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Drag & drop, how intuitive is it for the average user?

Maybe it’s just me, but I haven’t come across many websites or web apps that utilize drag and drop solutions. Why is that? Drag and drop seems like such an ideal tool for so many different things. Is it because it’s not mainstream enough? It’s it not cross browser/platform compatible enough? Do users not get it? And if users don’t get it, why is that? Is the concept of drag and drop just too confusing or complex? Or can good design do something to aid in the perceived affordance, i.e.: getting users to understand what they can drag and where they can drop it.

Putting websites and online apps aside for a moment, when considering computer OS’s and apps, drag and drop doesn’t seem very widely implemented there either. The most common use for it I can think of is with regular files. Most OS’s allow this as a method for copying or moving and pasting files to a different location. One thing to keep in mind though, is that for copying and pasting files, there multiple alternatives for doing so – Cmd/Ctrl + C, Cmd/Ctrl + V, right clicking on the file, or (the nood method) selecting the files and then moving the mouse cursor aaaall the way to ‘File” and selecting ‘Copy’. So this got me wondering, is one of the reason that drag and drop is so scarcely utilized because there are better, more user friendly alternatives?

When trying to think about that, I suppose it really depends on the application you might want to use it for. Off the top of my head, I could imagine that radio buttons, checkboxes and perhaps even drop downs could offer some form of functionality that could replace drag and drop, again, depending on the application or the function.

Touch screens

Touch screens seem to utilize drag and drop a lot more openly and not just with organizing files, app icons or contacts. Even when simply scrolling down a page, the user is also utilizing form of drag and drop by simply touching (grabbing) the screen and swiping (dragging) up or down in order move the screen… actually, come to think of it, dragging and dropping in order to scroll has been an option on your full fledged laptop or desktop since like forever… but who does that anymore?? If ever. Scrolling is done almost exclusively with the scroll wheel on a mouse or touchpad on a laptop, to the point that even the latest iteration of OS X completely hides and does away with scroll bars completely. So what does that mean? Is drag and drop just not suited for for scrolling? If I think about my own file copying/moving habits, I can’t say that dragging and dropping is always the most ideal method in that situation either.

Going back online, the most common task that seems to utilize drag and drop are websites that allow you to upload files (like WordPress or ImageShack). But even that hasn’t replaced the good ol’ select files button that’s displayed, in many cases, more prominently front and center.

What’s the common denominator here? Why has drag and drop been the least favorable option compared to the alternatives in these examples? And how can you know if using drag and drop will be the most ideally suited method for your chosen task?

Lightbulb moment!

One of the factors in determining usability is how simple and easy a task is to carry out (duh). One of these factors is the number of steps required to carry out a given task (again, duh).

The scroll wheel obviously had the scroll bar beat seeing as it only required moving one’s finger, regardless of where the cursor was at that given time, as apposed to moving the mouse, positioning the cursor precisely over the scroll bar, clicking and holding, moving the mouse again, possibly necessitating picking up the mouse to move back to the top of the mousepad/desk in order to continue dragging and then finally, releasing.

The same goes for moving and copying files. Unless you have the source and destination window open right next to each other, using the keyboard is the quickest and simplest solution (that’s why it’s called a shortcut incidentally). Dragging and dropping files on the desktop is therefore done a lot more often for that reason; the source and destination are pretty much the the same place actos 30 mg.

Finally, uploading files to a website is easier by clicking the button for almost the same reason as on a desktop: how often do you have your files right there ready to be dragged and dropped onto the browser? Probably almost never. Most users tend to have their browsers full screened: front and center which means dragging files would require hiding or minimizing the browser first in order to do so, and who has the energy and time to even do that?

So when does offering drag and drop make sense? For one, if the source and destination are in the same location. Secondly, if it requires less steps than an alternative, you’re probably doing it right.

Once you’ve decided that drag and drop is right for you, you’re now left with the task of how to design the whole thing so that users understand the perceived affordance… good luck with that!

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