Web Mender

An incessant whine on web design.

November 27, 2003

Improper Terminology: "Radial" Button

I'm always annoyed by soundalike typos, but this one had my head spinning.

I was looking for information on industrial paper towel dispensers. I knew that the company behind it was one of the big names in paper products, but I couldn't recall which one. I tried, of course, Googling for things like "motorized paper towel dispenser", but wasn't getting anywhere fast. "Motorized" turned out to be the wrong word. I did, though, find references to two manufacturers, and i knew it was one or the other.

I found this hilarious set of instructions on the search page for Kimberly-Clark Professional:

Click the radial button to choose 'Product Code Search' or 'Key Word Search'.

What the deuce is a "radial button"? Oh, wait. There is no such thing. Somebody misheard "radio button" at some point, and now is going around talking about "radial buttons". I don't think most surfers understand what a "radio button" is, anyway. Checkbox? Yes. Scroll bar? Maybe. Radio button? Unlikely.

I'm also disappointed to see that the radio button text and the instructional text don't agree. The buttons are labeled "Product Code" and "General Search". Oops! I tried several keyword searches, but the search mechanism appears to be incredibly broken: clicking the Go button always returned me to the search page with no visible results or indication that the search had produced no results.

Incidentally, the dispenser in question turned out to be a Georgia-Pacific model. It wasn't so easy to find there, either. I had to figure out that the right category was "Away-From-Home". The enMotion line was prominently featured, but neither the photograph of the dispenser nor the enMotion logo was a link. I had to click on a graphic of green text which was not underlined. Which of those characteristics is supposed to convey "I am a link"?

It gets worse! The enMotion category page offers three dispensers, all for paper towels. The photo on the previous page suggested to me a coordinated line of five products, including toilet roll dispensers and soap dispensers. Those are not part of the enMotion line, and closer inspection reveals a slight greying effect to deemphasize them. I think more deemphasis is necessary to convey the point. Two of the paper towel dispensers appear to differ only in color. They are presented as totally different products: they've been photographed at different angles, and neither one mentions that it is available in another color. I also find their choice of "splash" as a color name to be questionable, especially since they don't mention anywhere that "splash" is a shade of blue. I'm more willing to accept that the average procurement specialist knows that "smoke" is a shade of gray.

Yes, I'm sure it's "radio".

Steve, perhaps from Florida, writes to say:

I found your posting while searching for a definitive answer, and thought it was interesting that you've taken the exact opposite of my theory - that it's supposed to be *radial* - not radio. The buttons are round, after all (http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=radial), and I can't think of a single reason they'd be called radio butons other than the misheard word theory. Unless you know something I don't?

Visualize, if you will, a radio with presets. Back when radio dials were mechanical, there was a physical method of setting presets. When you pushed in the button for the first preset, all of the other preset buttons would pop out. The radio can't be simultaneously tuned to two different frequencies, after all. Any time the choice between several items is mutually exclusive, you want radio buttons.

It would be interesting to know the history behind the choice of a circular shape for GUI radio buttons. My guess is that it's simply to be different from the square shape of the checkbox, but there's probably some other detail that I'm missing.

Incidentally, W3C calls them "radio buttons". Java also calls them "radio buttons".

Thanks for writing!

Diamond Buttons

Steve still had his doubts. I found something definitive, though: a UI in which the radio buttons were diamond-shaped, not round. Netscape 4.75 for Solaris's configuration dialogue has diamond-shaped radio buttons.

Posted by ventura at November 27, 2003 06:55 AM