[thelist] Big drop-down lists.

Luther, Ron Ron.Luther at hp.com
Wed Sep 8 08:59:50 CDT 2010

Bill Moseley asked:

>>drop-down box to select from a list of items.  The vast majority of current
>>users have just a handful of items to select from -- most less than 100.
>>Moving to testing we find out that a very small number of users have a huge
>>number of items -- some have a 100,000+ items.

Hi Bill,

Great question!  And one some 'Enterprise' systems out there ignore and get utterly wrong.  (Ask anyone who has attended a training class where the instructor tells them to *NEVER PUSH THAT BUTTON* because it will lock up their system for hours trying to populate that accursed dropdown. [1])

Keyword approaches can work for single-selects -- but they really don't help much if the user needs to multi-select.  Multi-selects are where the drop-down scale issue really becomes painful for ui.  [Type "AN" to get to 'Angioplasty' quickly.  Click to select that.  Now what?  Now you hold down the ctrl key for an hour and a half while you manually scroll down to also select 'X-Ray'.  Ugly.  Or scroll through an entire list of 100,000+ customer names trying to select all of the ones that _might_ be Air Force bases.  Ewwww.]

It looks like an architectural issue to me.  One approach might be to design and create the hierarchical reference data you need to organize your 100,000+ items into the bite-sized pieces your users are interested in.  Then perhaps a series of drop-downs of increasing granularity walking through your hierarchy.  I've seen that work.

Another architectural approach might be to fork the application; short-bus users get one set of controls, the 100,000+ club members get a different set.

Either way sounds like work.

Good Luck,

[1] SAP and/or Oracle application search screens containing a 'show all' button next to the customer name field ... as a by no means exclusive example.

More information about the thelist mailing list