Advanced jQuery Tabbed Box Techniques

Published January 25, 2009 by CSS Newbies.

animated tabbed box interface

Last week’s article covered how to build a tabbed box interface, starting with Photoshop, and moving through XHTML and CSS to our basic jQuery functionality. If you missed it, I would highly recommend starting your reading there. This article will show you how to use jQuery to make your tabbed interface more attractive and interactive. Specifically, I’ll show you how to:

  • Make your tabs all the same height
  • Automatically rotate through your tabbed content
  • Stop the rotation when the user is interacting with the content

Equal Height Tabs

The tabbed interface we built last week was fully functional, but one nicety I’d like to add is the option to have all your tabs be the same height – a height that is determined by the content within the tabs, not any number I arbitrarily determine in advance.

While there are several ways to calculate and apply height in jQuery, the fastest and easiest means to our end would be to use the equalHeights jQuery plugin I developed and wrote about recently. By using that plugin, we’d only have to make a single addition to the “document ready” portion of our jQuery:


This will cycle through all of our tabbed content divs and equalize their heights based on the height of the tallest div. The benefit of this is the content around our tabbed box won’t shift up or down each time the user switches tabs, resulting in a more pleasant visual experience.

Rotate Through Tabbed Content

While tabbed boxes like the one we’ve built are a great way to fit a large amount of content in a small space, they do have one drawback: many users never click through the tabs to see what all is offered, meaning they only ever see the content on the first tab. My proposed solution to this problem is to automatically rotate through the tabs.

This solution has two benefits: first, the movement is more likely to catch the users’ eyes, increasing the chances they’ll notice the tabbed box in the first place. Second, it allows your users to see all the content your box contains instead of just the first tab.

Making this adjustment to our jQuery requires edits in several areas, so I’ll show you the new code in its entirety before explaining what it all does:

var currentTab = 0; 
var rotateSpeed = 5000;
var numTabs;.
var autoRotate;

function openTab(clickedTab) {
	var thisTab = $(".tabbed-box .tabs a").index(clickedTab);
	$(".tabbed-box .tabs li a").removeClass("active");
	$(".tabbed-box .tabs li a:eq("+thisTab+")").addClass("active");
	$(".tabbed-box .tabbed-content").hide();
	$(".tabbed-box .tabbed-content:eq("+thisTab+")").show();
	currentTab = thisTab;

function rotateTabs() {
	var nextTab = (currentTab == (numTabs - 1)) ? 0 : currentTab + 1;
	openTab($(".tabbed-box .tabs li a:eq("+nextTab+")"));

$(document).ready(function() {
	numTabs = $(".tabbed-box .tabs li a").length;
	$(".tabbed-box .tabs li a").click(function() { 
		openTab($(this)); return false; 
	autoRotate = setInterval("rotateTabs()", rotateSpeed);	
	$(".tabbed-box .tabs li a:eq("+currentTab+")").click()	

The first variable, currentTab, is unchanged from our first iteration. But then we’ve added three new variables:

  • rotateSpeed is the number of milliseconds to wait before switching tabs.
  • numTabs is a variable that will contain the total number of tabs in our box. We’re initializing it at the beginning so we can use it in all our functions.
  • autoRotate is a variable we’ll use later.

Our openTab function hasn’t changed. If you’d like to understand how it works, please refer to the first article.

Next we’ve written a new function called rotateTabs. This function will handle the math required to determine which tab should be opened next. First we set a new variable, nextTab. What we set nextTab to depends on which tab we’re on currently. The function looks at currentTab: if currentTab is our last tab in the list, it starts back over at the beginning (the tab with an index of 0). Otherwise, nextTab is simply the next tab in the list. Once we’ve determined our next tab, we call the openTab function, which prevents us from having to duplicate all that heavy lifting.

We’ve added two lines to our document ready function. The first sets the numTabs variable to be the number of tabs in our box. We don’t populate this variable until the document is ready, because otherwise it will try to count the tabs before our tabs have loaded and will return a length of -1 (aka, none found).

The second bit we added is towards the end, where we set autoRotate. In autoRotate we’re calling the JavasScript setInterval function, which executes a piece of JavaScript on a regular interval. As we’ve written it, we will be calling our autoRotate function every “rotateSpeed” milliseconds. This means that when our document loads, it will wait that many milliseconds, then switch to the next tab, then pause again, then switch again infinitely.

Pretty neat, huh? You can see this functionality in action here.

Stopping the Rotation

Now, automatically rotating your tabs is a pretty awesome effect, but at some point you’re probably going to want that rotation to stop. Specifically, you don’t want your tabs switching when your users are interacting with them.

