I've been asked to come up with a 'course picker' that lets a student find a course.

One alternative is to have a text box in which the student enters the first three letters of the course and a look-ahead function presents the student with a few options to choose from.

This is a good pattern and is one we will think about as an option.

Another idea was to have an A-Z list enter image description here

The student selects a letter and all the courses for that letter are displayed below the A-Z list. The problem with this pattern is that if the number of courses under a certain letter is large (>10) it can become pretty unusable.

Has anyone got a good way to display information from an A-Z list?

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    One problem with both of these is that the student has to know the first letters of the name of the course. ("Um, is it 'Intro to Facts' or 'Facts 101'?") Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 13:06
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    Open up the contacts app on your phone and notice how there's the ability to search in addition to alphabetically ordered groups.
    – zzzzBov
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 18:57

2 Answers 2


TL;DR: Both

Both of the methods you've described work well, so include both and let the user pick the one which suits them.

Exploratory vs Known-Item seeking

Rosenfeld et al describe two main types of seeking: Exploratory seeking and Known-item seeking

The A-Z list method suits exploratory seeking, where the user isn't certain about the course they are looking for.

The Look-ahead method is suited to known-item seeking, where users know exactly what they're looking for.


You mention that there may be many courses beginning with the same letter. For this reason, categorising alphabetically might not be such a good idea.

To further benefit exploratory seeking, allow the user to search by subject.

Most academic sites do this in one form or another, and some go even further and provide Level and School criteria.

City University course search UCL course search

  • Regarding your last sentence: a problem I see oftentimes is that they make this type of search hierarchical (usually in the form of Level, School, Subject). If a user want to find everything in a subect regardless of level, such a system is impractical at best.
    – Weckar E.
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 13:00
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    @WeckarE If it's implemented hierarchically it would indeed be problematic, but in the examples I've posted it is not hierarchical (see city.ac.uk/courses). The one I've linked even provides live updates so the user can immediately see the effects of changing the criteria.
    – user101673
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 13:07

Search course through input text box with predictive search is the best idea I feel. Let's say there is a course with the title "macro-economics for financial markets module". Students can search it with "economics", "finance" or any thing else. If you hide it under letter "M", most of the above people will not even find the course title.

I feel a better solution is to show keywords and let user select them:

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    I very agree with you, but with an assumption, that lookup function is smarter, than "begins with", if not, it is very similar to A-Z list.
    – Betlista
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 12:55

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