Alternative Views

Google Maps, showing streets and satellite views


Let the user choose among alternative views that are substantially different from the default view.

Use when

You’re building something that views or edits a complex document, list, website, map, or other content. Maybe you already provide some customizability—font size, language, sort order, zoom level, and so forth—but those lightweight changes don’t go far enough to accommodate all the things people typically do with it.

You may face design requirements that directly conflict with each other. You can’t find a way to show both feature set A and feature set B at the same time, so you need to design both separately and let the user choose between them.


Try as you might, you can’t always accommodate all possible usage scenarios in a single design. For instance, printing is typically problematic for websites because the information display requirements differ—navigation and interactive gizmos should be removed, for instance, and the remaining content reformatted to fit the printer paper.

There are several other reasons for Alternative Views:

  • Users have preferences with regard to speed, visual style, and other factors.
  • A user might need to temporarily view data through a different “lens” or perspective in order to gain insight into a problem. Consider a map user switching between views of street information and topographic information (see the example at the top of the pattern).
  • If a user is editing a slideshow or website, for instance, he may do most of his editing while using a “structural” view of the document, containing editing handles, markers for invisible content, layout guides, private notes, and so on. But sometimes he will want to see the work as an end user would see it.


Choose a few usage scenarios that cannot easily be served by the application’s or site’s normal mode of operation. Design specialized views for those scenarios, and present them as alternatives within the same window or screen.

In these alternative views, some information might be added and some might be taken away, but the core content should remain more or less the same. A common way to switch views is to change the rendering of a list; file finders in both Windows and Mac OS let users switch from lists to Thumbnail Grids to Tree Tables to Cascading Lists to Carousels, for instance.

If you need to strip down the interface—for use by a printer or screen reader, for in- stance—consider removing secondary content, shrinking or eliminating images, and cutting out all navigation but the most basic.

Put a “switch” for the mode somewhere on the main interface. It doesn’t have to be prominent; PowerPoint and Word used to put their mode buttons in the lower-left corner, which is an easily overlooked spot on any interface. Most applications represent the alternative views with iconic buttons. Make sure it’s easy to switch back to the default view, too. As the user switches back and forth, preserve all of the application’s current state—selections, the user’s location in the document, uncommitted changes, undo/redo operations, and so on—because losing them will surprise the user.

Applications that “remember” their users often retain the user’s alternative-view choice from one use to the next. In other words, if a user decides to switch to an alternative view, the application will just use that view by default next time. Websites can do this by using cookies; desktop applications can keep track of preferences per user; an app on a mobile device can simply remember what view it used the last time it was invoked.Web pages may have the option of implementing Alternative Views as alternative CSS pages. This is how some sites switch between ordinary pages and print-only pages, for example.


In the two examples below, two graphic editors, Microsoft PowerPoint and Adobe Illustrator, show different views of a work product. In the slideshow, the user normally edits one slide at a time, along with its notes, but sometimes the user needs to see all the slides laid out on a virtual table. (Not shown is a third view, in which PowerPoint takes over the screen and actually plays the slideshow.) In the website example, Illustrator shows an “outline” view of the graphic objects in the document—most useful if you have a lot of complex and layered objects—and the normal, fully rendered view of the artwork. The outline view speeds up work considerably.

PowerPoint alternative views

Illustrator alternative views

News sites and blogs often show lots of “extras” in the margins around an article, many of which are animated or interactive. But some sites considerately provide a print view—a version of the article that has none of that extra stuff. The formatting is simple, and the branding is minimal. The example below is from CNN.

CNN web and print views of an article

In other libraries

Alternative Views at Quince