I tested several scenarios on when and how to stop the tabs from rotating before deciding on how I’m doing it here. It only requires editing a couple of lines from our document ready function:

$(document).ready(function() {
	numTabs = $(".tabbed-box .tabs li a").length;
	$(".tabbed-box .tabs li a").click(function() { 
		openTab($(this)); return false; 
	.mouseout(function(){autoRotate = setInterval("rotateTabs()", rotateSpeed)});
	$(".tabbed-box .tabs li a:eq("+currentTab+")").click()

Here we’ve replaced our setInterval function with something a little more complex. We’re now using both setInterval and clearInterval (which stops setInterval), and we’re applying them when the user’s mouse interacts with our tabbed box.

Specifically, we’re letting the box auto-rotate whenever the mouse is nowhere near the box, and stopping the box from rotating whenever the mouse is over the box. This means that as long as the user has the mouse over the box, as if they were reading, or clicking through the tabs, or clicking on something inside one of our tabs, the tabs wouldn’t switch on them. But as soon as they’re done interacting with the box, it’ll switch back to its regular rotation.

This does require one extra line at the end of the script, to force a “mouseout” event on the tabbed box, which gets things rotating by default.

You can see our fully functional tabbed interface here. Give it a try: watch it rotate through, and then try interacting with the box a bit. You’ll see that the tabs don’t automatically move, as long as you’re actively engaged with the box.

And that’s that! I hope you’ve found this mini-series helpful, and I’d love to see how you’ve implemented this idea on your own websites. Drop me a line in the comments below if you do.

51 Responses

  1. Justin (reply)

    setInterval can also take a function as an argument, not just a string, so you can actually shorten your JS by a few characters by using setInterval(rotateTabs, rotateSpeed) instead of setInterval(“rotateTabs()”, rotateSpeed).

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  5. Stephen Boyd (reply)

    Hey I have one problem with this file. Everything works great until I php include it into my existing site. I narrowed it down to the css code. The code that messes up my site is the following:

    * { margin: 0; padding: 0; }

    once i take this code out is works. But then the tabs are all messed up. Any ideas? the box is located at:

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  7. harry (reply)

    This works great all except one thing. They box height stays the same regardless of the content. It fixes the height to the tab with the most content. This can be fixed by using display: block, but then the tabs don’t rotate automatically.

    Does anyone know how to fix this?

  8. Rob Glazebrook (Author) (reply)

    Hi Harry,

    The fix for that is really simple… just take out the reference in the first line of code to the equalheights plugin:


    With that line removed, the box will change size depending on which tab is open. I didn’t design it that way initially because I assumed that most often the box would be surrounded by other content, and it could get annoying if all that other content was constantly moving up and down depending on which tab was open.

    Hope that helps!

  9. 8courtyard (reply)


    Exactly what I was looking for. Love it’s functionality, it’s simplicity and it’s ease of use.

    Many thanx 4 a superb piece of code.

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  12. Jim Cook (reply)

    Works great except for the FOUC (flash of unstyled content). For a split second I see all my tabbed-content divs stacked before the JS and CSS kick in. Any ideas on how to resolve that?

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  14. Matt Henchen (reply)

    I’m building a new website for my school and I’ve used your tutorial to integrate a nice tabbed content box. The only problem is that it does not work properly on the iPad. The content shows up to the right of the box. I re-created your tabbed box on my site without any modifications and it works great on most browsers, but not on the iPad (even though your example works fine on the iPad) Do you know anyway I can fix this? BTW I am using CMSMS, which uses smarty logic for stylesheets. Thanks!

  15. Matt Henchen (reply)

    *Solved* Just wanted to let you know that I figured out what was wrong. My site was linking to the latest Java library 1.4.2. When I linked it to 1.2.6 everything worked as it should – even on the iPad. I’m not sure why, but…

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  17. Mark (reply)

    Rob – this is a great tutorial, thanks.
    I’m wondering if you know a simple way to have the images crossfade into each other as they rotate around. I’m new at this but I have a feeling there is no simple way to do it. Thanks,

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  26. Abi (reply)


    Very Nice script…Thanks

    I would like to include two tabs in single page…can you please guide me?

    i had copy pasted ….

    but it messup with first tab.

  27. Aaron (reply)

    Thanks for the script,

    Works great, I made a slight tweek. I added a 2nd content area before the nav, that way I can use the tabs to show two different content areas.

    Thanks again,


  28. Adekunbi (reply)

    Hi, very good work. However, I tried implementing it, but the tab doesn’t change when it rotates, but the content changes, what do you think the problem is?


    1. Rob Glazebrook (Author) (reply)

      My best guess without seeing your code would be that you’re missing the CSS that makes the active tab look different than the non-active tabs. Take a look at the example, and make sure you’re making tabs with a class of “active” different in some way.

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