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Let's say for an example you display a list of category records or any type of records for that matter in a web page. Is there better ways of showing that list of records other than in a table? Or are tables the best UX?

I think the answer could be "it depends", but I'm mostly referring to list of records like products, categories, users etc.

For example I've got a list of Product categories that user could add/edit/delete: What normally is done is that this information and experience is displayed in a grid like so:

grid example

Using a stupid example not to use a grid for example one could come up with something like this:

stupid example

Back to the question is a table the best UX for this or are there better ways?

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By definition, the best way to display tabular data is with a table. Can you tell us more about the records you want to display? Of course it depends. If you want useful, interesting, and creative answers, give us more detail. –  Patrick McElhaney Nov 2 '11 at 13:28
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I think this is a valid question but probably needs a bit more detail to reopen. –  DA01 Nov 2 '11 at 14:25
    
The main reason to stick with tables by default for showing tabular data is for accessibility, which I argue is a part of UX. –  DA01 Nov 2 '11 at 14:26
    
@DA01 On a web page, you might encode the data in HTML tables for accessibility, but use CSS and/or JavaScript to create non-tabular presentation for sighted users. But is Adriaan asking about a web page, a DVR interface, or a wall poster? At this point, we don't know. Hence the need for more detail. :) –  Patrick McElhaney Nov 2 '11 at 15:59
    
True. I admit, I tend to default to assuming it's a web question most of the time. –  DA01 Nov 2 '11 at 16:09

2 Answers 2

The problem lies in being able to present a collection of items to a user in such a way as not to force favouritism on any one item other than by the order in which they are sorted.

A table is usually the best way of doing this because it naturally provides identical horizontal or vertical spacing to an item allowing the eye to easily scan rows and columns to view the contents without having to work hard to assess the content in a slightly different way when moving from one item to the next.

So why would you not use a table? Well - you might want to do more than just present the data in a 1 or 2 dimensional format - for example you want to add another dimension in which items are in some way sorted.

If you're going to add another dimension, you might think of using changes in appearance or types of markup for items but that adds to the clutter and reduces ease of visual processing, so position and alignment (and other gestalt principles) come into play - for example you present hierarchical or grouping information by indentation or whitespace, or even clustering.

But whatever you do in this case it has to be in context, for good reason, and must present an efficient and easily digestible presentation of content both from the aspect of overview or on detailed examination. It should present information in the user's mental model - not just because you happen to have that particular structure of information in the system model.

And that's why 'it depends' - since departing from the visual processing efficiency of a table, and the directions that you go in are really going to be driven by the data and context.

JohnGB mentions tag clouds in which the size of the item provides the sorted dimension, but (as he indicates) really tag clouds are only useful for short terms without additional data displayed - and they are only a marginally useful format at that (the only benefit is proportional representation) - so more of a fun or interesting format than actually being more efficient.

Since you seem to be talking about products, categories, users - I wouldn't consider much beyond incorporating groups and whitespace into your tables, but as I say it depends on your data and what you want to present to the user. If your showing users, you might want to indicate geographical location (via a map underlay) for another dimension...

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It depends on your application. I think most applications are better off using tabular data, but even then there are some considerations which I will cover below. However some use other means, although the UX of the is often not great (depending on application). Tag clouds are an example.

When giving tabular data, the table isn't the biggest factor. It's how you show the data that matters. Do you sort it in a way that is most useful for people? Are the most commonly looked for or most important pieces of information in positions which ease people's task?

If you would like more detailed suggestions, why don't you give more detail in your answer and show us what you are using right now. We like pictures :)

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