Questions to ask when building a data-table

Reading time: 10min

Data tables are certainly one of the most complex UI features to implement. Because of this complexity, it is very easy miss requirements and also very costly to refactor. The list of questions below has been slowly built out over many years and several data-table implementations across varying companies. It is meant to assist with the initial discovery phase and help to align the expectations of all stakeholders.

A person in a plaid shirt uses a digital tablet with a touch gesture, emphasizing the ease of technology and interactive digital communication.
A person in a plaid shirt uses a digital tablet with a touch gesture, emphasizing the ease of technology and interactive digital communication.

Note: We lightly discuss the topics of searching and filtering data and keyboard controls below. They could easily both be their own lists due to how complex each topic is.

Jump to section:


  • How should large datasets be handled?
    • Pagination
      • What type of controls should be supported?
        • Back, next, select page, go to first or last, jump to page menu, page buttons…
      • Should the user be able to define how many records are shown per page?
        • Should this setting be restored when the application is reloaded?
        • Should this be a view-level setting or an application-level setting?
    • Virtual scroll (data is dynamically loaded and removed as the user scrolls through the content)
    • Infinite scroll or lazy loading (more data is loaded as the user reaches the bottom)
    • Showing dynamic messaging to encourage the user to filter the data more aggressively.
  • How should empty states be handled?
    • Should the display be different based on the reason there is no data?
      • No data has ever existed
      • No data exists currently
      • No data was returned with the current filter(s) or search
      • No data was returned due to an error
  • Should the display of data change for specific users or roles?
    • e.g., An admin role may have different graphs or summaries compared to a basic user.
  • Should the table allow filtering the data?
    • Is the filter column-specific or applied to the entire table?
    • Should all columns be filterable?
    • Can more than one column be filtered at the same time?
    • Are there any possible data points that the user cannot filter by?
    • Can the table be filtered on a global level as well?
    • How should the search be executed?
      • Explicit match
      • Fuzzy match
      • Do any phrases or terms get extra weight? (industry terms, trends, location..)
      • How should typos be handled?
      • How should synonyms be handled?
      • Should search operators be supported? (this +that -notThis…)
      • Should wildcards be supported?
      • Should regex be supported?
      • Is the search executed in real time or should the user be required to submit the query?
    • Should multi-level filters be supported? (i.e. 'rule-builder')
    • Should query results highlighted?
      • Should it be highlighted at the row level, cell level or both?
  • Can the user search for specific data?
    • Note: We consider it a 'search' when the query requests data from the server and a 'filter' when the query narrows a data-set.
    • Note: See the section above 'Should the table allow filtering the data?' as most of the questions also apply here.
  • How should the data initially be sorted when the table first loads?
  • If data is updated while the user is viewing the table, how should the user be alerted?


  • Should rows support custom styles?
    • Status, validity, selection, highlight…
  • Should rows support pinning?
    • Where can they be pinned?
      • Top, content, bottom
    • How many rows can be pinned at once?
      • A single top, content or bottom
      • A single top and a single footer
      • Multiple top and/or multiple bottom
      • Multiple top, content or bottom
  • Should the header row be fixed or scroll out of view?
  • Can rows be grouped?
  • Should rows support varying heights?
    • How should row content be vertically aligned?
  • Should rows support custom templates?
  • Should rows support dynamic height changes?
    • Expansion panel, progressive enhancement..
  • Can a row be in a selected state?
    • Do any data types have restrictions on when a user may or may not select or unselect a row?
    • Are selections removed or preserved when the user paginates after selecting one or more rows?
    • How should the selected state be visually represented?
  • Will any views need a summary row?
    • Will there be a need for more than one summary row?
    • Will any of the summary rows require data not included in the tables primary data set?
  • Should the table support a common set of actions for a row? (delete, duplicate..)
    • Should these actions always be visible?
      • Always visible
      • Shown on hover or focus
      • Table enters 'edit' mode
  • Should rows support a disabled or read-only state?
  • Is there a need to highlight certain rows?
    • Is there a single highlight style or multiple types?
    • Can multiple rows be highlighted at the same time?
  • Should users be able to quickly view more detail?
    • Popover, modal, drawer, expansion panel, split view..
    • Can multiple quick-views be open at the same time?
    • Do certain columns need to remain visible when the quick-view is open?
  • Can data be edited at the row level?
  • Should the table support zebra striped rows?
  • Should a user be able to manually sort rows via drag and drop?


