Alphabetical Sorting Not the Best

When in doubt, I have always presented lists of items in alphabetical order. My thinking was that this is a logical order that everyone understands. Well, usability testing has me rethinking that approach, and it should make you reconsider too.

According to usability expert Jakob Nielsen, ordinal sequences, logical structuring, time lines, or prioritization by importance or frequency are usually better than A–Z listings for presenting options to users.

Most of the time, users don’t know the name of the thing they want, making A–Z listings useless or the items have an inherent logic that dictates a different sort order, which makes A–Z listings directly harmful because they hide that logic.

A-Z does have a limited effective role: If users know the name of the thing they want, they can usually find it in the list pretty quickly.  Example: list of states.

Depending on the nature of your information, usability might be better served by yet other types of structures. And yes, in a few cases, this might even be the alphabet. But typically, when you reach for an A–Z structure, you should give yourself a little extra kick and seek out something better.

Promising to kick myself as I work on site maps for clients…