gray advice

User Interface Design Tips is a solid introduction to some of the concepts of design for applications. This […]

User Interface Design Tips is a solid introduction to some of the concepts of design for applications. This one got me thinking:

“Gray things out, do not remove them. You often find that at certain times it is not applicable to give your users access to all the functionality of an application. You need to select an object before you can delete it, so to reinforce your mental model the application should do something with the Delete button and/or menu item. Should the button be removed or grayed out? Gray it out, never remove it. By graying things out when they shouldn’t be used people can start building an accurate mental model as
to how your application works. If you simply remove a widget or menu item instead of graying it out then it is much more difficult for your users to build an accurate mental model because they only know what is currently available to them, and not what is not available. The old adage that out of sight is out of mind is directly applicable here.”

While this rings true, I’ve seen it fail on websites in testing. Users think a grayed out link is simply a gray link, and can’t figure out why it doesn’t work.

Perhaps this is one of those cases where a weblication is sufficiantly different from an application that users aren’t ready for a standard to make the leap across. Of perhaps there are so few standards in link design that users just click everything, hoping that something will eventually work.


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  1. 1

    it seems to me you’re constructing a false dilemma. because it failed in testing, it doesn’t mean the theory is wrong, it may mean simply that the execution of the theory was bad.
    this is why you need designers who can implement ‘greyed out’ so it is clear and unambiguous.

  2. 2
    Chris Lowe

    Well I do agree with hackles that the underlying principle (‘make things visible’, actually – yes, that old one) is the most important thing, Christina is right about the lack of standards in link design.

    But ‘greyed out’ doesn’t have to mean grey.

  3. 4
    James Buckley

    It may be also worth noting that there are technical difficulties in monitering a web based applications widget status. Often the only way to accomplish this is through lots of dhtml or applets of some type. I am working on an intranet/cms which is currently dealing with these problems.

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