I have been trying to persuade my colleagues that viewing, sorting, and searching large lists of data in a grid are less usable than performing those actions on that data in the context where it is used or displayed.

For example, seeing a list of all of your contacts in a grid in a CRM doesn't seem to make as much sense as either searching to find the contact you're interested in, or following links from deals, verticals, activity streams, etc.

I was wondering if there is any formal research on the topic to back this up.

3 Answers 3


Grids are great for visual comparison of imagery. Red cars vs. blue cars etc... When comparing or looking for data, grids become very cumbersome as there's not a clear "top to bottom" order to them.

Example: On Pinterest.com, it's less important which order the items on the page are where as on Facebook, a grid doesn't work because feeds are in ascending order.

Hope this helps!


I know this is an old topic, but just found an article on searching vs. browsing by Bruce Tognazzini of the Neilson Norman Group.


He comments: "While every engineer may find Search easy and efficient, that is not the experience of most people under many conditions"

His research seems to indicate that both browsing and searching options are important to satisfy different types of users.

Another article from N/N which points out that search requires more cognitive effort than browsing (different context, but some points are still relevant): http://www.nngroup.com/articles/search-not-enough/


Some research that comes to mind is selecting the best state. When entering location, most sites have a drop down list of states to choose from. They must scroll through and select their state from the list. It's better to just have an empty text field where the user can type in their state (or state abriev). The research was conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group.

So yes, searching is better than browsing. I remember reading that grids help scanability.

  • Source: nngroup.com/articles/drop-down-menus-use-sparingly "It is much faster for users to simply type, say, "NY," than to select a state from a scrolling drop-down menu. Free-form input into fields with restricted options does require data validation on the backend, but from a usability perspective it's often the best way to go." This quote summarizes the findings in guideline #178 for e-commerce usability from nngroup.com/reports/ecommerce-user-experience
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 19:43

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