Phantom options


Ever come across a Preferences or Settings screen that shows you things you can’t change? This might be a text box where you can’t edit the text, a checkbox that you can’t uncheck, or a drop-down menu that only contains one item to choose from. In each case, the software makes it look like you have options to choose from, but these entries might as well be written in stone.

When we see any type of data entry or selection widget, our mind tries to process it and decide whether it’s something we need to pay attention to. But since these phantom options don’t actually do anything, they waste our time and effort while eating up valuable space on the screen. In short, they make the interface more cluttered and harder to use.

Here’s a simple set of guidelines to prevent this problem: If the user can’t change a particular setting and probably won’t ever be able to, then don’t make the setting look like a menu or text box (or anything else that invites you to click on it). Instead, show the data as regular text, ideally in a separate area of the page that contains the other things that can’t be changed. If the setting might be editable later, like when the user creates another template and then has two to choose from when editing, it’s probably OK to put the plain text info where the menu will go later, but don’t get carried away with this approach. Finally, if your application is designed to handle large amounts of data, like in a CRM system, it’s fine to use a standard selection box even when only a single choice exists in the early going — but be sure to give users an easy way to create more entries with a button like “Add New Contact” located next to the selection box.