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Some timelines are developed from top to bottom, where the oldest element is on top, and the newest is added at the bottom. The examples include forums and message boards, chats, event logs and also Facebook conversations.

Other timelines go the opposite- the newest element is added on top, and as you scroll down you dig deeper in history. This is seen at blogs, e-mail boxes, Facebook timeline and news feed and even in the homepage of Stack Exchange sites.

When should I use the top-to-bottom and when should I use newest-on-top?

I already realize that newest-on-top is very good for situations when you are most interested in the newest items, because current things are more interesting. Despite this tendency, sometimes items are dependent on each-other, and you get a better idea of the whole timeline if you consume it from oldest to newest. Frequently I experience this when I get a new message which is the last of a long thread I wasn't a part of. To understand the thread, I must scroll all the way to the bottom, and start reading from there up.

What should be the leading considerations when deciding the direction of a timeline?

Example: e-mail box with newest message on top enter image description here

Example: Facebook. News feed has newest item on top, while in conversations it developes downwards. enter image description here

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The task determines what info is needed and when. Your example of reading a thread you weren't involved in from the start is a good example of this. For the task you were performing (reading the entire thread), the order should be oldest-first, (which you achieved in a roundabout way with the extra work of scrolling to the bottom and reading from the bottom up). If your task was to read the latest comments then newest-first is a better order for achieving this task. –  uxzapper Aug 17 '13 at 1:41

2 Answers 2

Your priority metric should be chronological significance - this depends greatly your context. Is it more important for the user to see the oldest items or newest first. Timelines on social media sites place significance upon what is happening 'now': 'What are my friends doing? Is my sister online? Are we partying tonight?'

Units of work are generally sorted oldest first - a decent workflow will always place value upon lowing the average wait time for issues to be resolved. Therefore, do the oldest first. Outlook for example, allows both depending on what mode you want to work on. Want to tackle a backlog? Sort by oldest unread first. Want to see todays activity? Sort newest first.

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  1. If the items are independent of each other - place newer first. This way the user will see first what is new.

  2. If the items depends on each other and all together form some single content - place older first.

For example, the posts in a forum topic are connected together by one subject - they form one single content that can grow in time. So, place older first.

The topics list of the same forum on the other hand contains independent items, so place newer first.

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I'd agree. For example: Each post on a forum I want to see latest (or latest with activity) at the top. But in the comments section I want to start with the oldest so I can follow the conversation. –  Sheff Aug 13 '13 at 9:01
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I suggest that it is the task that matters rather than the information itself: for reading an entire thread and following it's progression, then oldest-first is the better order; but for reading the latest comments on a thread that the user has been following then newest-first is the better order. In both cases the items are dependent. –  uxzapper Aug 17 '13 at 1:48

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