Designing for data input can be tricky. Limited screen space on a mobile device or high interaction cost can make it difficult for users to type information. There are many input options, but not all methods are suited for every task.
A common input control is the input stepper, a user-interface element for inputting numeric information.
Definition: An input stepper is a two-segment UI control used to incrementally increase or decrease a numeric value.
Most input steppers are visual elements of a graphical user interface (i.e., they’re GUI controls), voice and gestural interfaces can also have steppers. For example, saying “volume up” or “volume down” to a voice-controlled TV set will modify the volume by a set quantity. And in a 3D gestural interface, waving your hand up might increase the value of a selected variable. The key defining attribute of all these steppers is that they are relative controls — the user’s action changes the value of the specified variable by a certain fixed amount. (Contrast this type of control to an absolute one such an text-entry field; with absolute controls, the user specifies the new desired value with no reference to the previous value.) In this article we focus on the design of GUI input steppers.
Though input steppers are a handy tool for entering numbers in some cases, they’re not an ideal choice in every scenario. In this article, we discuss the pros and cons of this UI control, and how to use steppers correctly.
Benefits of Input Steppers
Steppers can get around device limitations. For example, using a keyboard on a smartphone is error-prone, and some computer systems (such as transit terminals or museum kiosks) do not have keyboards. In these cases, input steppers are an appropriate design choice for supporting small adjustments of default values. (As in many other areas of interaction design, selecting good defaults based on task analysis or other user research will be crucial for the usability of these systems.)
Intuitive to Use
Input steppers have clear, explicit signifiers: the plus segment is usually positioned to the right of (or above) the value and the minus segment is placed to the left (or below); these placements map naturally onto conceptual metaphors such as “progress is from left to right” or “more is up and less is down.” (These metaphors depend, however, on culture; for example, in cultures with right-to-left languages, the progress metaphor reverses. The position of the stepper segments should reflect cultural norm — like in the iOS example below.) Directional buttons and symbolic labels communicate function without the need for additional instructions.
Low Interaction Cost
For adjusting small values, steppers require fewer interactions than other input methods. For example, to increase the number of guests from 1 to 2 in a form, the user only needs one tap on the plus button. This action requires less effort than selecting the input field, tapping the digit “2” on the keypad, and hitting Enter or dismissing the keyboard.
Relative Controls when Users Don’t Know Exact Values
Since steppers are relative controls, they can free users from considering the exact value of the variable they’re modifying. People only need to think about whether they want the value to go up or down, relative to its current state. For example, when specifying the desired text size in a web browser, people who are not graphic designers will be hard pressed to decide on the exact number that will optimize the legibility of a web page.
However, they definitely know if the current text feels too small or (rarely) too large, so it’s easy to use a stepper-like operation like CTRL-plus or CTRL-minus to make the text one step bigger or smaller (provided, of course, that they are familiar with these browser commands).
Drawbacks of Input Steppers
Difficult to Acquire
Fitts’ Law calculates the time it takes for people to reach a target. Whether using a mouse or a finger, bigger buttons are faster to reach than smaller buttons. But many input steppers feature stacked button positions or small button sizes.
In the example below, the up and down arrows are so tiny and close to each other that users need to slow down and plan their movement carefully in order to avoid misclicking on the opposite direction.
Not for Large Adjustments to Default Value
Too much clicking and tapping can be irritating. Steppers are not suitable for a large number adjustments. For example, when users need to change a value from 1 to 50, an input stepper is not a wise choice. Thus, steppers make sense for numerical parameters with a clear default that most users are likely to select. If frequent, large deviations from that default are expected, a different input method will be more appropriate.
Based on the above considerations, here are some general recommendations for designing input steppers:
- Use steppers for numerical fields with a clear most frequently selected value. Steppers work well for fields that have one commonly entered value and most other input values deviate only slightly from that. If there is a lot of variability in the range of values that users normally enter for a field (e.g., for age or date of birth), a stepper is not appropriate.
- Set the most frequently selected value as a stepper default. This guideline is a direct implication of the first. For example, 1 is usually the default number of passenger for booking tickets or the default quantity for adding an item to cart, whereas 2 may be the default number of diners in a restaurant reservation.
