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When to Use Radio Buttons and Checkboxes in UX

Radio buttons and checkboxes are common UI elements that we use a lot. There’s a lot of theory and history behind these elements, as well as UX guidelines on how and when to use them.
Should I use radio buttons or checkboxes?

Yet, there’s still a lot of confusion in the world of UI and UX design regarding when to use radio buttons and when to use checkboxes. Luckily, the theory is very clear. With a bit of clarification you can start using the right element in the right situation every time. Here’s how!

Table of Contents

In UX and UI design, radio buttons and checkboxes are used to help users choose out of multiple options. The difference in usage is determined by the number of options you are allowed to select at the same time.

Keep in mind that you use radio buttons and checkboxes to alter settings. They are not used for active actions in your UI design.

What is a radio button?

Radio buttons are circular buttons in a list of options where you can select exactly one option. The options are mutually exclusive. Whenever you select a radio button with another one active, the active radio button will become inactive.

When to use radio buttons in UX

The history of radio buttons dates back to the time when radio’s had physical buttons that you had to press to control the device. The visual representation of the button is a very nice example of the use of skeuomorphism in UX and how we design today.

When should I use radio buttons?

Radio buttons are used when the user has to select one single option from a list of options. This could be a simple yes or no question, a numeric list, a gender selection in a form, or anything else.

From a UX and UI design standpoint, there are a few guidelines you should keep in mind to design a usable radio button component.

  • Show your radio button options in a vertical matter so that your users can read the options from top to bottom.
  • Always have a default option selected.
  • Use default, recognizable designs for your radio buttons. That means that you have to use a circle with another circle inside of it when the radio button option has been selected.

What is a checkbox?

Checkboxes are square selection options most commonly used in a list of options. When you have a list of checkbox options, the user can select any of the checkboxes or none at all. That is the main difference compared to radio buttons. Where you have to select exactly one option out of a list of radio buttons, you can select anything ranging from zero to all options when you have to select checkboxes.

When to use checkboxes in UX

In some UX and UI design cases, you can use a checkbox as a single option where the checkbox functions as a toggle switch. By (de)selecting the checkbox, the user selects ‘yes or no’ regarding an option.

When should I use checkboxes?

Just as with radio buttons, checkboxes have specific uses as well as moments when you shouldn’t use them. As stated previously, checkboxes are to be used when a user can select multiple options from a list. This includes selecting no options at all and selecting from a one-item-list.

Some of the best practices regarding radio buttons apply here as well. Vertically show your checkboxes and use a default way of displaying your checkboxes.

Further reading

Radio buttons and checkboxes aren’t the only UI design elements that have specific guidelines and best practices. We’re currently working on providing similar posts for tabs, infinite scrolling, and more. Stay tuned!

Nick Groeneveld

About the author

Nick Groeneveld is a designer from the Netherlands with over 5 years of UX, visual design, and consultancy experience. He has worked in many different industries, including retail, finance, and sports.

Take a look at Nick’s LinkedIn and Medium for more.

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