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Better multiple file selection in file dialog boxes

The file dialog in Windows is pretty good when it comes to users selecting a single file. Most users have no problem figuring out, either because it's intuitive or more likely because they use it so often in every program that they use.

However multiple selection (using Shift click and Ctrl click) is just not something some non technical users ever got. Web sites that allow multiple selection of items from a list have solved this problem by having a multiple selection component, you know the one with the >, >>, < and << buttons and two lists.

Do you think it's worth it to rework the standard File dialog to have a more intuitive multiple selection feature? The application I'm designing does require the user to almost ALWAYS select multiple files.
Praveen Angyan Send private email
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Perhaps you should survey your users and listen to the feedback they give?
Chris Send private email
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
It would be better to teach the users how to Ctrl-Click & Shift-Click, so they can become power users for every application using the standard file dialog.

Non-standard behavior would probably be interpreted as a broken application.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Use the standard dialogs, and show marquee selection (click-and-drag) on one of your screenshots. That should be enough of a clue. I think.
Denis Dmitriev Send private email
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
I’d follow Chris’s advice if you can, except test, don’t survey, your users. Sit a bunch down in front of a standard File dialog and ask them to show you how they’d select several files to “open” (or whatever) at once.

Assuming a substantial minority of users don’t know about metakey selection, I’d consider *myName’s advice only if your client has a training program –I would not rely on documentation (or tech support). By the time you refine the documentation to the point that users (a) read it, (b) understand it, and (c) remember it at the right time, you would've spent less time making your own dialog box.

Even if your client has a training program, you should discuss with your client the options and compare costs: the cost of the additional development of the new dialog box versus the cost of additional training on metakey selection. The tradeoff can be approximated from your client’s estimates of the number of users, their turnover, and the expected lifetime of the app.

I wouldn’t worry about being “nonstandard.” The two-list-box solution you describe is not the most efficient, but it’s seen in a lot of commonly used apps (e.g., email clients to select names for the To field), so it’s much less likely to confuse users than metakey selection.
Michael Zuschlag Send private email
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
"The two-list-box solution you describe is not the most efficient, but it’s seen in a lot of commonly used apps..."

I'd also have to agree with it not being efficient.

The two list box selection is typically used to refine data. For example, you pick a state, then the second box is populated with a list of cities within that state.

The only place I've seen it used to select multiple items within the same list, is in email clients and the context is that you're creating a distribution list. In other words, it's seen as copying elements from one list to another list. Err... if you ask people, that's what they'll say they think they're doing. It's not selecting multiple items. It's creating a new list from an old list. (Subtle but critical difference.)

The vast majority of time, I simply see one list and a legend that suggests to use shift or control to select multiple items. I think in Praveen's case, he rarely sees that legend.

Anyway, the real point is that since there are multiple ways to interpret the file selection dialog boxes, you are really better off just asking your customers what they think, or observing them and seeing what happens when they try to select multiple files. (Chris' and Michael's advice.)
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Just a small clarification. My focus is on WinForm applications. The standard file open dialog box has NO hints or standard legends explaining how to select multiple files.

At the very least, it looks like I'd need to mess with the standard dialog box to put in a legend explaining multiple selection.
Praveen Angyan Send private email
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Ctr+Click, Shift+Click is standard in every Windows app. I'd focus on educating your users if you feel that's necessary. Separate boxes is old fashioned and ineffcient. It might be the way to go if the product is for dummies.

Maybe you need to think of better appraches. ex. If the user is always selecting multiple files are they the same ones as an earlier invocation. If so include a History list of MRU files. I do this in the File|Open dialog in one of my products.
Neville Franks Send private email
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
You can create a small tip icon (a light bulb like the one in Visual Studio - so called Tip Window) and once user (being curious) moves mouse over it - display a tooltip, which explains how to use the multiple selection feature.
asmguru62 Send private email
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Praveen, what's the context?

You say that most of the time people will choose multiple files.  This implies that they will choose several to have you process in some way.

Are all of these in single folder?  Multiple folders?

I disagree with the poster who said that it's inefficient to select using two lists.  They can still use Shift/Ctrl-Click in the source list to select several to copy ... (I said copy.  Hmmm.  Maybe he has something there) to the destination list.  However, using a custom dialog where perhaps users type in a folder name or click an ellipsis button ("...") to enter a folder name, then a list on the left populates and they can choose one or more to put in the right list, then they can repopulate the left list by entering another folder, allows users a simple means to  populate the list of files to process from several folders.
Karl Perry Send private email
Friday, June 15, 2007

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