Forms

Why Radio Buttons and Checkboxes Can’t Co-Exist

Radio buttons and checkboxes have long been components that cause confusion. They’re often used in the same context, but look different. Designers and developers know the difference, but that’s because they learned it through their work. What about users who were never taught the difference?

The fact that users need to be taught the difference shows that these two components are not intuitive. Their appearance alone does not convey their slight differences in functionality. The visual cues themselves—a dot and checkmark—carry no specific meaning to users other than an option selection. Therefore, the existence of both radio buttons and checkboxes violates the UX principle of Consistency.

Designers and developers have never questioned their co-existence because it’s the way it’s always been. However, if their co-existence causes users confusion and violates a UX principle, it merits a logical analysis and rethinking.

A Violation of Consistency

The UX principle of Consistency states that components with similar functionality and same usage should have a uniform appearance. Radio buttons and checkboxes have a similar function and are used in the same context, but there’s nothing uniform about their appearance.

radio-checkbox-functionality

Radio buttons represent mutually exclusive selections, while checkboxes represent mutually inclusive ones. Both are commonly used together on forms to select options from a list. However, a radio button is a circle with a dot inside, while a checkbox is a square with a checkmark inside—two different visual cues.

Some might say that their functions are different, so they should look different. But to be precise, their functions are only slightly different, and they both have the same usage, which is not enough to justify a different appearance. Doing so presents an inconsistency that can perplex users.

Mutual Exclusivity/Inclusivity Is Not a User Concern

If you ask the typical user what a mutually exclusive or inclusive option is, they probably wouldn’t be able to tell you. That’s because they don’t think about mutual exclusivity or inclusivity when they use an interface. Only designers and developers think about this because they have to design the interface.

Users merely read the labels and select the options they want. They’re focused on what the labels say, not component functionality. Therefore, mutual exclusivity and inclusivity should be indicated in the labels they read, not the components themselves. Designers and developers are imposing their way of thinking onto the user.

How Users Know They Can Select One or Multiple

The label on the components often indicates whether users can select multiple options or just one. When users can select multiple options, the label is worded in plural form. When users can only select one option, the label is worded in the singular form. Make sure you use the correct noun form when you label mutually exclusive and inclusive components. It’s easy to forget about the labels, but they’re what matters most.

radio-checkbox-labeling

Label noun forms are a clearer cue for mutual exclusivity/inclusivity than a checkmark and a dot. A checkmark and a dot do not signify mutual exclusivity/inclusivity other than by convention that’s familiar to only designers, developers, and tech-savvy users. Regular users who see the different components used in the same context will wonder what the visual differences mean. The inconsistency isn’t severe enough to derail their task, but it certainly diverts their attention.

radio-checkbox-exclusivity

Use Check Circles Instead

Users need a component for selecting from a list of options that’s uniform and consistent. Instead of using radio buttons and checkboxes, use check circles for both instead. A check circle combines both the outer shape of a radio button with the checkmark cue of a checkbox.

check_circles

The checkmark is used because it’s a much stronger cue for selection than a dot. It’s universally known as the symbol for affirmation or “yes.” A dot is a weak visual cue that could hold any arbitrary meaning.

A circular outline helps distinguish itself from a checkbox. It also has the added benefit of being more appealing and easier to recognize, since most icons with a background are inside a circle.

When there’s a single component for selecting option lists, users are no longer distracted by the differences between radio buttons and checkboxes. They can focus more on the labels and choose options that fit them best. It doesn’t matter whether users can select only one or multiple options. They’re going to make selections based on what the label dictates, not the type of component.

Old Design Practices Evolve

Radio buttons and checkboxes have co-existed for a long time. Some may use their longevity to justify their co-existence. However, many old design practices of the past have since evolved due to a better understanding of UX. For example, reset buttons that clear forms, red asterisks on required fields, and password confirmation fields have nearly all faded away today. Radio buttons and checkboxes may soon do the same because, like most things in life, interface design continues to evolve.


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Article written by anthony

Author and founder of UX Movement. Creating a more humane world for users by teaching others how to practice UX the right way through principled design techniques.

This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. Mahalie Reply

    This is dead wrong. If I saw ‘check circles’ in a portfolio that would be an instant fail.

    Conflating different types of controls for personal aesthetic preference over common usage is navel gazing design for design’s sake. User test any form flow with this suggestion for verification. Bad advice.

    • anthony Reply

      Did the article say the purpose of check circles is for aesthetic preference? You didn’t disprove any of the reasons given. All you did was make an emotionally biased claim.

      Read the article again and address the specific reasons if you want your criticism to have merit.

  2. Jens Martsch Reply

    Even though I agree with the considerations in this article, it would be good to have some empirical data here to validate what has been said. An A/B test with hundreds of users would certainly provide more clarity here.

