may find yourself deciding between different types of fields. But do they really make a difference? Believe it or not, field types can impact your users’ experience of your form. Here’s how to make the right choice between Radio Button and Dropdown List fields.
What’s the Difference?
Radio Button fields are great for when you want to offer a choice but only want users to be able to select one option. Each choice is permanently visible on the form. Think about a multiple choice quiz—you’d give your students Radio Buttons so they could choose one answer for each question and see each choice the entire time.
A Dropdown List field can be used to create a list of items that you want a user to choose from—for example, selecting a day of the week. You can use a predefined list or create your own. When your user makes a choice, only the choice is visible.
Brain Science and Forms
The concept of cognitive load argues that your users have a limited amount of working memory. Radio Buttons are simpler to process than Dropdown Lists because the choices remain visible. In addition, a Dropdown List requires an additional click and mouse movements, which can add up.
If you have an ice cream order form and allow users to choose chocolate or vanilla, it’s not going to make a huge difference to use a Dropdown List. But five or six choices might be difficult to compare. To make the process of filling out an online form easy on your users, opt for Radio Buttons over Dropdown Lists whenever possible.
The Radio Star
A benefit to using Radio Buttons is that the choices are all visible. Your users can easily compare them and make their selection. Radio Buttons work well for short lists like T-shirt sizes or questions like “How did you hear about us?” Each option remains on the form even after visitors make their choice.
Another benefit to Radio Buttons is that they let you include an option for “other” with a fill-in box. If you are asking questions that might have a gray area to them, an “other” field can help users make a decision.
Dropdown Lists let you offer a bajillion choices without taking up a huge amount of space on the form. If you ask people to select their state, do you really want fifty radio buttons cluttering up your form—plus the District of Columbia?! That’d be ridiculous. When you have more choices than space, Dropdown Lists are your best bet.
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