One-Window Drilldown

Mac Mail on the iPhone


Show a list or menu of items in a single window. When the user selects an item from the list, show the details or contents of that item in the window, replacing the list.

Use when

You have a list of items to show. Each item has interesting content associated with it, such as the text of an email message, a long article, a full-size image, or details about a file’s size or date.

You have very little space to work with—not enough for a Two-Panel Selector or a List Inlay. For instance, the design might be intended for a very small mobile screen, or for a self-contained web page sidebar or widget.

Alternatively, the list items and contents might just be large. You might need the entire screen or window to show the list, and again to show the contents of an item. Online forums tend to work this way, requiring the whole width of the page to list conversation topics and a separate scrolled page to show the conversations themselves.

Compare to: Two-Panel Selector, List Inlay


In a very constrained space, this may be the only reasonable option for presenting a list and item details. It gives each view the entire available space to “spread out” on the page.

Like the Menu Page pattern, however, this pattern has the benefit of simplicity. A list of items (or links) is easy to understand: to see more of an item, you click or tap on it and thus “drill down” one level. Then you can come back up to the main list or menu to go to another item.


Create the list using whatever layout or format you find best—simple text names, multiline “fat rows” with text formatting, trees or outlines, and Thumbnail Grids all work fine, as do other formats. Vertically scroll it if necessary to fit it into the available space.

When the user clicks, taps, or otherwise selects one of the list items, replace the list display with a display of the item details or contents. On it, place a Back or Cancel button that brings the user back to the list screen (unless the platform supplies hardware buttons for such).

The item screen may offer additional navigational possibilities, such as drilling down further into the item details, stepping down into an item contained within that item (as in a hierarchy), or going “sideways” to the previous or next item in the list (as discussed in the next paragraph). In each case, replace the previous screen with the new one, and make sure the user can easily step back to the previous screen.

One disadvantage of this pattern is that to go from item to item, the user must “pogo-stick” between the list page and the item page. It takes a lot of clicks or taps to see more than a few items, and the user certainly can’t flick between them quickly (as with Two-Panel Selector) or compare them easily (as with List Inlay). You can mitigate this problem by using Back and Next links to connect the user directly to the previous and next items in the list—see the Pyramid pattern in Chapter 3.


Examples abound in mobile designs, as shown in the iPhone example at the top of the pattern. Contrast this mobile version of a mail client with its desktop counterpart shown in the Two-Panel Selector pattern. For instance, the One-Window Drilldown approach requires more text to be shown in the list, so the user has enough context to identify messages and triage them.

You can find One-Window Drilldown in full-size applications and web pages, too. Forums and communities tend to use it a lot—topics are listed on one page, and discussion threads are on their own pages. Ravelry demonstrates this approach, as do about six million other online forums.

Ravelry forums

The Picasa desktop application, a Picture Manager, uses a Two-Panel Selector beside a Thumbnail Grid for its browsing interface. But once the user clicks a photo, Picasa replaces the entire contents of the window (except the bottom toolbar) with a new layout—one that shows the photo itself in Center Stage, with a set of tools next to it.


In other libraries

One-Window Drilldown at Quince