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I have a simple drop down list containing about 12 choices. The choices are not countries, states, or any other common set of items that users would be used to scanning alphabetically or by name. What's the best sort order for these choices? I could alphabetize them, but I don't think it would be helpful because the names aren't all that meaningful. I could sort them by most common/likely choice, but that order would be a guess on my part... and I think with a dozen or so choices, sorting by frequency of use isn't very helpful anyway because you should be able to see all the choices at once.

What's the best way to sort choices in a drop down list when there is no meaningful sort dimension? Should I just default to alphabetical, or nothing at all?

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Leaving things like that unsorted (especially if options are drawn from a database) can leave to nasty surprises. –  Ben Brocka Sep 27 '11 at 18:23
    
    
How about an example? –  Emil Sep 28 '11 at 6:51

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

If you have nothing else to guide a sorting order, alphabetic makes the most sense. At the very least it creates an affordance for repeated use, where people will likely recall the name of a previously used menu item before learning the position, and if they're asked to select an item from that menu by documentation or another person, they'll be able to find it that much more quickly.

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Don't forget that alphabetical maintains logical order if the dropdown items change at all. –  Ben Brocka Sep 27 '11 at 18:22
    
I hadn't considered that alphabetizing helps with repeated use. Thanks for the answer! –  Glenn Arndt Sep 27 '11 at 20:02
    
Adding an item to the middle of an alphabetical list disrupts the order of all the items below it. If the menu is frequently accessed, it might be better to make the initial order random, with new items added to the bottom. –  Patrick McElhaney Sep 27 '11 at 20:26
    
That's a good point, Patrick. If items are being added to the list often, then new items will shift the position of others and it could destabilize positional memory. –  Todd Sieling Sep 28 '11 at 19:01

Your options for sorting things are as follows:

  • Frequency of use, with more frequent items at the top. This is often a good choice even when all items are visible at once. With a drop down, you know the mouse is initially at the drop down arrow, so this puts the most frequent choices closer to the mouse for faster selection, consistent with Fitts Law. This only makes a big difference if there are wide differences in frequency of use, and if you don’t know the frequency from testing or archival sources, then you’re kind of stuck.

  • Importance to task. Items that have a more significant impact on the task may be at the top where users will see them or at the bottom to reduce the chance of accidental selection, depending on what kind of impact they have.

  • Sequence of entry or processing. If users tend to handle records or objects in a particular sequence based on a given attribute value (e.g., first review accounts with outstanding balances; or first enter records for purchases), then the dropdown to set that value can reflect that sequence since that's something users are used to. This may even apply to tasks unrelated to that which involves selecting the item from the drop down.

  • Functional similarity. Items may be grouped or ranked by similarity on some dimension. For example, shipping methods may be sorted by speed of delivery, gift options by elaborateness and cost, animals by taxonomic similarity. If you have access to users, letting them card-sort the items into two to six groups will tell you the similarities they find natural. Generally any random set of items have some basis of similarity for grouping them.

  • Functional relations. If items relate to one another, then related items may be near each other in the sort order, such as Mouse, Cat, Dog (antagonistic relations); or Car, Engine, Piston (component relations); or Initiated, In Progress, Completed, Reviewed, Closed (status evolution); or Living Room, Dining Room, Kitchen, Bedroom, Bathroom (typical physical proximity). Keep in mind it doesn’t have to be a rank order. Grouping by relations is fine.

  • Time of creation. This usually pertains to dynamic lists where time of creation is relevant to the task (e.g., email messages, repair orders), but any set of items created by the user may also be temporally sorted since users often remember roughly when they made things. It also keeps a dynamic list relatively stable. MS IE for example, sorts Favorites by order of creation.

  • Name (i.e., alphabetical). This is preferred if the user knows the exact name (e.g., the country list like you suggest). Could it help experienced users who’ve learned the name? Maybe a little. Users naturally tend to memorize the location of items in a menu, so by the time they’ve learned the exact name you use, they’ve also learned its place. However, if there really is absolutely no other basis for sorting, then you might as well go alphabetical.

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