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Looking for best practices on ordering dropdown options when using a logical sort vs an alphabetical sort. To keep this from being open ended, here are some specific cases:

  1. Chronological - i.e. Awaiting Review, Awaiting Approval, Approved
  2. Restrictive - i.e. No Access, Partial Access, Total Access or Enabled, Disabled

#1 seems relatively obvious, 1st step to last step feels natural, but #2 seems to be a bit more difficult of a case, do you order from most restrictive to least restrictive or the opposite.

What best practices do you follow when listing items in a logical order rather than alphabetical?

Some considerations:

  • How does the default value play into your ordering?
    • What if different features default a different way? (e.g., dropdown has enable, disable for status)
  • Do you need to apply it as a rule, or case by case basis?
  • How important do you think it is to the user that the logical order you use is the same between dropdown's of different values? (i.e., enable, disable & off, on)

Here is an example to use if you need one:

Example Dropdown

  • None means that the feature will not be used on any platform (Most restrictive)
  • Exclude allows you to create a blacklist of non supported platforms (Semi-restrictive)
  • Include allows you to define a white list of supported platforms (Semi-Restrictive)
  • All means that is used on all platforms. (Least Restrictive)
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I'm struggling to work out what you're asking here. Please take another look at your question and try clarify it and remove any information that isn't relevant. –  JohnGB May 8 '13 at 23:43
    
A good rule of thumb is that the more frequently used options should be the easiest to get to. So, the most frequently chosen option should be first, the next most frequently chosen option should be second, and so on. –  VGR May 9 '13 at 0:00
    
@VGR My issue with that, is the order can be random, and therefore harder to find. More frequently used doesn't help me find the option I am looking for. Your suggestion makes sense in some cases, and usually a hybrid where you list the top items at the top (perhaps in an opt group) and then again in their logical order. e.g. US companies putting United States at the top of a country dropdown while listing the rest in alphabetical order (and listing the United States a second time in it's correct place). –  Chris Janssen May 9 '13 at 0:08
    
@JohnGB Hows the rewrite? –  Chris Janssen May 9 '13 at 0:14
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5 Answers

NN/g article explaining different sorting which should be used depending on the scenario. Alphabetical Sorting Must (Mostly) Die

Widths and heights are ordinal data, meaning that they have an inherent monotonically increasing sequence. Such items should almost always be sorted accordingly.

Other times, items have domain-related logical groupings. You can often determine this underlying logic in a card sorting study where you ask users to group related items together.

Time lines and geographical location are other groupings that are often useful. Finally, you can let the importance or frequency of use guide how you prioritize long listings rather than default to less-useful alphabetical sorting.

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A list can be sorted in one of the following ways

  • Numerical Ordering (Ascending/Descending)
  • Logical Ordering (FIFO, LIFO, Sequential)
  • Ethical / Value Driven (Projected by Paradigms)

2 seems to be a bit more difficult of a case, do you order from most restrictive to least restrictive or the opposite.

What you are looking for is a value driven ordering but you are considering it grouped with Logical Ordering.

To some organizations, like Banks, Security Software and Gate-Keepers, the most valuables are the ones which are most secure. It doesn't matter what they do and where they do, their paradigm indicates that they must support Most Secure/Most Restricted first and Lenient/Least Restricted ones Last. That mans if logical aspects are not proving enough and they had to look at organization value for support, they would make most secure as first choices for their customers.

My personal preference to begin polite and lenient and keeping "disable, delete, restrict" as the last options in the list but I would only apply this sort of layer as my last guiding principle where Sequential/Logical fails to provide enough guidance.

Hope this helps you make a constrictive decision.

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My recommendation would be to with a logical approach based upon the use case of where you see this dropdown being used and what is the information which is most critical to your users. For example if you are using this in the backend CMS for a e-commerce site and your user is the owner who wants to see how many orders have been paid for and then how many orders have been fulfilled in order of priority

Then your ordering might be

Paid -->Fulfilled-->In Process-->Cancelled-->Rejected

However if your user was the user who just brought some products it might be that the ordering would be

Fulfilled -->In Process --> Paid --> Rejected --> Cancelled

Note : I am not sure where rejected comes in the second example since some users might want it high up to see what was rejected but only user tests can tell me that.

You must go for alphabetical ordering only if you have a case in which there is a huge dropdown list and ordering and there are several items with the same letters Alphabetical ordering then helps the user scan quickly e.g. a list of countries (however in this case too, if your major user base is from say United States,it might be best to keep it at the top so that it has easy access).

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I find people have issues tracking down options in logical order when the list is longer than 4 items long. Some ways to address this issue:

  • Group the options and label the groups.
  • Stick the logical options in a sentence, or madlibs style form. You can make complicated options much easier to understand, and you can break options lists down into smaller pieces.

Here's an example:

madlibs form

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I think the main question to ask is why to use dropdown?

A dropdown takes less space, but makes the user click on it to see the options - moreover, after the user chooses an option she can review other options only by clicking on it yet again (though it is not always important).

You can put the dropdown items in order of their chance to be selected. Or you can have both a dropdown and 2-3 of the most common choices always visible. If there are many options a search box can provide a faster interface- but yet again, we could use both, we could even put the 4 most common options at the beginning, and the others at an alphabetical order - an example for it might be when choosing a city (clearly it could be written by the user, and if the user is one of the 4 big cities she may be able to utilize the dropdown top 4 common cities).

If it is a transitional/chronological choice, like 'awaiting review' example, why should it be a dropdown? usually the user will transition in a known order - just give him a way to transition to the next chronological option.

For the restrictive choices, usually these are 3-4 choices. You should ask yourself if there is a legal/security issue involved: if by accident someone takes the default and it is the less restrictive (however common), it might not be a good idea. I'm not sure a dropdown is also needed here.

Another good practice is to put icons/symbols on each item (for example, facebook/google+ privacy settings - 'everyone' has a globe to its right)

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