For a command to increase something, should instructions refer to the "+" key or the "=" key?

by Maxpm   Last Updated October 17, 2019 23:16 PM - source

Our software uses the =/+ and -/_ keys for opposite tasks. For example, increasing or decreasing a value, or zooming in or out. No modifier keys are used.

Here is the conundrum:

  • If we refer to it as the "plus (+) key," users might think they have to hold Shift.
  • If we refer to it as the "equals (=) key," we lose the intuitive dichotomy against the "minus (-) key."

Is there:

  • Research that gives a reason to prefer one form over the other?
  • A mention of this in an authoritative style guide that establishes a convention?
  • A good example of this in the wild?

Answers 2

Based on conventions elsewhere, it is probably best to refer to it as the plus or + key.

The +/- dichotomy is used in other apps and more likely to be encountered by your users before they use yours even if it's in a different context. And your users are not trying to type the = character, they are trying to hit a specific key. This also allows users to use the + key on the num pad if their keyboard has one.

While it is true that some users could become confused and want to hold down shift, your software should be smart enough to take that into account and look at the key that is being pressed, rather than the character that is being typed.

For two quick examples, Zoom in Chrome and Font Size in Brackets (on a Mac) refer to using Cmd + and Cmd -. Granted, this is with a modifier key, but most apps that allow text input (in some capacity) use one so that you can do the function while in the middle of typing. This is something to consider in your app if a user might need to zoom or whatever while a text input has focus.

Menu in Chrome showing Zoom In and Zoom Out keyboard shortcuts. Menu in Brackets showing Increase Font Size and Decrease Font Size.

As always, testing with your actual users is the best way to know for sure. It could be that your audience skews heavily into the financial sector and they only press the buttons on the num pad (where = and + are separate keys) or maybe they are using Caps Lock and Shift for a lot of data entry or commonly typing = right before they have to change Zoom levels.

Worst case scenario: your users type on something that's not a standard QWERTY English keyboard and the + key can be in many different places. It may no longer make sense to +/- as a pair if they are nowhere near each other. Someone with more localization experience can hopefully weigh in on if keyboard shortcuts often get changed to support different language/keyboard conventions.

Nathan Rabe
Nathan Rabe
October 17, 2019 20:07 PM

If your software does not already map the actual + key to a function, then just use both for this purpose, and only document the + in order to keep the established, familiar dichotomy. This is a great example of the robustness principle.

October 17, 2019 22:51 PM

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