There is a special, dark layer of the underworld for whomever dreamed up the multi-select form element. Try selecting 3 pizza toppings here:

Unless you know the secret, you can’t.

Most webpage form controls are obvious and well-known: radio buttons (either/or), checkboxes (choose many), and the select (drop-down) menu. No one needs instructions for using these controls. They are obvious and easy.

The multi-select, by comparison, is a black box. No one knows how to use one without instructions the first time (and often every time): hold down the Ctrl key and make your selections. If your finger slips off the Ctrl key, guess what? It’ll wipe out your progress and you get to start over! Hope you can remember what was selected.

It’s designed to make you fail.

A List Apart’s article on Sensible Forms (Dec 2005) contained this gem regarding the cursed multi-select before recommending avoidance and alternatives:

“This form element is at best confusing to users and at worst, it makes the form useless to those who do not immediately understand its functionality.”

Forms are annoying already. No one wants to fill them out, and usually they’re a critical point of failure in our business models. If the clerk messes it up, the wrong product ships. If the client gets frustrated, the product goes unsold. A bad form costs money.

Obvious functionality is the lynchpin of good web design. If just figuring out how to use the form field requires helper text, we’ve failed before we began. If a slip of the finger can wipe out our progress, now we’re just being diabolical.

Let’s file the multi-select box next to IE6 compatibility: back in 2007 where it belongs.

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