I have a Dual/Slaved/Paired Listbox GUI*, and I'm trying to convince colleagues that it makes the most sense for the RHS listbox to be sorted alphabetically rather than in order of addition, especially when there are no "up"/"down" controls to tinker with the sorting later.

  • Am I right?
  • How can I convince them? What precedent is there?

* like this, but nicer:

Paired Listboxes

  • 1
    If the order of addition is the only way to order the items then you are taking away that ability.
    – Andrew Morton
    Commented Sep 14, 2012 at 12:24
  • @AndrewMorton: My feeling is that a half-feature (i.e. allowing users to order the items, but only by a very fiddly process of repeated deletion and ordered re-addition) is more harmful than not allowing ordering at all. Also there will be only 5 items and their names are the names of engineering standards, so enforcing alphabeticalness seems fair?
    – Lightness Races in Orbit
    Commented Sep 14, 2012 at 12:27
  • Only five? How about checkboxes? This seems to be getting into the realm of stackoverflow.com/faq#dontask
    – Andrew Morton
    Commented Sep 14, 2012 at 12:32
  • @AndrewMorton: No I meant that you may select five, of many many items. I don't think that FAQ applies - my question is pretty precise.
    – Lightness Races in Orbit
    Commented Sep 14, 2012 at 13:12

3 Answers 3


Taking into account the fact that there is no semantic meaning to the order of addition, I think it would be best to sort the RHS list alphabetically, for the following reasons:

  • it is consistent with the LHS list;

  • when the user pops up the dialog again later (another day?), it will be easier to scan again and find some specific items to move them back to the LHS list, since long- and short-term would be of no help;

  • if the items in the list represent names of some standards and following a same pattern (for example, ISO 27000, ISO 27001, ISO 270002, etc.), it would be MUCH easier to read and find an particular item.

However, one thing to add that would really help the user see what happens when transferring items, is to select the newly transferred items in the destination list, for the following reasons:

  • since the transferred items are not added always at the same position, the selection would give a good feedback that items are transferred (and still look the same - selected) from one list to the other list, and where the new items are placed in destination list;

  • it would also be possible to quickly revert the transfer in just one click on the other transfer button.

We've just had the same issue on our project, and this is how we dealt with it. I hope this helps.


Without the up-down controls, you would have to put the moved item at the end of the list, or else highlight the moved item to give feedback to the user, which seems like a perfectly reasonable expectation for the user.

Public Sub New()

  ListBox1.Items.Add("An item")
  ListBox1.Items.Add("Another item")
  ListBox1.Items.Add("This is an item too")
  ListBox1.Items.Add("This item is initially selected")
  ListBox1.Items.Add("Yet another item")

  ListBox1.Sorted = True
  ListBox2.Sorted = True
End Sub

Private Sub Button1_Click(sender As Object, e As EventArgs) Handles Button1.Click
  MoveItem(ListBox1, ListBox2)
End Sub

Private Sub Button2_Click(sender As Object, e As EventArgs) Handles Button2.Click
  MoveItem(ListBox2, ListBox1)
End Sub

Private Sub MoveItem(fromBox As ListBox, toBox As ListBox)
  If fromBox.SelectedIndex > ListBox.NoMatches Then
    Dim moveText As String = fromBox.Items(fromBox.SelectedIndex)

    toBox.SelectedIndex = toBox.Items.IndexOf(moveText)
  End If
End Sub

enter image description here

As far as convincing your colleagues what is the right thing to do, that is a matter of opinion. You might want to ask a question like this over at User Experience

  • Oh, true, that would be a better place wouldn't it.
    – Lightness Races in Orbit
    Commented Sep 16, 2012 at 20:17

As far as the ability to locate an item in the left list is concerned (scanability indeed tends to become quite an issue in long lists), alphabetic order does make sense from a UX point of view.

That being said, you might want to

  • ask your colleagues why they prefer a different order
  • ask your colleagues what that different order would look like
  • spend some time thinking about what order would suit the users best
    • if 5 items out of a list of several hundred turned out to be getting selected in 90% of all cases, that would be a perfectly fine reason to move them to the top (separated from the alphabetically sorted rest by a divider element)
  • if possible, ask your users what kind of sorting they would prefer and why.


Sheesh, you've been asking about the right hand side box, right?

Assuming that the left pane is sorted alphabetically, keeping the same order on the right hand side would be helping consistence.

Ultimately, the question it all boils down to is: would the order of selected items be important to the user and/or the further workflow?

Asking your colleagues/users about the rationale behind their preference won't hurt in any case.

  • Thanks! (a) Yes, the RHS. (b) Yes, the LHS is alphabetical. (c) No, there's no semantic meaning in any particular ordering, nor any link between ordering and workflow. (d) "I would expect order of selection" is the rationale I've managed to extract so far. Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 1:00
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit Well, let me say it with Steve Krug's words: don't make me think! If "order of selection" is what your users expect, don't throw them off track (especially since the ordering doesn't influence anything and there's just a few items being selected at a time).
    – vzwick
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 9:11
  • Just because one junior colleague says "I would expect order of selection" doesn't mean the majority of users would, too. As a senior developer my instinct is quite the opposite; I'm just having trouble proving it either way. Unfortunately we have no mechanism to actually ask our users what they want, so I'm here looking for a general answer as it pertains to paired-listbox GUIs of this order, without up/down ordering buttons. Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 13:04

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