Tables are great for comparing data, but making them user-friendly is a challenge. One challenge is that table grids limit the amount of data you can display in a cell. Another is that when users read tables, they move their eyes across rows and down columns to scan information. If the table isn’t easy to scan, they can lose their point of reference and get lost. Here are nine design techniques that can make your tables more user-friendly.
1. Data Abbreviations
A table has multiple columns, so you can’t make your columns too wide. If you do, you’ll have too wide of a table that users will have to horizontally scroll to read. The column width limits the amount of information you can display in a table cell. This is where data abbreviations work brilliantly.
It’s unnecessary to display every digit of a number. You can abbreviate large numbers, such as $104,000 to $104k. You can also round large numbers off, such as 45.139% to 45%. Look to abbreviate words too, such as pounds to lbs, hours to hrs or feet to ft. This conserves cell space so that you can make your columns thinner and table easier to read.
2. Tool Tips for Exact Values
Data abbreviations help condense information. But sometimes users will need to see the exact value of a number, or the rest of a truncated word. This is where tool tips are useful. As users hover over a cell, tool tips can display the exact value of a rounded number without taking up space. They can also display the full text for cells with truncated words.
3. Disclosure Arrows for Rows
It’s important to make your columns thin, but it also important to make your rows short. Cramming too much information in your table rows can make your table long and overwhelming to read. Use disclosure arrows to shorten the height of your rows and the amount of information displayed. Users will first see the top level information in a row. More information will display when the user asks for it by clicking the disclosure arrow for that row.
4. Persistent Column Headers
The bad thing about a long table is that you lose the column headers when you scroll down deep. It’s hard for users to know what the information they’re looking at is without seeing the column header. Persistent column headers solve this problem for long tables. As users scroll down the table, the persistent column headers stay with the user so that they can refer to it without having to scroll all the way back to the top.
5. Zebra Stripes
When users scan a row, their eyes can easily trail off and accidentally fall into an adjacent row. The user needs a visual guide to help them stay on their row as they scan. Zebra strips help guide users as they move their eyes across each row. Each alternating row is a different shade so that users won’t mistake the row they’re looking at for an adjacent row.
6. Number Each Row
You can make your table easy to read by numbering each row. This allows users to refer to a row by its number. It also helps users scan the rows without losing their place as they progress. Row numbers tell users how many rows are in a table so that they can get a feel for the information density.
7. Group Rows into Categories
The more information you have on your table, the more rows you’ll have. You can make your table easy to read by grouping rows into categories. Your categories can even have disclosure arrows so that users can show and hide rows on command to save space.
8. Inverted Arrows for Columns
Disclosure arrows allow users to control how much information the table displays. But invert arrows allow users to control how the table orders the information. Use inverted arrows on your column headers so that users can sort each column by ascending or descending order. This allows users to see number data from greatest to least, or text data by alphabetical order. The inverted arrows should reorder a column when the user clicks the column header.
9. Screen Reader Accessibility
Most tables are difficult for disabled users to read if they’re not screen reader accessible. When you make your tables accessible, disabled users will get the table data read to them in a proper, comprehensible order.
Start your tables off with the <summary> attribute and <caption> tag. These elements give users an overview of the table contents. The <summary> attribute gives users a broad description, and the caption tag gives users the title.
Designate your row/column headers and data cells using tags. After that, you’ll need to associate the cells with the right headers by using the <scope> attribute. The <scope> attribute tells the screen reader that everything under a column relates to the header at the top, and everything to the right of a row header relates to that header.
See the links below for more information on table accessibility.
A user-friendly table is one that’s easy to scan and allows users to get quality information fast. Moving your eyes from column to column and row to row is a lot of work. Apply these design techniques to your tables and you’ll help users find the information they want faster and easier.