When Alphabetical Order Is Not Logical

Every so often, the question comes up among interaction designers and usability professionals regarding whether alphabetical order is a logical order. (See, for example, the February 2009 discussion on the Interaction Design list.) We’ve all seen numerous lists that appear in alphabetical order (and in which it makes sense): country, state, surname, street name, auto manufacturer. We’ve also seen many that do not: month, day of week, browser history, File menu.

Alphabetical order is NOT a logical order. It may be the best order for a group of choices — i.e., it may be logical to use alphabetical order — but that does not make the order itself a “logical” order. It is only a predictable way of ordering a set that has no intrinsic logical order.

Don’t get me wrong; predictable is good. And sometimes — e.g., in the situations mentioned above — alphabetical order is the most predictable order.

But sometimes it is not, and yesterday I ran across a perfect example. Consider the figure at right. This is a list of car sizes in the preferences area of a travel application. Does the list look logical to you? I can never remember whether “economy” is smaller than “compact” or vice versa; and what in the world is “special”? I submit that size is the logical order for a choice of sizes (duh!).

Similarly, sequence is the logical order for a choice of months or days of the week. (Would you suggest putting April first? I didn’t think so.)

The objective is to choose an order that helps people find the option they seek and (if they aren’t sure) to help them identify the right option. Ordering the car size list by size would do both.

Are you listening, Carlson Wagonlit?

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  1. Posted 8 October 2009 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    The other major reason site will list things alphabetically is because they don't want to have to be in the business of deciding which one of their functions is more important than the rest.

    When you order services, departments, offices, etc by order of importance then web/communication offices will get a flood of questions and complaints as to why "they're office is more important than mine" and "putting them that way makes us look less important."

    So, alphabetical order has become the go to order listing for the web in order to avoid complaints from WITHIN the organization. People immediately recognize a list is in alphabetical order and typically don't complain…they're used to falling where they do within the alphabet. But as soon as you order them, logically, complaints ensue and many don't want to get involved in that.

    Unfortunately this does a disservice to the visitors. The order of lists (like offices, for ex) should be done based on their importance to the visitor according to user feedback, stats, etc. Another option would be in the order in which a typical visitor would need to visit in order to complete their selected task (ex: Make an appointment; complete your insurance/registration form; etc)

  2. Posted 8 October 2009 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Govy, I agree with you about the problem and the reasons for it — but (assuming I understood you) not 100% about the solution. :-)

    I think of user feedback as being after the fact, and (when it is not a no-brainer) the arrangement (order, subgroupings, etc.) should be based on up-front user research (which can include feedback regarding proposed ideas). Doing the research to identify and define how the users think of the information is an important component of information architecture.

    I also think that displaying a list of offices, whatever the order, tends to require that users have some knowledge of the organization's structure (and worse yet, to care about it). In my experience, people visiting a web site (government or otherwise) are generally more interested in services or information than they are in which part of the organization provides it.

    I do agree with your last sentence, where it's relevant. Sequence is an organizing principle for listing the steps in a process.

  3. Posted 8 October 2009 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Yikes, Blogger doesn't like "—" in the comments. At least, it came out as a weird two-character cluster when I posted it.

    Sorry, folks; it won't happen again.

  4. Posted 8 October 2009 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    I've always disliked the mashed alphabetical order that some sites use for movies, eg "Film/The"

  5. Posted 9 October 2009 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Bill, I think the movie sites get that from how libraries alphabetize books. But titles are a situation in which it makes good sense to alphabetize — within categories.

  6. Posted 15 October 2009 at 4:32 am | Permalink


    Why does an order have to be logical? Surely the criteria should be intuitive or easy to find or predictable? Unless we are designing for Mr Spock.

    Alphabetical would rarely make sense to me unless the real world analogue is known that way too.

    In the help system IA we are developing here my design assumption is 'order by frequency of asking' i.e. not the specific individual's goal but the cumulative users based on analysis of past support requests. The most common help topic is the first item on the drop down, and so on. Aiming for the greatest good in searching down the list.


  7. Posted 15 October 2009 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Mark, when we speak of a logical order we mean "logical according to the user's mental model". This has the express purpose of helping people know where to look, thus making stuff easy to find. It's an order that makes sense according to the meaningful relationships among the items in the group. Such as sizes of cars in the example I gave.

    FAQs are an entirely different beast, and your approach may be appropriate.

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