Does a Checkbox Give You Accurate Data? [Tech Tips]

Does a checkbox give you accurate data

To checkbox or not to checkbox, that is the question. Checkboxes have many advantages, especially for system administrators. They are generally the fastest and easiest fields to create, and they are preferred when creating field dependencies, formulas, and workflows. They also facilitate quick data entry and make reporting easy. But do they really give you accurate data?

Checkboxes are often used on forms and in databases to accept or refuse an offer. For example:

  • Please send me the monthly newsletter.
  • Yes, I would like to repeat my gift monthly.
  • Add 10% to my donation to contribute to operating expenses.

They are also frequently used to capture an individual’s interests. For example, Interests:

  • Animal Welfare
  • Social Justice
  • Gender Equality
  • Education

With those advantages, why would we ever not use a checkbox? There are a few things to consider.

Checkboxes imply a default answer

In the above examples, the answer is “no” until the box is checked. It takes a special effort for the individual to change his/her response from the provided empty checkbox. In this way, checkboxes can be used to guide a respondent to an answer. Some of us have experienced this “guidance” in its most manipulative form. I bet I’m not the only one to have ordered a magazine and overlooked the automatic subscription renewal checkbox. Grrr.

If the question does not have a default answer, consider using a yes/no picklist or yes/no radio buttons.

Yes     No

Checkboxes compromise data integrity

With checkboxes, it is unclear if the individual purposely did not check the boxes or simply skipped that section of the form. Is the box intentionally or unintentionally blank? Consider when a user is confronted with a yes/no picklist field, forcing the user to make an active choice. If the user submits the form without indicating yes/no, the field remains blank or we can send an error requesting the missing data. Additionally, picklist fields can be required fields, while checkboxes cannot. If it is important enough to request the information, isn’t it important enough to get it correct?

If it is important to confirm that the user appropriately responded to the question, consider using a yes/no picklist or yes/no radio buttons.

Yes     No

Creating a form or a database is an art and a science. When designing fields, be sure to understand the implications of detail-level decisions, and balance the priorities of easy data entry, easy system administration, easy reporting, and high data quality.

What input tools work better for you to get accurate data? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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The Connected Cause is a place for experts in the nonprofit online space to share perspective, offer guidance and promote best practices for using today’s technology effectively. Our goal is to provide a comprehensive source of collaborative thought leadership for the nonprofit industry.

2 comments

  1. Katherine Cronn

    I recently read a book about how the brain operates (Daniel Kahneman—Thinking Fast and Slow) and there was a section about this very concept. In fact, I photocopied some of the pages and sent it to a former colleague whose husband died after a transplant. She and her daughter are working to get more people to donate their organs after death. In NYS you need to check and sign a place on your license application. And few people do this…..Now if you had to do it in order to opt out the numbers of potential donors would soar!
    Nicely written and tightly focused article!

  2. Tracy Kronzak

    I think you hit the nail on the head – I like to use checkboxes only for long-term qualities that hardly ever change about people and organizations. For the decisions related to more active choices, picklists (and well-defined ones at that) are a better way of describing true agency in data.

    Another strategy I like to use with checkboxes is eliminating yes/no confusion: Either ALL the checkboxes on a record represent opt-outs/”no” or they ALL represent opt-ins/”yes” – this way users can become accustomed to treating this kind of Boolean information from a specific determinate lens.

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