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I'm building a flexible search tool where the user can put together a query against one or many of a long list of fields to pull back a list of results. I was considering a TFS like query builder solution but the interface will have to be very fast. There are 11 fields to query against currently but that will grow to 20 or so over time.

I'm on the fence on whether the fields in the droplist should be listed in alphabetical order or in order of popularity. I don't have hard numbers, but I believe that 4-5 of the 11 options account for the vast majority of searches.

Is there any research on the performance of alphabetical vs popularity sorted lists?

P.S. There is a sizable user population that will be navigating via keyboard.

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Relevant (but not identical): ux.stackexchange.com/questions/22884/… –  Andrew Leach Jun 26 '12 at 19:38
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+1 for the P.S. That's something to keep in mind for all applications / websites / tools whether you are aware of it or not. There are more keyboard-only users out there than people realize. –  JonW Jun 26 '12 at 21:13
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Here are some things you should consider:

  1. Alphabetical lists only aid users if they know the names of the items. Most of the time, however, they don't and will need to explore the list. In this case, alphabetical sorting will likely hinder the user's exploration. http://www.useit.com/alertbox/alpha-sorting.html

  2. You don't have to be mutually exclusive. You can populate the top of the "dropdown" with the "popular" and "frequent" items and, following a separator, populate the remainder of the list with the alphabetical list. Word takes a similar approach with the font selection. In the image, see how "Theme Fonts" are separate from "All Fonts."

    Word Font Selection

  3. In ALL CASES test it with the users to be absolutely sure you've used the right strategy.

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Most of the time, however, they don't What makes you say that? This is a dropdown where they select the field they'd like the query to run on. –  Vitaly Mijiritsky Jun 26 '12 at 21:17
    
@VitalyMijiritsky For a user to know the name, they must have the same mental model of the items that you (the designer/programmer) has. For example, developing a drop-down list with groups in an organization, different groups are known by different terminologies. The UAT group is sometimes known as the "User Specialist Group" to some people and not others. "UAT..." and "User can be separated by quite a bit. Taxonomy and mental models frequently don't match "Alphabetical." Some people think "America" others think "US" and still others "United States." –  mawcsco Jun 26 '12 at 21:27
    
These are the fields they work with. If they don't know them, they can't use the query builder to begin with, that's what the query builder is for, searching in specific fields. –  Vitaly Mijiritsky Jun 26 '12 at 21:56
    
I absolutely hate this "feature" in Word, because if I'm trying to browse the font list and apply one font after the other to see what it looks like, when I get back to the list after applying font #1, I see it selected in the "frequent" list, and I have to scroll all the way down again to the alphabetical list to get to the next one. –  rid Jun 27 '12 at 2:43
    
@Radu I'm not sure which version of Word you are referring to. The version I use only keeps 2 "theme" fonts and 3 "recent" fonts. Does yours keep adding to the list? –  mawcsco Jun 27 '12 at 13:34
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You can get off the fence, it should be in alphabetical order :).

Alphabetical order makes sense immediately, at the first glance, and provides the user with an intuitive feeling of where to look for the required value - whether it's in the beginning, the middle or the end of the list.

An order of popularity can't be guaranteed to make sense even after a long time (it might just never occur to the user). A user might learn the list by heart without every figuring out why it's set the way it is.

In fields like the Country dropdown, where a single value (USA) accounts for the vast majority of use cases, it may be beneficial to provide that value at the top of the list, but to provide also a visual indication that it's a suggestion which is not part of the list's general logic. When you have almost half the values accounting for the vast majority of searches, it doesn't really help anyone.

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+1 for the keeping the really popular items in the example of a country selector at the top, but as the exception to the rule of alphabetical ordering. –  Adriaan Jun 26 '12 at 20:20
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Also, if you're going to put the most popular one or two at the top please still include it within the full A-Z list too. If someone automatically starts scrolling looking for USA and only finds UKRAINE and UZBEKISTAN that'll just confuse them. –  JonW Jun 26 '12 at 21:11
    
Great point with the country dropdown and creating a sticky "popular" section to account for the overwhelmingly most common use cases(s) while still using alphabetical to account for the larger set. –  Max E Jun 26 '12 at 21:53
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