If you have a list of people, is it better to order them by FirstName, LastName or LastName, FirstName?

Telephone books list by last name first:

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Outlook lists by first name first:

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Is one way "easier" to use than the other, or does each have a specific use case where there are good reasons to opt for one or the other?

  • 1
    When you say "order them by" are you referring to the display order or the sort order, or both? Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 23:57

5 Answers 5


The trivial, most general answer is that sorting by last name makes sense when users are matching based on last names and sorting by first name makes sense when users are matching based on first names. Of course, this gets you absolutely nowhere because the hard part is figuring out which is likely to be the case!

It's not possible to do this deterministically, but there are some heuristics one could use:

  • Relationship with user: is this a list of close friends or complete strangers?
  • Length of list: last names tend to overlap less frequently than first names and so are preferable for long lists (imagine if the phonebook was sorted by first name, you'd have to first find Benjamin, then search all the Benjamins to find Malley)
  • Context of use: in formal or professional settings it is customary to use last names regardless of relationship (every wedding invitation I've ever received was addressed to Mr. Malley)

One important consideration, regardless of approach is to make that approach clear to the user. The iPhone's contact list is a great example of this. Names are displayed first name first but sorted by last name. To make the sorting mechanism clear, the last names are displayed in bold.

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You should give your users the option of sorting by either one.

Some cultures and people use first names more, and so that is usually the name that they know when looking someone up. Others use last name more, and so they should be able to sort by that.

Telephone books sort by last name first, because there is more variation in last names, and because in business (more in the past) people would only use their initial and last name. So J.Smith would be tedious (if not impossible) to find if it were sorted by first name. It's bad enough by last name already.

There is no universal best choice, so if your are doing anything electronic, don't try to make it for people. If you are doing it on something static like paper, you need to base it on your audience and situation.

Edit: If the question is about defaults, I would still say the same thing. You should ask your users the first time they see it what format they would prefer.

  • 1
    In general, I agree with this answer. Whenever possible, an interface should offer flexibility. However, in practice, I think it's equally important to pick good defaults and it seems like that's what this question is about. Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 22:30
  • @BenjaminMalley I added the edit to answer that. I don't think it changes anything.
    – JohnGB
    Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 22:55
  • Without disagreeing with the "ask first" approach, I would point out that there seems to be a strong convention in a wide variety of applications (email clients, social media apps, address books, etc.) of picking a default sorting and (optionally) allowing the user to change it and that convention is often (though admittedly not always) a signal that something is working correctly. Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 23:13
  • 2
    I would agree with the ability of specifying either method. I would strongly disagree with using the approach for the default values. People don't want to be asked to set default values. They want the default values to make sense in the first place. Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 23:53

Their are many variables in this question. First there is culture: how are you used to see contacts? Do the culture suggest that we address people by their last name, their first name or in business by their company? Is it you, your family name or the company you work for that is important?

But there are more than business an culture. Your closest friends, do you address them by Mr Smith? Not likely. First name or even Nick name is appropriate there.

Then you got other parents having a kid in the same class as your kid. Do you label them as Mr Johnson, Mrs Jones? No? I label them Julie's mom Sarah or Michaels dad Steven. No last name there.

To answer your question there isn't just first names or last names to sort on. I think relations are far more important than first/last name. That address book supporting relation status would be far more interesting and useful for someone like me.

  • 2
    +1. I'd actually have +1'd even if you'd stopped after "First there is culture". The whole concept of "first name" and "last name" depends on the culture, but even in places where this concept is more or less analogous to the American one, there can be variation. I've read that Icelandic phone books are alphabetized by first name, because there almost everyone uses patronymic last names (whereby their last name is equal to their father's first name plus "-'s son" or "-'s daughter"), and it would be strange to alphabetize people by their fathers' names.
    – ruakh
    Commented Mar 9, 2013 at 0:51

Personally I would sort by last name first, because people only tend to have one of them. First names can chop and change. I know a lady whose name is along the lines of Roberta Anne Daniels. Anne is her middle name, yet some people call her by Anne, as she herself prefers it. Other people call her Roberta, and still others call her Bobi.

People never, ever call her Roberta Danny though. The last name is a constant, the first name can vary.

  • ... except, of course, that people often change their surnames when they marry.
    – nadyne
    Commented Mar 9, 2013 at 17:35
  • ...except, of course, in countries where the culture is to have two surnames (for example Spanish or Portuguese speaking countries) - the surname of the father and the mother: - If Juan José Aguilar marries Anita Pena Callas, their child would have a name something like Pedro Aguilar Pena. Commented Mar 11, 2013 at 9:58

Always sort LastName, FirstName if any of these apply:

  • Users are required to use their official (i.e. legal) names
  • Users are primarily from a region where a small subset of religious names are extremely common (e.g. Middle East, Boston)
  • Widespread use of ambiguous nicknames (e.g. 'Red', 'Skip') or fanciful [mis]spellings of first names (e.g. 'Dykota','Shyanne') makes sorting my first names all but useless.

Always sort FirstName, LastName if:

  • Your user list consists entirely of western women who are tradition-minded enough to change their last name when they get married, but not so tradition-minded that they avoid getting divorced and remarried every five years or so. ;)

Beyond that, I'd suggest sorting the list by the number of consecutive consonants in the last name. Especially if the CEO is Mr. Szlykzak and likes being on the top of the list.

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