- Avoid steppers for continuous quantities. By design, stepper fields can only take discrete values — that is, multiples of the step increment. (You cannot specify 1.5 items for a quantity stepper.) Sometimes, it makes sense to transform continuous variables into discrete ones (for example, we usually treat age as a discrete variable, counted in years). However, in many situations, transforming a continuous variable (such as prices or distances) into a discrete one with the wrong step can be irritating or inappropriate for the user task.
For instance, when looking to buy a house, an increment of $100K for the price field will be too restrictive, since some users may want to enter a value that is not a multiple of $100K, and rounding it up or down may not produce the same results.It’s best to allow users to type such continuous values instead of forcing them to use a fixed-increment stepper.
- Show clearly what field is controlled by the stepper. Clearly indicate the form content that the stepper applies to. For example, if a stepper control is used for changing time and date, the part of time or date being adjusted should clearly highlighted, so that users are aware of exactly what are they changing.
- Use large buttons for both desktop and mobile. Target areas should be big enough to support the input modality. For example, for touchscreens, we’ve long recommended a minimum target size of 1 cm by 1 cm. And even though a mouse allows for more precision than a fingertip, don’t make buttons too small for desktop screens either.
Horizontal steppers are usually better than vertical ones, which tend to be crowded. If you decide for a vertical placement, space the increment and decrement controls to make sure that you avoid slips due to accidental hits.
We recommend horizontal placement for steppers on mobile devices, considering the inherent precision challenges of using a fingertip.
- Use +/- or arrow up/down as the button visualizations. For horizontal steppers, plus and minus signs usually work best as labels for the step segments. For vertical steppers (with segments above and below the value), you can also use arrow-up and arrow-down buttons, often visualized as chevrons.
Arrow left/right buttons are a possibility for horizontal steppers, but are rarely recommended because they have less of a direct connotation with the concept of making something larger or smaller.
Add additional input methods. In addition to a well-designed stepper, you might want to add alternative input methods to give users control and flexibility, especially when the input value is complicated or unpredictable. Here are a few additional input methods to combine with steppers in order to make the input more efficient:
- A text-field stepper is a UI component that enables quick entry of a number using a text field along with stepper buttons on the sides for adjustment. Users can choose to either directly enter the precise value or use the stepper to adjust the default value, if it’s close to the desired value and changing it requires only a few taps. This would be appropriate for our restaurant-reservation example with a default table size of 2 diners: the stepper could be easily used to specify single diners or a family of 4, whereas text input would be better for a group of 10.
- Allow long press or click on the buttons for faster continuous increment or decrement.
- (For desktop) allow users to use keyboard arrows for increment or decrement: up and down, left and right should match the button layout on the screen.
We usually don’t recommend having lots of different interaction techniques to achieve the same goal, because the need to learn and choose between multiple methods adds its own overhead to the UI. However, in the case of steppers, the alternate input methods are not visually prominent and people who just want to make a small adjustment to the default value won’t be slowed down by considering the alternatives.
- Clarify the step value and the stepper range. Designers should make the step and the unit explicit (e.g., dollars, cents, percentage).Also, if the input value has a maximum or minimum limit, be sure to indicate it. It is usually best to have a stepper change the current value by a step of one unit per button-press, but there can be cases where other step values are more appropriate, if indicated by a task analysis. (For example, in the above screenshot of specifying a student’s GPA, the appropriate step value is one tenth of a full grade point.)
When to Use Input Steppers
|Use Input Steppers When||Do Not Use Input Steppers When|
|The numeric field has a most commonly selected value and most users will not deviate insignificantly from it (e.g., number of passengers).||The numeric field can take a wide range of values (e.g., age), with no one value being entered significantly more often than others.|
|The numeric field needs to be adjusted by a small, discrete amount or precision is not important (e.g., number of bedrooms).||The numeric field is continuous and the exact value is important.|
|There is enough room for generous spacing of the stepper segments.||Limited design space for button layout would make the stepper segments small or cramped.|
Implement input steppers for those fields that have a clear, preferred value that users will adjust only slightly. Stepper segments should be big enough to prevent user mistakes.
Source link https://www.nngroup.com/articles/input-steppers/