  • Can columns be added or removed from the table?
    • How is the initial visibility determined for each column?
  • Should columns support pinning?
    • Where can they be pinned?
      • Start, current location or end
    • How many can be pinned at once?
      • Only one start, content or end
      • One start and one end
      • Multiple start or multiple end
      • Multiple start, content or end
  • Should columns support reordering?
    • Can column reordering be disabled for one or many columns?
  • Can data be ordered by column data (sorting)?
    • Can a sorted column be 'unsorted'?
    • On the first sort, does the column sort ascending or descending?
      • Are there any data types that might require the opposite initial sort?
    • What visuals should be used to indicate the current order?
    • Can data be sorted by multiple columns at once?
      • How should column priority be indicated?
  • Can columns be grouped?
  • Can text alignment be customized for specific columns?
  • How are columns initially sized?
    • Equal distribution (percentage)
    • Based on column contents (dynamic)
    • View level setting (fixed)
    • Weighted (a combination of percentage and dynamic)
    • How should sizing be affected when the data is wider than the viewport?
    • How should sizing be affected when the data is less than the width of the viewport?
  • Should users be able to resize columns?
    • Should resizing be disabled for certain columns or views?
  • Can a column be in a selected state?
    • Can multiple columns be selected?
      • Do the columns need to be contiguous?
  • Should a column be able to span multiple columns?


  • Should text wrap or be truncated when it is wider than the cell?
    • If truncated, how will users be able to see the full text?
      • Where should the text be truncated? (beginning, middle, end)
  • Should cells support custom styles?
    • Background, typography treatment..
  • Should cells support custom formatters?
  • Should cells support full custom templates?
    • Content cells, header cells, footer cells or all cells?
  • Should cells support inline editing?
    • How should the editor be presented?
      • Contenteditable, switch to input, popover, modal
    • How should the user determine when editing is possible?
    • How should state changes be represented? (i.e., updated, saved…)
    • What should happen if an edit fails?
      • Should the data revert to its previous state?
      • Should the field be marked as errored?
      • How should the user be alerted to the failure?
    • Should the user be able to undo or redo changes?
  • Can a cell be in a selected state?
    • Can multiple cells be selected at once?
      • Do the cells need to be contiguous?
    • How is the selected state visually represented?
  • Can a cell be in a disabled or read-only state?
  • Is there a need to highlight certain cells?
    • Is there a single highlight style or multiple types? (e.g., positive, negative…)
    • Is there a need for multiple cells be highlighted at once?
  • Should cells support any form of progressive disclosure?
    • Popover, modal, tooltip..
  • What type of content should be supported?
    • Text, image, code, button, link, icon, number, data visualization, map, embed, dropdown, date-picker..


  • Should the current state be restored if the page is refreshed?
    • State refers to sort, filter, column visibility, column order, column and row pinning, row selection, cell selection…
  • Should the table support sharing or bookmarking a URL to a specific filtered or sorted state?
  • Should the table support multiple display densities?
    • Is this setting per-view or application wide?
  • What type of keyboard support should be supported?
    • This could range from simple arrow key support to full Excel-like keyboard controls.
  • Should the table highlight the currently hovered row and/or column? (crosshair)
  • Should the table support a custom context (right-click) menu?
  • Should the table be responsive?
    • How should the table be displayed and function on small screens?
  • Should touch devices be supported?
    • How should keyboard shortcuts be translated to touch devices?
    • How should batch selection work?
  • Should the table support bulk actions?
  • Should the table support a visual summary?
    • Which visualizations should be provided?
    • Can visualizations be customized?
      • Per view? Per user?
  • Should the user be able to export the data?
    • What formats should be supported? CSV, PDF, Excel, clipboard..
    • What data should be exported?
      • The visible data.
      • All data in the current set regardless of current visibility.
  • Should tables support nesting inside another table?
    • How many levels of nesting is needed?
  • Should the table support a printer friendly view?
  • Should the table support a high-contrast mode?

As always, I welcome any feedback, corrections, or suggestions on clarity. This is a document I personally continue to reference, and I hope it can help others as well!

Further reading

Get the latest updates

Sign up to hear about new resources & articles.

No data sharing. Unsubscribe at any time.

🛠️ 🌟 🎯

Copyright © 2024 Benjamin Charity.
All rights reserved.