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Jakob Nielsen just posted that “Alphabetical sorting must (mostly) die“. I was happy to see this, as it backs up my earlier plea to “Let users sort by meaningful criteria“.

As Nielsen points out, where users know exactly what they’re looking for (e.g. their country or state), alphabetical systems make sense.*

But for the most part, alphabetical systems are just the result of lazy development. It’s the easiest system to implement, so it’s done. Never mind that for users, it’s frustrating.

What are the ideal sorting criteria?

The ideal sorting criteria will vary tremendously, depending on the nature of your products. Think how the relevant filtering/sorting criteria would vary between products like:

  • Shoes
  • Digital cameras
  • Furniture
  • Plumbing supplies
  • Real estate

Each of the above sets of customers would have totally different mindsets, totally different criteria. Yet there’s one thing in common: alphabetical sorting would not be best.

You simply can’t make universal rules. The ideal system will vary. Some widely-applicable sorting criteria include:

  • Size
  • Price
  • Color
  • Location
  • Timeline
  • Popularity / frequency
  • Type / Genre
  • Technical Specs
  • Material / medium
  • Platform
  • Performance characteristics
  • Applications
  • Country or region of origin

Make the effort to do it properly, to understand how your customers will approach their searches and how results should be displayed.

The best way is work with your customers. Have them do some card sorting exercises. Find out how they think your products should be organized… and how they’d label the various categories.

Too much work? Then at a bare minimum, put yourself in the position of a customer. Ask yourself — and some friends — how you might look for something, and how you’d like results displayed.

Would you really want an alphabetical listing? Probably not.

*Even then, alphabetical systems only work if implemented properly. I’ve seen lazy systems where items are listed under “T” for “The”. And, as I wrote in my earlier post, the popular video game “End War” was listed by Future Shop only under its full name, “Tom Clancy’s End War”.

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