In some ways, I feel strongly that the art of UI design has devolved for me to be even writing this post. If I recall correctly, the checkbox was invented in the 1970s. In the glory days of desktop GUIs of the 90s, it played a fairly minor role next to the direct manipulation of windows, columns, floating panels and multi-dimensional controls. However, in the late 90s, UI design and development shifted dramatically with the dominance of web-based applications. Suddenly the creation of a user interface equated with generating a stream of HTML text.
Webmail was one of the first widely used web applications with a user interface that went beyond links and forms. By the early part of this century, webmail usage surpassed the number of people who read email with a desktop, installed email application. The dominant paradigm for selecting messages was the checkbox. There was really no other choice.
Checkboxes were understood to be a necessary evil. HTML offered a small subset of the traditional graphical user interface. In 2002, Oddpost entered the webmail scene with an Outlook-esque interface. It only worked on IE Windows, but provided a glimpse of things to come….or so we thought. If only we waited till the new generation of browsers gained adoption, web applications could be blessed with drag-and-drop and multiple select using modifier keys CTRL and SHIFT. No need to clutter up the screen with columns of redundant checkboxes.
Yahoo aquired Oddpost and several years later offered a new Yahoo Mail with a similar desktop-like interface, combined with a web “look” and more polished graphics.
Meanwhile, Laszlo was also developing a Webmail application. Like Oddpost, it has a desktop-like UI with drag-and-drop and double-click. Additionally, it provides a cinematic user experience with a login panel that visually transforms into the application and animated details that help novice users learn their way around. We were looking to go beyond the desktop experience, and didn’t think twice about leaving behind the bad-old-days of plain old HTML.
Just a few years later, it seemed that Yahoo took a step backwards in their UI by including checkboxes for multiple select.
working at Laszlo, I’ve learned that when large amounts of people using HTML email were introduced to a desktop-like experience, some of them complained that they couldn’t find the features they used to have. People had grown accustomed to the “old” way. They wrote feedback messages asking “how do I delete multiple emails” and “I want to delete the spam that I receive without viewing it.” A few even specifically requested “checkboxes.”
It makes one wonder: is it just a matter of learning something new or is there something to this checkbox thing? Is this just a legacy UI that we have to accommodate and in the future people will wonder why its there and we can let it fade away? or is it somehow a good thing to provide an affordance for multiple select, so novice users know it is there. Also, in providing an alternate method for selection, there’s an option to have the checkbox not display the message, while selecting anywhere else also displays the message. This lets people delete spam without viewing it. It may sound like a sophisticated use case, but there’s a significant minority of folks who care enough about this to be vocal about it.
Time will tell. I’d be interested in what other folks think. (If in fact there is anyone amongst my readers who even considers this little backwater of UI design worthy of discussion.) Whether checkboxes are good or evil when applied to this purpose, I predict that within 5 years Outlook will have checkboxes.