  3. Andrei Reply

    I would argue about using the checkcircles instead of checkboxes.
    You say “components with similar functionality and same usage should have a uniform appearance”, and then you design the SAME appearance for slightly DIFFERENT controls — radiobuttons and checkcircles. I guess it can lead to a misunderstanding for a user. Like a user just put several checkcircles on one form and next form doesn’t allow him to put several “controls” because a designer decides it’s a radio now, not check.

  4. Florian Schulz Reply

    I understand that checkboxes and radio buttons may not need to co-exist. But as a conclusion you could also just use checkboxes for everything just like we do on traditional paper forms like tax returns. I’m not sure a new element is necessary except for purely stylistic reasons. I also doubt that people read labels precisely and rather try to find cues from the shape of the elements, thus, round radio buttons do serve a purpose as they communicate functionality/feature by means of their shape to users.

  5. madcama Reply

    Radio Buttons and Checkboxes confuse same people that cannot make a difference between questions with one or multiple correct answers.

  6. Andrew Reply

    Sorry, but this article doesn’t make any sense. Nobody, absolutely nobody, confuses checkboxes with radio buttons.

    If you want to re-invent the wheel and fight 30 years of the convention because you consider it an inconsistency that two form elements (with two different functionalities btw) have different visual cues – why stopping here? Let’s re-invent also the input text or the buttons.

  7. ascardi Reply

    The focus required by the scanning of check vs. radio it’s nothing compared to the effort that users should put into finding S’s in supportive text.

    I disagree with the assumptions at the base of this theory.

  8. Joe Marker Reply

    So you’re proposing using the same visual elements for two different functions? People don’t read labels, they look for familiar visual clues…sorry, but you’re wrong.

  9. wanglibo Reply

    I agree with you that the radio button and check box cannot exist at the same time, but the Check Circles will increase the focus of the list of options and reduce the user’s attention to the label, so it is recommended to use the check box instead of the radio button. And provide label for both single selection and multiple selection. Personally feel that this is better.

  10. Seppo H Reply

    In my opinion it is not OK to merge the two different choice tools into one. With the check circle the user doesn’t know without trying whether you can choose more than one of the options. (Form designers can make mistakes with singular/plural forms too.)
    BTW, the checkmark is not “universally known as the symbol for affirmation”. Where I live (Finland) it used to mean “wrong”: teachers marked wrong answers in exams with that mark. People using computers and smartphones have learned the new meaning, but I guess it may still cause confusion in some old folks.
    PS. you said that red asterisks for required fields have faded away nearly everywhere… well, I see that not here at least.

  11. UXCharlie Reply

    I just came for research and good advice aka best practice but your writings about using circular checkboxes is dead wrong. For one basic reason and please for the ux sake do not use it. It is more confusing for user than clear differentiation of shapes. Thanks

  12. UX Ben Reply

    You say that red asterisks on required fields is outdated UX, yet the form I am filling in now on this site uses them. I find this whole article is just wishing for evolution when there isn’t a need for it. Checkboxes and radio buttons are understood, and there is no need to force users to read labels carefully to figure out how to fill in a form. There is no user research to validate your claims, the only evidence I see is all the comments on this page who disagree with your points.

  13. Thierry Vilaysith Reply

    Hello,
    I share a video showing the interactions from a sample article: https://1drv.ms/u/s!Aj16T_Ds0bkvwB5jYTpjoG8jditc
    But the use of circles for checkboxes and radio buttons creates “weird” behavior. But that’s my opinion (of Designer ). And it is true that in this example, the content is fictitious (?) and this can bias perception. I don’t know if this article relies on quantitative and qualitative studies to support this statement. If there are, I would like to read them.
    Bests,
    Thierry

    • anthony Reply

      Hi Thierry,

      That’s cool how you made the article image clickable. How did you do that?

      You’re entitled to your opinion, however, “that’s weird” is not a logical counter argument, it’s an emotional one. If you read the article, you’ll see that it cites logical reasons and the principle of Consistency as the basis for its argument. It’s not quantitative research, but it’s far better than any emotional argument. I suggest you do the same if you want your opinion to have persuasive power.

  14. Justin Case Reply

    A check mark is not only a visual cue for “selected” but also for “correct”.
    Your “new” check-circle might also be perceived as “Oh I got this answer right, off to the next question”. Thereby achieving the opposite of what is aimed for: We won’t know if a single answer was the only one that applied or whether the respondent didn’t understand it’s an MC question. Some form of usability testing seems in place.

    Radio buttons and checkboxes are indeed a convention that is familiar to everyone but the most remote from society. If someone uses a form for the first time, I doubt they we thrown off track more by these than your check circles.

    Let’s go back to the roots of our UX training and ask “Are we solving the right problem” before discussing solutions. And let’s discuss based on data, not opinion.

    My 2 cents.

  15. LC Reply

    I don’t know why you would take two things that do in fact behave differently, and make them look the same. This seems like a fundamentally flawed approach.

    While users most likely do not think of the terms like “mutual exclusivity” when filling out a form, it is not a far stretch to expect them to realize that some things can have multiple choices (checkboxes) while others can only have one (radio).

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